Is Trader Joe’s “Bougie” or Budget-Friendly? A Former Employee Weighs in on Prices

published Dec 31, 2023
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Raleigh, North Carolina USA-11 16 2022: Trader Joe's is a Specialty Grocery Store Chain Based in California.
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It’s not uncommon for me to chat grocery stores with friends, only to be a bit shocked by some who say they avoid Trader Joe’s because they perceive it to be on the pricier side. How could the grocery store that fed me so well (and so cheaply) in college somehow be the “bougie” grocery store of the moment? So I went ahead and did some handy-dandy research to compare just how budget-friendly my beloved grocer really is.

Before we dive in: It’s important to note people’s perception of value is going to vary as wildly as our own DNA. The concept of expensive is, as you might expect, something that will mean a lot of things to as many different people, depending on the value you ascribe to a product as well as your financial situation. Your favorite brand of $6 kettle chips that make you very happy are a staple in your household (whereas, you might think $2 Other Retailer’s chips are overpriced because they don’t taste as good as your favorite bag; or you don’t really care about chips that much, in which case $2 is a “steal”).

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling; Tom Hoerup

How Expensive Is Trader Joe’s?

Focusing on price and quality, Trader Joe’s isn’t textbook “expensive” for solo shoppers, couples, and smaller families (two or three people), as the portions and corresponding prices tend to be on the small side. 

Larger families (four or more), however, might find Trader Joe’s expensive compared to a warehouse-style store (like Costco or Sam’s Club) because there’s a higher likelihood those shoppers will need to buy more of each item. Plus, Trader Joe’s doesn’t offer bulk deals (especially for produce, which is sold at Trader Joe’s per-unit rather than by weight).

Credit: Faith Durand

Trader Joe’s Pricing Is Particularly Unique for a Reason

As you (or your friends!) might have noticed, Trader Joe’s has a reputation that really precedes it, a lot of which helps the grocer to cut costs and charge less for its products.

The stores (and parking lots!) are small compared to other grocery chains, which means lower rents. The stores sell mostly Trader Joe’s branded products, which it buys in bulk directly from suppliers (cutting out the often-expensive middleman). The grocer stocks a relatively trim inventory to keep waste and loss at bay. 

While Trader Joe’s does offer select organic items across the store, its real claim to fame is eliminating GMO-derived ingredients, artificial flavorings, and artificial preservatives from its store-brand products. Unlike other stores, it also does not offer any coupons or markdowns.

How Do the Prices at Trader Joe’s Compare to Other Retailers?

Comparing the prices of household basics at many national retailers, Trader Joe’s is a smidge more expensive than Aldi (for instance, Trader Joe’s butter is only one penny more expensive), but well below those seen at Whole Foods, Target, and even Walmart. If you’re a volume shopper, we’ve found that Costco’s prices per unit shake out to well under Trader Joe’s for staples like croissants and eggs.

Here’s the cold, hard pricing data for all you number-crunchers: Trader Joe’s jumbo white eggs will set you back $1.99 (compared to $2.39 for large eggs of similar quality at other retailers), a half gallon of chocolate milk is $3.99 ($4.99 — for 12 ounces less), everything bagels are $2.99 ($4.29), and Trader Joe’s Joe-Joe’s are $2.99 ($5.39, for the name-brand counterpart), at the time of this writing. 

All things considered, I think you get more for your money in a lot of different sections at Trader Joe’s (more on that below).

5 Trader Joe’s Groceries Worth Adding to Your Cart

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1. Frozen Items 

If you love variety, a well-stocked freezer, and solid quality dinners/lunches/breakfasts you barely have to prep, you’ll love the magic act that is the Trader Joe’s freezer section. Some of my budget-friendly favorites include frozen tamales, whatever seasonal ice cream flavor is in stock, and the frozen fruits and vegetables (especially the wild boreal blueberries, French green beans, and shelled edamame) to make smoothies and stir-fries throughout the week.

Credit: Mackenzie Filson

2. Plants & Flowers 

I’ll always sing the praises of Trader Joe’s flower section. You can buy a bouquet so joy-inducing for only $3.99 — and it always seems to last upwards of two weeks! I’m not sure what the plant peeps put in that plant food, but I’m glad it exists so I can afford to make my teeny apartment look just a tiiiiiny bit as lush as a house from a Nancy Meyers movie

Credit: Lauren Masur

3. Cheese

Cheese, like flowers, also equates to major joy points on the happiness scale, so I’m always on the hunt for dollar-stretching ways to keep my “cheese drawer” well-stocked. Thankfully, Trader Joe’s has maybe one of the most impressive (and budget-friendly!) cheese sections I’ve seen, featuring luxe cheeses like Comté, St. Andre Brie, and Manchego in a wide variety of priced-per-pound wedges that’ll make your cheese board dreams come true. 

4. Pantry Items 

When I need to seriously re-up my pantry stash, Trader Joe’s is where I go. I’m not just talking cans of beans or corn alone, either. Be sure to grab a few cans of the wildly good dolmas, jarred pasta sauces, top-notch olive oil, and a few of TJ’s fun seasoning mixes, for good measure. One of my personal favorite last-minute, low-budget lunches is what I call “canned mezze lunch” and involves snacking on Trader Joe’s canned dolmas, Greek chickpeas with cumin and parsley, and (often the majority of) a jar of its marinated artichokes. 

Credit: Jeff Bukowski

5. Wine

I’ll shout this from the rooftops for the rest of my life: You don’t have to spend more than $9.99 (or even $7.99!) to get a bomb bottle of wine at Trader Joe’s! Trust me, I’ve nearly drank them all (I used to work as a wine buyer for a Trader Joe’s store). I can attest that the best bottles (and there are plenty!) are all under 10 bucks and taste like they cost way more. 

What are your favorite budget-friendly items to buy at Trader Joe’s? Tell us about it in the comments below.