Living on $13,000 or Less: Our Shopping Tricks (part 11)

Shopping tricks that helped this family live on $13,000 a year.

How our family lived on $13,000 during graduate school-without food stamps, medicare, or subsidized housing.

This is part 11 of the Living on $13,000 or Less series. CLick through for  more money saving ideas.


Run! Run for your lives, don’t catch the plague of iwantitus! It will take all your money and leave you begging on the streets. For the love of dinner-do not go to the store!

That’s how I felt about shopping during grad school (and in many ways still do). But this mind set helped me create some good in store strategies-so my paranoia was worth it right?

Here’s the shopping tricks I found during my paranoia.

Avoid the store

Didn’t see that one coming did ya? 😉 Question whether you need to go to the store at all. We go shopping monthly. Yes, you read that right. Besides milk and veggies, which we stock every other week, we shop monthly.

The less times you go to the store the less you’re tempted to buy things you don’t need. The longer you wait on the decision to buy the less likely you are to impulse purchase. This goes for the internet as well. Online shopping is still shopping. Only let yourself purchase once a month and you’ll be amazed at what you didn’t spend.

Many times we were able to put off shopping by eating from our pantry. I found this easy meal finder to be invaluable. You just put in a few items you have, what type of meal you’re making, and it lists recipes containing those items. I never had the boxed or canned items it called for but it would get my creative juices going. I would find ways to make it from scratch–usually with a major tweak.

Watch the price per item

This is a pretty basic one, that we’ve probably all heard. But I figure it’s basic for good reason, right? My best example is from after graduation and thus after the whole frugal year of living. I started buying myself some granola bars as a treat, man do I miss those things-Mmmmm. When I first looked, the unit price of the different box sizes was the same, yay! Bigger box here I come!

One time I sent the hubster shopping and he noticed a big difference. The small box with 8 bars was $1.48 ($0.18 per bar) while the large box with 12 bars was $3.50 ($0.29 per bar). That was almost a 50% increase in price!

To put it another way, if we were to buy 2 small boxes it would be $2.96. That’s not even $3.00, and we would be getting 16 bars-not 12! Buying the smaller boxes we would get 4 bars MORE for $0.54 LESS! Can we say rip off!?

Okay now going back into our grad school years…Doooo weee ooooh


We found a similar case with peanut butter. The medium size was the best deal scoring us an extra 8 oz. of peanut butter v. the other two sizes. Same story in our frozen food section, a new week meant a new game of frozen veggie price flux. One week the bigger bag was cheaper, the next might be the small bag, the next-who knew.

*Also it’s better to figure out the price per oz. or item yourself.  Why?  Cuz, some stores lie.  Yup, it’s true.  The most annoying one to me is Walmart claiming their diapers are $.25 a diaper-when they’re not.  Some packages are, but the smaller packages are almost $.30 per diaper and sometimes the bigger packages are $.23.  So just do the math, honest it’ll help.


Shopping tricks that helped this family live on $13,000 a year.

Look at other varieties

Growing up and shopping with my mom, the rule of thumb was to buy bulk and less fresh–it was cheaper.  Buying dry milk used to be the cheaper option but now it’s a novelty item and is much more expensive than fresh. Same story with cheese, we found it’s far cheaper to buy fresh parmesan than using dry.

From having to change my shopping habits I’ve found It’s good practice to come up with creative solutions, question your normal routine periodically. Is there a different way to buy this? Is there a different variety to use? WinCo’s bulk area is incredibly helpful, I can bag my own herbs or spices for ¼ the price of the pre-bottled ones over on the baking aisle. Cha-ching!

Notice patterns

Luckily WinCo came into town just as we were starting unemployment, and a price war of sorts started between them and Walmart. We started saving $100 a month on our groceries because WinCo was so much cheaper, and I mean cheap. I compared the everyday WinCo prices to Macy’s (our local Meijer store) case lot sale that ‘everyone’ raves about, and WinCo was still a good $0.10 cheaper per can.

Shopping tricks that helped this family live on $13,000 a year.

If you can’t tell—I’m a huge WinCo fan. I don’t get paid to talk about them; I’m just so thankful they came into town at that time and literally fed my family.


From being proactive on my price comparisons and having a really helpful list, I was able to start seeing patterns.

1.    Typically I found food was cheaper at WinCo.

*Although I made sure to check sales—many times meat and produce were at amazingly low prices at our locally based stores. We were able to get a $2.50 a lb New York strip steak for our anniversary that way.


2.    During grad school I found toiletry items were best at Walmart. Since then I’ve found that coupons and deals at Target are far better.

3.    Costco had the best prices on flour, rice, toilet paper, women’s hygiene items, and baby wipes.

*Despite the better prices at Costco we decided to let our membership expire. Over the course of a year the savings wouldn’t add up to the cost of membership.


On the other hand, this is just looking at the financial side. Meat and many of the Costco items that we opted to buy else where did not have the same great quality. Shopping at a different store, I was quite excited to find ground beef for $1 less a pound -but it had a lot more fat. I’m also quite sure it had filler, so we had less to eat-and the texture was just weird.

If you’re going to be scraping bottom for a short known amount of time I’d say do what you gotta do. If you don’t know how long it’s going to last I’d say err on the side of quality and do what it takes to stay healthy. It costs money to visit the Dr. too! Now that we have a little more wiggle room in our budget we once again have our own membership, and I’m not giving it up any time soon.



What do you watch for while in store?


Want more from the ‘Living on $13,000 or Less’ series? Check these out!



This is part 11 of the Living on $13,000 or Less series. Click through here to read the rest of this series published posts.