Posted by: Hil | September 22, 2008

Where to Shop

I talk a fair amount about bargain hunting and making the most of what you can find at various stores, so I thought I would give a quick rundown on the stores I like to shop in and where I think the good values are.

Trader Joe’s

Cheap yuppie food.

What to buy:

  • Dairy–Trader Joe’s has a fantastic selection of high quality milk, yogurt, cheese, for very reasonable prices.  TJ’s is the reason that I can afford to buy Greek yogurt and goat cheese on a regular basis.
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Tofu
  • Vegetables and other fresh produce–the selection isn’t huge, but if you keep an eye out, you can get great deals.  They have the best price on baby spinach I’ve ever seen.
  • Frozen fish, fruit and vegetables
  • Dark Chocolate and high quality tea cookies
  • Whole grain items (sometimes)
  • Cereal, protein bars and prepared food items

What not to buy:

  • Wine.  I know Trader Joe’s is famous for having cheap wines.  The wines may be cheap, but they aren’t good values.  Even when they have good labels, the actual wines are rarely good.  The hard liquor is okay, but stay away from the wine.  Go to Costco instead.
  • Be suspicious of the fruit.  In my limited experience, the quality is pretty variable.

Ralph’s (or Albertson’s or Safeway or Von’s or whatever your local grocery chain is)

This all depends on your store and where it is, but keep an eye out for the following items.  You’d be surprised at all of the great things that you can find.

What to buy:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables (lots of stores even carry organic now)
  • Natural peanut butter (increasingly available)
  • Meat–be very picky about quality and freshness, but if you do your research and watch sales, you can get some very affordable and good quality stuff.
  • “Basic” cheese like ricotta and mozzarella.
  • Whole grain crackers and crispbread  (Ak-Mak, Wasa, Kashi, Ryvita, etc.)
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Oatmeal
  • Canned tuna
  • Condiments
  • Frozen vegetables–they don’t have a ton of variety, but you can get amazing deals on things like frozen spinach, squash or stir-fry veggies 
  • Dried beans and lentils
  • Tofu
  • Spices (shop in the ethnic food aisles…they are much, much cheaper there.  The little cellophane pouches of spices are the best deals)
  • Shockingly enough, you can now get very good quality dark chocolate at grocery stores.  Lindt Excellence is the only grocery store brand I would recommend, but it is excellent.

What not to buy:

  • Fresh fish–it’s never actually fresh.  Just don’t do it.
  • Bread.  Here I reveal my biases, but I hate squishy grocery store bread.  It tastes like plastic and usually has an ingredients list a mile long. 


Costco may not be a great deal for a single person, but if you’re feeding two or more, it can be a lifesaver.

What to buy:

  • Fresh fish
  • Meats
  • Produce–surprisingly enough, Costco produce is usually fresher than stuff in normal grocery stores.  I have no idea how they manage such consistent freshness and quality, but they do.
  • Pesto
  • Wine–they have a wonderful selection of normal sized bottles for great prices.  This isn’t the place to go if you are looking for something very specific, but if you just want a wine of a certain variety in a respectable price range, Costco will offer you something great for your money.
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Organic omega-3 eggs and organic milk
  • Vitamins and supplements

What not to buy:

  • Anything you don’t think you can finish…if you end up wasting food, its no longer a good deal.

Whole Foods

Full of expensive organic food for the busy, health-minded person with lots of cash to burn.  Good quality, great variety and a fun salad bar. 

What to buy:

  • Check elsewhere first, but Whole Foods has a fantastic selection of whole grain products:  bread, crackers, English muffins, pasta, flour, etc.  I get most of my whole grain products at Whole Foods because other places just don’t offer what I want.
  • Sale items in the produce section. 
  • Good vegetable broth.  In this case, the expensive organic stuff is unquestionably better.
  • Agave nectar
  • Canned beans (actually cheaper than at the big grocery stores for me)
  • Unusual dried beans and grains that you can’t find at your local grocery store
  • Exotic spices and sauces (but only if you can’t find them elsewhere)
  • If you want a treat, check out their high quality ice cream (some of it vegan), fair trade chocolate, good cheese, etc.

What not to buy:

  • Organic junk food and prepared items.  Super expensive, not always healthy, generally not worth your money. 
  • Pretty much anything that you can find an equivalent of elsewhere.  Whole Foods is out to take your money.  It is pretty and shiny and has beautiful variety, but if you value your paycheck, exhaust other options first.

Asian Markets

This is a great way to get good deals on any Asian food or condiment that you can think of:  chili paste, sesame oil, sesame seeds, fish sauce, soy sauce, soba noodles, fresh vegetables…the possibilities are endless.  If you have one near you, go explore and have fun with all of the money you will save.  Same goes for other ethnic markets, but I live very near an Asian market, so this is what I use the most.

Cost Plus World Market

This is a fun, inexpensive import store that seems to be pretty much everywhere except the Northeast.

What to buy: 

  • Exotic spices.  Check here before you shell out all your money at Whole Foods.
  • Teas
  • Super dark, dense German pumpernickel bread
  • High quality treats:  chocolate, tea cookies, ginger chews, etc.
  • A very nice selection of imported wine.


  1. Great list! You’re so right about Costco – you have to be careful not to buy things that will just go bad… because then it’s not efficient anymore.

  2. Great post!!!

  3. Though I agree with some of the things you’re talking about, I would like to defend Whole Foods, not because I work there, but because I think you’re being a little unfair: “Whole Foods is out to take your money.” Not at all true. The food in the prepared foods section is sold for a price that BARELY allows the department to make $ at all. Just an FYI.

    Other than that, loved the post though! TJ’s = my leeerrrve and I agree, the greek yo = to die for!

  4. Thanks for the post, very helpful. I also love Trader Joe’s for its amazing dairy and cereal selection.
    I also think they have a great selection of energy bars (LARABAR, LUNA) that are somewhat cheaper than Whole Foods.

    I like Whole Foods but you’re right, it’s totally pricey…especially for a college student’s budget. Thanks for sharing what they have good deals on. I usually avoid going there all together for the fear of wasting too much of my time and money being amazed by all the products!

  5. Julz–My statements about Whole Foods being “out to take your money” were meant humorously/metaphorically. I have no personal knowledge about Whole Foods buisness practices. I do know that I can often buy identical products for much cheaper at other stores, and when I walk into Whole Foods it is extremely easy for me to end up spending more money than I meant to.

  6. Yep… We tend to browse at whole foods when we want a treat and have some extra money for the week to play around with… otherwise its just WAY too easy to be drawn in by the variety of goodies there (Oh, if I had the money, I’d play with all the different flours they have…) So… Whole foods is an in and out sort of adventure!


  7. THANK YOU FOR THIS!!! Extremely useful, smart tips, for sure.

  8. I’d like to put a shameless plug in here for the business of a family friend. offers a wide variety of nuts (did you guess that already?) and dried fruits. They ship around the country, their prices are pretty good, and the quality is phenomenal. They supple the nuts for a large number of the local gourmet grocery stores and farmers markets around New Jersey. Really great stuff! So, if you’re looking for great dried fruit and nuts, or just don’t feel like trekking to the nearest TJs, check this place out!

    Hil, this is the dried fruit I had in my dorm room Jr year

  9. yup, i concur 🙂

  10. Great list. Thanks for this. TJ’s is my go-to for greek yogurt and goat cheese as well. I stock up every week on this there.

    Finally made it to Whole Foods this past weekend. I was very impressed with the bulk bins. I loved buying a little bit of this and that to try out over the next couple of weeks.

  11. I have to disagree about your thoughts about Trader Joe’s wines. While there are many average wines, you rarely find a bad one. And you can often identify some gems that are awfully affordable. To back up my thoughts here I wanted to share a link to my current favorite Trader Joe’s Wines. Try one or two of these and tell me what you think….

  12. from my experience, trader joe’s agave nectar was cheaper by a dollar or two or so 😀

  13. Rika–thanks so much for the pointer! I’ve never seen agave nectar at my Trader Joe’s, but I’ll be sure for it next time.

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