No one will tell you that living in NYC is inexpensive. And what I spend the most on per month (besides rent) is food.
When I first moved to the city, I spent way too much going to random delis and the hot food buffets that seem to be present in every NYC grocery store. Like everywhere else, grocery shopping and cooking for yourself are significantly cheaper than eating out; but where you get these groceries matters. At a fancy grocery store down the street from my apartment, a box of Driscoll Strawberries was $8. At the Target a few blocks away, it was two for $6.
In general, the larger chain food stores tend to be cheaper (Target, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, etc.) but this isn’t always the case. Things will vary neighborhood to neighborhood, so shop around in your area to find which places are best. This is what I have noticed living in downtown Manhattan, and the grocery shopping tips can hopefully help anyone living in a big, expensive city.
I nearly never purchase produce in grocery stores anymore (although Trader Joe’s did have bananas for 19 cents each the other day). Prices for things like berries especially tend to be outrageous. Markets and outdoor fruit stands are the way to go. They are almost always cheaper (and fresher) than anything you will find in a grocery store.
What I usually do is go to Whole Foods first to see if anything is one sale. If not, I default to the outdoor produce stand down the street. Be careful of food stands in touristy areas, as they tend to have higher prices than ones in quieter parts of town. The markets and Chinatown shops are always amazing — so much variety at amazing prices. Make sure you bring cash when shopping at outdoor sellers.
2. Bread and Cereals
Target or Whole Foods is where I get anything that I can’t get at an outdoor stand. Target is great, because you have the option to get a Target credit or debit card. With a Target card, you get 5% off all of your purchases. You can also download the Cartwheel app for tons of coupons and promotions. Whole Foods doesn’t have any sort of rewards program, but their 365 Day Organics brand is very competitive. A loaf of bread costs about the same there as it does at Target.
I have not spent any time shopping at Trader Joe’s because there isn’t one very close to me, but from walking in and looking around one once, the prices seemed very competitive. Once again, I am going to champion the virtues of grocery shopping in the area you find to have the best deals — for me, it’s Chinatown. The supermarkets are either competitive or cheaper than all of the “independent” style grocery stores I’ve come across in Lower Manhattan. I have also stumbled upon numerous small organic markets in Chinatown that had some of my favorite teas at very reasonable prices.
3. Candy, Drinks, Snack Food
Bottled water, Snapple, large bags of well-known candies, and the occasional fancy granola can all be found at discount stores, like Real Deal and Lot Less. Essentially, if it’s not something perishable, check one of these large discount stores before hitting the grocery store. Always check the expiration date before you buy anything (a good habit to have always, but especially when at a closeout store). You can get a lot of great snacks for just a few dollars.
These places are also great for things like deodorant, toothpaste, face wash, and cleaning supplies. The inventory at these stores is constantly changing, so always check them first before going to a pharmacy or grocery store.
I’ve found meat to be one of the most expensive foods in NYC. I usually don’t purchase any unless I am making a specific dish for an occasion. This is when I utilize the hot bars instead. Usually, if I am really craving meat, I will get a few pieces of chicken or fish from one of the buffets and throw them on a salad or something once I get home.
Another great way to get food cheaply is to go to restaurants at the end of the day. Au Bon Pain’s pastries are 50% off in the last hour or so that they are open. Many places have significant discounts on things like sushi or their hot bar right before closing, because they have to throw out the leftovers anyway. Don’t be shy to ask if things are discounted at the end of the day. Also, don’t forget to ask about student discounts if you are currently in school.
Sarah is currently studying acting at PACE University in the financial district of NYC. She is the author of the blog Sarah & The City, which talks about moving to and living in New York on a budget.
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