The Great Grocery Experiment

Analyzing a month of grocery receipts to determine how to spend less

One of our highest recurring expenses is groceries. Our average monthly spending on groceries in 2018 was $985.47 ($227.42 per week).

I have no clue how that compares to others, but seems like a lot. In an effort to better understand where our grocery money was actually going, we saved all of our receipts for a month and analyzed them. We learned a ton about where our money was going and how we could save more.

A few details worth mentioning off the bat:

  • It’s just my wife and I, no kids.
  • We cook a lot more than we dine out. Our 2018 average monthly dining out spending was $261.36 ($50.59 per week).
  • We eat a whole food, plant-based diet.
  • We buy organic when available.
  • We try our darnedest to not eat any salt, sugar, oil, or highly-processed foods.
  • We lived in Portland, OR at the time of this experiment.
  • We don’t buy or drink alcohol.

Now I’m not advocating you save all of your receipts and highlight them. I did that so you don’t have to. Here are our main takeaways from the Great Grocery Experiment.

What I looked like after organizing and categorizing all of the line items from our grocery receipts

Trader Joe’s Rules

The single biggest thing we realized and have continued to verify month-after-month is that Trader Joe’s is the most affordable place for us to shop for groceries. They have such great prices on organic produce, their own label of products are free of GMOs even if organic isn’t an option, and they have almost everything we need on a weekly basis.

Also, I want to acknowledge that it feels odd to talk about a specific brand. TJ’s being the most affordable place to shop and them being nationwide seems like something worth sharing. This is not an advertisement.

We’ve got a ton of market options in Portland – co-ops, Whole Foods, Safeway, Fred Meyer’s, and local establishments like New Seasons and Zupan’s. Safeway and Fred Meyer remind me a lot of the large grocery chains found nationwide. New Seasons is basically like Whole Foods but local to Portland and ever so slightly cheaper.

Now I enjoy a Whole Foods, especially when traveling. Their selection is reliable, and the hot bar options are usually workable. But the reality is that dollar-for-dollar, pound-for-pound, Whole Foods is significantly more expensive. Stuff is just simply marked up there. I don’t know why – maybe because they can? Having shopped a Whole Foods regularly for parts of time, I can say in all honesty that it’s not worth it.

For the big grocery chains, they usually have generic label items and coupons that you can fare pretty well with. Trader Joe’s still came out on top (or, bottom, I guess I should say 😛).

Big Ticket Items

There really was no big ticket item we found that we kept buying over and over that we weren’t okay with. No vices or stuff that goes to waste. That was a nice thing to verify.

Our spending was (and still is) pretty balanced across produce, beans, grains, alternative milks, toiletries, and cleaning products. A high cost item that can be easily overlooked is buying out of season produce. Try to buy produce that’s local and in-season to get the best price.

This may seem obvious, but something we realized is that if we eat less food, we’ll spend less on groceries. I have a tendency to overeat. In the time since the experiment, I’ve been trying to eat more mindfully and stop eating a little before I’m full. I can’t say where that’s impacted our grocery budget, but I feel better eating less, so that’s a win.

Check the Cost Per Unit or Ounce

Now Trader Joe’s doesn’t make this as easy as the other markets, but when there are multiple options for similar products, it helps to compare the cost per unit or cost per ounce. This is particularly helpful at non-TJ’s markets where they have an overwhelming number of choices for any given product due to brand competition.

Let’s look at some scenarios (with fake prices):

Frozen Blueberries

I love putting frozen blueberries in my oatmeal. They don’t spoil like fresh ones and are available all year. Trader Joe’s has two types of organic frozen blueberries: wild and regular. The wild ones are the tiniest, cutest blueberries you’ve ever seen. Both bags are the same weight (12 oz. or something), but they have a different cost. The wild ones are $0.50 cheaper. No clue why, but it’s true. So we buy the wild ones.

Toilet Paper

At a lot of markets you can buy one roll of toilet paper, four rolls, or sixteen rolls (maybe even more). You can do some quick math or just check the shelf label to get the cost per roll. Now different rolls may have different features, like softness or ply or recycled material, or whatever. Only you and your closest confidants know what your bottom prefers. But look at the numbers and save a few bucks by buying whatever is the best price per roll (PPR).

Buy in the Bulk Section

For the stuff we can’t buy at Trader Joe’s, we try to buy in bulk at one of the many markets nearby. I love bulk bins. The prices are usually better, and there’s no branding or packaging. We buy a lot of bulk grains like rice and oats and store them in our own containers.

Practical Tips & Takeaways

  • Be smart about where you shop. Little trips to other markets won’t wreck your budget, but Trader Joe’s is by far the best option we’ve found for weekly grocery shopping.
  • Buy in-season, local produce when possible.
  • Avoid processed and prepared foods. Sure, they’re convenient, but they come with financial and health costs.
  • Buy from the bulk section when you can.
  • Look at the cost of unit (or per ounce) when comparing similar products, and go for the cheaper option unless there’s a reason not to.

Our Results

We’ve been intentional with our grocery spending lately, and it’s made a big difference. We’ve been primarily shopping at Trader Joe’s and putting the other tips to use. In the months since this experiment, we’ve dropped our average grocery spending over $300, from $985.47/mo. to $667.50/mo. If we keep that up, that’s over $3,800 a year extra we can put toward investments, giving, etc.

At the end of the day, we don’t have a problem with the money we spend on groceries. It’d be nice to spend less, but we totally recognize it’s the food we use to fuel our bodies and health. Having nutritious plant-based food is worth whatever cost it ends up being. That doesn’t mean we can’t be smart about how we do spend on groceries though. The experiment will continue!

Author: Brett Chalupa

day: software developer, night: comic artist

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