How to Save Money on Groceries for Cooks on a Budget
In the aisles of a grocery store, nobody pinches a penny harder than I do -- except the master who taught me: The 99 Cent Chef, a.k.a. Billy Vasquez. He's a longtime pal from Los Angeles who started a popular blog in 2007. His specialty: creating scrumptious dishes that keep him on budget by using only ingredients from the 99 Cents Only Stores, a West Coast chain that offers deep discounts on mostly name-brand foods.
Over the years, the 99 Cent Chef has branched out, shopping at other stores -- but one thing remains constant: He's the champ of turning cheap ingredients into delightful, inventive meals. Here are his top three shopping tips.
1. Stock up on Holiday Deals
The frugal forager never shops full retail -- except during holidays, when regular chain grocery stores like Safeway and Kroger offer screaming deals on the stuff at the top of our grocery lists. "I like to go at Thanksgiving, when turkey goes for less than a dollar a pound," says Vasquez. "Or on St. Patrick's Day -- hey, corned beef for less than two dollars a pound!"
The 4th of July and Labor Day find the chef scoring BBQ deals on hot dogs, ground beef, and corn on the cob which he gleefully grills up for his lucky wife and friends. Stock up and freeze these in-season scores.
2. Shop Ethnic
Like many big cities, Los Angeles is rich with immigrant communities and, as Billy learned when he first moved there, ethnic grocery stores are a great place to buy cheap produce, in part because these Mom and Pop markets offer veggies that aren't picture-perfect. "I have a Latin market within walking distance that sells six small avocados for a dollar, two mangoes for a dollar, two pounds pinto beans for a dollar," says Vasquez.
When he wants to create surprising appetizers, the 99 Cent Chef heads to the Little Armenia section of Hollywood for rich feta cheese, salty Kalamata olives, pomegranates, and pita bread – exotic but inexpensive, when you know where to buy.
3. Don't Fear Discount Stores
Coached by the cheap chef, I started shopping at discount markets, and now I'm hooked, big time. I was expecting these stores to be a dingy hot mess, but instead I found the Grocery Outlet stores around Seattle to be air conditioned, clean, organized, and selling a lot of the same brands I find at Safeway or even Whole Foods.
Because most discount and salvage grocery stores get their food from retail chain overstocks or directly from manufacturers, you might also be surprised how nice and "normal" discount markets can be. These chains include United Grocery Outlet and Aldi on the East Coast, and Grocery Outlet and 99 Cents Only Stores in the West.
Billy for one has taken a deep dive into the 99 Cents Only Stores, where nearly everything is, well, 99 cents or less. "I go to different 99 Cents Only Stores for different reasons," he says. "The Hollywood branch carries beer and wine (not all stores do) and the Beverly Hills 99 Cents Only Store (how's that for an oxymoron?) is stocked with plenty of fresh produce, as well as organic canned goods." Billy shows up at the South LA store on Sundays to buys staples like ground turkey, oatmeal, and potatoes while admiring the other customers all dressed up for church.