Why You Should Always Buy Bread at Aldi — And 5 Other Lessons My Family Has Learned from Tracking Grocery Prices for 32 Years

published Sep 18, 2022
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“I learned about the idea from The Tightwad Gazette, that newsletter I used to get,” explains my mom. She’s been tracking prices for decades — since before I can remember. (She also searches for unclaimed money from the government for friends and family, but that’s another story for another time.)

As a mother to twins, the food needs in our house changed very quickly. With two additional mouths to feed, finding ways to stretch the family food budget was a necessity. 

At least once a month (and often more frequently), she sits down with her grocery receipts, logs the products and prices, and notes any noticeable changes to the numbers. In the 90s, prices were neatly tracked in notebooks; now they’re kept in a digital spreadsheet. I was curious to learn what the past 32 years of tracking would tell us about grocery shopping today. I sat down with my mom and her records to get the deets. Here’s what we discovered — and those decades of data inform our weekly shopping strategy.

Credit: Patty Catalano

1. Everyday staples, like bread, are, by far, the cheapest at Aldi.

Our favorite place to purchase bread? Aldi, where you can find a loaf for $1.19. Since Aldi started popping up in our area about a decade ago, staples — bread, eggs, cheese, and more — have maintained their consistently low price tags. (Large eggs start at $0.88 per dozen.) While some of our current staples, like English muffins, sourdough loaves, and everything bagels have gone up slightly (between .15 cents and .30 cents), you may feel as though you’ve stepped back in time when entering the store.

Credit: Meredith Schneider

2. Aldi is also our go-to choice for frozen finds.

The pizzas at Aldi are legendary, but did you know the store also stocks an assortment of frozen produce (and for way less than other stores)? The freezer section is full of an ever-changing lineup, so when they’re available we’ll pick up Aldi brand taquitos, pot stickers, chicken nuggets, bagel bites, toasted ravioli — all are less than $4 a box — as well as frozen seafood (shrimp, oysters, clams, and more).

3. Stock up on holiday-centric items at the start of the season.

It happens every year without fail: baking items are always on sale leading up to the end-of-year holidays, beginning around October. You’ll find great deals on chocolate chips, sugar, marshmallow creme, pie crusts, and more. (One example: A bag of Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels is generally $4.78, but around the holidays we’ve found them on sale for $2 or $3 at our local grocery store.) Many of these items are shelf-stable, so this is a good time to stock up, if your budget allows.

This is a different kind of celebration, but a similar price drop happens in the snack aisle in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. So as soon as you transition out of post-holiday sales, you’ll want to keep an eye on your weekly grocery ad to find out what snacks to stock up on.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Think (and shop!) outside the grocery store.

Before moving to the Midwest from Northern California, we lived near many roadside produce stands and specialty stores. My mom noticed a few stands had slightly cheaper prices and superior produce than the options at nearby grocery stores. Bonus: It also meant she could support local businesses. Because of these findings, she chose long-term to purchase local produce whenever she could. While our relocation greatly reduced our fresh produce options, she continues to buy local produce when she sees it. Our family also subscribes to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box from Pearl Family Farm, a local, Black-owned family farm that sends us organic, seasonal produce weekly.

5. Sometimes, variations in price will feel random or defy industry trends.

Not every grocery find will be comparable: Many stores don’t carry the same brands, and product sizes will vary. Purchasing organic, locally grown (or raised), name versus store brands, and more can add to the complexity of tracking prices. Category and product-specific outliers will also occur.

The price of meat, for example, has increased by double digits this year. (According to the USDA, poultry prices have increased 16.6% between July 2021 and July 2022, and our tracker indicates at least an 11% increase in our region.) While milk and eggs have experienced similar increases, we have noted consistent .02- and .03-cent decreases when shopping in recent weeks. Still, overall, consistently tracking prices helps us plan our shopping list and route.

Credit: Kelli Foster

6. Track no more than a handful of stores.

When my mom first started tracking her purchases, she would note pricing from our local grocery store, any roadside produce stands and specialty stores, and other national and regional grocers in the surrounding neighborhoods where we regularly shopped. Needless to say, all of that number crunching made her feel like she was working as a data analyst. She’s since narrowed her list of retailers to Aldi, Price Chopper, and Hy-Vee based on price, yes, and also quality and availability of products. All three stores are also within five miles of her home, which is an added benefit.

In general, we’ve found three to five retailers is a big enough sample size to track patterns and see price differences, without it feeling like a full-time job. It also helps make grocery shopping feel like a game instead of a chore.

Have you been track prices for years and years? Tell us what you’ve learned in the comments below.