I grew up in the midwest, so the past few years in New York have been quite the life adjustment as I’ve gotten used to smaller spaces, more people, and public transportation. When trying to explain this shift to people back home, I’ve found the best example to be grocery shopping- everyone buys groceries and the difference between shopping in the city and shopping back in Missouri could not be more stark.
The first thing to know about grocery shopping in New York City is that it is expensive. I know it likely comes as a shock that things are far more expensive here, but prepare to spend more on a box of Wheat Thins than you have ever seen. But seriously, buying groceries and making your own dinner/lunch will likely save you a bunch of money rather than eating out twice a day. It may take a little while to get used to making a major investment in food each week rather than simply spending $10 every meal on takeout, but you will be better for it. If you have a roommate and the two of you actually go grocery shopping every week, I think you can plan on spending $100-$150 /wk ($50-75 /person) on groceries and eat comfortably, though there are plenty of people who get by spending far less by being incredibly frugal. Keep in mind, that number is not a ‘food budget’ because it doesn’t include eating out or drinks (both of which will add a fair amount to your costs).
Some examples for what you can expect to pay for a few random items (obviously these are all estimates):
- Bread: $2.99
- Deli Ham: $7.99-9.99 /lb
- Boxed Crackers: $5 (Triscuts, Wheat Thins, etc… also about the same price for Oreos)
- Ramen Noodles: $0.45
- Skippy Peanut Butter: $4
- Canned Tuna: $1.99
After awhile, you start to get used to paying higher prices and you simply adapt your budget and what you buy until you get the most bang for your buck. Keep in mind that these prices will probably vary greatly across the city: a fresh head of lettuce is a bit cheaper in Red Hook than it is in midtown Manhattan and different grocery stores tend to have dramatically different prices even if they are around the corner from one another. Also, FreshDirect tends to have slightly lower prices than most stores, but I’ll go over FreshDirect at the end.
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Not only is the process of grocery shopping much different in New York, but the actual stores themselves are very different as well. If you live outside of the city, you are used to large stores with full sized carts, wide isles and dozens of brand/variety choices for nearly every product. Here, you will encounter stores of so any different sizes and descriptions, it is nearly impossible to characterize a “New York City grocery”. None of them will be the large, well stocked places you find elsewhere – in fact, most are incredibly small with very narrow aisles doubling as storage space for stacks of cans or boxes, between which you either maneuver a half-sized cart or tote a hand basket (recommended). You will also find that because of the small space, they tend to have only two or three variations of a product. You might have a choice between Heinz ketchup in a 10oz squeeze bottle, a generic brand in the same size or both brands in a larger bottle- but those will be your only 4 choices for ketchup. Unless you are in a bigger store, you are unlikely to find 4-5 brands/sizes or that 15oz low-sodium specialty Persian ketchup with a glass bottle you so voraciously desire.
The good news is that there is a huge variety of stores in New York. Just because one place doesn’t have something, you will probably be able to find it elsewhere. (unless you are looking for hash browns…which are pretty much impossible to find…trust me, I know) Many people tend to favor Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s because they offer fresh organic foods, but Whole Foods tends to be a bit more expensive and while many people love Trader Joe’s, I’m not a huge fan simply because every time I enter one, it feels like I am in Toys-R-Us the week before Christmas. I will say that Trader Joe’s has some pretty great food for impressively low prices, so you should check it out for yourself. But be sure to explore other options in your neighborhood – Stop n’ Shop, Trade Fair, Food Emporium, Gristedes, D’Agostino, Fairway and many others have locations all over New York, not to mention the infinite number of local non-chain stores.
Another note: many local stores (not the big chains) have cats that you will come across in the aisles. This is against more than a few health codes and at first you will probably be a bit appalled at the notion of animals near your eggplant, but they are an effective safeguard against mice in the store, which we can all agree is a much worse thought than Fluffy the cat. If a store has a cat, it is likely a short haired one that spends most of it’s time sleeping on some cereal boxes, so don’t worry about it too much. And resist the urge to report them to the health department… the rest of us want to keep the mice away from our food.
Getting Groceries Home
In college when my roommate and I had to start doing our own grocery shopping, we would simply drive over to Wal-Mart (or Sam’s Club, if we were feeling especially flush with cash for bulk buying) and load up the car with as many groceries as we could carry in the truck/back seat. This meant making the trip every month or so and having food for most of our meals fully stocked.
Here, this strategy is all but impossible unless you live in some of the further reaches of Queens where the legends tell of New Yorkers with cars. Instead, we typically go to the store and buy only what can be manually carried back home – maybe 6 or 7 bags per (strong) person, meaning you likely need to make a trip every week or so.
Some people get collapsable grocery carts like the one to the right which help solve this problem. It’s no car trunk, but it definitely enables you to carry a lot more home. If you live by yourself and don’t have someone to help carry things, this is definitely a good idea. When I first came to New York, I thought the carts where the exclusive tools of elderly people, but I quickly realized that New Yorkers of all ages use them regularly. They collapse to fit behind your bookshelf or fridge and definitely make the process of grocery toting easier.
Of course, if you are planing on making a really big grocery trip for whatever reason, it might make sense to rent a ZipCar for an hour or two and load it up. This is probably a bit expensive to rely on for your regular trips, but might be a good idea if you are buying for a big meal like Thanksgiving. If you do this, always have a partner. You will save some money on the reservation by sending one person in to do the hour-long shopping adventure and sending the second person to get the car, meeting up after you’ve checked out. Also keep in mind that you probably don’t have the cabinet space you are used to back home, so do not buy a whole car full of food if you have nowhere to put it.
Some stores also offer delivery options, often in the form of free or cheap ($5) door service in the neighborhood. Others like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s offer city-wide delivery at various rates.
FreshDirect is a company in New York that solves a lot of the issues, hassels or hurdles I have mentioned in this post. The short pitch: you order food online and it is delivered to your door the next day. They tend to have slightly better prices on most items and their produce is supposedly some of the freshest in the city, all delivered right to your door. I heard from friends that their service is unbeatable, but I never took the plunge until this year. For the past few months, my two roommates and I have done almost all our grocery shopping through FreshDirect and I cannot recommend it highly enough. We order about $200 of food every 2 weeks or so, the delivery has always been on-time and the food really is impressively fresh. (And they have bags of frozen hash browns, which as I mentioned are practically non-existent in New York City.)
I estimate we save about $50 /order by buying through FreshDirect rather than our local store and we avoid the hassle of actually going to the store and carrying all of our food home with us. We still get a few things from stores in the area- bread, some canned goods and yogurt are a bit cheaper and have a wider selection than we found on FreshDirect but almost everything else comes from them.
My recommendation: get FreshDirect once you have an apartment, plan out a few meals and place an order. If you see their trucks around the city, write down the promo codes on the side and get a few discounts – usually 5 free deliveries, $50 of your first order, 20% off your first 3 orders, etc. If you don’t see them around the city, check out RetailMeNot for up-to-date codes.
Tips & Tricks
There are a few things anyone can do to help save some money and make grocery shopping easier:
Farmers Markets: You can find markets all over the city (Hell’s Kitchen, Union Square, Astoria and pretty much every neighborhood in Brooklyn) one or two days per week, offering a great way to get fresh produce at lower prices than you would pay in a store. (Also, see if your neighborhood has a CSA … sometimes, but not always, this is a great way to get fresh food and save money while supporting local farmers.)
Co-Ops: I have never been a member of a food co-op, so I cannot personally attest to the ins and outs, but I have heard a lot of good things. Essentially, you volunteer at a local co-op (think of it as a members-only grocery store) for a few hours per month. Rather than getting paid, you are able to shop at the co-op, potentially saving 20-40% on groceries! I know there are a few of these in Brooklyn, one of the biggest is in Park Slope, and they might be able to steer you towards some in your area.
Coupons: Your mother did not clip coupons while you were growing up because it was fun- she did it because while 50 cents here and there doesn’t sound like much, they add up quickly. Especially since a lot of stores offer double coupons, meaning that with 10 coupons for 50 cents of, you actually save $10, which is no chump change for most people new to the city.
Make Food: It may seem obvious since this article is about grocery shopping, but going to the store and buying ready-to-eat chicken tiki masala and garlic bread is not grocery shopping. That is ordering takeout, but without the convenience of home-delivery. It is okay to have a couple of these on reserve for days that you just want something quick, but it does not count as ‘cooking’ (no matter what your Liz Lemon-esque friend says), and it gets expensive quickly. Buy ingredients, make a dish and enjoy your personal creation and the cost-savings that comes with it.
Bring Your Own Bag: Some places such as Whole Foods will offer a small discount for bringing your own grocery bags. It is usually only a couple of dollars, but if you have your own bags, bring them along – I wouldn’t run out and buy a dozen reusable bags for $10 each, but you could reuse IKEA bags, old paper bags or even a duffle bag if you have one.
Get FreshDirect: In case I wasn’t clear: FreshDirect is awesome, saves your money, time and sanity. Sign up.
The real key to saving money and grocery shopping effectively in New York City is legwork. Check out all the grocery stores in your area, see which ones are cheaper for certain types of products, ask about their frequent shoppers program, see if they have delivery options and don’t forget to grab a weekly circular if they have one. I think FreshDirect is the way to go for 90% of your shopping, but every person is different. Knowing what to get and where to get it takes time and effort, but is worth it in the long-run. What are some of the grocery shopping lesons you’ve learned in the city?