Strategic tips for grocery shopping in a recession

With food prices rising rapidly, everyone is trying to pinch their grocery pennies where they can.

As most people know, we are headed into a recession. Technically speaking, a recession is when there are two consecutive quarters of negative Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For us people on the bottom, this means that there will be fewer lucrative jobs and consumer products cost more. We are already seeing the effects – food costs have skyrocketed dramatically since this time last year and are unlikely to fall anytime soon. For many people who were already living on the margin, balancing a grocery budget now feels nearly impossible. As two college students, my partner and I work hard to make sure we are eating nutritiously while staying frugal. Here are a few tips to consider when headed out to the store.

First, change where you shop.

The price of a given product varies greatly depending on where it’s sold. Proctor’s Metropolitan Market charges $5.19 for a half gallon carton of DairyGold milk, but right across the street at the Proctor District Safeway, a whole gallon of DairyGold milk is $4.99. The same chain of stores may even have price variations between them – I’ve noticed that the Hilltop and Pearl Street Safeway stores are significantly cheaper than the Proctor district store. Different chains have different pricing models, as well – Fred Meyer is cheaper than Safeway, and Walmart is cheaper than Fred Meyer. However, the best deals you’ll find on affordable food are at budget and outlet stores. My two personal favorites are the 6th Ave Grocery Outlet, which has many gluten-free and vegan options, and Valley Liquidation on Pacific Ave, which is the best for cheap fresh produce.

Choose generic brands over name brands

Name brands very rarely offer something that the generic brand doesn’t. Most of the time, the extra cost comes from packaging and the branding, not the quality itself. This is especially true for things like canned veggies and pasta. Often, these food items come from the same source and can even be packaged in the same faculty! Saving 20 cents on an item may not seem like much at first, but those savings compound quickly over time. 

Consider lowering your animal product consumption.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of eggs has risen 43% since last year and the cost of chicken has risen 17%. When thinking about your protein intake, consider more cost-effective options like dried beans, lentils, and split peas. These protein-packed legumes have the added bonus of being shelf-stable, meaning that you aren’t rushing to finish them before they expire. Just remember to soak them the day before you cook them! 

Reduce your food waste all around.

Knowing how to cook is a major part of conserving money in your food budget. Save your bacon fat for later, turn your stale bread ends into breadcrumbs and boil down your veggie scraps into broth. Have leftover nights, prioritize nutrition over aesthetics, and keep track of what will expire when. The less food that ends up in the decomposition bin, the less food you have to buy at the store. This is also a good environmental practice: The US Department of Agriculture reports that 30-40% of the US food supply ends up in the trash!

Finally, don’t eliminate anything that YOU really don’t want to do without. 

I pride myself on being financially pragmatic. However, some corners are worth cutting, and some aren’t. In my household, the economic demand for Tim’s Jalapeno Potato Chips is completely inelastic – regardless of how much they cost, they will be sorely missed if they are not purchased. If the name brand Kraft Dinner or the Lucky Charms are your true comfort foods, don’t cut them out completely. Build your favorites into your budget, rather than shopping how you think you should. A budget is unsustainable if you can’t stick to it, and feeling deprived of basic creature comforts is the fastest way to end up splurging when you can’t afford to.

Overall, things are going to get tougher before they get better. If you’re in college right now, you’re likely going to graduate into a recession job-market and all that entails.This is how we keep our food budget below $50 a week for two people, but your mileage may vary. Tailoring your grocery budget to fit your income is a lifelong skill and the best time to start practicing it is now.