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Thursday, January 11, 2024

Grocery Shopping, Then and Now: The 80s, 90s, and Beyond, My Story, (pt. 1)

This will be a two-parter. Here's the first part. The second part will be posted some time tomorrow.

While my grandmother and mother focused on menu planning and shopping from those menus, I was all about the deal. Working hard at saving money would mean we could afford the American dream of home ownership sooner rather than later.

When my husband and I married in the late 1980s, we each had our own car. We also had a joint bank account, so there was no need for my husband to pay any bills for me or to give me an allowance. When I first began grocery shopping, I shopped once per week, just as my mother always had. At that time, you could pay for groceries with either cash or a personal check. The "teller's booth" near the front of the store disappeared sometime in the early 80s. Instead you would write your check at the cash register, holding up the line of multiple impatient people behind you. Many supermarkets adopted "cash-only" lines to ease tempers of the impatient. By the 90s, credit cards were accepted at most grocery stores, speeding up those checkout lines.

In my early marriage years, I was not nearly as organized as my mother or grandmother had been with their shopping. The luxury of having two cars meant I could run to the store to get something I needed whenever it was convenient for me. My shopping lists were very incomplete. I would often decide what I would serve for dinners that week, while in the store walking up and down the aisles. And then came the baby! 

Slashing our grocery spending 

When our oldest was a baby I discovered that I could save more if I read the weekly ads for all of the stores in the area and buy only the loss leaders at each store, often visiting 4 grocery stores in a morning. We had 6 grocery stores within a short drive of each other. Until this point, I had been spending about $70 per week on groceries and household needs for a small family of 3. 

The first week I shopped only loss leaders (and then built my meals out of what I bought -- dubbed the pantry principle), I spent $30. I went from spending $70 per week to spending $30 per week. And I maintained that low grocery budget for many, many years. I wasn't just buying enough to feed us for a week. I was stockpiling excesses with loss leaders. Our meals changed in content, but not nutrients. We ate more beans and whole grains and switched to the less expensive meats that were often featured as sale items. 

One thing I discovered in those days (80s and 90s) -- the more upscale the store, the better the loss leaders. The more budget-oriented the store, with overall low prices, the fewer stellar deals on the ad's front page. I balanced this by getting the great loss leaders at the upscale stores, then filling in around the edges at the budget stores.

Another thing about grocery shopping back in the 80s -- some stores still had baggers who would also push your cart out to your car for you. With a baby on my hip, having someone push my groceries to the car then load them into the trunk was an invaluable service.

The mega-supermarkets, carrying all kinds of house and garden items, in addition to groceries, were popularized about the time my son was a baby.

Aside from the first year of marriage, we've lived in the suburbs of a major city our entire time together. Suburbs come with lots of shopping choices. I've been able to shop at regular grocery stores, natural food stores, restaurant supply stores, produce stands, u-pick farms, farmers' markets, bakery thrift stores, ethnic stores, and now online to round out my budget grocery shopping. We also had a Costco nearby in the time when they would allow a non-member to shop by paying a surcharge on all purchases. We took advantage of this until they changed their policy. Neither my mother nor my grandmother could have imagined such an extensive list of places to shop as we have now. 

Movin' to the big city (or the suburb of a big city)

My husband suffered a 10-month period of unemployment /underemployment when he was laid off from his job at about the two-year mark in our marriage. The city where we were living was in a downturn. After a couple of months of job-seeking with nothing that would actually support our family of three, we decided to move to a part of the country where the economy seemed to be doing better. It would still take many more months for my husband too obtain a permanent job with benefits.

Finding free food

During these months of searching and waiting, we moved into a duplex that had several fruit trees in the shared yard. The other occupant had no interest in the fruit and neither did the owners of the units. That first summer we had more cherries, plums, apples, and crabapples than we could possibly eat. I canned and froze as much as I could. In September we discovered a large patch of wild blackberries nearby, and thus began our annual foraging for blackberries. That summer and fall I mastered the fruit pie. In July, breakfast was cherry pie and milk/coffee. In August, we ate plum pie twice per day. Beginning in September, we ate apple and blackberry pies, cobblers, and crisps daily. We barely heated our apartment that fall and winter. I kept a box of apples in a corner of our bedroom closet, up against an outside wall -- the coolest spot in the apartment. These apples kept through the beginning of February. I had a large produce bin in the kitchen fridge packed with more apples. Our fresh apple supply lasted until spring.

I began making jams and jellies. My stepmother and father came to visit mid-summer that year. My stepmother said she was done with canning and making jams, so she brought me a couple of cases of canning jars and rings. With all of this fruit, I hardly spent anything on groceries for that summer of little income.

When we relocated to this new area, we downsized our cars. We sold my car to pay for the move and shared my husband's car for a decade. We lived in a duplex that had convenient access to public transportation, taking my husband into the city and back every day. So I had free use of the one car for the entire week. This allowed me to grocery shop at numerous stores per week. Gas prices were decent back then, which meant I wasn't as concerned about traveling to stores further away if it meant I could save a bundle on food and household items. 

Our area of town was growing rapidly. New stores opened every year. With these openings came blockbuster deals. My son was a toddler and our daughters weren't born yet. With just one child in tow, I stood in line for all of the store grand openings. In exchange for my patience on these days, I received free packages of ice cream, bacon, hot dogs, cheese, eggs, canned tuna, loaves of bread, donuts & coffee. Stores were eager to quickly garner a large share of the market as the town grew. And I took advantage of every opportunity to save on groceries that I could. 

There was something of a grapevine in my toddler son's library storytime group. One week, a mother told me that a local grocery store would be putting all of their unsold pumpkins out for free the day after Halloween. Believe me, I was up and with my son before the store opened that November 1. We brought home four 10-lb pumpkins, all free. I cooked up the pumpkins, one every 2 or 3 weeks, making soups and more pies, plus freezing enough puree to serve as vegetable side dishes through winter. We would continue to collect free pumpkins every year right after Halloween for over 20 years.

You may be wondering, "why didn't she just go get a job so they could spend more on groceries?" I did work and have worked very part-time for our entire marriage. But my priority has always been taking care of the family and home. This was our choice as a couple. From the start we knew it would be difficult to afford what our parents could on one income. But we were up to the challenge. In fact, after 8 years of marriage, including an almost 1-year unemployment, relocation to another state on our dime, paying off school loans, and the birth of 3 children, we had saved up enough money to put over 40% down on the house we live in today. Sometimes I have wondered if the sacrifices we made were worth it. I think they were. We got to have the life we wanted, despite not having all of the luxuries our contemporaries had.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!


  1. I think adding children to our family was a major factor for me in watching my grocery budget (and overall budget) more closely. We went from being a double-income-no-kids household to having my husband work full time, me working very part-time, and with 3 people to feed instead of two.. Two years after that my daughter came along. We did some number crunching and decided the additional income we would have if I were to work full time wasn't worth the trade-off. We didn't have family close, which meant no easy back-up plan if there was a problem with daycare. The expense of daycare (plus gas and car maintenance--my workplace is 35 miles from my home) would have taken a significant chunk out of our finances. About that time, I was a member of Weight Watchers and I realized that not only did I have more control of my food ingredients if I prepared most meals from home, but I also was saving a significant amount of money. All to say, my journey to being more aware of my grocery spending habits was different from yours, and yet not so different. I also don't regret the choices we made for our family. :)

    1. Hi Kris,
      In addition to just wanting to be home with my kids each day, we also talked about the costs of me working subtracted from what I could earn. Especially after my twins were born, anything I would earn outside the home would be gobbled up by childcare, additional transportation, meals that I'd buy instead of cooking at home, and an enhanced wardrobe suitable for the workplace, not to mention the lack of someone at home always working on making life pleasant for the rest of the family.
      I'm glad you can say you don't regret your choice.

  2. Very interesting to read your story! And the term "pantry principle" immediately brought to mind The Tightwad Gazette. I wasn't aware of it as a newlywed (married in 1993) but wish I had been! The pantry principle was one of the most transformative food shopping things that I have learned.


    1. Hi Cat,
      Yes, the term Pantry Principle is I think from the Tightwad Gazette. And I completely agree on how transformative shopping this way was for our budget, too.
      I discovered the Tightwad Gazette sometime in between my oldest and my twins. It wasn't just the tips that I was grateful for, but a feeling of I wasn't doing this lifestyle alone. I guess these blogs fill that same role now.

  3. Happy New Year to all!!
    Lili, I see that the same frugal habits you have today were learned during the leanest years. The same is true for me. I also shop the way you did in the early years buying loss leaders. In fact I'm less prone to waste anything the older I am. Buying the newest and best is now make do and make it last. It's hard to be unfrugal once you've learned how and have seen the rewards.

    There is always another reason to be frugal even though today we have enough. I'm saving for my children and grandchildren because today's economy is not as easy as it was in our generation or in our parent's generation, 70 to 80 years ago, in the 40s and 50s. More population globally. Remember the "zero population growth" worries in the 60s? The scare of any food shortage never materialized because food science and technology had met the challenge but what about housing? That's been the driver in inflation leading to higher wages IMHO. Manufactured goods got cheaper but not labor.

    Sorry for another rant,

    1. Hi Laura,
      Happy New Year to you!
      I so relate to your sentence " it's hard to be unfrugal . . ." I feel that same way. I can't not compare costs and weigh against any benefits. Even when we could afford to ignore what I've learned about frugality.

      I feel the same about trying to save for my kids and any grands I may be lucky to get. We're also continuing to save for any future medical or care needs we may have in our later years. So, there's still reason to be frugal.

      No worries -- not a rant at all!

  4. Similar to Kris, we were a two income family for 5 years before kids came along. At that point, we worked long hours and lived in New Orleans were there were no bad places to eat from a hole-in-the wall to fancy restaurants. We didn't pay attention to what we spent for groceries and enjoyed eating out with friends. When I decided to stop work after two kids, we did a trial run of expenses before I did. During that time, I learned to the penny what everything cost, took advantage of coupon offers, and set a price point that I would pay above for something. It took several months of work, but I have more or less kept that up over the years.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      You did the smart thing, to trial run how living on one income would work for your situation. And look at how well that paid off for you and your family!

  5. Wow! Everyone could tell their own experiences and we'd have a lot of good reading.

    We married in 1986 and lived 5 years "in town" then moved to a halfway point between 2 major cites so I could go one direction and hubby the other direction and we were in "the country". Kids arrived 7 years into our marriage and though we lived frugally, the first baby was a big adjustment and it was difficult for hubby to handle on his days off so I quit cold turkey. Immediate loss of one full time income. I did get called back to work part time almost right away but then the other 2 children came along. Being in the country, we had a huge garden and I canned everything. I grocery shopped every other week but we lived paycheck to paycheck for many years. Christian school tuition all the way up to college and grad school for the kids made for some tough years but God always provided for us. Times are easier for us now and we're nearing retirement if we so desire. We also moved closer to "the city" to be closer to aging parents, hospitals, work and though I miss our country home, the drive each day was too much as we're getting older. I could write a book but not now.

    1. Hi Alice,
      Thank you for sharing your experiences. And you're right, God always provides in some way or another.


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