How Costco Saved My Food Budget

Is it me or are food prices out of control?   It seems as if product quantities are continually shrinking, while their prices are steadily increasing.

There is no doubt that trying to feed a family on a budget is challenging.  If you are trying to feed your family healthy meals, the challenge is even greater.  Factor in homes where there are dietary restrictions due to food allergies and intolerances and you have what seems to be an impossible feat.

I feel your pain on all three levels.

I enjoy cooking, and while I do not need to feast on filet mignon and lobster tails, I do like to focus on good quality, whole foods while preparing my meals.  I’m not into processed foods, but when I do purchase them, I am very discriminating, avoiding artificial ingredients, preservatives, and as much garbage as possible.  I purchase organic items when I can, but have loosened my grip on that a bit in order to work around my food budget.  Some of my children and I have food allergies, making the purchase of special foods mandatory.  I am a stay at home mom; we’re living on a single blue collar salary.  Things are tight.

I have to be honest.  For several years my food budget was out of control.  While I tried my best to make every dollar stretch, it just never seemed to be enough.  I was not buying extravagantly either; I’m just talking about necessities.

About two years ago I really felt burdened to get this under control.  I was not being a good steward of what the Lord had given me.  He had already provided me with what I needed, and it was my responsibility to find ways to make it work.

I prayed a lot, and then sat down to try to identify specific problem areas.  Was I buying needless items?  Was I not planning meals?  Was I foregoing a shopping list?  Was I too set in my ways?  Was I wasting the food we had?  Was I not shopping the sales?

I answered yes to some of those questions, not all, but a few.  But then, it hit me.  The problem in our home was quantity.  For years my food budget reflected a home with younger children.  I now had two teenage boys and one preteen boy.  They ate like adults not little kids.  They were not gluttons; they were growing, active boys.  They ate more.  That was the simple reality.

For a time, I worked to ration our food.  I would portion food out into little snack bags.  I would refuse to make a second trip to the grocery store once food shopping was completed.  This helped a bit, but it didn’t solve the problem.

Then a friend popped over.  Her family situation was very similar to mine.  She focused on feeding her family wholesome food, organic when possible.  She had to navigate food allergies.  She also had teenagers to feed. We got to talking about the struggle we both had in making our dollar work for us.  She told me that she had been shopping more and more at big box stores like Costco.  I shopped at Costco…for water.  But Costco scared me…seriously.  Those big cases came with big price tags.  I didn’t see how this would help me.  I also had the notion that nothing wholesome could be found down the aisles of Costco.  I found our conversation interesting, but not something that I would consider.

However, I must admit that the Costco conversation kept coming to mind.  I couldn’t ignore it.  So, the next time I went to Costco for water I decided that I would walk the aisles and look around.

I did and discovered two things:  there were many organic items, some that I used regularly, filling nearly every aisle, and, their prices were reasonable, and in some cases, insanely good!

So, I decided to do a one month experiment.  I would take my food money and allot two-thirds of it to shopping at Costco, while leaving one-third of it for shopping at my regular grocery store.   I shop once every two weeks.  I would buy enough for two weeks at a time, splitting some of the items up and storing them in the basement for the second week.

Fast forward one year later.  I am still following the plan.  The experiment was a success.  Costco has provided us with the quantity we need and has allowed me to spend less money.  I still shop at the grocery store for meat and other items, but the bulk of my items come from Costco.

I do forewarn you that not everything is cheaper at Costco.  You certainly need to compare prices and make decisions accordingly.  If I know that I can make a wiser purchase at the grocery store or online, then I do.  I have to shop carefully, only with cash, to avoid picking up items that I do not need.  I also tend to shop alone; that keeps me focused on buying what is needed, not what someone else wants.  Like all other big box stores, there is a yearly fee, but I have figured out that I save a whole lot more money this way, even taking into account the membership charges.

To hammer home the point, the items below were purchased at Costco.  I also went to my grocery store to find out the price of the same item (or comparable).  The numbers say it all.

Silk Almond Milk:

Costco:                 $7.69 for three half gallons
Grocery Store:    $3.99 for one half gallon

Udi’s Gluten Free Bread:

Costco:                 $7.59 for a 30 oz. loaf
Grocery Store:    $4.99 for a 12oz. loaf

Organic Frozen Blueberries:

Costco:                    $11.99 for three pounds
Grocery Store:       $3.99 for 10 oz.

English (Hothouse) Cucumbers:

Costco:                  $3.99 for three
Grocery Store:     $2.99 for one

Kind Bars:

Costco:                   $12.99 for 24 bars (about $0.54 per bar)
Grocery Store:      $2.99 for one five bar box (about $0.60 per bar)

Classico Tomato Sauce:

Costco:                  $7.49 for three 32 oz. jars (about $0.07 per oz)
Grocery Store:     $2.50 for one 24 oz. jar (about $0.10 per oz.)

Organic Maple Syrup:
Costco – $11.99 for 32 oz.
Grocery Store – $19.99 for 32 oz.

Crest Mouthwash:
Costco – $6.99 for three liters
Grocery Store – $5.69 for one liter

Organic Eggs:
Costco – $6.99 for two dozen
Grocery Store – $4.49 for one dozen

This system works for our family.  This is not an advertisement for Costco (I do not receive any money or consideration from Costco or the brands above).  I have simply outlined what I have done to keep within my food budget.

There are other ways to trim down your food bill, but I will keep those tucked away for a post in the near future.

Basil, Beans, and a Buck Too Much: The $20 Challenge


With one round of our family’s $20 Cooking Challenge in the books, we sought out our next recruit.  My eldest son stood up and took the challenge.  My oldest son is very organized and to his testament has proven himself to be quite wise with his finances, albeit his limited finances.

In preparation for our trip to the store, my son had prepared a detailed shopping list.  Very good.  Lists are helpful.  They keep us on track.  He knew exactly what he would prepare: chicken, basil, and mozzarella panini  sandwiches with white bean dip and fresh vegetables.  Although not on his list, he was holding out hope that somehow he would be able to manage to sneak dessert in there.  I was not so optimistic about dessert becoming a reality.  With $20 in hand and my wallet at home…yes, I decided I would leave my wallet home…we set out for the grocery store.

First up, bread.  Normally, I purchase a round loaf of Italian bread from a local bakery.  Unbeknownst to my son, I typically make that purchase directly from the bakery, with a coupon, making it half the price of what he was about to see at the supermarket.   He picked up the familiar loaf, looked at the price tag, glanced at me, and said, “$4.50?  Really?”  Into the basket it went.

Next on the list, chicken.  This was going to be expensive.  Chicken was not on sale, and I knew that he would need at least three chicken breasts for his meal.  We scoured through the packages priced between $9.00 and $12.00 and quickly determined that chicken breasts were going to break the bank.  I pointed out other options.  In addition, I told my son that he could change his menu around, taking into consideration some meat options that were on sale.  Nope.  Chicken panini sandwiches were going to happen…somehow.  We finally decided on a hefty package of chicken tenders that was within his price range.

We scooped up a smaller than anticipated block of mozzarella along with two cans of white beans.

“Are you sure you need two cans of beans?  They’re inexpensive, but will you really need that much dip?”

My son responded, “Yes, we really like the dip and the beans are cheap.  One extra can of beans won’t be a big deal.”

Maybe. Maybe not….

Our last stop was the produce section.  I don’t normally purchase much produce from the grocery store.  The majority of our fruits and vegetables come courtesy of a local co-op group, so I knew that my son would really be taken back by the price tags in this aisle.   To boot, it’s February in the Northeast.  Produce prices are at their highest and selection is at its lowest.   He rounded up a bag of mini carrots, a red pepper, a cucumber, and a package of grape tomatoes.  I stopped him and encouraged him to add up the items in his basket.  After weighing the pepper and determining its cost to be roughly $2.00, my son’s total calculation came in over $25, and he had not even picked up basil yet.

“Mom, do you have any extra money on you?”

“Why, as a matter of fact I don’t;  I seemed to have left my wallet at home,” I replied.

With head lowered and eyebrow raised, he asked, “Now what?”

“You can change the menu, trim it down, or make substitutions,” I said.

Well, substitutions would become the word of the day because, again, we were going to have those panini sandwiches tonight one way or another.   So back to the bread aisle we went to discover that two thin baguettes would be $1.50 cheaper than his original loaf.  Score.  We exchanged the original package of chicken for a slightly smaller one.   Back in the produce section, we put back the pepper, exchanged the bagged mini carrots for full sized carrots that were cheaper, and then turned out attention to the basil.  It was $3.29.  Ouch!  I told him that he could probably get away with using dried basil instead, and that would be under a buck. “No way” was the response I received.  I knew that my son would only need about half of the package of basil for his meal.

“If I had my wallet with me, I would offer to purchase half of your basil.  I could use it at another meal.”

Quick thinking as my son is, he responded, “You have money in the van.”


“In the cup holder.  I saw a few quarters.  I’ll be right back.”

I stood there waiting and watching the produce manager pass me yet again, likely wondering what in the world was going on…I had been there a long time.  My son returned with five quarters.  We picked up the basil and did a little happy dance knowing that now we were slightly under budget (courtesy of my basil offer).  We made our way to the cashier but decided to take one more look at the chicken to see if we could save a bit more.  I kid you not, as we were looking at the chicken, I heard the familiar sound of coins hitting, what I thought, was the floor.  I turned to my son who informed me that two of the quarters fell into the front grate of the meat freezer…into the abyss…gone for good.

No way!  What to do?  Laugh, that’s what you do.  With that I told my son that he needed to have a plan in the event that we didn’t have enough money to pay.  He decided that he would put back the second can of beans if we were over budget.

As we waited in line, I leaned over to my son and asked, “Can you buy me a package of candy?”


When all was said and done, the bill came to $20.13.  With my purchase of half of the basil, my son would come in under budget.

I was exhausted.  In the time it takes me to do an entire food shop, we shopped for one meal.  But what fun the two of us had.  My son learned the art of finding suitable substitutions.  He actually did a fantastic job making his plan work.  On our drive home he asked me if I always spend twenty dollars on our dinners.  I told him that I typically spend less.  I also told him that I tend to shop the sales.  Normally, I never would have purchased chicken that week because of the price.

Making good choices is important, not just at the food store but clear across the board in life.  Even though my son was determined to make his panini sandwiches, he may have needed to change his plan.  There are too many people walking around who have the mentality that “I am going to get what I want, no matter what”.   I told him that we can’t just walk through life determined to get what we want, when we want it, regardless of the price.  Sometimes the price is big…and I am not referring to the price tag at the store.

Who knew there would be so many practical lessons and discussions that would ensue from this little experiment.

As for dinner, the “panini” sandwiches were delicious (but were no longer paninis due to the bread exchange).  The dip was spot on and the veggies just right.  Again, I enjoyed a wonderful time shopping, preparing, and cooking alongside my son.