California on a Budget: Grocery Shopping

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If you live or travel within California, or plan to in the near future, it would be in your best interests to discover all the wonderful ways you can make ends meet in the Golden State. Whether you find entertainment out of doors or master the ways of the mouse without a million dollars, there are plenty of ways to live in California on a budget.

And one of the most important places to watch your spending is at the grocery store. While there is a food shop on almost any corner, not all grocers are created equal. And if you want to stretch your dollars as far as you can, then you need to know the lay of the land.

Here are some of the most prevalent sources of food in Southern California:

Costco – has great prices on milk, dairy, cheese, bread, organic produce, pasta, and beans. The food court rocks with $10 pizzas and buck fifty hot dog combo. Just don’t get sucked in to the “low prices” in other areas of the store. Not everything is a great deal at Costco, so do some price comparisons before buying.

Health Food Stores – you wouldn’t expect to find low deals at a health food store, but places like Sprouts and Henry’s Farmers markets offer fantastic prices on fresh produce, dairy, meat, and bulk items. Buy your packaged foods someplace else.

Farmer’s Market – This is generally the source of the freshest, local produce to be found, often organic. Our growing season is looooooong in California, so you can buy fresh grown foods almost all year long. There’s a friendly vibe at most farmer’s markets as well as lots of yummy snacks and samples.

Super Walmart and Target – These big discount stores are becoming more prevalent as local restrictions on their grocery components diminish. You can often could great prices and sales with coupons to get great deals. Walmart used to be the best deal in town, but that appears to have changed. It’s the best deal on some things.

Smart and Final – This store offers bulk shopping at low prices without a club membership. Can be a great deal if you know your prices. Quality is generally not as good as Costco, though.

Trader Joe’s – Once upon a time, TJ’s offered rock bottom prices on most items. They still offer great deals on many organic and natural foods items, but the price is not as competitive as it was 20 years ago. It’s hip now and has a price tag to go with. Their hummus is awesome, and their convenience items taste better than the competitor’s.

Fresh and Easy – This is the new kid in town. I’ve watched stores pop up all over Southern California over the last year. These stores are low-maintenance in that they are all self-check. They offer lots of convenience packaging as in bundles of cucumbers or bags of carrots rather than something that needs to be weighed. Extensive offerings with lots of gourmet or organic choices. Not the lowest prices around, but good coupons and specials.

A few other caveats:

The State of California charges a fee for all bottles and cans called the CRV (California Redemption Value). This is supposedly “redeemable,” but in our experience, you don’t get back the full price of the fee you paid.

“Soon” the state government will also be charging a fee or tax on plastic and paper bags in an effort to make consumers use reusable shopping bags. I’m not sure how “soon” soon is since the grocery store has been telling me this for two years and it’s never happened. At the moment, some grocery stores offer a cashback incentive for using reusable bags. This can be a good way to earn back some of your money spent.

How do you save money on groceries?

Disclaimer: Neither the California Board of Tourism nor the California Realtors’ Association have ever heard of me. I freely offer up my opinions regarding life in the Golden State. I represent the experiences of one family who has lived in four different California counties. My opinion is just that — my opinion. Feel free to disagree. Your mileage may vary.

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  1. Thanks for all the tips. I would add Food 4 Less to the list of places to shop. If you know your local store prices, they can have some good deals.

    I also wanted to comment on one of the things you mentioned above. I live in San Luis Obispo County, California and the fee for bags has already started here. Plastic bags are no longer allowed(except for produce and meet bags) and we are charged for paper bags. We basically have 2 choices- bring reusable bags from home, or pay 10 cents per paper bag. Oh-It isn’t just grocery stores. Target, Walmart, Kohls, Staples, JC Penny, Sears, Barnes and Noble, Wallgreens, etc. must all follow the bag ban as well. Since it’s already happened here, I’m guessing it won’t be long before it happens other places in California.

  2. My family and I just moved to the Oceanside area from Louisiana (I noticed this was written a few years ago so you’ve probably all noticed). Sprouts has started charging for the bags. I’m still feeling my way around the grocery stores here and trying my best to have budget friendly meals. I’m very excited to have found your website/blog, and just bought the kindle version of your cookbook. Thanks for the great tips!

    1. Welcome to the Golden State! We moved back four years ago and since then have almost exclusively used my own bags, so I didn’t know that Sprouts charged for bags. They give me a five cent credit to use my own.

  3. Monterey, CA here… I shop Costco, Savemart, Safeway (Vons), Target and Grocery Outlet. Savemart & Safeway can have random sales w/a coupon matchup on good things, so I take advantage when they do. Plus Safeway has Just4U which offers personalized pricing on things you buy most often (which really helps in the long run). Grocery Outlet is kinda the “scratch & dent” locally, but I’ve never had a problem with anything expired or gross or even dented, lol. The stores are clean and offer rock-bottom prices on name brand items: Horizon Organic Milk half-gallon $1.50?! Serious! The selection rotates but you can have some good scores. I regularly buy specialty cheese there because it’s way less expensive than anywhere else.

  4. I agree with a lot of the other moms on here- Winco does have some pretty good prices on their canned and boxed items, but their produce is pretty bad. We do a once a month Costco shop for a few items (mostly their chicken, drink mixes, salad, seasonings), and hit winco for most of our canned items. Then we do the sale/loss leader items from the grocery stores around here. It keeps our budget really low. I coupon off and on, mostly just at super target. The grocery stores around here don’t double coupons (not even our ralphs), but we have so many stores you can usually find a pretty good deal with a bit of planning.

  5. We live in Bakersfield and i shop at Costco, Food maxx (great fresh cheap produce) and WinCo (food priced great but produce i dont like) the most, no where in my town has double coupons anymore but i try to stretch our money to go as far as we can get it to go.

  6. I have a little hispanic store I go to for Queso Fresco, fresh tortillas and some breads. For me, Trader Joes have some great cheese prices!

  7. ditto on the So Cal markets. By using a combo of stores: Sunland Produce, Henry’s, 99 Cent Only and Fresh and Easy, my man and I are able to EASILY spend less than $150/m. This includes $28 for beer and wine. It also includes paper products! All whole, unprocessed foods. Eating healthy is sooo cheap if you know where to go and keep to a budget ( very important).

  8. We live in So California and shop at most of the stores you mentioned. I’m not very close to a Sprouts or Henry’s so that’s a bit rare. My favorites are Costco, TJs, Fresh and Easy, Costco, and Stater Brothers AND I would totally echo the comment about the Hispanic market and produce. We have 2 near us- Valu Mart and Bestway and I bet they have lowered my grocery budget by close to $40 a month in these stores alone. The produce prices are amazing. It’s not unusual to see pears 4lbs. for a dollar, oranges 8 lbs. for dollar, apples 3 or 4 lbs. for a dollar., cucumbers 8 for $1. I LOVE it. Definitely check to see if you have one near by. Produce day is the best.

  9. One store you missed, probably because it’s not in your part of CA. Winco. The fresh produce can be iffy, but the canned & boxed goods often have the best prices in town. And they have lots of bulk bins for many items (nuts, grains, flours, spices and more). I never did it, but I’m told you can order full bags of the bulk bin items. I’ve missed that store, Costco and Trader Joe’s since moving to OK! Oh, and Sam’s does not compare in my opinion.

  10. I love your suggestions and definitely agree with all of the above for California. I live near San Diego and cost of living is ridiculous. Anyway I can save money and still prepare healthy food for my family is always needed. I use a lot of coupons. Ralphs (the grocery chain) offers double coupons and I have saved upwards of $50 on a single shopping trip. Clipping coupons and scanning the sales is time consuming but worth it!

  11. Great post! We live just north of you in Temecula, so I shop at most of the same places. I will add, though, that Walmart matches prices from any competitor’s ad! This saves me so much money (and time) as we have a big Super Walmart out here with any food/ organic/ meat item you can imagine. I know that it’s harder to do all shopping at the regular size Walmarts but I do love the Super size store and all of the deals therein. I LOVE Costco, too, and I even get all the kiddos pumped about going there as I treat them to the hot dog combo 🙂 Fun times! Thank you SO much for your sites. I read daily and I have to tell you that EVERY. SINGLE. RECIPE. I’ve ever tried from has been a hit around here. I’ve got a hubby and four picky kiddos and I’ve yet to see them refuse any of your recipes. Thank you so much!!!

    1. Oh fun! Thanks for the encouragement. Glad to hear I’m on the right track.

  12. I’m just learning how to be smart when I shop but I have three rules I live by.

    1) I am not store loyal. I check who has what on sale and compare it to what we need. I rarely shop the same place two weeks in a row.

    2) I stick to my budget. I run a tally in my head until I reach my limit. If everything isn’t checked off I make adjustments & put things back.

    3) If what I’m looking for isn’t there, I walk out of the store. I learned this lesson the hard way one week and ended up busting my budget & not buying our meat for the week.

  13. I love your disclaimer! Perhaps those organizations should start listening to you!

    I’ve recently started shopping more at Aldi’s. I’m averaging less than $70 per bi-weekly trip for our family of 4 (two adults, 1 teen boy and 1 toddler boy that doesn’t eat enough to keep a mouse least not in my presence!) I may have to pick up some specialty items at another store but I know I’m spending less between the 2 places then I’d spend if I just shopped at Kroger or some place similar. And of course there are in between stops for milk and other essentials but I really try to plan ahead and avoid extra trips since extra trips = extra money!

    We don’t have Costco in Indiana (boo!) but we do have the Wal-Mart equivalent in Sam’s Club. We buy a very limited number of items (diapers for now, some snack things, some personal care items, macaroni, baking supplies) because we don’t have a lot of storage space. I also want to make sure we’re actually USING what we buy. We’ve had the membership for about 2 years now and so far the only “why did I buy that?” item is a big can of instant Chai tea mix. I’ve used it once. *sigh*

    I wish we had half of California’s growing season! I am already going through farmer’s market withdrawal…

    1. Hi, I am not sure where you live in Indiana, but there are two Costcos. They are around the Indy area.

  14. I live in So. Cal. as well and I find that I love the local hispanic market for meat and produce. They have one day produce sales and one day meat sales every week which beat out prices everywhere else around me i.e. 10lbs onions for $1, 3 heads of romaine lettuce for $1, 3lbs of plums for $1, 4lbs banana’s for $1. Those are just a few of the items I have purchased in the past 2 weeks. I love the fresh quality of their produce!

  15. I live in Nor Cal and we use coupon matchups for a couple different grocery stores. We also go to costco for butter, milk, and bacon when I can’t find a better deal. 🙂 We try to spend less than $400/month on groceries for our family of 7.

  16. Our grocery stores have been “talking” for a while now about charging for plastic bags. I try to always use my reusable bags! But if I take my dh truck, he doesn’t have any in there. Hummm guess its time to start getting some for his truck! I wish the stores would offer more of them for free when you buy certain items. (they usually only do this once or twice a year)

  17. Smart and Final is now called GFS here in South Florida … and I am with you 100% about the quality vs Costco. I save most of the money by doing the dairy and produce (primarly salad like stuff) through Costco, milk is over $1 less a gallon, lettuce is like 1/2 price of regular store. Of course, make a list and stick tight with it, put on your blinders and stay out of those side aisles! My other tip IF you do Costco is take CASH only, no debit or american express. Definately keeps you in line then!