The $25 Shopping Cart, v. 17.0 – How to shop Trader Joe’s without breaking the bank

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Oh, Trader Joe’s. Just the name brings a smile to my face, as visions of Fearless Flyer items dance in my head. I flippin’ LOVE this store, and it’s easy to see why: new and interesting foods, plenty of healthy choices, and super low prices. If you know what you’re doing.

It’s funny… when I started this blog four years ago, I was a serious TJ’s addict. Not that I’m not one now – once a die-hard TJ’s fan, always a die-hard TJ’s fan. But because of the changes in Trader Joe’s selection and prices (well, food prices in general), and the changes in me, both as a shopper and a cook, buying groceries there is a completely different experience than it was four years ago.

Case in point: the frozen section. Aside from the inexpensive wine and crazy cheap cheese selection, I think that’s what brings most customers to Trader Joe’s. And why not? The prices are awesome, the selection of frozen entrees and pizzas is unbeatable, and that dessert section is growing every day (and you know how I feel about dessert). When I had the cushy job and all that other fun stuff from long ago when things were good, I relied heavily on the Trader Joe’s frozen section to make all my meals fast, tasty and inexpensive.

But… I already know how to cook. I do it pretty well (or so I’m told). And there’s a lot of stuff on the TJ’s frozen menu that I can make on my own that would be just as awesome and, in most cases, come out a wee bit cheaper. I didn’t quite realize that until I was forced to, but the more I allowed my inner kitchen sorceress to take the reins, the more I realized I needed to rethink my Trader Joe’s-ing. Giving up the habit was definitely not an option; I just needed to make the store work for me.

That doesn’t sound so challenging, Poor Girl. You like healthy things and Trader Joe’s sells a lot of that sort of stuff, right?

True, but a lot of the great stuff they had is already pre-made and pre-packaged. And as great as TJ’s prices are for delicious entrees like their Chicken Gorgonzola or all those incredible pizzas & flatbreads, again… a lot of this stuff that many of us with a basic knowledge of cooking can make. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy those things or that I don’t buy them myself; but when it comes to stretching out your food dollar as far as possible, buying “whole” ingredients and not paying for convenience is the best way to go.

This can be a little difficult at good ol’ TJ’s, because of the aforementioned pre-packaged heaven that it provides so many of us pressed for time. But if you dig a little deeper, there are plenty of staples you can pick up there, and plenty of whole ingredients to add to the bare bones staples you might already have at home. Before we cover how to do that, let’s check out what I was able to score this time around:

  • 2 packages corn penne pasta – $1.39/each
  • 1 package corn spaghetti – $1.39
  • 1/2 gallon skim milk – $1.99
  • 1 10 oz package frozen shelled edamame – $1.69
  • 1 12 oz bag baby spinach – $1.99
  • 1 8 oz package super firm tofu – $1.99
  • 1 bag medium frozen shrimp (50-60 count) – $6.99
  • 1 dozen large eggs – $1.99
  • 1 8 oz block low-fat feta cheese – $2.19
  • 5.4 oz block Cheddar-Gruyere blend – $2.98 (PGEW Splurge)
  • 1 can light coconut milk – $0.99
  • 1 16 oz. package frozen pineapple tidbits – $1.99

Grand total: $28.96!

Now, I have to admit it was a bit hard for me to do this particular $25 SC. It had been months since I’d set foot in a Trader Joe’s to do some serious shopping (ever since our local transit system cut back on services, getting out to that area has been more trouble than it’s worth, so I’ve been shopping closer to home lately). Not only did I have to contend with new prices and a different layout, I also had to exercise some SERIOUS restraint around a lot of their new products. Evil, delicious, enticing things like Cookie Butter (OMG) and new African spice blends and all sorts of random frozen appetizers that I’m eager to try, even if I don’t entertain very often to pawn off the leftovers on someone else. There was a lot of stuff I wished I could take home with me, but a small budget and common sense kept me on task (thank goodness!).

Once I got over the initial giddiness, I was able to focus on (Ooh, is that a new Zinfandel?) shopping for the next few days. As I always do before a $25 Shopping Cart trip, I’d taken a quick inventory of what I had in my cupboards and fridge so that I wouldn’t buy duplicates – just enough ingredients to augment what I already had on hand. Because I’ve been spending so much time at the farmers’ market for my temp job (which sadly ends this month. WAAA!), I’ve been lucky enough to have a pretty decent spread of produce in my fridge, so I didn’t pick up too much in the way of fruits and veggies. Then again, I don’t usually buy fresh produce from Trader Joe’s because of the fact that a lot of it is already packed up in plastic clamshell containers, making it difficult to make one’s own selections and check for freshness. (Mind you, I do like picking up bananas at TJ’s, as they are cool enough to sell them individually for just $0.29, rather than pay a hefty fee by weight.)

With my bare bones staples and the items I scored at TJ’s this time around, here are some of the dishes that I could make. Remember, these aren’t written in stone, and definitely not the only things I could make with what I bought; this is just to give you an idea of how to mix & match ingredients to make some tasty meals.

Spicy Shrimp Quesadillas
Makeshift Moqueca
Strawberry-Pineapple Salsa (from my Poached Tilapia recipe; great on almost anything!)
Penne Alfredo or Penne Primavera
Spicy Edamame Succotash
Crispy Tofu Fries w/Sriracha Ketchup
Edamame & Veggie Fried Brown Rice
Warm Shrimp, Quinoa & Spinach Salad

Again, this is just a small sampling of things I could make with my purchases and the items I already had at home, but there’s a lot more I could make with this stuff. The key to making your $25 Shopping Cart successful is to purchase ingredients that will pair well with what you already have, in order to make meals that well stretch those ingredients to their fullest potential. This is why it’s so important to stay away from pre-made meals, as much as you may want to do otherwise. Those meals are only 1-2 servings at the very most; spending $5 on one meal will eat up that $25 budget fast, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here.

So just how do you make a store like Trader Joe’s work for you, especially when you’re trying to focus on whole ingredients? It takes some practice, but it’s definitely doable. Here are Poor Girl’s Top 5 Tips for having a successful $25 Shopping Cart trip (or just a regular shopping trip) at Trader Joe’s:

1) Avoid the meat section. This can be hard to do, because they do have a wide selection of meats that are sustainably raised, many of them with amazing marinades that can make you look like a stellar chef. However, because many government subsidies still make it possible for only non-sustainable meats to be sold at affordable prices, there’s always an extra cost added on to the good stuff. I’m not saying you should never check out their meat section, because I have scored some fantastic deals on extra lean pork loin, free-range chicken, etc. But when we’re dealing with such a teeny tiny budget, it’s best to move on and head to a different department.

2) When shopping from the frozen foods section, stay away from all pre-made meals. This can also be quite difficult, for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Some of that stuff looks darn tasty and compared to brand name items, the prices are incredible. BUT… that’s only for 1-2 meals tops. And $5-8 for one meal will pretty much buy you only 3-5 meals, which is not a good use of your $25 budget. Instead, focus on the fruits, veggies, and meats offered in the frozen section. Frozen produce is the next best thing to fresh, nutrient-wise and flavor-wise, so don’t feel ashamed or guilty about buying frozen vegetables. Lord knows a lot of us freeze our fresh produce surpluses anyway, so you’re not doing anything you don’t already do. Trader Joe’s offers fantastic deals on mixed vegetables (I’m a big fan of the Organic Foursome) and frozen fruit for smoothies and baking. Once you get that next paycheck and can afford to buy a little more, find one or two items to splurge on, and you won’t feel so deprived of the “fun stuff”.

3) Skip the packaged fruits & veggies in the produce section. As I mentioned earlier, I tend to avoid Trader Joe’s produce section because I just don’t feel I have enough control over which items I can choose for myself. As a convenience, TJ’s has packaged things like tomatoes, guacamole starters, grapes, etc. in handy-dandy little plastic clamshells that look good but hide a lot. One look at the bottom of those containers will often reveal the beginnings of spoilage, and that’s not something one should have to pay for. Not all of these items are bad, of course; I’ve found many lovely containers filled to the brim with baby heirloom tomatoes and other gems. But overall, you’re paying for the packaging and the convenience, rather than the actual food.

But Trader Joe’s seems to have heard the cries of their customers, because they’ve added a lot more “loose” produce than they used to offer. And they sell them by the unit, which can save you a lot of money on heavy items like potatoes and bananas. Lemons and limes are also sold individually, and occasionally I see bell peppers, turnips, and other random loose produce, which is a vast improvement over everything that’s bagged, sealed or otherwise imprisoned in plastic. As tempting as it can be, try to avoid the bags of pre-cut onions; no sense in paying $0.99 for 6 oz. of diced onion treated with something “for freshness” when you can pay half that for a couple of real onions and chop them yourself.

About the only thing I do buy prepackaged from TJ’s is their baby spinach and other baby greens. It’s hit-or-miss to find this sort of thing at the farmers’ market (depending on seasonality, weather, etc.), and I’ve found the quality to be pretty consistent across the board. I recently discovered their prepacked baby kale, too, which made me swoon a little bit. The $1.99 price for all these greens is much more budget-friendly than the $3 or more you’ll pay at a regular grocery store, and they tend to come in bigger portions (8-12 oz. vs. 6 oz.), making them a much better value.

The stuff on the top is $25 Shopping Cart friendly; the plastic containers of lovely grapes - not so much. (But you can buy them next time!)

4) Stick with the basic cheeses. Another difficult task, indeed, as it’s hard for me to resist a friggin’ wall full of brie, honey goat cheese logs and manchego, among other cheesy treasures. On a regular shopping trip, I do indulge in these because they come from the most inexpensive cheese section of any store (save Grocery Outlet, but that’s a totally different approach at cheap cheese). But when I’m on a $25 SC trip, I make sure to stick to the basic blocks of cheddar, colby jack, or that lovely new white cheddar-gruyere blend (O.M.G.). Scan each block carefully for the lowest price, then grate or shred it yourself at home. You’ll yield much more of the final shredded product than if you were to buy the pre-shredded kind, and you can stretch it out among many different dishes.

5) Learn to love their pasta & olive oil section. This goes for any TJ’s trip, but it’s especially helpful if you’re on a $25 Shopping Cart trip. Mind you, a small bottle of their house olive oil is close to $4, so you’ll want to think about this purchase carefully, or save it for another, less strictly budgeted trip; but that pasta for $0.99? Can’t beat that! They’re now offering corn pasta as another lovely gluten-free alternative (I like the taste of brown rice pasta but find it gets too gummy in texture for my liking), so if you have gluten sensitivities, you can still get some great deals on pasta. It’s about $0.40 more than the 100% semolina pasta, but it’s still a fantastic deal. And as we all know, pasta is a fabulous bare bones staple that will yield a ton of cooked product and that lends itself to many different dishes. This makes it perfect for Scary Week or any other extra-lean time of the month.

* * * * *

Of course, this only covers about half the store, but these are usually the areas where people get trapped and start overspending. And I get it, because there have been times when I’d go in thinking I’d get just a couple things and wind up spending over $100 on myself. *shudders* Some people binge shop for clothes; I binge shop for food (and shoes… at least back in the day when I had disposable income). At Trader Joe’s where everything is so awesome and more affordable than most grocery stores, it’s easy to overspend. So believe me, this advice doesn’t come from some cold “expert” who’s been trained to do things a certain way – it comes from someone who loves to shop, but who has learned how to exercise restraint and make the store work for her, not the other way around.

Before I close, I’d like to reiterate a few points about the $25 Shopping Cart, as there are a lot of new readers right now (Welcome, newbies!!!), and even some folks who have been following the blog for awhile have had questions about this feature. 1) This is not a “regular” shopping trip – it’s meant to be something to tide you over during what I call Scary Week, that awful 10-14 day period that falls between your rent check and the other check (if you’re lucky enough to be working). 2) The $25 budget is meant to cover 1-2 people for about a 10-day pay period. As prices go up on food, that $25 can sometimes get closer to $30, so don’t feel bad if you get into the $28 or $29 mark. Obviously, if you have a larger family, you’ll be spending about twice that amount, so please adjust accordingly. 3) There is no “list” of things you should buy. This is your shopping trip! The only list you should make is what you already have on hand at home; this way, you can focus on buying things that will supplement what you have on hand to create different meals, and you can avoid buying duplicates.

Thanks for stopping by this latest MEGA edition of The $25 Shopping Cart! I hope these tips will help you and inspire you to get into the habit of shopping more wisely, especially during the super tough times. There’s no need to be stuck with Cup O’ Noodles for weeks on end, even if you’re dealing with such a tiny budget. You can still have real meals! It just takes a little more work and some careful shopping.

If you have any ideas of where I should go on my next $25 Shopping Cart trip, please email me or leave a comment below. And if you’ve already had your own successful $25 Shopping Cart trips at your local store, please share them with me. I LOVE checking out the awesome items you score! : )

written by

singer. writer. artist. champagne taste, 2 buck chuck budget. good cook. kooky. chocoholic. patron saint of cats. talker. listener. thinker. sometimes to a fault.

23 Responses to "The $25 Shopping Cart, v. 17.0 – How to shop Trader Joe’s without breaking the bank"

  1. darci says:

    The Cookie Butter is 50 kinds of worth it. No seriously.

  2. Josh says:

    This is a great post! I love TJs but it’s hard for me to shop there. This will help.

  3. Gloria Morales says:

    I go to TJs about every three months and it’s very hard not to over spend , I find SOOOOO many good things and at the same time I live alone and there is not too much space in the fridge, so I really have to go into overdrive before I get to the cash register or I end up having to cook extra for about a week so that the food can be frozen and not go to waste. I am learning the hard way but I like the challenge so.
    Thank you for the tips they are always welcome.

  4. Tracy C. says:

    I love your posts!!!! I will add that they have $0.99 bags of banana chips. These are a great snack for moms to pick up for classroom snacks. My son has a nut free school and a gluten free classroom, so when it is his week to bring snacks, it is difficult! These are great, cheap, and work for such occasions. I love TJs =)

  5. ania says:

    Kimberly! I was hoping that when you put up a new post, it would be a $25.00 Shopping Cart post.

    And this is one of the best ones that I’ve read! I think your great writing skills are especially showing here. (Maybe because of all that work on the book you’re doing?)

    Thanks so much for all of the effort you put into this. I appreciate you.

    With care….

  6. Kelli says:

    Hi Poor Girl,
    I, too, love Trader Joe’s. After I tried your delicious Mushroom-Leek Pizza, I kept wondering if there was a way to come close to Trader Joe’s flatbread mushroom & black truffle pizza. Do you know it? I’ve read the ingredients and I think they use a truffle oil for the taste. Anyhow, it’s one of the things I splurge on when I can, but was just hoping you might have a way to make it on the cheap! I know, truffle oil can’t be cheap, but I was hoping they maybe only used a little bit?

    On another note, a few of their items are just SO good (aside from that pizza) that I have to mention them. Their garlic marinara (I think only $1.99/jar), their frozen organic raspberries (splurge item), their strawberry/rhubarb pie (splurge), and their coffees. I don’t work there, and don’t own stock- just love them!

    Thanks for your post.

  7. Katie @ Blonde Ambition says:

    Very interesting! My roommate doesn’t cook from scratch often, so her side of the fridge/freezer and cabinets are LOADED with TJ’s pre-made items. They are definitely good, but I can’t help but think they are healthier and cheaper to make yourself. Maybe I will send her this post :P

    • Kimberly Morales says:

      A lot of those pre-made meals are quite awesome, but soooo easy to recreate on your own. And while it may seem like you’re spending more on actual ingredients, I think folks forget that you’re not going to be using the entire block of gorgonzola for a 1-2 serving dish (or even 3-4 servings). You can then turn around and use that cheese as a topping for a salad, as the base for a kick ass, grown up grilled cheese, etc. It’s about stretching out those ingredients and using them in different ways w/o wasting them all on one thing.

      I’d love it if you’d share this post w/your roommate! I feel her pain because I love everything TJ’s makes, but if times are tough, there are ways to avoid those overspending traps. :)

  8. Revenwyn says:

    2) The $25 budget is meant to cover 1-2 people for about a 10-day pay period.

    Ummm, where? I live in Arkansas and this is impossible, even WITH packaged crap, which IS actually cheaper here. Also, on what kind of calorie diet? 600 calories a day?

    Not even possible for us. When you’re allergic to wheat, corn, soy, beans, chicken, pork, and dairy, what in the world do you eat on $25 for 10 days?

    We’re lucky if $25 lasts us 3 days.

    • Kimberly Morales says:

      Revenwyn: This would be in California, where groceries are some of the most expensive in the country. And as I mentioned in that same paragraph from which you quoted, I did not say that this would be all you would eat for 10-14 days; this bunch of goods is supposed to supplement what you already have on hand at home, in order to stretch out those ingredients and make different dishes. I don’t eat 600 calories per day; I eat about 1500 or more, and all on my small budget. But as I mentioned several times in my post, I buy whole ingredients that I can chop, shred, etc. so that I can add them to bare bones staples like rice, pasta, quinoa, etc., in order to make dishes that yield about 3-4 servings per recipe (as most of my recipes are listed). Divide 4 servings by 2 people and you have 2 meals per person from that same dish. It’s just a matter of changing the way you think about cooking and the kinds of dishes you’d prepare during these super lean times of the month. Can you eat some sort of gourmet meal during this time with this lot of food? No, definitely not. But that does not mean you can’t make nutritious, tasty, filling meals, just as I described in my post (and I added links to all of those example recipes, too).

      Again, this is not written in stone: not the $25 amount, not the kinds of food you should buy, etc. This is MY way of showing folks how I make it through the most difficult, money-absent times of my life. It’s meant to inspire you to rethink what eating on a budget is like and rethink how one shops, especially when times are really tough. And in no place have I mentioned that this will work for people who have several food allergies. I am lucky enough not to have any food allergies just yet, and since this is a chronicle of how I make my food dollar work best for me, I write about what I know. Obviously, with so many allergies, you would need to find ways to adjust this budget according to your family size (which sounds bigger than mine), and according to your needs. If you can’t eat any of those things you mentioned, I’d suggest sticking to fruits and veggies, whether frozen or fresh (depending on what’s less expensive), and try fish or seafood if you’re not allergic to those things. You could also try a number of my quinoa recipes, which definitely yield a ton of food and can help you get around a lot of your food allergy issues. But living with those kinds of allergies, you’d know better what works for you.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that you’re probably not going to use an entire bag of shrimp (or chicken, etc.) in one recipe; you’d be using about 1/4 to 1/3 of that depending on the dish, which means you’re not going to be eating the entire thing at once. That stretches out your use of that particular item, especially if combined with those Bare Bones staples I mentioned earlier.

      I think it’s hard for most people to believe because they’re stuck in a certain way of doing things. But this blog isn’t about a quick fix; this is a lifestyle (much like losing weight successfully), and if you work at it, it’s not as “out there” as you’d think. It’s just a matter of changing that mindset, and that’s a lot of what my book will be focusing on. Hope this helps clear this up.

  9. Robin says:

    I swear by Trader Joe’s celery hearts. Cross my heart. I have had their celery hearts last 3 weeks. Limp towards the end of that, but soaking in a bowl of cold water and it was good as new. I can’t get that kind of longevity out of other store’s celery. I don’t care if they treat it with stuff. I don’t use a lot of celery, so I want it to last. I also swear by their 16 oz. plain Greek yogurt. Inexpensive and darn tasty with fresh/frozen fruit.

    • Kimberly Morales says:

      I love, love, LOVE their Greek yogurt! That’s one of my TJ’s staples, too. I didn’t really touch the dairy case in my tips, as that one’s a fairly easy one to navigate and doesn’t have as many “traps”, lol. I’ll have to give those celery hearts a try, though! I’m not the biggest celery fan, but I do appreciate when my veggies last awhile. :)

  10. Gloria Morales says:

    I think the person who didn’t READ the post has a lot of medical problems and should consult with a NUTRITIONIST. IF SHE can AFFORD IT; that way she can get the correct food products for the rest of the family, and maybe some day if she is not too busy she can sit down and READ the post she can really LEARN a thing or two, instead of going into a rant about a GREAT INFORMATIVE POST. She also has the OPTION of NOT getting into YOUR POST and live her own life without the comments about something she DIDN’T OBVIOUSLY READ.

  11. Catherine says:

    It should be noted that not only are you paying for the packaging of fruits/veggies, but that this is a huge contributor to food waste and extra packaging in landfills. Stores like TJs and Fresh & Easy package those 4 apples together and then when one goes bad, they toss the whole package out. It’s no wonder that the Freegan dumpster divers love to break into their trash bins! More people to need to voice outrage at such a stupid, wasteful practice.

  12. Falling Snow says:

    I waited anxiously for months when I heard that we were getting a Trader Joe’s near our house, and I still love them. But I would skip their cheeses altogether. They may be less expensive, but compared to the ones that I get at my local grocery store they’re very waxy and less “melty” …I find them a little tasteless as well.

  13. Jenny says:

    Great suggestions! I also like their large bottles of orange or berry mineral water, which much cheaper than Crystal Geyser and provides some different flavor when I am tired of plain water. Their almond milk is also a great price!

  14. pediatricsgirl says:

    I just started reading your blog, and I love it! I love Trader Joe’s and actually have a $30 budget when I go there, but with your suggestions, I think I can make it $25 now :) . I look forward to future posts!

  15. This Diva says:

    Kimberly, if you could only see the ear-to-ear smile on my face. I am just overjoyed to find another blogger/singer who loves Trader Joe’s. Right now, half of my kitchen is out of commission, so TJ has really come in handy in terms being able to buy healthy frozen and pre-cooked food items that I can warm up/cook in my microwave or conventional oven. My only complaint is that we only have one store in my city, but otherwise, I love myself some Trader Joe’s!

  16. Kelly says:

    This is packed with great info! I feel the same way about most of their frozen meals.. but I DO enjoy some of their indian fare items (ohh the naan bread!). I just got a $15 TJ giftcard from a Christmas gift exchange.. I will definitely apply some of your tips there and get some great stuff soon! :)

  17. Scribena says:

    As one “poor girl who eats well” to another, I agree for the most part. But I would add that a person with only a few bucks should avoid some of the sweets as well. The cakes are a good price, but not for regular shopping if you have no cash. Chocolate cover anything candy can add up as well. Joes joes are good if you want a cheap treat for $2.99. I only go to TJ’s once a month, even when a had a job with a better salary, primarily for my cat’s food, and some of their staples, like rice, olive oil, eggs ($1.79 in PA), and milk. Butter is a pretty decent price; I do most of my own baking.

  18. Emily says:

    Love this!! I’m super impressed you left TJs spending under $30!! Shared this on my fb page! :) http://www.facebook.comwholesomefrugalmama


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