grocery store strategy [moved from L.A. board]
I was wondering if anyone had insight concerning grocery shopping and budgetary concerns.
I have been doing most of my shopping at Albertson's, with occasional trips to Trader Joe's and the Fish King(in Glendale). I once went to a Food4Less (Sunset and Western) and was thinking about poking into a Smart and Final.
My husband and I live in an average one bedroom apartment, no garage space, no balcony, so space issues influence my buying in bulk. I have started to cook (much!) more and I have a real interest in buying good, affordable ingrediants.
Would a CostCo membership be worth it? Do two people need to buy 5,000 trashbags at a time? Neither one of us are big drinkers, if the liquor deals make the club membership desirable, then maybe its not for me.
Thanks for any advice.
I agree wholeheartedly with Lickety Split re: valuing your time. My household is virtually identical to yours (add two cats and an eight pound maltiepoo to the mix). I've shopped every grocery store on the Westside and have found that even without coupons, for small households, Trader Joe's is, hands down, the least expensive place to shop. Since it is a smaller store, it is also the fastest in and out. IMHO, TJ's produce is good. It's not farmer's market good but it measures up to anything you'd get at a regular chain grocery store. I do about 80% of our household shopping there. Have also discovered that the best time to shop there is first thing in the morning. Ya snooze, ya lose. :)
Since the OP seems to be more concerned about space and cost, I would not recommend Costco. I am a Costco member and I love it, but the quantity is a bit more than most family of 2 can reasonably use, and you don't really save that much money. I found that people don't only get Costco membership for groceries. A lot of folks I know buy jewelry, computer, TV, etc. from Costco. I cannot walk out of Costco without spending at least a couple hundred dollars each time.
Cheapest and freshest:
- farmer's market. I don't know about others, but the local farmer's market near me has the cheapest and freshest produce I can find. $1 bunch for carrots, swiss chard, rapini, etc.
- Trader Joe's. I found their dairy and egg prices can't be beat. I like their individually wrapped veggies that you can just throw into microwave. Precooked items generally cost more, so I would stick with the non-prepared foods. I like their frozen fish too if I can't get fresh ones elsewhere. Their angus steaks are on the expensive side, but I found them to be better than regular grocery stores and Costco.
- Asian grocery stores are great for lower priced and fresher seafood. Korean ones have good beef.
I tend to avoid the American supermarket like Albertson unless I can't find the food elsewhere. They seem to be either more expensive or the produce is just not as fresh.
If you have a small household I don't find Costco worthwhile.
Produce and chicken I buy at Superior (fresher than the major chains and much better prices)
Dairy products, frozen fish, and frozen veggies I buy at Trader Joes
Paper goods, cleaning products, etc. usually at Target on sale
Like Ozhead, coffee at Peets
I don't buy bread anymore, ever since I found a breadmaker at the thriftstore. It;s quite a cost saver and they're pretty easy to find second hand.
99 cent store for a few things like RyKrisps, candy not that I should be eating it, sometimes there are bargains in the fresh/frozen section
Wild Oats for bulk grains, oatmeal etc
I maybe go to a grocery store once a month? The strike a few years ago made a big difference in the way I shop and woke me up to what a ripoff the major supermarkets are.
Saturday is my regular shopping day. I go first to my local farmers' market, in Calabasas, for produce; I generally find almost everything I need there (except mushrooms), with lower prices and higher quality than anywhere else.
Then I go to Trader Joe's in West Hills, where I get virtually everything else I need. Their dairy products -- milk, cream, butter, eggs, yogurt (particularly that Greek yogurt!) -- are excellent, at prices far less than those at the supermarket. Ditto cheeses. Ditto most breads (not bagels, though). Ditto their fresh mushrooms -- as I said, I get most (if not all) other produce at the farmers' market. I buy ground turkey at TJ, as well as turkey and chicken sausages of various sorts and the occasional other piece of meat (e.g., pork tenderloin). Their bacon -- both house brand and Niman Ranch -- is wonderful, and the Portlock brand smoked salmon is too. Other meats, however, are generally overpriced, and many come pre-marinated or otherwise messed around with, and I prefer to do that stuff myself. I buy wine there, and the little bit of spirits that I use (try the Metropol vodka, made in Austria from potatoes -- very, very good and cheap). Also good and well-priced are chicken broth, canned tomatoes, jams and preserves, and the various simmer sauces -- particulary the Indian-inspired ones. Some of their dried pasta is quite good (the taglatelli, for example), but most is pretty meh -- though cheap.
I'll go to Costco maybe once a month, primarily for paper goods (towels, napkins, TP), plastic bags, contact lens solution, vitamins, toothpaste, band-aids and the like. I don't buy much food there any more, now that my son is away at college, primarily because the packages are so big; I've always been impressed by the quality of the goods, though. (Once a year I do splurge and spend $11 on a 20-pound bag of basmati rice; it lasts a loooong time, and when it's finished my daughter takes the zippered burlap bag and uses it as a purse.) Costco meat is terrific, generally way better than at the supermarket, but with only 3 people now living in the house the amounts are too great (and the meat prices are high -- but not outlandish, given the quality). I do buy the Foster Farms boneless/skinless chicken breasts; they come in a big amount, but are package in smaller packs of 2 breasts each, which can just go in the freezer and are very convenient.
I am fortunate that there is a Pavilions market right next to the building where I work in west LA. That makes it easy to pick up anything that (a) I've forgotten on Saturday, (b) is unavailable at TJ or the farmers' market (e.g., that particular kind of tea my wife likes), or (c) I need to make some particular meal. I tend to buy beef there, particularly if I can find something I like in the 50% off close-out section. And I buy Foster Farms whole-body chickens there, particularly when -- as if pretty often the case -- they are at 99 cents a pound.
Fish at Santa Monica Seafood, where I can stop on my way home. Expensive, but worth every penny. I can't say enough good about them.
Weird (but expensive) stuff at Bay Cities, where I can stop on my way home.
Coffee at Peet's, where I can stop on my way to work (and get a free cup of coffee when I order a pound of beans).
Bagels at Western Bagel. My friend Joe tell me that Brooklyn Bagel is better, but it is not physically convenient -- whereas Western has stores both near where I work, and near where I shop on Saturdays.
I probably go to Costco only two or three times a year, but it pays itself off even on those few visits, because certain items are just that much cheaper there. The main things I buy there are alcohol and beverages for parties, meat/seafood, and toiletries/pharmaseudicals, all of which tend to be priced much lower than their counterparts in regular stores. I think it's a really good suggestion to go to your local Costco and look around and price compare on things you regularly buy before making the decision on whether it would be worth it to you to join.
As for other shopping, when I was in graduate school, I was much more careful with my grocery shopping than I am now. The best way to save is to join the Ralph's Club/Vons Club, etc., and clip coupons on Sundays.
Out here in the SVF we have both Jon's Market and Vallarta Markets. Both of these have been a life saver for me and my wallet, particularly in the produce department - an area where I tend to spend the bulk of my shopping budget; my kids will easily go through 10+ pounds of apples in less than a week. Tomatoes are often under a dollar a pound during spring/summer. Avocados will go for 3/$1 during the warmer months (although that may change due to recent freezing). Onions are always 3 or 4lbs/$1. During the summer you cannot beat their prices on melons, berries, cucumbers (both persian and regular), and summer squashes.
My Jon's also has a deli department where they carry a variety of cheeses (5 different kinds of feta, gorgonzola, muenster and havarti) for prices that beat the pants off of Trader Joe's. I never thought I'd say that, but it's true. They also carry a lot of middle eastern products including pita (the thick kind of pita, not the other stuff they call pita but really just...isn't) and amazing greek yogurt for a fraction of the price of the Fage yogurt at TJ's - at Jon's a 2lb container is 2.99, at TJ's a 1lb container of Fage is close to $5.
They often have good sales on meats as well, but Costco has constistently lower prices on good quality meats. I have a family of 4 so Costco works better for me for most meats.
I rarely go in to Vons anymore since Jon's and Vallarta have opened. When I do, I am shocked at the prices, particularly in the produce dept. Even with the vonscard (and I really hate that they sell your info which leads to a buttload of junk mail), most items are still more than the other two places. HOWEVER, for some things like mayo/mustard/pickles/sour cream/cereal they seem to always come under the mexican markets because they always have something on sale.
In terms of non-grocery items, however, Jon's and Vallarta are no bargain at all. I buy this stuff exclusively at Target - even though Target is not the bargain place it once was, they still have, IMO, the best prices on cleaning, personal hygiene and paper products.
I've noticed that since I let my Costco membership lapse I've spent a lot less money on groceries. I live in Signal Hill about one minute from Costco and all I can say is you don't need a membership to purchase on of those huge $9.99 pizzas in the food court.
I shop at Ralphs and never spend too much. Probably because they don't have a nice bakery like Vons (and believe me, less blueberry muffins for me is better) and they don't have a nice butcher counter like Albertson's.
I notice there is a strong emphasis in some of the replies on strategies to keep the grocery bill as low as possible, and that of course is understandable. Who doesn't enjoy a bargain purchase? And, the original poster framed the question partly in terms of budgetary concerns, so the focus on cost savings makes sense.
But just to muse on what is saved, and what is lost, and how we value our time...
Recently, I've come to value the shopping experience, and it's relationship to how I live the rest of my life, over pure cost savings. Going to my local Costco (MDR) is an exercise in aggression, generally -- the parking lot is crowded and chaotic; the aisles more of the same. The time it takes me to drive there, find parking, dodge carts, wait in line...in terms of how I value my time, it simply isn't worth it. And, frankly, the buying-in-bulk experience creeps me out: the menacing towers of bulk items, the buzzing lighting...but that is probably just me.
Though I have a list of favorite products at TJs that I don't find elsewhere, I avoid shopping there as well. At least on the Westside, the experience is not pleasurable. The parking, the grumpy clientele (not everyone, of course)...it puts me off my feed.
So, now, I shop more frequently, and buy in smaller quantities, and spend a bit more, at a handful of businesses that feel good to visit. My favorite places are the Santa Monica Co-op for bulk foods and organic produce; Ralph's for marked-down booze; the local mom-and-pop markets in walking distance for snacks.
I live in a very small place, on a very limited income, and by making these changes, my quality of shopping, cooking, and dining life has gone up noticeably. I enjoy most of the experience. I like moving at a leisurely pace, and shopping at the big-box stores doesn't seem to jibe with my speed.
I've also found I spend less money on impulse food purchases, and more time experimenting with cooking new-to-me foods. I'm enjoying it, so I'm more relaxed, and as a result, less in need of store- or restaurant-bought comfort. I would say that though I spend more on some food items, overall, I am saving much more by not spending randomly and thoughtlessly just to soothe myself. (Does that make sense?)
I do enjoy my local 99 Cents Store, though. For some reason, it draws a mostly relaxed, patient, and colorful clientele, and it is never short on human interest.
Just some late-night musings while I cook up some lentils. :-)
"And REAL SMIRNOFF, FROM FREAKING MOSCOW FOR GOD'S SAKE, FOR $9 A LITER. Nothing like American-bottled Smirnoff. The Moscow stuff tastes of potato and clawing-up-from-misery"
Whoa whoa, does Trader Joe's still have the russian smirnoff? Is this black label smirnoff? I've been wanting some authentic russian smirnoff for a long time, but I thought it was mirage in the US.
I agree tha TJs is great for staples and pantry stuff. Their prices can be amazingly competitive to supermarkets for stuff that is generally much better. (Arg I just noticed the toll the citrus freeze took - 2.99 oj instead of 1.99, even though its florida juice) Oh and the frozen stuff is a godsend for time pressed college students everywhere.
I haven't seen real Smirnoff but the y do have Moskovskaya - which is the green label vodka by Stolichnaya for 7.99 a liter. definitely authentic.
Shopping for 2 with a small apartment= TJ's for wine, cheese, frozen foods and whatever basics can be had, then Ralphs for the rest. Veggies at the farmers market and trips to Target for supplies.
Second the recs for Costco... esp. for gas right now as LisaStitch says. We love their rotisserie chicken (brined and so freakin' moist). Their meats are all at good deals, and so are the eggs, since I go through whites like nobody's business. I stock up on spices that I use frequently as well as artificial sweetener (Splenda). I often split paper towel packs or toilet paper packs, if I go w/ a friend. I buy gum and mints and that stuff in bulk as well. Hard to purchase produce here, as you have to buy in such large quantities that I cannot use them all up. My family does however love the grapes and berries, as they blow through them. The crudite and party platters are great for entertaining. Plus, as an added bonus, through all the samples, you get a nice snickety-snack or even lunch as you pass through :-)
Have to disagree that TJ's produce isn't good. I purchase fruits, bagged pre-chopped veggies (slim green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash), and bags of onions and boxes of cherry tomatoes. Great frozen items like wild mushroom mix, spinach pie, blintzes, steel cut oat single servings, molten lava cakes, etc. Dried fruits, nuts, dairy, tapioca pudding, cheeses, yogurt (total) and cottage cheese. Also, good prices on protein bars and protein shakes, as well as vitamins and supplements. Will sometimes also grab chicken breasts or fish fillets out of the fridge section to cook up for dinner.
Ralph's is my stand-by for most other stuff. Good for value when you have a club card... I do prefer their Private Selection brand ice cream to most other brands (very Rite-Aidy). I like their salad bars as well (though Gelson's and Whole Foods top it by far).
Whole Foods has the salad bar and my Zen Bakery apple or peach bran muffins (that don't have cranberries in them). Gelson's is ideal for obscure or random ingredients that other places don't stock.
Pavillions, unless you're buying "Club" stuff, tends IMO to be rather pricey, particularly moreso than Ralph's. I shop there more when it's the only place around.
Albertson's, I've personally had terrible experiences w/ produce quality as well as the cleanliness of the stores, so I've yet to return in quite a while.
Finally, the 99 cent store is great for some necessities. I buy Diet Shasta grapefruit here, lemon juice, chocolate if so desired, a few canned goods, household cleansers; generally I'll wander the place and pick up what interests me, as each one has different offerings.
If you live near a Costco with a gas station, definitely get a membership just for the gas! Their prices are somehow about ten cents less than other places. I buy only a handful of non-perishable items at Coscto, and my membership is still definitely worth it. Mainly toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, garbage bags, pasta, and tea.
Everyday shopping is Ralph's, partly because it's right across the street from my apartment. But I'd also go to Pavilions if there were one near me.
For fresh produce/eggs I hit the Santa Monica Farmer's market on the weekends, but if I can't get there or if I need fresh meats, then I hit Gelsons. Bristol Farms and Trader Joes just don't have a wide enough selection for me - I often can't find what I need. Whoel Food has been good the few times I've been, but its selection can also be limiting.
I had a Costco membership for a few years and almost never used it. I don't want to buy bulk or large packaged items, and otherwise I thought prices were good on some things, but not very good on others, some things you can just get more cheaply on sale at other places. If you want to just check it out, tell the person at the entrance you're only going in to buy wine, then you can scope out the prices for yourself. And yes, Costco allows you in without membership if you just want to buy alcohol.
I don't think Smart & Final prices are very good at all.
Vons/Pavilions have good 10 for $10 sales, and generally really good sale prices weekly. I find Ralph's to be more expensive overall. Haven't shopped at Albertson's in a long time. Some items, like herbs, can be cheaper at Bristol Farms, and much cheaper at farmer's markets. TJ's has great prices on dairy products.
So if it doesn't cost you more in gas, then a shopping rotation makes sense to me.
Having been doing the majority of shopping in my household, I agree with most of the posts. TJ is great for some stuff, and I don't mind their veggies, I generally buy stock and oil, nuts, dairy there. Eggs are always cheap.
I don't buy cheese at Whole foods ever. I had a disagreement with the cheesemonger a couple of years ago and when I need good cheese, I head to either TJ's or the cheese store of Beverly Hills. I won't pay 20 dollars a pound for cheese that has been pre cut by more than a week.
I find that if you pick through the produce from the produce stores on Fairfax, you can save a lot of money. I use them when I'm cooking for lots of people(I'll be there tomorrow since I expect 15 plus on thurs for gumbo).
I like some of the smaller farmer's markets, but find the bigger ones are much more expensive. I like the one at plummer park on Fountain and the Weho one on melrose place.
Booze is always much cheaper at Beverages and more on La brea. Great for parties, and outside of the green vodka at TJ, best overall values I've seen.
I too, look at the weekly flyers for deals and end up cooking based on them.
We are members of Costco, but don't regularly buy groceries there. However, we do occasionally pick up grocery items. The Mrs. recently brought home some Farmer John Bacon, the quantity was no big deal, it was basically one outer package with about four pounds of bacon in four seperate inner packages. So this did not overwhelm the refrigerator. We love the bundt cakes they sell there, they come from a commercial bakery in San Diego, and the lemon and chocolate are wonnnnderful. We keep saying that we ought to buy more of our staple items there, but since I am the one who is responsible for all food in the house it has not happened, mainly because I do not relish the idea of having to hike around the Costco warehouse (I have some physical/health issues). Bottom line: I think it would be worth your while to check out Costco, not only for grocery items, but other things.
We visited Smart and Final for the first time last Saturday, see my post below talking about Mother's Day, it itemizes what we bought there, and the quantities. Smart and Final is all about buying items in bulk, so it might not work for your day to day grocery needs, but when you are going to throw a party, it is definately worth checking out.
re: Chino Wayne
Smart & Final, at least the Adams St. Huntington Beach one, has a real problem with quality control. I have made several purchases, only to find the dates were old. In fact the last one was a pork tenderloin which was a week out of date. They always make it right but I don't feel , as a consumer, I should have to be on guard or have to make return trip. Just FYI. This may not be a problem with all in your location.
re: Chino Wayne
Smart & Finals may vary in quality and emphasis. The one in Capo Beach has some of the saddest looking produce I've seen (and it isn't organic, which can sometimes look sad). Their frozen packaged foods do seem to be in bulk, but otherwise they don't seem even as 'bulk-driven' as Costco. This store seems to be very much aimed at small restaurants and other commercial buyers (which is how they began, I think). They have rows & rows of restaurant supplies and sanitation products, paper goods and small kitchen-y gadgets.
Just to add to the excellent tips you have received thus far on the issue of coupons and club cards: in the Sunday LA Times, there are generally 2 free standing coupon sections. Peruse these with scissors in hand and clip only those for items you buy anyway. Soon you'll have a wad of these. But they have different expiration dates and you may have just stocked up on some of the items. Get a little accordion file and arrange them by expiration dates. That way you buy some time if you want before purchasing and avoid having the coupons expire before you get a chance to use them. Note that frequently the coupons are tied to a promotion the manufacturer & store are doing on the item so that between the promotion, the coupon and the club card doubling, you save a lot. In terms of saving, obviously, the max saving is on the smallest quantity of the item. Meanwhile, and here's the Big Brother part, when you use the club card the register computer notes what you are buying and is programmed to spew out additional coupons on or along with your register tape. If you want to go crazy about this, you can also go to manufacturers' websites and download coupons there, but here you could be looking at spam. Also, as you load items into the basket, do not overlook stick-on coupons that apply at the time of purchase for additional savings (sometimes the cashier will point em out, but usually he/she is too busy).. There's something satisfying about seeing that big total come up on the register and then watching it get reduced by the coupons and the doubling. Also, if you do Costco, which is good (Costco does not take coupons but the prices are low) but addictive, you might want to bring along some bags in your car so you can unload easier when you are transferring from the basket to the car. (Costco supplies no bags. They just load stuff in your basket or in cardboard boxes they receive the products in.) With the money you save......
re: mc michael
If you just save and file the coupon inserts, by date, you can use http://www.couponmom.com/ to know when to use your coupon for the best prices -- faster than otherwise trying to keep track.
I've noticed that farmer's markets have better prices in less-affluent neighborhoods. Frequently, produce at the Westchester market is 1/3 the price of the same item at the Santa Monica Sunday market.
I'm a big fan of Marina Farms for other produce and grains. I buy dairy, bread and canned goods, and some cheese and meat at Trader Joes. Target has pretty good prices on things like bulk paper towels and laundry detergent.
I like Whole Foods and CostCo, but I don't seem to ever spend less than $100 at either location. (I'm also feeding two of us.)
You face a task that all of us have gone through, are going through, or will go through at some point. How you handle it determines whether it is an enjoyable experience or a dreaded task.
First of all, membership clubs. My wife and I belong to both Costco and Sam's Club. Yes, there is a membership fee, and yes, many items come in "bigger-than-I'll-ever-use" packages. But the real downside of the membership clubs is the nagging temptations to buy more things than you intend to. That being said, I enjoy shopping at both places for food. The prices are not ALWAYS the lowest around, but they are always very competitive. The meat departments at both stores are superb, with USDA Choice Beef. The selection of prpared food is wonderful. One advantage of Sam's Club is they are the ONLY place around that sells single gallons of milk at good prices. Seems like a little thing, but to me, it's something that sets Sam's apart from grocery stores, whose "buy 2 and save but we are gonna screw you on 1 gallon policy" does not set well with me.
Chain grocery stores: by all means, get a Vons/Pavillions and a Ralph's Club card -- they make saving easy and painless. I don't know about you, but every week on Tuesday, I get sale flyers in the mail from the major grocery chains. I take 10 minutes and make a list of what looks good and on sale for wach store for the week and keep it in my car for when I'm out. And look for good buys with coupons as well, especially with Vons/Pavillions and Ralph's doubling their value. Nothing like buying an item on sale and then using a double coupon on top of it. Finally, know the price points for commonly bought items. For instance, when Diet Coke goes below $1.00 per 6 pack or 2 Liter, I know it's time to stock up. 2 weeks ago, a 6-pack of Diet Coke was $2.29 at a local store, This week it was on sale for 99 cents, plus I had a 30 cent coupon that when doubled, lowered the 6 pack price to 39 cents.
Independent Markets and Farmer's Markets: This is where to shop for produce! Seems to me that the major chain supermarkets have VERY high prices on produce, with the exception of a few sale items each week. When I lived in Ventura COunty, I shopped some farmer's stands for produce, now here is Orange County, I shop 2 independent markets, whose produce is fresh and often less than half the price of the big guys. Most noticeable is the larger size single baked potatoes...89 cents/lb and the supers, 29 cents/lb at a small indie market. Weekly Farmer's Markets can work the same way.
Yes, I also make occasional stops at upscale markets (Gelson's Whole Foods, Bristol Farms) and TJ's as well, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Hope some of my strategy works for you or at least gives you some ideas.
Grower's Direct on 17th & Newport in Costa Mesa is great. I always am hauling huge bags, 5 or more, of wonderful stuff out of there for under $25. Eggs - jumbo @ .99/doz, great mangoes, berries, etc. Caveats: eat any berries immediately - very short shelf life; don't buy the celery - the only yuckky thing there. Tasty grapes, tangelos, corn, etc, etc. Just try & get out of there with under 5 bags!
My favorite place for produce is the Farm To Market grocery store in Laguna Niguel (Crown Valley & Alicia). I believe FtM has another location as well. A former FtM im Mission Viejo on Los Alisos is now a Mission Rancho Market, which is also decent for produce (and geographically more convenient), but not as good for baked goods and fresh meats.
This is my two-years-of-being-a-broke-grad-student strategy:
1. Farmer's Markets. I use the Sunday Hollywood one. You get produce for about lowest-supermarket prices that's at least as good as Whole Foods, maybe better. You also get to see the seasons come in and out. It's nice. Get in touch with nature. Actually, I think the thing that made me most in touch with my California locale and cheap was the purchase of two extraordinary vegetable books - Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables and Willinger's Red White and Greens - which assures me that, no matter what vegetable I find good-looking, I can take them home and be assured of knowing how to cook them with a minimal pantry. This has changed me style of cooking. There is no meditate-over-a-recipe-and-then-go-to-supermarket-and-buy-what-I-need-no-matter-how-bad-it-looks.
If you are switching over to the find-cheap-and-good-and-improvise strategy, I recommend the best two books I know for detaching one from recipes - John Thorne's Outlaw Cook and Simple Cooking.
2. Trader Joe's for cooking cheeses, pre-made stocks, dried fruits. Avoid their fresh veggies. Also very good cheap alcohol. Costco has the cheapest handles - good for parties - but they don't have the really great stuff. Just the name-brand stuff. Seagram's, fer instance. TJ's has a really great selection: to name a few, Macallan 12, Maker's Mark, etc. for at least 25% cheaper than anyone else. And REAL SMIRNOFF, FROM FREAKING MOSCOW FOR GOD'S SAKE, FOR $9 A LITER. Nothing like American-bottled Smirnoff. The Moscow stuff tastes of potato and clawing-up-from-misery. Great. Also Plugra - holy French cooking butter - for 1/4 the price of Bristol farms. Really. Seriously. 1/4.
They also have a really smart port-and-sherry buyer.
3. Ralph's with a club card for some basics. They have the best pasta I know - Delverde - which about 1/3 of the time is on club card special for really cheap. Much better than TJ's, which otherwise has the best dried stuff. Also, they frequently have Muir Glen Organic tomatoes on club card special, which are the best canned tomatoes I know of. I load up during the non-summer months.
4. Whole Foods for good cheeses. Also their in-house orange juice is the equal of the best large-market brands, for considerably cheaper. Also their bulk dried goods are high quality and cheap.
5. Asian markets for fishes. There's the Hong Kong in Koreatown, the Bangluck Market in Thaitown, and for the OC crowd, Murukai in Torrance. If you know what you're looking for (look under the gills for redness) you can get insanely good fish for ridiculously cheap. Got very good sea bass for $3 a pound the other day. But there's terrible stuff too. The advantage is that it's out and you can poke at it. Feel it. Make sure it's good. Make sure it's got the love.
6. Bay Cities for the expensive stuff. I've found that buying really ridiculously expensive parmesan and quite-more-expensive olive oil is worth it. You use much less for more flavor.
7. Tortillerias for fresh tortillas and masa. I used to buy it packaged at the supermarket. Ridiculously fresh and cheap at a good tortilleria. There are many in every vaguely Hispanic neighborhood I've been in, so I just try 'em out.
In general, I've tried to figure out what I like and find what place has it cheapest, instead of going for the very cheapest. I've been much happier since I abandoned my Costco card - I had no willpower and bought.
re: Thi N.
ok...Gotta chime in on this thread...
One thing I have found, as a regular shopper at:
(and) the list goes on
.is that there are certain items MUCH cheaper at certain stores. For instance, everyone "knows" Gelsons as a high-end super market. That's true and some of their stuff is laughably high-priced! But, there are some items that are actually cheaper than anywhere else I have found. Like Baxter's Soup. Vons has the same canned soup for 25% more than Gelsons. Who would've thought?!
Also, I concur that TJ's has great prices on good scotch, tequilla, chocolate, cheese -- I won't buy anywhere else.
Bottom line is: I have certain items I ALWAYS get from certain stores. The price differences are amazing at times. There is a chocolate bar sold at Bristol Farms for over $5.00 (can you imagine?!) and the exact same item at TJ's for just over $2.00 -- no coupon, no sales...every day!
Just keep your eyes and ears open and soon you will know what to get, and where.
P.S. Yes, it means going to a lot of different stores, but that's the price you pay. Of course, there are rare times I'd rather just pay a little more for something and do one-stop shopping -- it all depends if you want to save TIME or MONEY! I always get a thrill buying stuff at the cheapest possible point...even if I have to drive 30 minutes to specialty shop. There have been times I have used a coupon, had it doubled, on a sale-item, and got it for FREE by the time all was said and done. This, for a fairly expensive ($3.00-range) item like high-end ice cream or anti-persperant.
P.P.S. There are also a TON of little ethnic food markets -- independent -- that I frequent, like the indian spice markets, etc. Places you can really stock up on supplies and hand made foods at rock-bottom prices.
Make sure to find out where the nearest farmer's market is to you and go. I buy a lot of really great produce at really low prices compared to what they charge in the supermarket.
I'm fortunate enough to live a half hour drive from the farmstands in Fillmore as well, and take advantage of that as well.
If you do get a Costco membership, you could find friends, family or coworkers to split some things with you.
I always buy trashbags and water there, the trashbags don't take up much storage space, and I go through water so quickly, its a cost savings
I love Costco, and I almost never purchase alcohol. They have a great selection of meats and generally have very knowledgeable butchers. They also bake a lot of their own bake goods, including yummy cookies, cakes, and breads. Besides food, they sell other goods not in bulk such as books, clothing, towels, furniture, bakeware, electronics, etc. Costco also has its own pharmacy. I am in a similar situation to you (live w/my SO in a small apartment w/o a lot of storage), but I have found that buying paper towels and toilet paper there in bulk is well worth it. Anyway, this is getting off the subject of food, but I think the membership is worth it even if you just go there to buy a couple of things, be it food or other goods.
First of all IMHO Costco is well worth the price. Many items are not in giant bulk sizes so I would guess that you would be able to do quite a bit of your shopping there. You should drop by and inquire - I believe they will let you in without being a member if you tell them you are thinking of joining (note: you can't buy anything without joining - you can just look).
The other part of your system is logical (if you take advantage of double coupons), but I might also suggest one additional diversion. When you really need nice produce (or cheese, baked goods, etc...) you might also check out Bristol Farms or Gelsons. We use Bristol Farms for key ingredients but never use it as our "normal" market.