I Love the grocery store, because it is the source of almost all of my food. Under its roof lies a world of unlimited possibilities. It can help me cook up almost any recipe on Earth, and by selecting the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones, I can ensure a fantastic level of health for myself and my family.
But I also Hate the grocery store occasionally, because about 90% of the products in there are pure crap. Colorful boxes and disposable plastic packages containing mostly ridiculous chemicals, colors, and artificial flavors, all mixed over a base of high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil, and refined white flour. These things are big contributors to our country’s startling waistline, and while I believe we should still be free to make, sell, and eat these products at our own discretion, it saddens me to see such incredible effort and environmental resources going into creating things that logically should not even exist.
The grocery store also earns my rage with its ever-tricky pricing scheme. Besides the mental filtering required to seek out that Healthy 10% of items not covered by the previous paragraph, there is also a wildly fluctuating game of price-gouging going on at my store (which happens to be Safeway). Lucerne Organic eggs are sometimes $2.99 for a dozen when they are “on sale”, otherwise they are $4.59 and a competing brand becomes $2.99 instead, or some amount in between. Apples can usually be found for a buck or so per pound, except when you grow complacent and they jack them up to $2.49, resulting in you buying yourself a $15 bag of apples if you aren’t paying attention. Today I needed tomatoes and they had temporarily risen from 99 cents to $3.99 per pound, so my little handful cost me $5.69! Later I learned there is not a nationwide Tomato Embargo as I had assumed – they are still 99 cents at the other grocery store, but Safeway just decided to give ol’ Mr. Money Mustache the shaft in the name of profit. (But now they’re paying for it in the form of bad PR, aren’t they? Take that, you $3.99-a-pound-chargin’ bitches!)
At least you can take comfort that some prices are always stable. Specialty items like little packages of Basil leaves and gluten-free bread mix and the comedically priced fitness supplements depicted in the headline picture of this article follow a year-round ridiculous shaftola pricing scheme.
So what’s a Mustachian to do in a situation like this? I like to call it Grocery Shopping With Your Middle Finger, and here are the main ingredients:
Know the Right Price: I’ve been the family’s main grocery shopper for years, so I know exactly how much all of my main staples should cost. Interestingly enough, I’ve hit grocery stores all across the US on road trips, and I find the prices are surprisingly consistent across the land. That makes it easy to shop efficiently, even while on vacation. If prices are ever significantly above the “right” range, I discreetly stick up both of my middle fingers, swear under my breath, and move on to a substitute good if possible. Conversely, if prices are below the normal range, I’ll stock up like crazy. For items with a long shelf life, this can lead to some interesting results, like the time I bought 30 jars of Classico pasta sauce because it had dropped from $3.50 to $1.50 per jar, or 20 boxes of Quaker Oat Squares cereal because it had temporarily been marked down from $4.50 to $1.00 per box. The cashiers raised an eyebrow each time, but each of these purchases saved me about $50 over the regular price for these products… and gave me a nice inventory at home to help reduce future trips to the store.
I like to think of it as a little algorithm:
– if a food is overpriced, buy zero or the minimum possible amount you can live with
– if a food is regular price, buy an amount to last until your next grocery trip (minimum 1 week supply)
– if a food is underpriced, buy at least enough to last until the next expected sale at this level (4 weeks?)
– if a food is drastically underpriced, buy a near-infinite amount, limited only by shelf life of food and available stock on shelves. If Bananas go to 1 cent per pound, you can’t really benefit. But if rolled oats dropped to an all-time low, I’d probably buy at least a year’s supply (100 pounds).
Use Healthiness and Cost Per Calorie to decide what to eat: I love blueberries and raspberries, and they are good for you. But for most of the year, they are ridiculously expensive – as much as $5.99 for a tiny handful in a 4-oz container. Those 64 calories are costing you 9.35 cents per calorie. To live solely off blueberries at 2000 calories per day, you’d spend $187 per day ($68,255 per year).
On the other hand, I also love old-fashioned rolled oats*. These can be had for about 70 cents per pound in 9lb boxes at Costco. A pound of rolled oats contains 1714 calories – and fantastic ones too, rich in fiber, protein, and iron. This cost per calorie is 0.041 cents. In other words, Blueberries are about 229 times more expensive than Rolled Oats!! If I lived solely on rolled oats at 2000 calories per day, it would cost me 81.6 cents per day to eat, or $298 per year.
You can use this cost per calorie strategy to optimize your eating – not compromising on health, of course, but just shuffling around healthy foods so that cheaper ones get eaten more. As a few more examples, I personally eat loads of
– raw almonds at $3.99/pound (2720 calories per pound, yielding 0.14 cents per calorie)
– natural (peanuts-only) peanut butter ($2.50/pound, 3000 cals = 0.08 cents/cal)
– 1% milk ($4/gallon ,1760 cals = 0.22 cents/cal)
– bananas (0.69/pound, 500 cals per pound = 0.138 cents/cal).
– basmati rice (0.60/pound, 1600 cals = 0.0375 cents/cal)
Meat is more expensive, for example steak or chicken breast at $5.00/lb for 560 calories yields 0.89 cents per calorie – about 11 times more than the natural peanut butter, which is just as good for you in many ways. Protein, of which I’m a big fan, can easily be supplemented with beans and rice, cheese and eggs, and 6 lb bags of whey protein powder that you can mix into shakes (also from Costco).
Avoid Cutesy little Containers of things that cost $8.00
Nowadays, organic and healthy food has caught on in a big way, especially among the affluent 20-to-40something crowd. When you combine a desire to do the right thing, with the typical free spending middle income earner, you get a highly profitable Sukka Consumer. And Whole Foods and Natural Grocers are right there to make the most of it, with tiny little jars of Mrs. McFancyPants’s Natural Ostrich Feather Butter for $18.99 and Jack McGillicuddy’s Organic Maple Elven Unicorn Syrup Crisp cereal for $77.59 for a 2-serving bag. When I visit the homes of middle-income people these days, I find the pantry absolutely loaded with these big-ticket small-quantity items, and then I understand why their grocery bills are $1000 per month.
Buying luxury health foods from small companies is a great thing to do if you can actually afford it – you’re stickin’ it to the unhealthy factory food system and Monsanto, while supporting the growth of healthier small companies. But if you’re not yet retired, you can’t afford it yet, so why not compromise by buying any reasonably priced organic food you can find at a regular grocery store, build up your ‘stash for now, and then switch to the boutique stuff after your first million?
I also eat fruits and vegetables at every meal, despite their higher cost per calorie, just for the sake of deliciousness and having a healthy balance. I just lean towards things like cucumbers, carrots, apples and bananas, rather than out-of-season blueberries and raspberries from New Zealand, except for special occasions.
To put it all into perspective with an example, let’s review the typical MMM family grocery list for one week. In the earlier “Exposed!” article, I found that we spend an average of $74 per week. Here’s the breakdown. Most foods listed are organic when available at reasonable prices.
Milk: 2 gallons at average $3 (since I only buy organic part of the time): $6
Eggs: 2 dozen at $3.50 each: $7
Bananas: 6 lbs at $0.70: $4.20
Apples: 3 lbs at $1.50 each: $4.50
Misc. fruits and vegetables: 4 pounds at $2 each: $8
Spaghetti (rice noodles gluten free): 1 lb at $3.50
Spaghetti sauce: 1 jar at $3
Chicken, Beef, or Fish: 2 pounds at $6: $12
Cereal, including oats: 2 pounds at $1: $2
Cheese: 1 pound at $3
Coffee: 1/2 pound at $7: $3.50
Various kinds of Beans, rice, whole wheat flour: 3 pounds at 0.60: $1.80 (I make my own bread, yum)
Apple Sauce: $2
olive oil: 4 oz at 0.25: $1
Miscellaneous stuff like dark chocolate, protein powder, spices, recipe ingredients, occasional ice cream, whatever: $10.
This is just a typical list, and it’s an estimate based on buying some things weekly, and other things on the quarterly gigantic $300 stock-up at Costco. The main things I might find noteworthy is that it adds up to the mid $70s weekly for a family of three, it’s mostly organic food and meat, and there is pretty much zero processed prepackaged stuff or desserts in there. It could be cut in half if we switched to non-organic food and dropped the luxury meats and coffee, but hey, as I always say, the MMM family leads a luxurious and decadent life despite the below-average overall costs :-) )
* Mr. Money Mustache’s Amazing Save $100 on Cereal Per Year Trick. Not everyone loves cereal, but some of us are addicts and could eat it all day. You know who you are. I have at least a couple bowls daily myself. Four years ago, I invented a trick where I substitute 50-75% of the cereal for plain rolled oats (uncooked, straight out of the container), then pour regular sugary cereal (like honey bunches of oats or raisin bran) on top of that. Mix it up, add some bananas, and you have a super-nice bowl of the good stuff! I actually prefer the texture and taste of this over regular boxed cereal. For every pound of oats you use up doing this, you save about $2.00, since cereal in boxes costs around $2.70/pound and oats are only $0.70. I kept track for a year, and found I had used 50 lbs of oats. I’ve saved $400 so far with just this trick, and it helped me sharpen up the abdomen as well due to the reduced sugar and higher fiber!
An update, two years later: Since writing this article, the adults in our family have switched to a lower-carbohydrate and higher-fat style of eating, with even better results. Instead of cereal, I have a heartier breakfast with eggs and avocados. Less pasta and more stir-fried vegetables. If your current plan works for you, stick with it. But if you ever need to lose fat, try dropping all bread and sugars (including most fruit juice – eat the fruit instead) and see what happens.