October 14, 2010

Shout out to Trader Joe’s – 3D Eating on $400/month

I’ve seen websites and forum postings in which people share how to feed their families of 4 on $600 a month. Generally these folks rely on co-op style sources for bulk items and make their own breads, jams, etc…  My initial reaction to these claims was that it didn’t seem plausible. That was before 3 weeks Eating in 3D.
Fair warning – I am about to give an unabashed endorsement of a commercial entity. Since sucking up to this particular company will get you nowhere – they don’t even accommodate media interviews – you can be assured that my endorsement is for no personal gain of my own.
I know that everyone does not have a Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood. I am fortunate enough to have two within a couple miles. I’ve been a TJ shopper for a few years but off and on. I struggled to shop in the cramped aisles with throngs of people during peak evening and weekend hours. Inevitably there would be items for which I’d have to go next door to Vons. And, many TJs products are not packaged in the right increment for a family of three. But, as I planned for my first grocery run for this experiment, I saw a trend among cost-conscious, nutrition-minded bloggers. They all rely on TJs for staple ingredients. So, I joined the TJ masses to fill my cart with roughly enough food for 2 weeks.
At the checkout I asked the amiable, well-pierced clerk to ring my alcohol purchases separately so I can have a clean receipt for the food. When the last food item slid across the scanner, I stood speechless at the total glowing on the digital display - $167.26. I hadn’t seen a grocery bill that began with a 1 in years. My first thought is that I must have misjudged and not purchased enough food.  But as I packed it all into bags, I could clearly see that I had everything I needed. I mentioned the experiment to the clerk. His eyes opened wide and he said, “You’re going to mention Trader Joe’s, right?”
Within the first two weeks we returned to a store once for more staples: milk, cream, parmesan, peanut butter, yogurt and fruit.  These mid-month needs totaled $27.94
In week three, I went back to TJs and loaded up again – this time for $154.38.
So – without shopping in vats of bulk grains, baking my breads, canning or preserving anything, our grocery bill for ONE MONTH was $352.58. Hard to believe? I wish I had recorded all the actual product names because I would the vast majority.  In particular, the Salmon Patties are a huge favorite with my family, the Thai Red Curry is yummy and the frozen cod fillets were surprisingly fresh tasting. 
Our total expenditure for the month was slightly higher – including our few meals out, all the food items that were already in the pantry, coffee, etc...
I now feel certain that a family can eat for $10/person, meet nutritional guidelines, and not dedicate precious hours to the enterprise. So, yeh! for us. But what about the significant portion of our society that can’t afford $10/person/day? Remember – according to the median household income the realistic number is more like $5.60/person/day. How low can you go?


  1. "I’ve seen websites and forum postings in which people share how to feed their families of 4 on $600 a month. Generally these folks rely on co-op style sources for bulk items and make their own breads, jams, etc…"

    We spend that and I make barely any of those things, never use coupons, etc. Trader Joes is a budget killer. They have staples, yes, but their staples are very expensive. We can afford it, because a $600 a month budget for four people has a lot of room for convenience, like spending three times as much on flour and sugar as if I bought it at a supermarket.

    You also need to be super on guard for all their tasty extras, which are at the price point where you'll toss them in without thinking. (hence your $167 bill!!!)

    Trader Joes is the place to go for the intermediate stuff. Cheese, cereals, staples like jarred roasted peppers, nuts, dried fruit and fresh pasta.


  2. I just looked back through my September expenses to see what we spend on groceries each month. We're the type that go to the store nearly every day to pick up what we need for one or two dinners.

    We only spent $395 on groceries and we shop at Ralphs. But then I looked at our eating out expenses. Holy crap! Looks like this is where the rest of our food money goes.

  3. We used to shop at Trader Joe's and the farmers' market spending about $600 a month for a family of 3. We just took on a project on Oct. 1st of no longer going to any grocery stores for food and have dropped that down to $436 (shopping only at farmers' markets, real butchers, CSAs, buying club/co-op, etc). And now 90% of our produce is organic and all of our meat, dairy and eggs are organic and/or pasture fed. Also keep in mind that during this month we had two big dinner parties and we have taken on a 4th person (so 3 adults and 1 child) in our household so the amount next month will be less.