Confessions of a Grocery Ninja

“How to slice $250 off your monthly food budget!”

In tight economic times like these, we’re all trying to trim our budgets the best we can.

It’s estimated that 38% of the average American’s budget is spent on housing, another 19% on transportation, and a whopping 15% is spent on food.

According to the US Census Bureau, our average household income is $50,233* which breaks down to $7,534 per year, or $628.00 per month.

Yawn-fest…right? Hang with me, and we might be able to shave a couple of hundred dollars off your monthly food bill!

Did that wake you up?

So, looking at the big three, we can try to cut back on our driving, we can give the bank a call and see if they’ll reduce our mortgage payment (good luck with that), or call our landlord and ask that the rent be lowered… or we can focus on the 15% that we shell out every month for grub.

One great way to do this is to buy in bulk.

Now, when I say bulk, I’m not talking about those fifty-pound bags of macaroni at your local warehouse store. Yes, these are often (though not always) a good deal, but the cost of buying so much of one item, at one time, takes a big bite out of the monthly food budget. It’s hard to save money at the warehouse and still have some variety in your menu.

Who wants to eat macaroni every night for a month?

Let me suggest an alternative to carbohydrate overdose, and incorporate into your savvy shopping arsenal yet another weapon. Become a grocery Ninja!


A grocery Ninja knows how to shop, when to shop, and where to shop. They prepare, have a plan, and get away with the loot. Anyone can wander into the local store, fill up a cart, and slap down a credit card, and hope the budget will stretch, but a grocery Ninja never has to live on ramen for the last week of the month.

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Most of us know that you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry (of course, most of us know we should exercise every day, too!) In addition, I like to hit the stores knowing what items are a bargain, and with a list of exactly what I’m looking for.

I’m also a big believer in going with “cash-in-hand.” No checkbook, no credit cards, no temptation. When the budget is gone, the shopping is over.

My requirements for the best place to shop is a store that has a good, stable variety of items, isn’t too crowded, and has excellent prices. Most of the time, the best of these “excellent prices” are found in a generous bulk food section.

That said, never assume (we all know what that does) that just because it’s a bulk food, it’s the best buy. An example:

I was at my favorite store recently, and I found that life-saving-staple-of-parents-everywhere, goldfish crackers, in a bin for $3.95 per pound. I quickly loaded up a bag and went on with my shopping, smug in my own frugality. Until, that is, I came to the crackers aisle. The pre-packaged tub (2.1lbs) of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers was selling for $6.98…almost a dollar less!


Needless to say, we wheeled right back to the bulk section and, risking the wrath of store security, dumped the bag back into the bin.

Now how to you keep track of these bargains? As someone who often forgets my own phone number, the only way I can hope to remember what bulk food prices are better than packaged, and what packaged items are on sale elsewhere, is to carry a notebook.

In this notebook I have some paper for jotting down notes, a pocket for local ads and those great recipe cards they give away at the store, my “staples” price list of the foods I always buy, and, of course…my grocery list.

Make it a black notebook…you’re a Ninja, after all!

Tip #1: If you’re wondering where the heck you’re going to store all this bulk food, I have a great, green, and best of all…FREE…suggestion. Take a look at this link for how find a place to store all that rice and beans, and reduce your recycling at the same time!


Create a plan that keeps you out of traffic, away from the crowds, and home with your family during “quality time.”

Shopping at a big grocery store, especially one with discount prices, can be like driving in L.A. traffic. Being a claustrophobic shopper of better-than-average size, sanity required that I get creative. Let me ask you three questions –

Q: Who shops for groceries after 4:00pm, and on weekends?
A: A LOT of people!

Q: Who shops for groceries between 8:00am and 4:00pm on weekdays?
A: Stay at home parents, people with unusual work schedules, and retirees (trust me, you don’t want to go mano-a-mano with a sixty-five year old grandma over the last jar of spaghetti sauce.)

Q: Who shops for groceries between 8:00pm and 8:00am?
A: Almost nobody!…

Terry, (my shopping buddy) and I have made a ritual out of getting up at 5:00am and meeting (with the required mini-van) to hit the store. We grab some coffee, cruise the wide-open freeway, and park right up front in the nearly empty lot.

It’s also a great time to talk…no one has ever called our cell-phones at 5:15 in the morning.

We do this every two weeks, sipping our lattes, and dodging pallet-drivers. Then, once the groceries are loaded up, we swing through and grab breakfast off a dollar-menu and head home. In and out in less than an hour, we make our escape under the cover of darkness…a couple of shopping Ninjas!

Sometimes, Terry will even get up early and make us a to-go breakfast before we meet, because he likes to cook, and, well…he’s crazy.

Tip #2: Find a shopping buddy. Let’s face it, grocery shopping isn’t exactly the pinnacle of excitement! But, like most things, it’s a lot more fun when you have a friend along. If you do an early morning, or late night plan, you have a much better chance of finding someone who can make their schedule fit yours.

If you both have a suitable vehicle, take turns driving and save some gas. Also, two heads are always better than one. I’ve been amazed at the number of times that my shopping buddy has peeked in my cart and said, “Oh, I saw a better deal on aisle…”

If five in the morning is a little to much to ask of you (or your spouse), I’ve found that the stores are nearly as deserted and easy to navigate after 8:00pm as well. Another side benefit of the early/late plan is that, as five in the morning my stomach hasn’t woken up yet, and by nine at night I’ve already eaten dinner. This means less impulse shopping!

So, now that we know how to shop, and when to shop, let’s get to the real “meat and potatoes” (pun intended) of this article, let’s look at…


Let’s face it, there are grocery stores and there are grocery stores. Some offer ten gallon jugs of olive oil, some offer a selection of wines that require a second mortgage, and some offer a great variety of bulk and packaged foods at significant savings.

Take a look in your local Yellow Pages, any stores that end in “CO”, “DEPOT”, or “OUTLET” are usually worth checking out.

Again, the focus of this article is on bulk food shopping. My local “CO” store is Winco, which has a great, six-aisle, bulk food section containing everything from Jasmine rice, to fresh Kalamata olives, to Gummy-Bears.

In general, you can expect to save at least 30% on basic staples like flour, cereals, and pastas, and as much as 60% on mixes, snack foods, and pet foods. I won’t even tell you how much you’ll save on spices, you wouldn’t believe me.

Make a list of your top 10 (or 20, or 30) food staples. Find a store with a good selection of bulk foods and jot down the prices for each. Now, compare those with what your paying, brand-name or generic, at your regular grocery store.

Here’s my list of 10, taken from my last trip to the store –

Yep, you’re reading that right (I ran the numbers three times, ‘cause I couldn’t believe it myself!) The same bag of groceries I can buy in bulk, would cost more than THREE TIMES as much at my local Albertsons!

By the way, I shop at my “CO” store not only for the great bulk food deals, but because they tend to have great prices on most of my non-bulk items as well. Here’s a quick comparison for when I want my favorite breakfast:

More than a 50% savings!

I’ve found similar savings, at non-sale prices, on meats, dairy, and produce as well.

So, let’s be wary, let’s be OVER conservative and say we can save, on average…only 40% by knowing where to buy…could you use that extra $250.00 per month somewhere else in your budget? I know I sure could.

That’s three grand a year!

All of that to say this: There is no one “best” way to buy. Knowing how to shop, when to shop, and where to shop are just new weapons in your arsenal. Keep clipping those coupons, keep scanning those ads, and above all COMPARE.

Knowledge is power, and that’s the real secret to becoming a grocery Ninja!

Costumes are optional.

Chef Perry