HOW TO GET A FULL WEEK’S GROCERIES FOR UNDER $15
My friend, let’s call her Margaret, needed groceries for the week. Before she ordered through Instacart or made way to the bulk section at Rainbow Grocery, I convinced her to shop with me in Chinatown right above financial district in San Francisco.
Chinatown? Isn’t the food shady and possibly hazardous?
On the contrary, my dear friend! Not only will you will walk away with a full week’s of solid groceries, I promise you will spend less than $15.
Bullshit. Show me.
Yes, Chinatown (as previously mentioned in my post on cooking every day) has its stigmas: angry grandmas, spoiled product, mystery sources, random reptiles, cross contamination. I firmly believed these as well, until I moved into the neighborhood.
I gave it a shot. I made time to survey and navigate the Stockton street jungle, from Broadway down to the Stockton tunnel. I even detoured each and every side street. I did this every day for 1 month. I studied quality consistency, I studied product rotation, I studied pricing patterns. I even did brand comparisons (during strawberry season, Chinatown had the same organic brand as Wholefoods, except their large container was only $2, not $8). I spent an additional month with meat products. If some regular, healthy looking Chinese mom picked up pork one week, I would keep a mental note to see if she lived to order some chicken the next week.
After meticulous research, I began shopping. It shocked me how I always had change from a $20 after getting my week’s groceries. And I bought enough produce to make 3 meals a day.
At the end of the lunch hour, Margaret turned to me with a packed bag of groceries:
Jeff, guess how much I spent in total.
We laughed, and then walked to a tea joint to get her a celebratory Boba.
Since then, I have studied other produce, meat, and seafood options all throughout San Francisco. A combination of various sources makes up my grocery routine today. Since then, many friends have asked to give them tours (one friend even offered to pay me $50).
For the meantime, I put together an introduction of my rules and routes. With this introduction, you can kick off your journey to getting a full week’s groceries for under $15. Although this guideline uses San Francisco specific locations, they apply to any city with Chinatown grocery strips, Mexican grocery stores, and other comparable sources described. With these principles, you will save an average 75% on your weekly grocery bill.
Prerequisite: Learn to Cook
Before we get into any of this, it helps to know how to chop up carrots and boil water. Learn to handle yourself in the kitchen. You don’t have to become Thomas Keller. Just learn the basics. Get some inspiration from my post on how I cook every day.
Where Not to Go
Right off the bat, I’m going to tell you where to stop going. With the primary goal of saving money on your groceries without sacrificing real food (this guideline has no trace of processed, artificial ingredients), you can take these places off your list.
The Cease and Desist List
Wholefoods and Other “Natural & Organic” Chain Stores: They wildly overprice everything. If you absolutely need organic ingredients, this guide provides you great alternative sources. This applies to any “Organic” or “Natural” chain stores, even if they have a bulk section! Special note for SF shoppers — Rainbow Grocery, although not a chain, isn’t the money-saving machine you think it is. My Mint.com records show that I spent an average 4x to 5x on my bill per week, compared to what I have now. Wholefoods stands alone at 5x to 6x more. If you absolutely need organic, we’ll talk about better sources below.
Instacart: Yes, it can be convenient, and time is money, but the cost/benefit analysis says otherwise (my Mint.com records reflect this in both Philadelphia markets and San Francisco markets) — you will spend an average 3x to 4x on your grocery bill per week if you primarily use Instacart, which nullifies the “time is money” argument. I talk about ONE exception later.
Safeway/Ralphs/Wegmans/Sprouts/Vons: The people who work at these chain stores hate working here. Your product suffers. So much overhead gets lumped into the pricing and branding. Making these places look uniform and family friendly takes more time than caring for the product itself. You pay 2x to 3x for carrots that have been sitting on the open shelf for over a week, packaged meats that came from no-one-knows. The convenience you think you get here isn’t that convenient. Get over it.
Food4Less and Discount Super Markets: These stores sacrifice on product big time. And they spend a great amount of time and money to cosmetically hide it. Which marks the prices back up. Discount isn’t as discount as you think. Avoid.
Trader Joes: If you refuse to learn how to cook, go to Trader Joes. Produce atrocity rivals Food4Less.
- Get to know your product, their sources.
- Avoid any chain stores — they mark up prices to cover their bells and whistles.
- Volume purchasing discounts for chain stores doesn’t necessarily pass on to you.
- Product quality is sacrificed at the above places.
Fantastic Groceries & Where to Find Them
Let’s get started! Not all places are created equal (in pricing). I list in order where you will save the most money. Our priority is to hack your grocery bill.
Get acquainted with the following locations in your town:
Don’t be intimidated by your local Chinatown grocery row. In San Francisco, two main Chinatowns exist (Wait, what? Yes. Another Chinatown resides in Inner Richmond folks.). In the Chinatown District itself, stick to the markets on Stockton Street, and stay between Broadway and Jackson. Almost every store within that area has produce you can get regularly. For the Inner Richmond Chinatown, start at 6th and Clement, and make your way up the numbers through the many gems. Any Chinatown around the US stocks every type of vegetable and fruit imaginable. Kiwis range from $0.50 to $1.50 at stores listed above. You can get 4 ripe and juicy ones for a dollar in Chinatown. Guacamole? Grab 8–10 mini avocados for a dollar. Fuji apples in season? How about $0.35 a pound. The best deals will be on Asian vegetables, like the different cabbages and other leafy varieties. Follow the “when in Rome” principle.
Chinese history spreads over 5,000 years. People adapted many food techniques during this time. Chinese people mastered preserving foods. You can find bags of high-quality mushrooms, dates, and other Umami Bombs throughout the dried good shops scattered around. So instead of paying $5 for a small carton of shiitakes, you can now get a giant bag of dried mushrooms for $3, that will last for months. Still buying ‘heritage’ rice at Rainbow Grocery? You can get heritage rice at half the price in Chinatown. Don’t get mixed between a Chinese medicinal dried goods shop and a preserved foods dried goods shop. Very different. Bring a friend that can speak Cantonese or Mandarin, as most times, the clerk has very limited English.
For meats, I suggest sticking to pork and chicken in Chinatown. Chinese people don’t eat that much beef and lamb; you will most likely only find pre-packaged, pre-cut, frozen, and shipped from who knows. With pork, you will see some shops, every morning around 5 AM, haul in a whole pig carcass, snout to tail, and butcher it down, making every piece available, and every piece is gone by the next day. That’s what you call fresh. Want to make crispy pig ears? You got it. Need the kidneys and whole liver for some pate? No problem. Is your favorite cut the tail? Sure, why not. Have you had rice-stuffed intestine before? Now you can. My go-to pork shop in Chinatown is Hing Lung Company by the Stockton and Broadway corner. Almost everything ranges between $0.30 — $5.00 a pound. My go-to chicken is the San Francisco Poultry Shop #2 at the corner of Pacific and Stockton. You can walk away with a whole free range chicken for $8.
At fish markets, look for bright, glistening colors and springy texture. If you’re not sure how to pick fish, bring a friend that does. You’ll find everything, from whole salmon, sharks, and squids, to oyster buckets, live fish, and fresh scallops. Salmon fillets can be as low as $5/pound. Oysters for $0.35 — $0.50 cents a pop. If you spot a shop with live sea urchins, you found a good one. My two San Francisco recommendations: Pacific Street Seafood off the Pacific and Stockton corner, and non-Chinatown Sun-Fat Seafood off 23rd and Mission Street in the Mission District.
Price Savings: ♥♥♥♥♥ out of 5
Quality: ♥♥♥1/2 out of 5
Percentage of Week’s Total Grocery Shopping: 75%
- Buy in season when you can.
- Takes as little as 1 day for turnover of produce, meats, and seafood. This means it’s fresh.
- Asian vegetables have the best selection and quality.
- Take time to explore dried goods shops to Umami-fy your meals. And tons of rice and noodles.
- For meats, stick with pork and chicken, unless you see the actual cow and lamb carcass.
- Know your fish before you buy. Chinatown seafood stores stock gems that most seafood stores won’t.
San Francisco Picks: Any Produce between Broadway and Jackson on Stockton street, Hing Lung Company (Pork), San Francisco Poultry Shop #2 (Chicken), Pacific Street Seafood (Fish), Sun-Fat Seafood (Fish).
Mexican Grocery Stores
If you have a Latino community near your area, you most likely have a Latino or Mexican-centric produce store nearby as well. If they have high traffic (high traffic = constant product rotation and replacement), you have a good location on hand. I find plantains and certain chiles and spices that I can’t find anywhere else. Whole aloe leaves and a variety of starches and squashes are always available. Entire buckets of 20 types of beans. Every type of pepper. All types of grains. Amazing fruits. Some places even have mole to-go. Again, when in Rome. Just as so many Chinese grannies clear out the product in Chinatown, Latino abuelitas wipe out the product here as well for their families. The prices cater to the audience, and grandmothers feeding large families make up that audience, driving prices way down.
I have explored the butcher shops, and my conclusion is that I’d stick with Chinatown. The same goes for seafood markets. Someone, please correct me here if I have completely missed gems. My main reasoning is the turnover. The meats and seafood stay on the shelf for longer than what you find in Chinatown. Can’t beat the freshness of meats and seafood that had heartbeats just an hour ago.
In San Francisco, your best Mexican grocery stores are in or near the Mission District. My favorite stores are Casa Luca on 24th and Alabama, Mi Tierra in SoMa on Howard and 6th, and Mi Ranchito on Mission, between 17th and 18th.
Price Savings: ♥♥♥♥ out of 5
Quality: ♥♥♥1/2 out of 5
Percentage of Week’s Total Grocery Shopping: 15%
- Buy in season when you can
- Slightly more expensive than Chinatown.
- Find the best selection and quality in Latin produce.
- Take time to explore dried goods available in these shops. IE Beans and chiles for days.
Farmer’s markets can be polarizing. Commercial vendor fairs commonly disguise themselves as community-centric farmer’s markets supporting local produce and product. Beware of these imposters, as they tend to drive prices even higher than Wholefoods. Some farmers who get shaken down into setting up shop at these fairs. Explore and research your community’s farmer’s markets. Ask these questions:
- Is the market organizer itself non-profit? Are they truly independent or city funded?
- Do they have a public directory of all of their vendors and farmers?
- Do the vendors and farmers openly provide information on their sources?
- Are there more produce/meats/fish purveyors than prepared food trucks and stands?
The answer should be ‘Yes’ to most of these questions. If you answered ‘No’ to any, reconsider the market. Expect and accept slightly higher prices for better quality at good farmer’s markets. It’s about supporting the farmers, getting awesome direct-from-farmer prices, and eating amazingly unique tasting product (try a Fuji apple sample at different apple farmers the next time you go to a good market — they each taste different because that’s real food.). But if you go to a flashy market with lots of red flags, it’s almost the same as going to the No-Go list above — you begin paying for design overhead, branding, and other price increases completely irrelevant to the actual farmer and product.
I usually go to my local farmer’s market to fill in any blanks from Chinatown and Mexican Grocery. My personal San Francisco favorite is the Heart of City Market at the Civic Center on Sundays and Wednesdays. Warning: if you don’t arrive before 10 AM, you’re going to get slim pickings. I usually arrive by 9 AM latest. On Saturdays, if needed, I go to the much smaller Fillmore farmer’s market around 9 AM.
Price Savings: ♥♥♥ out of 5
Quality: ♥♥♥♥1/2 out of 5
Percentage of Week’s Total Grocery Shopping: 5–10%
- Almost everything you buy is in season. If you don’t know, just ask the farmer.
- Beware of commercial vendor fairs disguised as farmer’s markets. Get to know the source.
- You pay more for a truly special product.
- Use this option to fill in the blank. And just have fun!
- Build a relationship with the farmer stand you frequent. Remember them by name, introduce yourself. Trust me on this one.
Small Family Neighborhood Grocery, Butcher, and Seafood
When I lived in Berkeley for 2 years, an independent family-operated neighborhood grocery store called Monterey Market became my favorite store, with the legendary Berkeley Bowl as a distant second. With terrible google search rankings, discovering this little gem only happened when introduced by a friend. I was lucky to have a friend who lived next to the market. Imagine a store with a better selection than Wholefoods, at half the price. I also had this ethereal delight when my close friend introduced me to the wonders of the Reading Terminal Market while I lived in Philadelphia. Here is a recollection of my discovery:
Food court? Meh, pass.
No man, just go with me sometime.
Holy shit! This is amazing!
Reading Terminal embodied every principle of this introduction guide. It was amazing.
My point is, ask around, and make some effort to discover hidden, lesser known gems of produce, meat, and seafood. Don’t follow the crowd. It will just lead you to higher overhead. My current routine in San Francisco will intertwine local family owned & operated joints once in a while because I like supporting these groups. They spend less time on overhead and focus on making product damn good.
Price Savings: ♥♥♥ — ♥♥♥1/2 out of 5
Quality: ♥♥♥♥ — ♥♥♥♥1/2 out of 5
Percentage of Week’s Total Grocery Shopping: 0–5%
- Most of these stores only stock what is in season. If you don’t know, just ask the clerks.
- Ask around. These gems are usually known only among long time locals.
- Depending on what you find, you may end up finding your main source for groceries.
- You save money because these folks put more care into the product and keep cosmetics basic.
San Francisco Picks: None that I can confidently recommend for the purposes of this guide.
A Note on Costco
I don’t have a Costco Card, which brings me to the one exception for Instacart. You don’t need a Costco membership if you use Instacart. And the bulk savings you get definitely outweigh the service tax and delivery. The only cooking items I now get at Costco through Instacart, are a 2-liter bottle of Kirkland’s organic extra virgin olive oil, which receives great ratings on all studies that call out fake olive oil, and a 64 fluid ounce bottle of Mother Earth organic apple cider vinegar.
O.K. Class, Any Questions? Feedback? And Spread the Word!
I hope this introduction drummed up some motivation for you to start hacking your groceries and saving big. Take baby steps, make it a game. If your weekly grocery bill currently averages over $150, see how much you can shave off just by changing one of your sources. Now try two. Then three. Slowly, you will see your grocery bill go from $600–700 a month to $300–400. You can save up $7,200 a year, or blow it elsewhere.
What else do you want to know? What other information do you want to pick from my head? I would love any questions or feedback in comments below. I promise I read all of them, even if I don’t respond. You can also DM me on Twitter or, send me a message on LinkedIn, Please follow me on both if you haven’t already!
Lastly, help me share the knowledge to your communities, help your friends hack their groceries, too!