Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Frugal Grocery Shopping for City Folk

(I want to apologize up front for the New York-centrism of this post. I do hope it helps others in metro areas, though, and I would love, Love, LOVE to get comments, feedback and suggestions.)

Since 2000, I’ve lived in seven apartments in three different boroughs of New York City. The rentals have ranged from a spacious three-bedroom in a riverside high-rise to a microscopic box adjacent to a dive bar. While I’ve truly liked almost every place, each has presented some interesting obstacles for grocery shopping. Since a lot of big city apartment-dwellers have probably met with the same hurdles, I figure I’d address a few and provide alternatives.

See, we urbanites face a unique set of issues when we buy food. Space is our main problem, meaning bulk buying, gardening, and canning can be very difficult, if not impossible. Transportation is another biggie. Lots of metro citizens don’t have access to cars. Public buses and subways are wonderful, but make it difficult to carry much of anything. Lack of access to fresh food is also a concern, since the nearest farm or farmers market can be miles away. Finally, there’s good ol’ price. Depending on the city or neighborhood in which one lives, a box of cereal can be twice the cost of one two miles away. Economics are tricky like that.

Fret not, though. All isn’t lost, as city-zens have two assets that suburban peeps and rural folk generally don’t: proximity and ethnic diversity. I live within a ten-minute walk of at least three major grocery stores, so circular sales can save me a lot of dough. What’s more, dozens of bodegas, Korean groceries, and polish delis line the streets of my borough, so I’m never at a loss for variety.

With those six areas (Space, Transportation, Lack of Access to Fresh Food, Price, Proximity, Ethnic Diversity) in mind, here are a few tips to making the most of grocery shopping and storage in Gotham. (Or Seattle.) (Or San Francisco.) (Or Chicago.) (“Or Boston,” The Boyfriend says.) (“And don’t forget Philly. It’s nice there. There’s a bell.”)


Be creative with storage. Install high shelving. Snag a kitchen cart or pot rack off Craigslist. Pack food in places it wouldn’t normally go (under the bed, in the closet, etc). Draw up a floor plan of your flat and see where storage furniture can fit best. Any out-of-the-box thinking can help you stock and keep goods at home. Apartment Therapy: The Kitchen (now just TheKitchn) has some great ideas.

Make a deal with neighbors or roommates. I confess I’ve never done this myself. (New York is kind of isolationist that way.) Yet, if you have neighbors or pals you trust, you might be able to rent or barter for a shelf or two.

Try single pot, balcony, or window gardening. Impossible, you say? Look at this lady! And this one! And this … uh, this one doesn’t mention their gender, but look at ‘em anyway! You may never have that pumpkin patch you’ve dreamed of, but a batch of fresh basil is in reach. Rachel, the Cheap Healthy Gourmet, succeeded in growing said basil, as well as dill, and mint (mint, and more mint) in her place. Another roommate coaxed 48,000 Italian peppers out of our harsh Brooklyn soil. Even if you have the blackest of thumbs, it’s worth a shot.

Sign up for a bulk warehouse, but buy only what you can carry. Certain BJ’s and CostCo deals are unbeatable, but cramming a 128-oz. jar of mustard into an already-crowded cabinet is not gonna happen in most apartments. Instead of whole-hog bulk shopping, go every month or two and bring home only what you can lift. You’ll still score the deals, you can still use public transportation, and occupied square footage will be kept to a minimum.


Rent a car and split the cost between friends. A three-hour rental in the middle of the day can be relatively inexpensive and very helpful to a group that’s dividing the fee. If Enterprise or Avis aren’t feasible, lots of cities have services like Zipcar nowadays. For $8.50/hr, you can have a vehicle for as long as you like.

Snag an Old Lady Cart off of Craigslist, eBay, or the local Dollar Store shelf. You may ask yourself, “Where does that highway go to?” “What the crap is she talking about?” But if you’ve ever had a grandmother … or two … that lived/lives in Queens, you know exactly what an Old Lady Cart is. It’s this thing. Is it ugly? Yes. Will it make you look 175-years-old, even if you just hit puberty? Yup. Can it carry 49 lbs. of fresh cauliflower with a bag of laundry piled on top? You betcha. If you live more than a few blocks from a supermarket or your arms tire easily, the Old Lady Cart is the perfect go-to.

Bike it. If you have a cycle, go to town. Or rather, go to a place where there are cheap groceries. You’ll get a good workout, and it’s blessedly free.


Visit available farmers’ markets. The USDA and Local Harvest have lovely sites on which you can pinpoint the farmers’ markets closest to you. Scout a few, figure out if the expenditure’s worth it, and proceed accordingly. In the city, it’s the closest you might come to a freshly-picked ear of corn.

Make friends with a butcher, fishmonger, or produce … uh, guy. Generations of New Yorkers have scored prime cuts of meat because they have friendly relationships with Buddy the Butcher down the block. Nobody knows food like the people who catch and cut it up for you. So, make a friend! Ask him (or her) what to buy! If you find his suggestions tasty and reasonably-priced, stick with him for life. Or at least ‘til you have to move again.

Ask a waitress, maitre’d or chef. Restaurant workers know where to buy the freshest, least expensive produce, meat, fish, and extras out there. If they’re any good, they have to. Speaking up, rattling off questions, and taking notes can point you in the direction of infinite and wonderful culinary discoveries.

Check out the Food Trust’s Supermarket Campaign. The New York Times recently reported that the rumors are true – calorie for calorie, junk food costs less than healthy food. It hurts low income earners the most. Based in Pennsylvania, the Food Trust is looking to combat the issue by making fresh vegetables and fruit available to people in the inner city. If you’re in the area and need the assistance, this could be a great boon to your savings.


Use specialty and high-end markets sparingly. In Manhattan at least, Whole Foods seems to be competing with Starbucks for the 2007 Overpriced and Omnipresent Awards. If you’re in search of a pre-marinated rack of lamb to serve your boss and his grandmother, go nuts. But if you’re shopping for a can of beans and a 30-lb bag of rice, avoid fancy grocers at all costs.

Beware faux-organic stores. The booming gentrification of Brooklyn has given birth to a new breed of market. It’s the overpriced, quasi-gourment “organic” store, where there are few vegetables and a box of butternut squash soup will run $4. Try to avoid these places if possible. They might look nice, but it’ll cost a bundle each and every time. (A single cookie for $2.50? You gotta be kidding.)

Look for drugstore deals. Though they’re not cornucopias of fresh food, CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and other chains are staple extravaganzas. What’s more, they have sales and offers that few people know about. Crystal at Money Saving Mom and Kacie at Sense to Save have written extensively about these bargains, so start reading.

Shop at Target or Trader Joe’s. I’ve found that both these bigger box stores often have better values than local supermarkets. Knowing what to look for is key, though. If you can (and if they’re available) spend a few minutes taking mental notes of prices and foods you like. From cereal to wine to a dozen eggs, odds are you’ll find a good deal somewhere in there.

Follow all the rules that suburban and rural people do. Start a price book. Plan your menus ahead. Make lists. Shop for loss-leaders. Don’t buy groceries when you’re hungry. Avoid impulse buys. What works for the homeschooling mom of 37 will work for the single urbanite just out of college. (Except for the breastmilk stuff. Never mind about that.)


Scope your ‘hood. Every area I’ve ever lived in has held some pleasant culinary surprises. Smaller stores may not have a website or be listed in a city guide, but a stroll around the block can reveal that spice market you’ve been secretly hoping for.

Check circulars online and compare surrounding stores. Oh, sweet Google Maps. You used to just tell me my zip code when I forgot it after the 6th move. Now you can list every supermarket (with address and phone number) within a five block radius of my humble abode. You also connect to websites, which have circulars, sales, and special discounts. Google maps, will you marry me? The Boyfriend won’t mind. He likes your layout.

Hit up a variety of vendors for sales. Inside an hour or two, I can hit up three different markets, buying loss-leader weekly groceries at each. (BAM!) I know a lot of cities aren’t as tightly-packed as New York (where I live within ten feet of 47 families of eight), but urban layouts can mean lots of choices, which in turn mean big savings. Try the just-mentioned Google Maps to plot your plan of attack or space your shopping trips out over the course of a week.


Go ethnic. I’ve written pretty extensively on the wonders of ethnic markets, but their prices and selection are often unbeatable.

Visit stores out of your comfort zone. Are you a tiny Ohio woman who doesn’t speak a lick of Korean? Are you a born-and-bred Detroit native who wouldn’t know Arabic if it jumped up and gave you a wedgie? Different cultures may be, uh, foreign to us, but taking a walk in a different neighborhood can familiarize you with a unique cuisine and a whole new set of people.

Take a cooking class focusing on dishes from another culture. While they might cost a bit up front, cooking classes can pay off huge in the long run. Learning to prepare foreign dishes will open up your palate, provide more shopping (and saving) opportunities, and make friends and influence people.

That’s it. Again, I’d love to hear comments and suggestions. Thanks for reading!

(Photos courtesy of Flickr.)

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Jaime said...

Great post, and as a fellow New Yorker, I really appreciate it.

The ubiquity of greenmarkets is incredible here, for the quality, flavor, and price of my eating. Apples are $1/lb or cheaper. Heads of cauliflower the size of a small meteor are $3. And it all tastes insanely good. In the summer there's a greenmarket 3 blocks from my apartment, but this fall I've found trekking to Union Square is still worth it.

I do have to dissent on the avoid-Whole Foods bit. Funny you chose a can of beans as your example - beans are actually cheaper at WF ($.60/can) than my Inwood supermarket ($.80 or more), and there are organic beans for barely more ($.99). Peanut butter, too - $1.50 for a jar of *natural* WF brand PB, versus, like, $3 for Skippy. Soy milk? $2.99 Whole Foods brand. $3.59 Silk at my supermarket. Tofu's $1.99 rather than $2.50+. Produce is another story, but if you can avoid the temptation of the fancy expensive things, there are great bargains to be found.

(Sadly, NYC Whole Foods don't have a bulk foods section, but there's a health food store on 8th Ave at 54th St that, among other things, sells a delicious bulk curried lentil soup mix for what works out to, like, $.75 a serving.)

Kacie said...

Ah, New York. I've only been there twice, but I hope to visit again soon. It's my favorite big city for sure.

I've always wondered how people went grocery shopping there.

I have no idea if Duane Reade stores have amazing deals like CVS and Walgreens, but I think I'll look into that.

Thanks for the link!

Deborah said...

I envy the many ethnic markets that you have available! Even thought I live in The Deep South, Hispanic/Latino markets are popping up in the most unlooked for places. I visited one for the first time a few weeks ago, and was very surprised to see the low prices they have on certain items - limes are what caught my eye on that trip.
There's lots of great advice in here.

Kris said...

Thanks, everyone for the comments.

Jaime, you're totally right on the green markets - especially Union Square. The bread, especially, is worth going again and again for.

I do find that while Whole Foods staples are competitive, you can buy beans, rice, etc. on sale for less. Goya runs $0.50/can about every two or three weeks at the local Pathmark, Key Food, and Associated where I live. Your point is a good one, and I totally should have acknowledged W.F.'s efforts to be affordable.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Kris!
The Union Square Farmer's market is definitely worth the trek.

We've always sort of seen the cruddy and/or overpriced grocery stores as part of life in NYC. Fortunately all the other great things about the city outweigh 'em.

Zipcar (or better yet a friend with a car!) really makes it worthwhile to do a once-a-month trek out to NJ too by the way.

Casual Kitchen

Anonymous said...

Another Zipcar/Costco trick - split your booty. My friends and I had a regular schedule for renting a car, sharing the cost, and hitting the big box. And we would split up the bulk groceries, save lots, and not run out of space.

Great post.

Marcia said...

I don't live in the big city, but I agree on the ethnic markets. I have been living in my town in So. Cal. for 10 years, and I am *still* finding new places/markets to shop. There's a local produce store that carries mostly local items just a short walk away, and I can get organic apples for $1.50/lb.

Debbie M said...

On transportation, I've shopped in several places I've lived without owning a car. I just took a knapsack with me and put the heavy things (milk, canned goods) in there and the light things (bread, toilet paper) in a paper bag to carry in my arms. I did buy regular milk, but juice only as concentrate and no soda.

If I was feeling sick or otherwise low on energy, I would just go someplace close that didn't require waiting for a bus, even if it was a bit more expensive. To help myself look forward to shopping, I would buy myself a treat to eat while waiting for the bus home; alternatively, a magazine could also be a good reward.

If you're shopping for more than one, it strikes me that you could bring the kind of pack that backpackers use. Or you could go more than once a week. It's good to do some sort of aerobic exersize like this several times a week, after all!

SavvyFrugality said...

You mentioned shopping the circulars online, which is a great idea. Here are some great places where you can find them: - Contains links to the weekly sales circulars for several stores, including supermarkets, department and clothing stores and electronics stores. - More links to weekly sales circulars and coupons. - Put away your scissors. Now you can clip coupons online.

Betty Ann said...

Hi another New York City (brooklyn now staten island).
I buy meat with reduced stickers at Walbaums or wherever.
I buy bagels; and baked desserts with reduced stickers at Pathmark.
The items are still superfresh but nearing their extinction and they can be frozen anyway.

Betty Ann

Betty Ann said...

P.S. And also I save money of course by planning meals around Loss Leaders. (and eating more Vegetarian meals too)

The Domestic Intellectual said...

A friend of mine just sent me your link and I wanted to share something that has worked well for me-- Canvas book bags (the kind that you often get from stores/libraries/special events/etc.) When I go shopping, whether in the car or via public transport (I live in Chicago) I use several canvas bags. They can go over my shoulder reasonably comfortably, even full of produce or canned goods. They are also more economical, environmentally friendly and keep down the scary plastic bag invasion:-)

For produce, I encourage you to look into farm cooperatives and other local growers. I belong to a program at the school where I work called Growing Power that delivers boxes weekly of primarily locally grown produce. 20-25 lbs non-organic for $16 and 20-25 lbs organic for $27. You don't get to choose the produce, but it is a fabulous value and I have found the variety to be really good. I am single, so I split with a coworker and we both have been very satisfied.

It can also be worth while to see if there are any monthly co-ops in your area. You may have to snag a car once a month, but they are a valuable source of staples, bulk products and even things like toothpaste and soap.

Anonymous said...

You mention something about an cart with wheels that you can use to carry your groceries home. My sister directed me to a new and hip way to carry groceries... called the Hook and Go. You can see it here It is a bit pricey but worth it. My back thanks me!!

Anonymous said...

Regarding the previous poster's "new and hip" way to carry groceries...

That cart may be more convenient and save your back if you have such problems, but it's still an old lady cart.

The difference between it and the original would be about the same as calling an electric mobility scooter the new and hip version of a wheelchair. Sure it's convenient, but you're still a grandma.

Chi-Girl said... this blog. I live in downtown Chicago and try to shop on a major budget (75/week for two...we both workout and lift weights so lots of meats). Jewel has the best prices I have found...I stay away from Whole Foods as one can get waaaaay too carried away in that store:). I find the key is to plan your meals out and don't buy anything you don't need in the next week.

As for carts...Versa Cart is the way to go!!!! I don't know what I would do without it. It is more expensive than the wire carts but worth its weight in gold for city folks!

Twilight2000 said...

This is WONDERFUL - I'm WAY out west, but a lot of this is really good info here too. We tend to be more spread out, so have to plan a little better for trips so we don't eat up all our savings in gas, but still - Really Good!