budgeting,  Family Life,  motherhood

Budget Shopping at Trader Joe’s {with multiple kids in the tiny red cart}

I have a larger than average family now, which is still kind of whiplash inducing because I also have a young-ish marriage and student loans. But then I look in the mirror and the bagging and sagging confirms to me that I am indeed advancing into veteran territory, if not by actual mileage logged then by crash-course cumulative hours accrued. So.

I’ve made no secret that one of the secrets to happy(er) motherhood, for me, has been learning to do things with my kids, and okay, yes, sometimes in spite of them…but not to stop doing x or y simply because z minivan is filled to the brim.

Some examples of this include concert-going (when the venue permits), bar-hopping (when there’s space under the chair rail to accommodate a little car seat stashing, and, you guessed it, grocery shopping.

If you choose to prowl the aisles at 10pm for peace of mind and the luxury of an entire empty cart ready to receive your produce and dry goods, power to you. I have plenty of friends who can think of plenty of things they’d rather do besides take all – or any – of their kids shopping with them. And I get that, I really do.

Here’s my rationale though. As a consummate introvert who is always craving solitude and downtime and refreshment, I already find grocery shopping kind of overstimulating. Any kind of shopping, truth be told. So the difference between taking the kids with me or escaping for a solo trip is minimal in terms of stress relieved, for me. Sometimes I actually feel more panicky at the Bullseye sans offspring, because I have a limitless budget, if not of actual fund$, but of time and options. And that is stressful! Tell me you’ve ever gotten that shallow-breathed, chest tightening sensation as you piled stuff into your cart, realizing that the only limitation was your dwindling checking account balance? When I have a ticking toddler time bomb in my cart and a finite list of must-grabs, my competitive drive kicks in and my brain switches into mission mode. It’s go time. I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Joe’s O’s.

So there’s the useless backstory for you. Apologies for that.

I mainly shop these days at Costco and Trader Joe’s, two widely-disparate retail outlets if ever there were. One boasts the double cart, the membership card, and the bulk chicken breast offerings that will get a family of 6 safely through the month on a single meat run. The other? Carts so small that an elderly cat woman shopping solo can hardly gather enough provisions for her week.

But. There is something inherently good about Trader Joe’s precisely because of the limitations on size and selection. And that’s part of what keeps me coming back, along with the lack of preservatives and additives in their food and their rocking prices on organic. And Buttercup. Okay, and endless stickers and suckers and amazing staff who valet your groceries to your car, compliment your children, and return your cart for you, spouting off verbal affirmations all the while.

(Gosh, I’m long-winded this morning. I blame my newfound creative energy saved from social media abstinence.)

Anyway, we go about 6x’s/month to TJ’s, and here’s what I almost always and exclusively buy there:

Organic whole milk: at $5/gallon, it’s cheaper than any other organic option out there (we don’t have Aldi’s in Denver). And it’s delicious, or so I’m told by the 2 people in our household who can actually drink it. Luke has me in the ranks of the lactose intolerant these days, so I just cast a longing eye at the fatty white stuff while enjoying my …

Unsweetened vanilla almond milk: I’m sure there’s stuff in this that isn’t great for you, but my dairy free husband and preschooler love it/tolerate it, and it has fewer ingredients than the big-name varieties.

Cage free brown eggs: I prefer brown chickens, and from what I understand, if eggs are cage free and boast that little “California-something-something compliant” rating, the chickens are actually wandering around with a little grass under their talons. Which makes the eggs taste better, truly, and is better for the girls. And these average about $3.29/dozen, which is actually a great price, Avian flu considered. (We go through about 2-3 dozen/week. Don’t tell the FDA.)

Kerrygold butter: Luke won’t let me eat it lately, but it’s so good you almost tear up when spreading it on toast, and it’s $3 at TJ’s, which is $4 cheaper than almost any other store. I guess they have a noncompete clause with Leprechauns.

GF waffles: $1.99 for 8, they don’t taste terrible, and while nobody’s GF in our immediate family, these are also dairy free, and my nephew can eat them when he’s over.

Blue corn tortilla chips: because when they’re blue, they’re good for you! A lie I tell myself almost every day while eating tortilla chips for lunch. Whatever, they’re delicious.

Pineapple salsa: we legitimately burn through 2 jars of this in 2-3 days, then my kids moan until I replenish the supply. It only has 2 grams of sugar which is kind of shocking, and I’m choosing not to do the math on serving sizes and just rest on my responsible laurels with that number in mind.

Original hummus: $1.99 per container, my kids will eat almost any vegetable when dipped in hummus. The end.

Pizza dough/sauce/mozzarella cheese/pepperoni: for around $8 you can squeak out 2 big pizzas. We like to have the dough on hand ($1.29/bag and yes I know you can make your own for even less but time is money, people. And yeast is hard.) for making flat bread and for any surprise visits from my siblings, particularly Uncle Kenny who probably thinks it’s all we eat and who told me to write this blog post on how to shop at Trader Joe’s.

Tortellini and other dried pasta varietals: all their imported from Italy pastas are about as good as the real deal, but the tortellini stuffed with pesto is the bomb. And for under $2/package, it’s almost embarrassing how little you can spend on a really impressive Italian feast.

Basmati and/or jasmine rice: we have a huge 5 lb bag from Costco in the pantry right now which I’m not sorry about, but TJ’s has great prices on less Duggar-sized rice portions.

(Is anyone still interested? Is this the worst blog post I’ve ever written? Possibly. But watch it go viral on Pinterest…)

Beans, beans: black, pinto, great northern, garbanzo…they’ve got them all, and I buy 10 cans at a time and rinse them off before using them and pat myself on the back for still not ever learning how to soak and make my own beans. Because these bad boys are .$99 cents per can for organic, and whatever.

Peanut butter: their crunchy store brand is tolerably good, and has nothing besides peanuts and salt in it, which is how I like my fat spread.

Frozen veggies: sweet corn, french green beans, stir fry blend, mixed bell pepper blend, green peas. If you have those on hand, you can make basically any curry/fajita/stir fry dish on the planet. And they’re cheap and fresh.

coconut cream: I haven’t found a better tasting or better-priced option than this pantry staple that makes amazing curries and smoothies.

String cheese: “For the kids.” – K. McAllister

Uncured black forest ham: my kids eat … a lot of this. It is cheap, but not so cheap I fear that it includes ground goat meat.

California sprouted bread: almost as good as Ezekiel bread, which they no longer carry, and about half the price. Dairy free.

3-pack of dark (Belgian) chocolate bars: $1.49 and they are friggin delish. Vow to me right now never to eat Hershey’s chocolate again. Amen. p.s. they’re dairy freeeeee.

Produce: organic gala apples (usually $4/bag or less for about 8 of them, which is killer. And sometimes it’s as low as $1.99/bag!); clementines; navel oranges; bananas ($.19/apiece, which is really good); organic baby carrots (see how scattershot my organic-ing is? It’s not even dirty dozen driven, or whatever. It’s purely emotional/fiscal. #millenialparentingprobs); carrots of many colors (buy these, you won’t be sorry); pineapple; avocados; sweet onions; garlic; fresh basil (when it’s in stock, it’s under $2 for a 16 oz container which is ridiculous and what pesto and happiness are made of. Or you can buy the whole plant for around the same price and kill it yourself on your counter. Choose your own adventure); raw almonds (produce, yes? grows on trees?); raisins; lemons; limes; organic romaine lettuce and baby spinach (<– there she goes again); and one container each of mirepoix mix and the super 8 veggie mix, both great I-don’t-have-time-to-cook options for forming the base of stir fries, chilis, or soups.

And there you have it. That’s what we buy, almost without deviation, every single week. Sometimes the off bag of salt and vinegar chips or a needed spice or some honey mango shave lotion or honey pretzels or sea salt and dark chocolate almonds sneak their way into the now-overstuffed little red cart, but it varies.

We usually get away for under $90 bucks a pop, because you’ll notice I don’t buy meat there (Costco takes the protein-rich cake, and we try not to eat that much of it.)

So all that? It fits in the little red cart, barely, and with a baby seat crammed into the main compartment and a toddler riding dirty up top. Do we look ridiculous? Yes. Should I be wearing the baby to free up valuable real estate? Probably. But that’s how we roll right now, and we get in and out for under $100 and in under 30 minutes, so you really can’t beat that.

Plus, free stickers. (And an organic sucker if you find Buttercup.)

TJ’s 4evr


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  • Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    We do 99% of our shopping at Costco and TJ’s also. Such different stores but fill all the needs! I also love that there is only one option at both. I don’t have to decide WHICH ketchup to get. I just put the ketchup in my cart and move along.

  • Ellen Johnson

    I’m a Costco and TJ’s shopper too. Although, I get my 3 pack of Kerrygold and cage free eggs at Costco. The eggs come a dozen and a half to the pack for $6 and change. Maybe your Costco doesn’t carry them? Anyhoo, I agree, I love how I fill that tiny cart full of yummies and I never pay more that $90. I heart Trader Joe’s.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      No ours does carry them, I just almost never have room (that sounds ridic) in the cart for eggs with the 10000 boxes of diapers and cases of La Croix. And I tell myself the price is slightly better at TJ’s. You’re right about the Kerrygold tho! I saw that at the big C and I cried a little on the inside over how little lactose is in my life right now. We have to eat so much boring asian food, haha.

  • Beth

    The frozen french green beans are awesome and cheap. They are classy enough to serve at a (theoretical) fancy dinner with guests!

    We live 1.5 hours from the nearest TJs and I won’t lie, I’ve driven there for a weekly grocery shop. Regular TJ butter is $2.99/lb vs the $4.50 at my nearest grocery. I say that’s worth the drive.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      I always love overhearing people tell their “this is how far we came” stories at the register. It’s a loyal fan base! And ours is only 1.5 miles away (ducks). We’re so spoiled.

  • Heidi

    “Or you can buy the whole plant for around the same price and kill it yourself on your counter. Choose your own adventure)” True story. My house is where plants come to die.

    I love your list. Our Costco has Kerrygold for $6.99/3 pack, when you’re back on the butter train. Trader Joe’s truly is the best. They have the nicest employees and the best prices. One of the employees once told me that they rotate through the store during their shift, never doing more than 2 (?) hours in one place at a time so people don’t burn out. Cashier, stock, etc. Seems to be working, plus anyone can help you find something fast or tell you if it’s out of stock. Probably no one cares about that but me:)

    • Jenny Uebbing

      That makes so much sense! They really are the most amazing staff I’ve ever encountered in retail. I think they get pretty decent benefits, I’ve heard? And I guess the Hawaiian shirts are mood enhancing…

  • Katie

    We live two hours from TJs However, I usually spend more than $90 on my once every couple months runs. Hubby has a work meeting with wives invited this weekend so we will be hitting up TJs and Aldi in Lincoln, NE! Thanks for the ideas. My kids love their dried peas (I can’t remember what they’re actually called) and GF ginger snaps. I love their GF pancake mix, dark chocolate espresso beans(teachers LOVE these), mayo and anything GF bc it’s cheaper there and I’m the only GF in our house.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Yes! Their GF selection is killer. And the GF Joe-Joe’s aren’t terrible, if a little potato-y. The gingersnaps pretty much taste like regular gingersnaps. Haven’t tried the dried peas, I’ll have to look for them. And I haven’t shopped at Aldi in years. We had one in Steubenville but I ignored it because the cart situation was too intimidating…now that I’ve seen European grocery stores and heard what people can do with their budgets, I wish I could shop there!

  • Katie

    We do about 98% of our shopping at T.J.’s & live it too! Maybe you get this at Costco but the frozen fruit is also worth checking out. We keep blueberries & peaches on hand at all times. Great for smoothies or mixed in yogurt. And, my genius mom trick is to make oatmeal and stir in still frozen blueberries to achieve a perfect, kid-safe temp in moments.

      • Cami

        Have you tried the highly addictive Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups? I’ve used them as meal replacement, they are so irresistible. Yes! We have been avid TJs shoppers since our days living in so Cal. I grew up shopping there. Anywho… We like the GF waffles too but it does bug me that they have soybean oil in so many products including those waffles and many pasta sauces. My middle child is currently dairy, soy, oat, gluten, pinto, peanut, green bean, and almond free. Sooooo… It’s been a challenge this month. But we get to start slowly reintroducing items next month. I saw a sign once at TJs recently saying they use no GMOs but I want a verbal confirmation. Sounds too good to be true. We have a store here in C Sorings but it’s across the street from UCCS so those fellow shopping scholarly young’uns really give me the raised eyebrow when I stroll in with a lanky 3 year old in the cart, a bouncing 4 year old “helping me push the cart”, and a baby strapped to me in the ergo carrier. Even the employees are a little stunned by us. But we’ll never give up our beloved neighborhood market.

  • Tia

    We go to our local hippie co-op and Whole Foods once every two weeks, order from Google shopping for non-perishables, and basically subscribe to a pick-and-choose farmer’s CSA and go to the corner store or produce market for veggies or everyday things that run out. I know for sure it’s not cheaper — we probably pay at least a 30 percent markup on most things (though the bulk section at Rainbow IS cheaper and the beans actually do soften up, unlike the eons-old dried beans in a bag). We probably spend about $100 a week for a family of four. We’re trying out a meal-prep service to break out of menu enuii, and that’s an extra $60 bucks a week. Could we do it WAY cheaper? For sure. I lived on $85 a week per person as a grad student and didn’t quite starve.

    But for us at least, this system is worth it. I’ve found the extra money we pay up front is made up for in the money we save by not buying stuff we won’t eat. When my husband picks up the veggie that night for dinner, there’s only a 2% chance I’ll find some half-rotting radishes at the bottom of the veggie crisper after having gotten a whole new fresh batch of radishes at the store. And the time saved by not grocery shopping every week is worth it, because that means I order GrubHub, Spicy Bite or pizza one less time a week. My husband is also one of those aliens who ENJOYS going to the grocery store and will add in all sorts of “not on the list” items to the cart, so the less we go, the less we spend.

    I guess all I’m saying is different strokes for different folks!

    I see all the frugal budgeting pages that are like “buy in bulk!” “plan meals weeks in advance!” “stock up on things when they’re on sale!” “coupon clip!” “comparison shop” “go to TJs/Costco/Big Box stores” and it all sounds so alluring until I try to make it mesh with my life in a 2-bedroom apartment in an urban center, and realize it would just be one of what my husband calls my “genius factory schemes” that will involve a lot of mental effort and little payout.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      oh yeah, totally hear you. When we were urban dwellers it was daily produce pickups at the corner market and arduous non-perishable schlepping from the slightly larger store down the block. And I will never, ever be a coupon clipper…gives me hives just thinking about the spreadsheet making and logistics of it.

  • Lisa

    Ha! We’ve started only shopping at Trader’s and Costco too. Tim is a saint and does the mega Costco trips which is probably better for both of us since Costco draws me in with their continually changing merchandise. 😉

  • Caitlin

    Now I might just be the biggest Costco fan there is (we live a mile away from the original store in Kirkland, aka where the name of the store brand comes from) but we get several of these things at Costco – organic whole milk, organic eggs, Kerrigold butter, mozzarella cheese, canned beans, string cheese, organic apples, baby carrots, bananas, clementines. I do love Trader Joe’s though! Definitely agree that they have the best salsa. Our closest Trader Joe’s is right next to a Kroger, which is super handy because I can just push the red cart in there for the few things Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry, mainly less common spices and such.

  • Amanda

    I still frequent Kroger for my non Costco purchases usually but you might have convinced me to go to tj more often.

    Also I take my 5 grocery shopping too. After bedtime is precious for reading and watching tv, not venturing out for produce.

  • Diana

    I really enjoyed this! Trader Joes is the one store we don’t have here (ok, Ikea and HomeGoods too) that I would LOVE to have. I’ve been a few times in various places and it’s so interesting! If we ever get lucky enough to get one I’ll be checking this out again!

  • Mary

    TJ jealousy. > : |

    Not sure where you are in Denver, but I think sunflower market in Arvada is supposed to be like aldi prices for organic stuff.

  • Holly

    You failed to mention something super important! It’s a tiny store- compared to King Soopers- so you can shop in a quarter of the time. I love TJ’s- I wish there was one closer to us.

    How much milk do you go through? Our family is 2-3 gallons/week! I get my milk for $1.98/gal at Aldi (NOT organic). I think I would faint if I spent $60 on milk in a month! I hope you don’t drink as much as we do.

    • Beth

      Milk here is $3.50/gallon. We don’t have any cheap grocery store options (for reasons unknown) and milk never goes on sale. 🙁 We buy 3 gallons a week, so not quite $60 a month, still a pretty big chunk of our grocery budget. I actually use the money saved on milk as a reason to go to TJs occasionally. (It’s 70 miles away).

  • Hannah

    I seriously thought TJ’s was for yuppies…until I went there. We just have a barely toddler, and we do nearly all our shopping there, just once a week, and we always get the same things with a few slight variables (perhaps we need peanut butter this week but don’t need flour, etc). We can get done within fifteen minutes because I know exactly where everything is and there’s no terribly extra exciting new displays and no tabloids and *sigh*. And then I have to go to Target to pick up molasses and dried beans and muffin tin liners, and it takes twenty minutes to get out of there and when I get out I’m a bit woozy because ALL THE THINGS! We get a few things at Costco when the in-laws are in town (as we don’t have a membership…yet), canned tomatoes and olives and peanuts (Costco has the BEST peanuts) and every once in a while, a pork loin or some chicken breasts or maybe ground beef, which I stretch out to last a few months.

  • Brian

    Jenny: my wife and I love your blog. You are courageous, witty and my wife, as an HSP (of which I haven’t necessarily seen you identify but with which you share several characteristics) really relates to you. Keep up the good work!

  • Yasmin

    Lots of immigrants in SoCal, so ethnic markets are the place to go. Asian, Hispanic, Mediterranean, Afro-Caribe. Fresh produce, exotic varieties, dirt cheap and like being a World traveler.

  • Jessie

    a) TJ’s has my heart forever. Costco is my boyfriend on the side. So we’re kinda twinsies there.
    b) ^ that being said, kerrygold is a steal at Costco. California pricing seems to vary slightly from CO, because it’s $3.49/stick at my TJ’s, but then it’s $7.19/three-pack at Costco. DO IT. Tell Luke he needs to suck it up because mama needs butter. That’s what I tell Will.
    c) how you manage to get out of TJ’s without grabbing a package of dark chocolate peanut butter cups is beyond me and you’re my hero.

  • Elizabeth

    Funny to read this, because Costco and TJ’s are my mainstays as well. I have gotten so I feel weird going into any other store for groceries. We do have an Aldi’s nearby, but I really prefer TJ’s and although Aldi’s is supposed to be a more “budget-friendly” store, I always end up spending more there somehow. Your TJ’s list overlaps mine by at least 50%! Some other stuff I always get there: TJ’s brand plain full-fat Greek yogurt, coffee (the big pre-ground can), fully-cooked bacon, Babybel cheeses for kid lunches, applesauce squeezers (now organic!), ice cream, naan, microwaveable organic rice. For a treat, my kids adore their Dunkers and cinnamon grahams.
    I usually spend under $100 for a regular trip, whereas it’s pretty much impossible to come out of the “regular grocery store” under $150. TJ’s is magical!

  • Ashley

    Sigh. I have such Trader Joe’s envy. I live a million miles from the closest one (ok – a slight exaggeration – but not by much. Several *states* away from one) and have been known to give a list to anyone I know who will be traveling close to one. I actually have a family friend, a retired very successful businessman, who contacted the company to see if he could help bring them to Montana. And was completely denied. So I have no hope. I’ll just read posts like this to continue to torture myself.

    • Brian

      Funny, I really have only *vaguely* heard of Trader Joes. But there are Costcos all around us. Costco in Helena has good organic milk that is, I think, actually cheaper than the price Jenny stated at Trader Joes.

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