My family’s weekly grocery bill packs a wallop. I cut coupons, invest time in menu planning and scan ads for good deals. But our food budget climbs — especially during the holiday season. Every time I peer into my refrigerator, I wonder: Am I getting the best deal on groceries?
So I decided to answer that question once and for all. For this column, I visited seven different grocery stores in one day — and did nothing but take pictures of pricetags. On my shopping list were eight items I typically pick up for the week: a gallon of milk, a carton of eggs, butter, rice, potatoes, carrots, chicken breasts and ground beef. Actually, make that 16 items total, because I also compared the prices between conventional and organic foods.
I visited Fred Meyer, PCC, QFC, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, WinCo and Whole Foods, all on Dec. 12. Except for PCC in Edmonds, all of the stores visited were in Lynnwood. I didn’t include Albertsons in my comparison because the one in Lynnwood is now a Safeway.
I looked for the cheapest brand available for each item, which typically was the store brand. If some items weren’t available, I found the next best thing: When I couldn’t find a 3-pound bag of potatoes, I marked down the price for 5 pounds. If the store didn’t have 85 percent lean ground beef, I looked at 93 percent lean.
Though the prices listed in this column might differ from current offers, they still offer a fair comparison of stores and items.
Fred Meyer: $2.59 conventional; $5.99 organic
PCC: not available; $6.49
QFC: $2.69; $5.99
Safeway: $2.99; $5.99
Trader Joe’s: $2.99; $5.49
WinCo: $1.88; $5.98
Whole Foods: $3.79; $5.99
Dozen cage-free eggs
Fred Meyer: $2.49 conventional; $3.99 organic
PCC: $3.50; $4.70
QFC: $2.49; $4.29
Safeway: $2.99; $3.79
Trader Joe’s: $2.99; $3.99
WinCo: $3.15; $4.66
Whole Foods: $2.99; $3.99
Pound salted butter
Fred Meyer: $2.50 conventional; $4.99 organic
PCC: n/a; $5.99
QFC: $2.50; $5.99
Safeway: $3.59; $4.49
Trader Joe’s: $2.99; $4.49
WinCo: $3.24; n/a
Whole Foods: $3.49; $4.49
Pound brown rice
Fred Meyer: 89 cents conventional; $1.50 ($2.99 for 2 pounds) organic
PCC: n/a; $3 ($5.99 for 2 pounds)
QFC: $1.59; $2.35 ($4.69 for 2 pounds)
Safeway: $1.50; $2.50 ($4.99 for 2 pounds)
Trader Joe’s: $1.50 ($2.99 for 2 pounds); $2.25 ($4.49 for 2 pounds)
WinCo: 99 cents; $2.56 ($5.12 for 2 pounds)
Whole Foods: n/a; $2.40 ($4.79 for 2 pounds)
3 pounds russet potatoes
Fred Meyer: 95 cents ($1.59 for 5 pounds) conventional; $2.49 organic
PCC: n/a; $2.99 ($4.99 for 5 pounds)
QFC: $1.19 ($1.99 for 5 pounds); $3.87
Safeway: $1.19 ($1.99 for 5 pounds); $3.99
Trader Joe’s: $1.69; $2.39 ($3.99 for 5 pounds)
WinCo: 77 cents ($1.28 for 5 pounds); n/a
Whole Foods: n/a; $2.21 ($3.69 for 5 pounds)
Pound baby carrots
Fred Meyer: $1.39 conventional; $1.89 organic
PCC: n/a; $1.69
QFC: $1.59; $1.69
Safeway: $1.49; $1.99
Trader Joe’s: 74 cents ($1.49 for 2 pounds); $1.29
WinCo: 98 cents; $1.78
Whole Foods: $1.29; $2.49 ($4.98 for 2 pounds)
Pound chicken breasts
Fred Meyer: $4.99 conventional; $6.49 organic
PCC: $4.99; $6.99
QFC: $7.99; $6.99
Safeway: $5.49; $7.99
Trader Joe’s: $4.99; $6.49
WinCo: $2.99; $7.98
Whole Foods: $4.99; $6.99
Pound ground beef (85% lean)
Fred Meyer: $5.49 (93-percent lean) conventional; $6.49 organic
PCC: $6.99; $8.99
QFC: $5.99; $7.99
Safeway: $6.59 (grass-fed); $7.99
Trader Joe’s: $4.99; $6.99
WinCo: $4.18; $5.98
Whole Foods: $4.99; $7.99
Total grocery bill
Fred Meyer: $21.93 (5 pounds of potatoes and 93-percent lean beef) conventional; $35.32 (2 pounds of rice) organic
PCC: $15.48 (eggs, chicken and beef only); $45.83 (2 pounds of rice and 5 pounds of potatoes)
QFC: $26.83 (5 pounds of potatoes); $41.50 (2 pounds of rice)
Safeway: $26.63 (5 pounds of potatoes); $41.22 (2 pounds of rice)
Trader Joe’s: $25.12 (2 pounds each of rice and carrots); $37.22 (5 pounds of potatoes and 2 pounds of rice)
WinCo: $18.69 (5 pounds of potatoes); $31.50 (without butter or potatoes and with 2 pounds of rice)
Whole Foods: $24.03 (without rice or potatoes); $42.91 (5 pounds of potatoes and 2 pounds each of rice and carrots)
Winner winner, chicken dinner
According to my numbers, WinCo is the cheapest store for conventional foods, with Fred Meyer as a close second. WinCo is about 15 percent cheaper than Fred Meyer and 30 percent more affordable than QFC. PCC only had three items on my conventional list, so it was eliminated from the total bill contest. WinCo didn’t have organic butter or potatoes, so it was eliminated from that contest.
If you average out all of the stores I visited, the premium for organic versus conventional foods is 36 percent. PCC, Safeway, QFC, WinCo and Whole Foods all have similar prices for the organic items on my shopping list.
With all of the items accounted for, Fred Meyer offers the best deals on organic foods, with Trader Joe’s coming in second place. Fred Meyer is 5 percent cheaper than Trader Joe’s, 15 percent more affordable than Safeway and QFC, 18 percent cheaper than Whole Foods and 23 percent less expensive than PCC.
Just out of milk? WinCo offers the best deal on conventional milk at $1.88 per gallon. Trader Joe’s has the best deal on organic milk, selling it for the everyday price of $5.49 per gallon.
Chop your budget
According to the USDA’s latest numbers, in September the average family of four spent between $642.70 and $1,282.10 a month on groceries — a difference of 49 percent. Of course, many factors could explain the wide gap between the thrifty and organic shopping lists. Frugality, poverty, vegetarianism, veganism, convenience, environmentalism and a commitment to eating local all play a part in what we decide to put on our tables.
My conclusion? Grocery shopping is hard work. And balancing your health and your grocery budget is complicated.
I went to seven stores in one day so you don’t have to. I hope that my reconnaissance can help us all save money. The next time you’re at the grocery store buying a gallon of milk, you’ll know if it’s a good deal or not. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to chart your own price comparisons.
As for me, I’m in serious danger of blowing some of the money I’ll save on ice cream. Quick! I need to know: Where’s the best place to buy Tillamook?
There’s an app for that
Flipp and Favado are both free apps that are designed to help you search ads and coupons by item, brand or category to quickly find the best deals for the items on your weekly shopping list.
The Price Cruncher app is a price comparision tool that allows you to save your favorite items and compare prices on a per-unit basis. Is it cheaper to buy 152 diapers for $35 or 72 diapers for $19.95? Price Cruncher will calculate it for you.
Jennifer Bardsley is author of the books “Genesis Girl” and “Damaged Goods.” Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal.