Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Splurge or Save? Grocery Shopping for the 20-Somethings

Our mid-twenties is a period of social and financial extremes. Some of us are on the fast track, donning the corporate suit-and-tie each morning for a day filled with Blackberrys, meeting requests, reports and whatever else happens in the finance world. Others are still finding their way, switching jobs ("careers"), heading back to school, collecting unemployment with a feverish enthusiasm. We're either on-the-prowl, dating, engaged or married... renting, owning, couch-surfing or living with our parents. But, whatever stage we're at in this little thing called life, we're all meeting up on the weekends to blow our money on booze, food, ski houses, and summer rentals together.

Whether you're Mrs. Go-Getter or Johnny Still-Figuring-It-Out, chances are you aren't making enough to shop at Deluca's or order in every night. That doesn't mean, though, that you shouldn't eat well. It means you should choose wisely at the grocery store. 

Here are three things you should always splurge on and three money-saving shops:

The Splurge

1.) Olive Oil
 - Never, ever, ever, ever go for store brand unless it's an emergency or someone is pointing a gun at your head (and honestly, if that's the situation, maybe just take the bullet and pray for the best). When it comes to olive oil, always buy extra virgin and always buy in bulk if possible. The best supermarket brand is Colavita and the value drops a bit as you buy more, so go for the 34 ounce at an average $15.49 over the 17 ounce at an average $9.69, paying $0.45 per ounce over $.057 per ounce.

2.) Chicken - Unfortunately in America, we can only dream of what Julia Child described as incredibly "chickeny" French poultry, but we're still not confined to a life of fillers and hormones. When it comes to chicken - buy organic. It will make a world of difference, I promise. At about $1 more per pound, even more at specialty markets, it's definitely a splurge but it is well worth it.

3.) Spices and Seasonings - It's tough, looking at the rows of tiny bottles and their $3- $9 price labels, thinking how you could get an iced coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon for the price of dill weed, but its a sacrifice worth making. Higher-end seasonings give much more flavor and can really make the difference in a dish. A little tip - buy your seasonings at Whole Foods, their store brand is great and the prices are lower than the regular grocery store. 

The Save

1.) Red Wine* - The sophistication of a complex and nutty special reserve may be alluring, but the resulting overdraft charges and empty wallet will leave a lingering acidic taste in your mouth. Go to your local wine shop or liquor store and peruse their bargain bins, they'll usually have a "2 for $12" deal or something similar. It'll be a bit of trial-and-error, but once you find your favorite bottle, chances are it will stay in stock in the bargain bins. I've been opting for the Astica Malbec for about two years now and my liquor store has only once been out of it. 
* Only mentioning red because you should always go cheap for white wine, the extra cost isn't worth it.

2.) Produce - We love to eat our strawberries in the fall, our butter lettuce in the winter and our figs year-round, but we pay a lot more for produce that's out of season. The best way to eat in-season is to shop your local farmer's market; however, being a New  Englander, I know that venturing out in the snow and cold for some potatoes isn't incredibly appealing. Instead, in the winter, peruse the produce section for the least expensive produce and then build your meal, instead of visa-versa.

3.) Coffee - Becoming your own barista by brewing Peet's Major Dickenson's at home is a novel idea, but chances are your attempt at frugality will prove futile when you pass the coffee shop on your way to work and the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans is too much to resist. Instead, let yourself indulge in the occasional to-go coffee and brew the basic stuff at home. Maxwell House is a solid brew that comes in a variety of roasts (French, House, Bold, etc) and it's about one third the price of the coffee-house bags. 

So, go ahead mix up your splurges and savings... you'll find your meals at home more enjoyable and your bank account balance less threatening!


  1. This is one of my fave posts of yours (besides Boston's Best Burger of course)... I couldn't agree more on your splurges and saves. And obviously, what you wrote speaks directly to my life.... i.e., spending an hour on the train to go out cause I can't afford cab fare, then somehow managing to scrounge enough dough together to buy Cafe Patron shots for everyone around me. Hm.

    Anyway- I'd add 2 saving suggestions since I've had to be creative on this myself- 1, Trader Joe's has an amazing selection of cheeses for dirt cheap. If you love cheese, and buy it as much as I do, it really makes a difference in your grocery bill. 2- if at all possible on the produce, venture out into the burbs to find private produce grocers. There's an amazing one in Watertown, and a good one in Arlington. Russo's in Watertown has THE best produce around, at less than half the price of produce at whole foods. It's worth the gas!

  2. Somerville's Market Basket has wonderful produce for very good prices. When my husband got laid off, I stopped going to Russo's even though their prices are very good. If you are looking for super cheap produce, check out Haymarket downtown on Saturday mornings. But be warned, their stuff rots very quickly. In terms of spices, check out the Armenian shops on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge -- Arax and Sevan -- the prices there are dirt cheap as compared to Whole Foods. You can find great imported olive oils and lots of other great foodie type goods at Ocean State Job Lot. I actually started my own food blog, Cheap Beets, as a result of my husband getting laid off. You can definitely eat well on a tight budget.