Here are ten tips for vegan grocery shopping on a budget developed by Ellen Jaffe Jones over years of thrifty shopping. She shares her favorite ways to save money on plant-based food and get the best food bargains all year round.
Excerpted and condensed from Eating Vegan on $4 a Day: A Game Plan for the Budget Conscious Cook by Ellen Jaffe Jones (Book Publishing Company, reprinted by permission). The Vegan Atlas highly recommends exploring this book, which has lots more practical tips and easy, frugal recipes for vegans on a budget.
1. Use your head, not your heart (or stomach), when you shop. To avoid the urge to impulse shop, be smart and use a shopping list. During the week, as you run out of items, write down what you need on a running list—and stick to it! Never shop on an empty stomach. If you’re starving, buy a banana or two and have a quick snack before walking down the aisles. You’ll buy less if you’re not feeling ravenous while you shop.
2. Check the unit prices. Most supermarkets show unit prices on their shelf labels, and checking unit prices is the fastest way I know to figure out if I’m getting a bargain. The unit price is almost always the price per ounce. It may seem basic, but when people are in a hurry to get their shopping over with, they just don’t look at this information.
You can find the unit price posted even in the refrigerated and frozen-foods sections. It is the lowest common denominator—the number you will use to compare every product against another size, brand, or type to determine which one is the best buy.
3. Buy in bulk—within reason. Bigger usually means you’re getting a better deal. Let’s take dried beans as an example. An eight-pound bag of pinto beans will make more than one hundred half-cup servings of cooked beans. You can buy just such a bag at a big-box store for about $6. Do the math and you’ll see that each serving costs just $.06.
Be forewarned, however, that buying larger sizes is not always the most frugal option. For example, a bigger box of cereal may actually be more expensive than the smaller size, ounce per ounce. Always comparison shop (look at the unit price) and see if you are actually getting a better bargain.
The less time a company spends packaging and preparing a product for transport, the lower the cost of the item. If your local supermarket has a bulk- foods section, you can typically save money by buying food in bulk. You can portion out exactly how much you want, so you aren’t forced to buy more than you need.
4. Compare fresh with frozen produce. If you live alone or cook for just yourself, frozen produce may be a better choice than fresh. You can prepare the exact portion you want to eat and put the rest back in the freezer for another day, instead of risking that fresh produce will go bad before you get to it.
For example, a large bag of frozen blueberries can last a long time if you’re using just a few in your morning oatmeal. On the other hand, with fresh berries it’s tempting to eat most or all of your half-pint purchase in one sitting.
One good option is to stock up on fresh berries when they are in season and freeze them yourself. But, as always, it pays to do the math: when a pint of fresh blueberries costs more than $5, buying frozen is the better deal.
5. Shop the circumference of the store. The grocery store is organized to entice you to spend as much money as possible. Less profitable whole foods tend to be located around the circumference of the store (the exception is dry goods, such as beans and grains).
Be mindful of the cost of convenience foods, such as pre-washed and cut vegetables or pre-made sandwiches. These boxed or bagged foods are more costly, and you are better off buying your own ingredients and doing the prep work yourself. You’ll find the less-expensive alternatives in the produce, grain, and bean sections.
6. Check the entire supermarket shelf—up, down, and all around. Since consumers tend to purchase items that are at eye level, the most expensive foods are often displayed at this height so they can be easily located. Look on the top and bottom shelves for better bargains.
Competition is fierce for good placement on store shelves. Often, sale items are displayed at the front of the store or at the end of aisles. However, don’t assume that items with these strategic placements are always a bargain. Product manufacturers or distributors may simply be paying the retailer for favorable display space.
7. Buy store brands when possible. Store-brand prices almost always beat brand-name prices, sometimes by a large amount. This is especially true for staples, such as dried beans, flour, grains, and salt. In addition, most major supermarket chains now offer their own brand of organic foods, which makes buying organic on a budget a lot easier.
8. Pay with cash. Using cash and carrying only the amount you intend to spend will keep you within your budget. It’s that simple. This may mean going to the ATM once a month, putting aside grocery money in an envelope, and using only that cash for food. This method will guarantee that you won’t buy more than you can afford.
Use a calculator at the grocery store and keep track of costs as you add items to your cart so you won’t be caught short. If, despite your best calculations, your order total exceeds the amount of money you have, don’t be afraid to hand a few things back to the cashier. Trust me—you won’t be the first person (or the last) to do so.
9. Track prices. Keep track of the prices of items you purchase often and make up a chart to carry with you when you shop. That way, if something is on sale, you’ll know if you are really getting a better price. When you find a good price on a product, buy extra if it won’t spoil. My treat is nondairy semisweet chocolate chips. When these morsels go on sale, I’m there, buying four bags at a time. To satisfy a sweet tooth, I’ll eat a few small handfuls of chocolate chips instead of less-healthful, higher-priced prepared baked goods.
10. Buy local or grow your own. Don’t be afraid to test your own green thumb. If you have no backyard, plant vegetables right alongside the flowers in your front yard. Plant them in containers on your balcony, patio, or porch. Perhaps a neighbor or friend without the time or the interest to tend her own garden would let you plant in her yard in exchange for some of the bounty. Finally, be sure to check out CSAs, and farmers’ markets. (an idea from The Vegan Atlas along these lines — share a plot at a community garden with a friend.)
Eat Vegan on $4 a Day is available wherever books are sold
See lots more helpful tips for vegan living.