Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Supermarket Scavenger Hunt

Making it work in New York City is hard. Unless you're rocking a sick job on Wall Street, making ends meet can be more difficult than one might think. And one way I've found to help with that is by tracking down cheap food.

You've got thousands of conveniences in New York at your fingertips, including supermarkets. While some might might be criminally overpriced *cough* Foodtown *cough*, every place will do something well. Everywhere from more exotic goods at good prices, to the bargain bin at you're local superstore. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a one-stop-shop. So you've got to look.

Because I love food, I'm cheap, and I'm not a slave to some trendy gimmick store, I have no problems with going on a supermarket scavenger hunt. So here are some general rules to help you cut down that grocery bill each week.

1. Look! -  Every store is different, and will likely offer a better than normal price or selection on something. You just need to look and see what they have. A good rule of thumb is that ethnic stores have cheaper, fresher ingredients based on what is "local" cuisine, i.e. Russian to fish, Spanish to pork and produce, and so on.

2. Cards are your friends - Most chain supermarkets have rewards cards, while some don't. Supermarkets intentionally mark up items that aren't on sale, expecting that you'll come in for their *Super Sale!* and walk out with 15 impulse buys that will cost you.

When you find a store with a card, sign up for it and use it! Grab a flier and see if what you need matches with what's on sale. If not, take a five minute walk to your next destination.

3. Find your Base Camp - There will likely be a store that works out best for you. One that has low prices, a good selection, and won't be too far off the beaten path. This is where you'll do a good chunk of your shopping. If they have a card, great - get it. If they don't, watch the prices of items you buy regularly for better deals elsewhere.

4. Beware the Trends - I'm going to name drop here, and there's a reason. Trader Joes. Yes, the mecca of every low carb, tofu-eating hipster in New York City. I congratulate whoever devised the "All Natural" business model because it is genius, and slightly bullshit.

Trader Joes offers great deals on some items, but definitely not most. Go there for the great quality coffee and their craft beer section. Other than that, you are buying branding. The majority of food there may be organic, or locally grown, but at a mark-up of up to 100% of what you would pay elsewhere for a comparable product.

Example: The cheapest loaf of bread at Trader Joes goes for around $2.59 for normal wheat or white. I can get a larger loaf at Stop & Shop, C-Town, or Pathmark for 99 cents or below. For a minor sacrifice in quality, you spend nearly two-thirds less. Same goes for the 'organic' frozen pizzas, frozen veggies, and meat/deli. If you want to help your health and the earth, take a run and donate the difference to Green Peace. Be a smart shopper; don't let this franchise collect on a trend.

5. Learn to Recycle - I'm not talking about the bottle return here. Think about how much food goes bad in your fridge every week because you got busy, went out to dinner, or just forgot about that lettuce on the bottom shelf. All of your savings become negated once you let 20% of your purchase go bad. Learn to make leftover dishes. American Chop Suey, Beef Stroganoff, Pizza, most cassaroles you've heard of, soups and salads - they were all ad-hoc leftover concoctions that people used to avoid wasting food and money.

If you have left-over heavy cream, shake it into fresh, unsalted butter. Fruits and veggies on their last legs? Make a stir fry. Be creative with what you have in the fridge. If you screw up, dump it in the trash and order pizza. At least you tried. But if it turns out well, you might just have a new left-over killer in your repertoire, and a new dish to impress friends.

But good luck in your shopping pursuits, and watch those price tags!

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