One of the first things to go on the pie chart of curbing discretionary spending is restaurant expenses. For good reason: It’s expensive, it’s easy to over-order and you absolutely need to put away 15-20 percent for your waitstaff if you’re a halfway decent human being. Assuming this financial advice is not extolling the virtues of not eating at all (good for short-term finances, I suppose, but ultimately high-priced and unspeakably terrible for you), this leaves a new money pit of grocery shopping.
Of the better habits I picked up from my mom, one was a passion for homecooking and a deep, almost zealous thrill of frugality. Since she dropped out of TV watching way before I was born, we gossip on the rotating prices and seasonability of produce. She is a dollar store devotee, a habit I have fallen out of in recent years. I had been defending this as a time-saving practice, but in going over my statements lately, I get the suspicion I might be putting a high sticker on my extra 15 minutes.
Over three weeks, I bought the ingredients for two weekly staples, the lunch turkey sandwich and the dinner ground beef farfalle pasta, at three different grocery stores: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and 99¢ Only. For science, I brought along my calculator app and bought whatever product was at the median pricepoint. (Fun fact: I thought standing alone in a grocery store clicking away on my iPhone wouldn’t get anyone’s attention, but Trader Joe’s is onto you if you start doing math in their store. I don’t know how they sniff it out, but they do.)
Experiment A: The Turkey Sandwich
Ingredients: Turkey, Cheese, Onions, Tomato, Bread
Disclaimer: I already had mayonnaise. I am not at a point in my life that I’m devouring through a jar of mayonnaise a week, so that did not factor into my purchasing.
Bread: $4.74 (from 28 varieties)
Sliced Cheese: $6.74 (from 33 varieties)
Sliced Turkey: $6.86
Bread: $3.09 (from 26 varieties)
Sliced Cheese: $4.20 (from 12 varieties)
Sliced Turkey: $4.99
Bread: $0.99 (from 10 varieties)
Sliced Cheese: $0.99
Sliced Turkey: $0.99
I got cold feet at Whole Foods. I couldn’t bring myself to slap down $22.32 for the benefit of cold turkey lunches. I’m sure they’re gorgeous and they look like stock photos. I just couldn’t do it.
There was a minor difference in the meat between TJ’s and the dollar store, but it wasn’t like Trader Joe’s turkey tasted like a bird alighted on my sandwich or anything. I’m calling this a victory for dollar store meat, even if the proportions are a little meager. The cheese was unfair—the dollar store’s selection consisted of processed shredded or processed sliced (kind of gross but generally edible and certainly childlike) whereas TJ’s selection meaned out at $4.20 among 12 varieties of sliced cheese and it was a beautiful and glorious thing.
Are tomatoes supposed to go rogue after three days? Because they did on both instances. The TJ tomatoes got that wrinkled Florida-retiree-forgoing-sunscreen look whereas the dollar store tomatoes developed sudden black spots like they’d lost fights in my fridge. I found instances of them unsettling and threw them out. Maybe the Whole Foods tomatoes get dignified and start giving conservative financial advice, I don’t know.
I could tell no difference between the Trader Joe’s and dollar store bread outside the price point. In the sprit of honesty, I didn’t make it a week before going back to Trader Joe’s for $2.99 organic rye bread habit.
Experiment B: Ground Beef Farfalle
Ingredients: Farfalle pasta, canned tomato sauce, bell pepper, onion, a pound of ground beef
Farfalle Pasta: $1.49
Tomato Sauce: $1.49
Bell Pepper: $1.99
Ground Beef: $7.99
Farfalle Pasta: $0.99
Tomato Sauce: $1.49
Bell Pepper: $1.12
Ground Beef: $5.34
Farfalle Pasta: $0.99
Tomato Sauce: $0.99
Bell Pepper: $0.99
Ground Beef: $0.99
I think about all the times I made this without going to the dollar store and I feel like an asshole. I think my reasoning was always that I want fresh vegetables, fresh vegetables are at Trader Joe’s, ergo, I shop for this meal at Trader Joe’s. Or Whole Foods if I’m feeling fancy. Making a second trip costs an extra 15 minutes in time but could save up to half of my food bill. Plus, they never go bad! We Angelenos are supposed to always have non-perishables around in the event of an earthquake, so mine may as well be antipasto so long as I have an appropriate pairing wine.
But hot damn, Whole Foods produce, you are looking goo-ood! Their fresh produce tasted like it was from another planet than the Dollar Store and even Trader Joe brands. I just can’t hate on Whole Foods. I can’t really justify it for post-gym pasta on a Tuesday, but for a dinner party, I’d make a little extra effort. Honestly, it all depends on who I’m trying to impress.
Cooking Stuff I Always Buy At The Dollar Store
Water: If you live in a place where you need to buy water, this is the place. New York’s water always tasted straight out of a Dasani bottle. L.A.’s tastes like it came in from a factory drainpipe, which, I suppose, is why nobody makes a gimmick out of making bagels with L.A. water.
Spices: I bought Dollar Store stock of cinnamon, basil, oregano, curry, paprika, dill, cumin and garlic powder, which takes care of hundreds of meals for $1 each. Two years later, I have yet to replace a single one.
Basic Baking Supplies: If you can seriously taste the quality difference of cornstarch or granulated sugar, I want to know, who are you? Are your hyper-developed tastebuds a superpower or a curse?
Kitchen Utensils Impossible To Fuck Up: I have made the dumb purchase of a paring knife at a dollar store and nearly lobbed off all my fingers for the error. Now I pop a little extra for knives; they make cooking more enjoyable and keep my DIY amputations to a minimum. But everytime I see someone buying a $5 wooden spoon or a $10 ladle, I want to do an intervention.
What about you? Do you approach grocery shopping tactically or do the timesaver one-stop shop? Is it worth the time and the mental energy to divide-and-conquer?
Stacey Garratt lives in L.A.