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Saving Money on Food in Southern California

Six kids? Southern California cost of living? And a tight economy? They sound like incompatible circumstances, don’t they? Yet, we’re doing okay.

According to my records, our family spent $7700 on groceries last year, an average of $641 a month.That number includes diapers, paper goods, and toiletries.

We do have a separate “dining out” budget. Last year we spent $1800 on meals out, for a grand total of $9500 to eat. So, our total food costs average just under $800 a month for a family of 8.

Yes, I’m a numbers geek.

I also live in the state with the highest cost of living. This is important to note. According to the USDA Food Cost reports the national average for food costs in 2010 for a family of my size and ages was $1045.10 per month on the “thrifty plan,” $2054.10 on the “liberal plan.” That means I spent less than the national average, though I live in one of the two most expensive states in the US.

(The linked pdf is for June, which they call the national average number. I couldn’t find a California-specific figure, but I’m guessing that it must be equal to or above the national average.)

Why am I telling you this?

You Can Eat Well, Spend Less

Earlier in our Eat Well, Spend Less series, I mentioned that grocery expenses are one of the things that we have most control of. We can’t determine what the store charges, but we can decide how to cook and how to eat.

If our family, living in an expensive state, can spend less than the national average, you can, too. Really.

Here’s how to save money on food, especially in Southern California:

1. Use coupons strategically.

Three years ago we were up to our eyeballs in debt when I discovered the wide world of couponing. After a few weeks, I was stunned at how much food I was able to acquire for much less than we were previously spending. Granted, some of it was highly processed and not the best food choices. But, I looked at it as a means to an end.

Once we paid off our debts, I was able to be more discerning in how I shopped.

I still use coupons, but I buy much fewer processed foods than I did in the past. Instead, I use my couponing to save me money on raw materials like oats, milk, yogurt, even couscous. I have found quite a few coupons that are for “real food.”

And in other instances, I’ve saved a lot of money playing the drugstore game and getting most of our toiletries and paper goods for free or for very low prices.

In Southern California, one of the challenges to couponers is that the stores are much more restrictive than in other states. Even major nationwide chains like Safeway or Kroger have different policies at their affiliates in California. Some don’t accept internet printables or they limit how many coupons of a type you can use. They are working to prevent fraud, but this also prevents one from stocking up when there’s a really good deal.

Southern California stores also vary by county and city. I’ve noticed different policies in effect in different areas. Again, it’s often the bad apple ruining it for the rest of us. But, there are still deals to be had.

2. Stock up on the loss leaders.

I rarely buy something unless it’s on sale. That is my normal mode of operation. I base our meals on what’s on sale. When I see a good price, I buy as much of that item is reasonable to store and use within the next 6 to 8 weeks.

Often times, the store has already built in a limit to what I can buy. So, every time I see whole chickens for $0.59/lb I buy the limit and stash them in the deep freeze. Roast chicken is an easy, frugal meal that my family loves.

I do this for the bulk of the ingredients that I use on a regular basis. Sometimes, like when I’m testing a recipe, I have to veer from this and pay full pop — and that makes me twitchy.

One of the things I’ve noticed in following other frugal cooks, is that the “loss leader” prices vary from state to state. Ralphs, a Kroger affiliate, will host the same products on sale as Dillons or Kroger, but they consistently charge 50 cents more per item. But, we live in an expensive state, so this shouldn’t surprise me.

3. Cook from scratch.

In my honeymoon days, I cooked from scratch and devoured food magazines as a hobby. I knew that homemade tasted better than anything commercially prepared. But, I was also willing to pay a high price for my ingredients.

Today, I still cook from scratch, but by using the previous two techniques, I can make the same recipes for half the cost. I also avoid expensive ingredients in order to save money.

I still buy some processed foods, but those are usually for reasons of convenience and portability. My kids love the little applesauce cups and I’m not going to take the time and hassle to portion out homemade for a picnic or field trip. I just buy unsweetened on sale and call it good.

A girl has to draw the line somewhere.

4. Buy fresh produce.

There are some perks to living in the Golden State: sunshine, warmer weather, and great produce prices. Since I share my grocery finds on a regular basis, I get feedback from you all. And it seems that we regularly have outstanding prices on produce here in California.

The mainstream grocery stores, like Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons, usually have one or two loss leaders each week. But the smaller chains like Henry’s and Sprouts have a whole barrel of bargains on a weekly basis. A peek at my recent finds:

limes $0.10
kiwis $0.20
apples $0.49
lettuce $0.88
cuties $1.97
swiss chard $2
green onions$0.25
cucumbers $0.49
zucchini $0.88/lb
blackberries $0.97
tomatoes $0.88/lb
cilantro $0.25
broccoli $0.97/lb

When we lived in Kansas we did not eat a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Canned or frozen was usually cheaper. Here is San Diego, the reverse is true. If I watch the sales, I usually can get an assortment of fresh produce for very little money.

However, I have not had great luck at farmers’ markets. The prices are high and the salespeople unwelcoming. I feel quite lost. This was never the case when we lived farther north in California. It could be that times have changed or farmers’ market is too trendy to be cheap here in San Diego.

5. Grow your own.

That said, it’s not difficult to grow your own in Southern California. Don’t take last year’s garden as proof, but once upon a time, I really did have a green thumb. See?

One of the caveats of living in an expensive state is that property is expensive and backyards — like our current one — are small. FishPapa is devising a new and improved container gardening system for me. So, I hope to be harvesting my own tomatoes when I’m not mooching off his co-worker and his extensive yard full of vegetables and fruit trees.

If you can’t grow your own in So Cal, you probably know someone who does and is willing to share. My dad has blessed us with over 100 homegrown Meyer lemons this year from a backyard tree that is as old as I. And he says, it may be tapering off in its old age. Dad has always had a backyard garden bursting with every veggie imaginable. Some years, he has tomato plants that become perennial. They survive a mild winter and keep producing into the next growing season.

If you live in California, bloom where you’re planted and enjoy an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.

These strategies work wherever you live. And they can help you to eat well and spend less.

What do YOU do to save money on groceries?

This is part of the Eat Well, Spend Less series.

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Comments

  1. I am so envious of all the fresh produce you can access in Cali. Non-moving budget (it’s more with moving because I buy more convenience veggies, like prewashed salad mix for the weekends) I spend $60-75/week on fresh produce for our family. That is a mix of csa farm, local, organic and mostly, at this time of year, out of state.

    I know I could seriously reduce my bill living where you do. But then of course other things, like housing would cost more. As it is, we pay a similar percentage of our income for housing as we do food (we have a high food budget because we value local foods and also have a tenant to lower our housing costs), so I can’t complain.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @renee @ FIMBY, well, I am sure the number would be higher if I were buying the same quality of produce you are. I loved the CSA experience, but it was so hard to be spontaneous and adventuresome with things I wouldn’t normally buy. But, I keep thinking of going back to it. Maybe summertime?

      I am not sure you would spend less on produce here, buying the same thing you’re buying already. CSA is $35 a week.

      We have a great housing situation, but it’s almost 3x our food costs.

  2. Becky L. says:

    Thank you for such an encouraging post. We find out in May if we’ll be transferred from Coastal GA (just north of Jacksonville, FL) to Ventura, CA. The high cost of living has been a concern of mine. I’m happy to see one can feed their family well/healthy and not break the bank. :)

  3. Yup. Just goes to show that if you are flexible regarding your grocery ‘needs’ each week, you can save money, even on produce. I have a very short list of ‘standard’ fruits and veggies that I keep around almost all the time (potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, apples, bananas) but the rest depends on what’s on sale and what I’ve got in the garden and in jars in the pantry. My grocery budget (Idaho, 7 kids at home, including 5 teens) is $700-$800/mo, and that includes occasional splurges…we eat well for that price.
    Mary, mom to many

  4. I live in Central California, and I see food prices rise almost bi-annually. What I do to save on food expenses is cook from scratch, right down to the bread and noodles. I can also find an abundance of fresh fruit and veggies, so that is where we save as well. Last year I did a $150 month challenge for my family, and I can say that it is doable. I would by a whole chicken and make that meat last for three dinners, then I made chicken broth with the bones. I made my noodles by hand, made my own rice pilaf, salad dressing, granola, ect. It takes a lot of time, but it is worth it when you see how much you saved!

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @Nikki, where in Central CA are you? We used to live in SLO county and I found that farm stands and pick your owns were really bountiful and pretty affordable. Is that the case for you?

      • @Jessica Fisher, We are in Fresno County, and the fruit stands are everywhere now! As for price, it seems to be the same as last year. I bought a half a flat of strawberries for $10 last week. How is this price compared with your area?

        • Jessica Fisher says:

          @Nikki, well, one basket at Farmer’s Market is $4, so yours is a much better deal — and more like I remember it from the old days. LOL.

  5. If you come up here to shop the markets with me, you better bring some of those Meyer lemons! What a treat.

    Great post, I really enjoyed the peek into how you make shopping work for you.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Hubs, refuses to go east of the Rockies, but maybe if there are some hockey games involved, I could convince him. :)

  6. My husband and I started growing our veggies in the summer even though we have a tiny yard. We have a wooden fenced in back yard(meaning no one can see from the front) so I took up all the shrubbery on the sides of the house and we grow squash, cukes, tomatoes, peppers, even cantaloupes! Next, I am considering planting blueberry bushes in place of our azaleas and adding a fruit tree or two. I also want to get into rotating crops and growing things nearly year ’round. It is amazing how much you can grow in a little bit of space -usually enough for the summer and some freezing for the winter.

  7. I also think strategically stocking up on a sale, like potatoes at Ingles this week, 10# for 2.99.http://momonamission.me/?p=1515
    I bake these, make different sides and freeze items like twice baked potatoes, potato skins and make hashbrowns. Potato bar can feed a lot of people if you’re hosting a gathering. Creative thinking is a key component in saving, yet not eating the same things over and over.

  8. I wanted to let other readers know about
    http://www.thetreasurebox.org/ It is a welcome program put together to help those in CA (and a few other states) afford food. The boxes do have processed food, but like you mentioned sometimes that’s a means to an end.

    I’ve found living in Southern CA, that fresh produce is best from farm stands. I frequent the same one and they’ve come to know me quite well. They know what I like and will sometimes set things aside for me. Also, often they have produce set out for free, if it is getting a bit too ripe or just isn’t pretty enough to sell.

    I also buy from Azure Standard Co op. They deliver through out CA–as well as a few other states–and sell organic foods for about the same price conventional food is found in the grocery stores.

    • @MissMOE,

      Thanks for the info! I have just heard about the treasure chest at school and will be ordering some meals shortly. You mentioned “farm stands” and I was wondering If you could tell me if this is the same as a farmers market. I’m in the SFV and was interested so if you could give me more details I would really appreciate it.

      Thanks

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @MissMOE, great tips! Thank you! I’ll have to hunt down a good SD farm stand.

  9. I grew up in Southern California, but now I live in Las Vegas. Nothing is truly local (if the grocery ad says “locally grown” it also says “Southern California” right next to it. Likewise, the farmer’s markets are all from food driven in from Southern California, and it’s quite high priced) unless you grow it yourself.

    Where I live, zero-lot lines are pretty common, and some areas have outlawed fruit trees! We get 2 inches of rain a year, and the ground is so hard that the saleperson at the nursery asked me if I had jackhammered the holes for my trees (they aren’t joking).

    Nevertheless, we’ve brought in dirt, and we grow as much as we can. We have an edible landscape, where we strive to make the most out of the space that we have. We use the cinder block walls to grow things upwards (grapes and espaliered fruit trees). All of the trees in our yard are edible. In the space between the a/c units and the next door naighbor (it’s a foot-wide planter, mostly on top of the concrete wall footer), we grow blackberries.

    We take advantage of the year-round good weather to grow things all year long.

    I just hosted a garden tour last week, showing people how to make the most of the small spaces that we have here. There is a lot that you can grow, if you’re willing to look at your garden in a different way from the traditional garden.

    By the way, swiss chard is very easy to grow, and it grows year-round here (it will grow to 15º for those in colder climates). It’s very easy to incorporate into front yard plantings (I did it at my last house, and no one even knew I had edibles in the front yard!)

    We are a family of 8 as well, and bulk buying is one of our biggest helps. Like you, we buy a #10 can of tomato sauce and make our own spaghetti sauce. We buy oats, rice, popcorn, wheat, and more in bulk.

    We’ve changed our eating plans more in the last year (as being underemployed will do). Before, I used to strive to feed my family for $2-$5 a meal for all of us. Lately, we’re eating for $0.35 to $1.00 for all 8 of us. It’s amazing what you can do when you need to.

  10. I love your blog and I love reading the comments from people like The Prudent Homemaker and Mary Ostyn! So wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing. I have also been chronicling my family’s endeavors to eat well on a minuscule budget. I currently feed my family of 6 on a little over $250 a month by doing a lot of the things you mention like buying on sale and stocking up, and also by growing and preserving a bunch too. I am so looking forward to warmer weather and the rhubarb and asparagus that is growing in my garden!!
    I recently started a 10 part series on how I keep my grocery budget low. Part 3 is tomorrow! Yesterday I blogged about some stock up prices I found last weekend at the grocery stores. I was especially excited to find wild caught salmon for $3.99 a pound. You can read here if you’re curious.

    http://simplifylivelove.blogspot.com/2011/04/grocery-buys-44-4-17.html

    Thanks again for your wonderful recipes and fabulous tips.

  11. soccermom says:

    I think your tips are excellent and can help us all save money on groceries. I can’t imagine paying California prices for housing and other expenses, but I wonder if your groceries might not actually be cheaper due to one main thing…competition. I live in a small city in the middle of the country and we only have a few grocery stores so there is absolutely no competition. As a result, the prices are quite a bit higher than what I see in other more populated places. None of our stores have loyalty cards, double coupons, etc. We also don’t have great quality and nothing like a Whole Foods to buy good organic produce and such. Being so far from where most fruits and vegetables are grown means that nothing in the store is very local or very fresh. I’m envious of your options! Thanks so much for all the great advice you offer on your blog.

  12. I have followed you for a little while and just today realized you are also in San Diego, like me. It’s good to see a blogger saving in the same environment as me! LOL Yes, our “kroger” store is consistently higher than I see on other midwest blogs. I coupon, grow some of my own and hit several stores a week. It works for us. We are a family of 6.

  13. Samantha says:

    I moved to Northern CA 9 years ago and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I go to the Farmer’s Market almost every Saturday. I’m willing to pay a little more to support the farmers and get truly fresh produce. I just paid $9 for 3 pints of organic strawberries and asparagus is a good deal right now too.

    I’m in awe of your grocery budget but love the fact you show it can be done without feeding your family garbage!

  14. I got your post sent to me through my homeschooling co-op.

    We are from S Ca as well. Last year we spent the same as you on eating out and $1000 more on groceries for a family of 4. I’m a little embarrassed! Our groceries are 90% organic, include very very little processed foods, and raw dairy (over $6 for half gallon but in my opinion worth every penny).

    I’m realizing I need to cut down a bit. Since I’m not willing to sacarifice on quality I’m changing what we eat at bit. I’ve been making vegetarian meals a few nights a week using dry beans I buy from Azure Standard and soak over night. I also buy bulk oats, whole chickens, and block cheese from them. Comparatively it costs about the same as the grocery store but it’s higher quality. I also belong to a CSA which saved and makes us eat things we night not eat otherwise. I can stretch a whole chicken for 3-4 meals. I never buy soda or juice and instead that money goes toward our raw milk. I also brew kombucha and water kefir for pennies. Next week I’m picking up part of a cow. I hoping this will help us save. Trader Joe’s has good deals on some things. Lastly, I’m a personal trainer and one of my client’s husband is a fisherman so we’ll trade training for fish right off the boat.

    I’d like to learn how to get coupons but not sure where to find them. The few times I’ve looked at them in the paper they were just for foods I wouldn’t buy but I forgot about using them for paper products and stuff. Duh. I need to look into it more.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Don’t be embarassed. It’s sounds like you’re doing a good job, especially for what you’re buying. I’ve priced all those things you mention and know that they are pricey here.

      I just can’t bring myself to pay the price yet. Though, a very freaky experience with a grocery store chicken is making me rethink some things. LOL.

      I think we each have to do what we can as we’re convicted to eat and shop.

      Welcome to LifeasMOM!

  15. I live in San Diego and have found the same things to be true about Farmer’s Markets – there are better deals at the Henry’s down the street from me than I have ever found at the local Farmer’s Market! And I agree that they are confusing and not always helpful. I think my local one has turned into more of a food court, though, than a produce market. :) Thanks for these tips!

  16. I’m in Orange County and while I do shop at the farmer’s market, I am finding that the “trend” factor is killing off the friendly/helpful/cost-efficient factor. I just read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Kingsolver makes it sound like the Farmer’s Market is this glorious organic bastion of friendliness. I have yet to find that. Only surly people who act like you’re bugging them by asking about how their produce is grown. Siiiigh.
    I’m still trying to work out the fine balance between keeping us on a budget/saving money and buying organic/local/ethically raised food products.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      I’ve had a similar experience farther south in San Diego county. Not surliness so much, but unhelpfulness. Hang in there!

  17. I was so tickled to see Henry’s in your photos and ads. I drive a whole 15 minutes to get to Henry’s here (gasp! So Cal where there are three grocery stores plus costco in a seven minute range!)…just because their prices on produce are so good. I’m always talking about it. Thanks for the nitty gritty on shopping…love it!

  18. So glad that I found your site. I was born and raised in San Diego, so its so encouraging to find others trying to survive and stay here. I just recently starting couponing and its a real challenge to stay on top of the sales at our different grocery stores. Its very difficult to find better deals than Costco especially when they have a coupon for an item, i.e. diapers. My husband is self-employed and we’re expecting our 2nd child this year, so we’re trying to save money how ever we can. Thanks for the awesome tips! I look forward to your next post. :)

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