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Friday, January 12, 2024

Grocery Shopping, Then and Now: The 80s, 90s, and Beyond, My Story (pt. 2)

Other ways we saved on groceries

Deals at the back of the shelf

I began grocery shopping for a family when some stores still priced their products with stickers. The age of scanning bar codes had arrived, but was not adopted in every store just yet. When I shopped at any of these price sticker stores, I would reach to the back of a shelf to find items that had been missed in the markups and still had the old price on them. It may have only saved pennies with each item, but every penny counted for us.

The age of the coupon queen

I wasn't a coupon queen, but I did pretty well with coupons for a small-timer. We had a store that offered double (common) and triple (rare) coupon days. I was getting $1 and $2 off coupons regularly, both in the paper and magazines. One double coupon day I grabbed all of my $1 off dry cereal coupons and headed to the store. I wasn't able to use every coupon, but I did come home with 18 boxes of cereal for a grand total of 37 cents. I was ale to do the same with powdered laundry detergent coupons, too. The real coupon queens were selling or buying bundles of coupons. 

Some coupon-ers picked up leftover newspapers from stores and libraries for the coupon inserts on Monday mornings. I had a friend who went to our local library when it opened evert Monday and was able to get the day before's copies of the paper, garnering 4 or 5 sets of coupon inserts each week. This cost her nothing but time on her way to drop the kids off at school. She then paired the coupons up with sales and rebates. Her garage looked like a little store, with shelves of products she had gotten not only for free, but manufacturers paid her to take the products through rebates. My friend would donate what she could to shelters and food banks.

Most of my local stores had trays near the entrance doors where a shopper could both drop off needed clipped coupons and pick up ones that were of use. Each week I would drop off the dog food, hair dye, cosmetics or cleaning product coupons and pick up ones for cat food, some packaged foods, and some paper products. Again, not a huge savings for me, but I was helping someone else out while saving some pennies for our family.

With help I taught myself how to make all kinds of foods in the kitchen

Just after arriving in our new town, my sister-in-law showed me that baking bread was not as mysterious as I'd previously though. I hadn't tried baking my own bread since an unsuccessful attempt in college. Following a good recipe and doing the kneading made all the difference in my loaves.

I also learned how to make yogurt. I've been successfully making our family's yogurt now for 12 years, all using descendants from the original starter.

Many years ago, my husband brought home a copy of Laurel's Kitchen from the free table at work. In that cookbook I found recipes for homemade flour tortillas and soybean sandwich spread, among others. I use those recipes to this day.

When peanut butter prices skyrocketed, my two daughters were in high school. Sunflower seeds were still quite reasonable in price. I used my blender to make sunseed butter. My daughters liked it well-enough for daily sandwiches for about a year in high school.

I used the local library to find many new recipes. The ones that my family really enjoyed I copied onto notecards to reference through the years. One of our favorites is for a country French marinated lentil salad. It's super frugal and a delicious way to serve legumes in the hot months of summer.

Keeping foods

Somewhere in our early years of owning our own home, we bought a food dehydrator and the first of our stand-alone freezers. We've since added another stand alone freezer, plus we now have our old fridge/freezer in the garage, for 4 freezer spaces total.

We've had stand-alone freezers for most of our marriage. We currently have 2 freezers and 2 refrigerator/freezer combos. I have kept some sort of vegetable garden every summer of our marriage. And all but one summer we've had fruit trees where we lived. We currently have 4 apple trees, 1 plum tree, 2 cherry trees, 4 pear trees, 2 fig trees, a strawberry patch, 8 blueberry bushes, 2 raspberry patches, several currant bushes, several rhubarb plants, a small buy growing cranberry patch, and a blackberry patch.We also have a lot of competition for all of this fruit, raccoons, bunnies, squirrels, mountain beavers, and coyotes (coyotes will eat low-hanging fruit if they're hungry enough). In addition to growing all of this fruit, we also forage for additional blackberries every summer. We have a couple of local spots that are good for this, one a park near a small lake nearby, and the other the grounds at the local elementary tare school. Summer of 2020, we saw a lot of folks foraging for blackberries. I can and freeze as much produce as I have energy to do each summer and fall. This last fall was not great for me for putting away produce. I hope this next fall will go better.

Where I shop today

Our house is about an 8 to10-minute drive to the major north-south highway that connects the cities of western Washington state. Every budget grocery shopping venue is along this highway. You can drive into the towns off the highway and find other grocery stores. But most of those tend to be more expensive. So, for the most part, I grocery shop along the highway. 

To our north, just next to Home Depot, there is an ethnic market where I find fabulous deals on produce. Closer to our house, there's Walmart Neighborhood Market (not a super center, but a grocery store). Walmart is in the same strip as Value Village. So I'll often hit one while I hit the other. Directly across the street is Grocery Outlet (a salvage store). In the same strip as Grocery Outlet is Dollar Tree. Dollar Tree is hit or miss when it comes to groceries. Package sizes are now quite small. But I occasionally find something I want from there. Boxed crackers at $1.25 are still a good deal at Dollar Tree. Since I'm usually going in to Grocery Outlet, a pop into Dollar Tree doesn't cost me anything but a few minutes of my time.

There are several Asian markets on the highway near the Walmart/Grocery Outlet shopping area. Asian markets are a great source for dried spices, specialty condiments used in Asian cuisine, some produce items, rice in large bags, whole tapioca pearls (I make tapioca pudding with the pearls, much less expensive than the little boxes of cracked tapioca sold in supermarkets) and tea. 

Further down the highway is Trader Joe's. I don't shop at Trader Joe's as much as I used to, but there are still some deals there, especially if you have particular dietary needs or want a particular pre-made food for a special occasion. I love Trader Joe's frozen croissant dough. They bake up into the freshest, crispiest croissants, a favorite treat for my birthday or Mother's Day. We had a Sprouts just across the street from TJ for several years. They went out of business at that location during the shutdowns. That was truly unfortunate, as I found a lot of great produce deals at Sprouts. 

Just a few blocks further is Chefstore, the restaurant supply. We discovered this restaurant store 25 years ago. At that time, it was one of few that would sell to the public. You had to pay cash, then. Only businesses could write checks there. Now, like every other place, they take credit from anyone. I shop at Chefstore about once every 3 months. It's where I buy pizza and block cheese, cases of raisins, 25 and 50-lb sacks of grains/flour/sugar, 12.5 lb bags of popping corn, eggs by the 15-dozen case, 1-lb blocks of butter (not in sticks, but blocks), 25-lb bags of carrots, large canisters of spices, 2-lb bags of dried yeast, gallon jugs of vinegar, soy sauce, molasses, lemon juice, olive oil and vanilla flavoring, and in some years, 88-count cases of oranges. In the past, I've also bought bacon ends and pieces, 35-lb boxes of cooking oil, 5-lb bags of frozen vegetables, and ingredients for making a Greek dinner at home at Chefstore. Since we have never had a Costco membership, this business supply does what I'd want from Costco.

At the end of my shopping route is WinCo and the large seasonal produce stand, Country Farms. WinCo is well-known for its very large bulk bin section and general low prices on everything they carry. It's my favorite store for several items, not just because of price, but their quality is better on some store brand products than the same product at Walmart. And just after WinCo is Country Farms, the produce stand. I used to shop here weekly when my kids were in high school. It was right on that daily route. I probably only get down here once a year now, for their end-of-season sale on long-keeping produce items, such as cabbage, winter squash, and pie pumpkins. 

I also occasionally shop off the highway at Fred Meyer, a Kroger affiliate. Fred Meyer's store is cleaner inside than any of my budget options, but their prices are generally higher than my other stores. They do, however, send out coupons for free items one every month or two. I received another coupon for a free bag of salad just this week. If I have recently done a lot of shopping at their store (in November and December shopping for holidays, or during the gardening season buying supplies), I can rack up significant cash-off on gas for the car. We were recently in a nearby town that has much cheaper gas than ours here. We stopped in at the Fred Meyer there and used my cash-off of 30 cents/gallon and saved big for that tank of gas (savings on 30 cents/gallon plus lower gas prices in general in that town). I tend to spend more on non-food items at Fred Meyer than food. I buy stuff for the garden there every spring and summer. It's the only place nearby that sells chicken manure, and seed packets are always buy one/get one free. This is also where I get my potting soil in early spring for starting seeds and organic fertilizers to use throughout the gardening season. I tend to prefer Fred Meyer for garden stuff over Home Depot, which would be my only other nearby gardening venue.

I guess you could say that my car has become one of my greatest tools in saving money on groceries.

In September, we added a new place to get some of our meat, beef from a small-operation rancher. The beef is fabulous quality, supports a family and not a corporation, and is a reasonable quantity to be delivered at one time. However, it's a lot more expensive per pound. But, but, but . . .the quality is so good, I'm not sure we could go back to eating supermarket beef again,

My mother would occasionally make a stop at a produce market after doing her shopping at a supermarket, but she would never have shopped 4 or more stores in a morning as I have done. She used her time differently that I do. Part of that is I enjoy this sort of challenge, to save as much as I can on groceries. I don't think that aspect of shopping appealed to my mother in the same way as it does me. The other aspect is it's simply harder for a family to live on one income now (and in the last couple of decades) than it was for my mother's generation. And I fear it is becoming more difficult for this next generation. 

This isn't the end of the Grocery Shopping, Then and Now set of posts. My husband and I are now part of the oldest generation in both of our families. We've adapted to many new technologies.  For instance, my husband signed up for biometric identification shopping this fall to get a free $5 coupon at Whole Foods. To be clear, this wasn't the implant thing, but a wave of a handprint linked to your credit card. Yet, there have been other technological advances that we've been slow to take on. My kids are the ones who are trying new things. But their story isn't so straightforward. It's really the tale of two income levels, the wealthier and the less wealthy in the Millennials and younger. The divide seems to hit them at every turn. I'll talk about both poles of grocery shopping for the next generation in posts about my kids' shopping next week.


  1. Biometric identification? Huh. As far as I know, that technology hasn't hit my area. You'll have to tell me more when you get a chance.

    As I mentioned earlier, my mom did a lot of couponing (back when double and triple coupons were a thing). Our Meijer store issues coupons AND has online coupons if you are part of their "mperks" program. I kinda prefer the digital coupons--I'm less likely to lose them, but on the other hand, it's harder for me to remember which coupons I have when they are online vs when I am carrying them with my hands. The mperks program also earns points, which accumulate and earn you money off of your purchase. Meijer has a pharmacy and I can earn points from getting our prescriptions there. They also have a gas station but I don't always remember to enter my code there and I've discovered other locations where gas is significantly less expensive in my area. Meijer and Aldi are the two main places where I shop and they are conveniently next door to each other.

    Your beef supplier sounds wonderful. We don't eat a lot of red meat but for those who do, I've heard that that's a much better way to go. Yours is an example of a time when you are willing to pay a little more to get a higher quality product.

    1. Hi Kris,
      The biometric id has been rolled out in Whole Foods markets. You register an image of the palm of your hand and link it with a credit card. Then when you checkout at the store, you can wave your hand across the reader and it will charge your credit card. the idea is you wouldn't need to carry a wallet or phone to make a purchase. Don't know if I would ever do it, but my husband signed up to do it in exchange for something like a free $5 toward a purchase.

      I use some digital coupons, mostly at our Kroger store. I'm not sure Walmart offers digital coupons. WinCo just recently added digital coupons, so I've yet to sign up. One of my daughters has though. I think I'm still old-school on coupons. I seem to be more inclined to use a paper coupon that load a digital one. I do prefer to keep my grocery lists on my phone, though. I've lost so many lists while in the store shopping and had to back-track to try and find them or jog my memory and hope I can recall everything on the list. So that's one area of technological progress that I have made with shopping.

      That's so convenient that Aldi and Meijer are right there together!

  2. I ditto Kris with the Meijer and Aldi as we both live in Michigan. I don't love Meijer Mperks because you have to remember to "clip" the digital coupons in order to use the points you earned. I don't see why they don't just automatically apply them since when you enter your Mperks at the checkout they could easily apply a discount. Meijer is my last place to shop as I prefer Aldi for most things. The others I go to Meijer for.

    I used to buy a 1/4 or 1/2 beef from a friend but we just don't eat that much these days with just the 2 of us. I also downsized to one deep freezer and my refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen. I'm also working through some leftover things that need to be rotated out from the long term pantry under my steps before they expire.

    It's the circle of life in how we shopped in the early years of our marriage, to when we had children, and now just the two of us. We're certainly in a better position now but frugality stays with us and waste still bothers me. We eat less, therefore we need to stock less. We live closer to stores therefore we stock less. We host less, therefore we stock less.

    1. Amen to your Mperks thoughts. I think the hassle factor is how they get us to spend more.

    2. Hi Alice,
      I can see what you mean about how grocery shopping has come full circle for you. I often wonder how I'll adapt to cooking for two, or shopping in smaller quantities. It's already begun a little with shopping. We just do't eat as many baked goods or jams/jellies as we used to.

      The MPerks sound like they're a bit frustrating. When using our Fred Meyer gas discount, most of the cashiers will remember to ask if we want to use our discount, but some don't. Some aspects of these programs should be more automatic than they are now.

  3. Enjoying your series, Lili! It's funny you mentioned Laurel's Kitchen because I had just ordered a copy yesterday. I think I owned it years ago but must have lost or given away my copy. Looking forward to reading it!

    I grew up and lived in Southern California until two years ago when our family moved to a town of 38,000 in Oklahoma. We went from being surrounded by all kinds of grocery shopping choices to having a total of 4 grocery stores- 2 called Homeland, an Aldi's and a Walmart Supercenter. That's it. We don't even have an ethnic market around. We do have a couple of Dollar Tree's and a place called Ollie's which is like a Big Lots (have one of those too) so I've been able to find some things there but it's definitely taken some getting used to when it comes to shopping and prices. The Aldi's is affordable so we do most of our shopping there. We are blessed with neighbors who have a huge garden and quail so we've been able to get a lot of fresh produce and eggs from them in exchange for watching their pets while they're gone. I know what you mean about the beef though, we're surrounded by cattle ranches and have been able to get high quality meat that is so tasty. We live up the block from herds of cows and I still get a kick out of driving by and seeing them grazing- we're definitely a long way from California lol!

    1. HI Trina,
      I'm so glad you've been enjoying these posts.
      I hope your new copy of Laurel's Kitchen is just as good as you remember.

      Your move to Oklahoma sounds like it came with definite perks and a few drawbacks, but overall a good move. I've always lived in suburbs of large cities and have long wanted to live someplace for more rural. My husband and I talk about it from time to time and I explore online realtors for different regions in the US. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. I was laughing remembering those couponing days. We're originally from Cincinnati, Kroger headquarters, and just before moving to Oklahoma in 1997, the couponing craze was big and I would try to go on their triple coupon days. Alas, that wasn't a thing here in Oklahoma, at least where we are. As Trina above mentioned, we have Aldi, Homeland, and Walmart, though our city does also have a Walmart Neighborhood Market. I also purchase some items at Sam's and the health food store. Our primary stores are Sam's and Aldi, though. And we do have a membership at Costco and do stockups when up in OKC for medical appointments or the like. There is a Chefstore up there, but I haven't found the prices to be good enough to buy much. Pork and beef come from local folk, and sometimes chicken, or some years we've raised meat chickens ourselves.

    I always find it interesting to hear other folk's methods for food buying!


    1. Hi Cat,
      Those days of double and triple coupons were great for my cereal-loving husband and for all of the laundry detergent I got for almost free. Some stores would limit the amount they would double or triple, but they were still good deals.

      Your Chefstore prices might not be as good as your Costco prices. Plus you have Aldi, which offers low prices on a variety of products. If we had Aldi here, I would be comparing unit prices on many items I get at our Chefstore.

      One of the benefits in living in a region where there aren't as many shopping choices is you get all of the great locally-raised meat. I'm still looking for a good place to get pasture-raised whole chickens in my area at a better than Whole Foods price.

  5. Looking forward to reading your next installment about grocery shopping, Lili.
    Like others, I used to do couponing, especially when they were doubled or tripled. There aren't many coupons these days for products we use, so they have gone by the wayside. We do most of our shopping at Aldi's. The prices are good and the quality is decent. Otherwise, we use the closer Food Lion for things that Aldi's doesn't have, and their cheaper bananas and better milk. We also have a Costco membership and have a few things we buy there regularly.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      That's funny that you would mention buying better milk at Food Lion. Your comparison on milk between Aldi and Food Lion on milk is how I feel about Walmart vs WinCo milk. If I'm only doing a Walmart run (closest store), I'll wait a couple of days until I can get down to WinCo to buy milk and sometimes eggs. WinCo's eggs are often less expensive and they seem slightly better than Walmart's. but Walmart is a great place for a lot of other items.

      The paper coupons I get now are usually sent out by Fred Meyer (Kroger). It's hit or miss whether they provide a good deal. But when in the store and I see a digital coupon for something I was planning on buying, I can load that coupon while standing in the aisle. But like you, a lot of coupons just don't work for us, either.


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