Groceries? In This Economy?

People shop at a supermarket in Montebello, California, on August 23, 2022. - US shoppers are facing...

The Extreme Lengths I'll Go To Find Affordable Groceries These Days

Shopping for my family of five is like a full-time job right now.

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Grocery shopping is one of those life tasks that really makes me feel like a mom. Buckling my baby into the cart, having my big girls follow me into the store (“Like ducklings! Let’s all quack!”) as they hold my list and ask for a cookie from the bakery, waving at the cashiers we know who always give my 4-year-old a sticker before she can ask for it — yeah it’s an effort, but I’ve been lucky enough to find it pretty idyllic. There are few things I love more in the world than making my family happy, and taking them to the grocery store so they can pick out a treat for movie night is like a Top Tier Mom Moment for me.

Of course it’s not always easy, and I don’t mean getting three kids under 8 from my house to the produce aisle — I mean the meal planning, the ingredient lists, the checking-of-the-pantry to see if we really did run out of peanut butter, and, of course, the part that’s the least fun and that’s starting to feel really overwhelming: the budgeting. It’s something I — like most people — have always done at the grocery store, but lately, the price comparisons have become a job of their own. Because while inflation has always felt like a scary word on the nightly news that I could mostly block out (along with debt ceiling, interest rates, and deficits), it’s impossible to avoid now as I grocery shop for my family of five. Food is getting really expensive, and it’s turning something I’ve always enjoyed into a big source of stress.

I know how lucky I am to stress about this. I know, that in a country where some people can’t afford any groceries, I am incredibly lucky that my biggest problem is that I want to buy my daughters the Lucky Charms they asked for, but I don’t have time (and don’t want!) to drive to three different stores to find the best price so we can afford them and the urinary health-specific cat food that doesn’t make our cat have a bladder infection that costs $2,000 to fix and all the staples we need. I know I’m lucky, and it is never lost on me that a full fridge and pantry is a gift.

Groceries shouldn't be a privilege. Shopping for food for your family isn’t some kind of luxury trip.

But it’s hard not to feel defeated every week as I start the whole process over again, of realizing my three girls ate through five apples, five pears, 10 bananas, two cartons of strawberries, and an 18-ounce carton of blueberries in one week like my own Very Hungry Caterpillars. It’s really, really time-consuming and deflating to budget and plan and write it all down and realize I need to go to Sprouts, Aldi, and Sam’s Club in order to get the best prices. (But if I want the best prices and the specific brands/flavors/items I want, then strap in, boo, we need to make a stop at Publix, too.)

We’re a family of five. My husband and I both work from home full-time, so we eat a lot of meals at home. We pack two school lunches, plus two school snacks, almost every day. (Don’t tell me to just have my kid buy lunch, she doesn’t like half the menu and also it’s $2.25 per meal.) And we are spending... a lot of money. Like around $150 a week just to grab the things we run out of or produce for meals, plus a big $250 trip at the start of the month to bulk buy items like toilet paper and giant Sam’s Club containers of hummus. And this amount that seems to go up and up and up, no matter how many stores I drive to or how many ways I tweak our meal plans. Instead of looking forward to flipping through my cookbooks or my Instagram saves with glee, I’m dreading it. The whole process.

The consumer price index, which measures everything from goods to services, increased 7.1% from a year ago, the Labor Department reported in November, per CNBC. I am not totally sure what that means but it's not good and can it please go back down?PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re also feeling like everything is more expensive, I can tell you: it’s not your imagination. The USDA reported that from 2021 to 2022, poultry increased in price by 14.6% and cereals and baked goods jumped 13%. Wondering why you’re considering a membership to Costco just for the eggs? They’re up a whopping 32.2%.

I looked at the bread we buy every week, and from last year to this year, it’s up 44 cents a loaf. That may not sound like a lot, but if you imagine every item you buy has gone up that much, on an order of 50 grocery items, you’ve just spent an extra $22. And $22 per week adds up to nearly $90 a month on a budget you were already probably scraping by to stick to.

Every mom I know is feeling that tightness in her chest when it’s time to do the grocery shopping

Groceries shouldn't be a privilege. Shopping for food for your family isn’t some kind of luxury trip — all of us should be able to buy our kids the cereal they want without mentally calculating if we can still get the deli turkey we prefer or having to drive to another store in the middle of what is already a packed, busy day.

I want grocery shopping to be enjoyable again, but I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not savvy enough to know anything about how inflation really works or how to fight the Big Egg Company or whatever needs to be done. But I do know I’m not alone. Every mom I know is feeling that tightness in her chest when it’s time to do the grocery shopping, worried she’s going to overspend, wondering if the store she’s chosen will have everything she needs (convenient) but will also be about $35 more than if she had gone to two other stores to get everything (extremely inconvenient). We want to buy Valentine’s Day sprinkles for our kids so we can have a special ~memory~ and then we feel sick at spending almost $4 on tiny sugar bits that will mostly end up on the floor. We are policing the snacks in the house, making sure the kids only eat a certain amount, not because we don’t want them to enjoy their food, but that $5 bag of chips has to make it through an entire week of school lunches.

And we are walking up and down the aisles of grocery stores, mentally calculating how much we’ve spent. It’s relentless, and now there is the added bonus of playing The Price is Right except there are no prizes or anyone cheering for you as you rummage through eight different store apps on your phone, comparing the prices of blueberries. Maybe it’s like Supermarket Sweep. Only when you get to the end, your stomach sinks at the total. (And you forgot the milk.)

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