Here's How Far $20 Will Get You At Your Favorite Grocery Stores

Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
We're always trying to figure out new ways to get creative at the grocery store. Whether we're capitalizing on pantry staples, following meal plans, or comparing the same meal at different stores. But when we're actually at the supermarket hustling through the Sunday rush attempting to figure out what to make and if we really need half of the things that we've placed in our carts, it's tough to stick to whatever guidelines we originally walked in the door with. According to a Retale study, 20 percent of Millennials pay 0-$49 per grocery trip, while 37 percent pay $50-99, 35 percent pay $100-200, and 9 percent go over the $200 mark. So, we decided to put our favorite grocery stores (and our general grocery shopping mindsets) to the test.
We sent five R29 staffers to five mainstream markets with a $20 bill. The rules? To buy as much food as they possibly could, and to interpret that directive however they saw fit. We ultimately wanted to find out which store seemed to result in the most bang for that 20 spot and to see if walking in the door with a specific amount changed the way our participants shopped. Ahead, see what they bought and how they felt about the overall experience.
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Name: Liz
Supermarket: Trader Joe's
Items Purchased: 7
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Why did you buy your specific items?
I bought my specific items for a kale and sausage pizza with roasted shallots and ricotta — and for dessert, some vanilla soy ice cream and chocolate biscotti.

Did you have a game plan going in or was it spontaneous?
I went in with the mindset that I was going to buy all the ingredients for a meal (dinner and dessert). The "most food" for me meant either feeding a couple of my friends for a fun/tasty evening, or making something for myself that would produce leftovers for the remainder of the week.

Do you normally grocery shop according to a budget?
I never go into my weekly grocery trips with budget in mind, but instead with meal plans (i.e. Monday night I'll make a kale and sausage pizza, Wednesday night I'll cook up an arugula, farro, and grilled chicken salad). I've perfected certain dishes for weekday planning that I never spend more than between $20-$30 per week on ingredients.

Did going with a price limit change the way you shopped?
Yes. I had to be mindful of cheese expenses! I had really wanted to purchase a block of parmesan for finishing off my pizza, but that would have put me over a couple of bucks.
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Name: Jessica
Supermarket: Whole Foods
Items Purchased: 9
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Why did you buy your specific items?
I try to buy items based on versatility — how many different dishes can I make with it, and how long will it last?

Canned tomatoes: I try to find these on sale whenever possible, since fresh tomatoes aren't always in season. I think this was on sale for $2, and I will normally use canned whole tomatoes as a base for pasta sauces, minestrone soup, or shakshuka.

Chicken: I normally don't buy protein on a weekly basis. I go in before I'm making dinner, see what's on sale, and buy it if I feel like it. The chicken was a really good deal though, and can be used in soup, or as a protein dish. Even better, the bones can be boiled in a stock, which I like to keep in my freezer. I ended up freezing some of the chicken legs, too, because I didn't want it to go bad!

Onions: I use onions in almost anything, sautéing them for flavor. Two onions can last me at least a week and a half through a variety of dishes.

Bell Pepper: Ditto on the bell pepper — but they're always really expensive at Whole Foods!

Avocado: I grew up in California and used to have an avocado tree in my backyard, so I love avocados and can't really let the luxury go. Plus, they're great for toast, with eggs, or on top of any burrito bowls.

Mushrooms: Same — can be used for omelettes, in pasta, soups, salads, etc.

Pasta: Dried pasta has a longer shelf life and is a pantry staple.

Eggs: Cheap protein. Also, if I ever run out of other food I can always make egg salad for lunch.

Did you have a game plan going in or was it spontaneous?
It was mostly spontaneous. I shopped like I normally shop, which takes into account what I normally cook and what ingredients I'm comfortable with, as well as what is on sale at the time. The Whole Foods app is super helpful for that usually, but there weren't any good sales or coupons that day. The chicken was the only real spontaneous thing, but considering it seems to be an Everyday Deal (as the package says!) I should probably start incorporating that purchase a little more often.

Do you normally grocery shop according to a budget?
No, not really. I do keep price in mind a lot, and always shop sales, but I rarely spend time weighing my produce and calculating how much it will be. I typically average around $20 to $30 in groceries for every trip, because I'm just shopping for myself. If I'm shopping for dinner for me and my boyfriend, it's likely that I go over budget — partially because I've never quite figured out how much he eats compared to me, and partially because we both have expensive taste and I feel more comfortable splurging on meals together instead of meals by myself.

Did going with a price limit change the way you shopped?
Yes. I normally don't do math and trust that I'm naturally going to fall within my normal budget. The price limit made me measure the weight of my produce and do the mental math for how much the total would be — which was a little bit more annoying than normal.
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Name: Kriti
Supermarket: Target
Items Purchased: 9


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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Why did you buy your specific items?
I chose healthy ingredients that could be combined into different meals/snacks with little to no preparation, especially because I knew I would be eating them at my office. They are things I consider yummy and eat on a pretty regular basis.

Did you have a game plan going in or was it spontaneous?
I wanted to choose ingredients I could use in more than one way (ex: hummus on turkey or with carrots). I tried to stay as close to my normal diet as possible.

My plan was to buy things that were multipurpose and healthy. I treated this exercise like I was shopping for a work week's worth of food, so that affected what I chose. I also wanted variety so I would not have to eat the same things all week.

Do you normally grocery shop according to a budget?
I try to limit my budget to $60 but don't keep track of what's in my cart. When I hit my limit, I'll have the cashier stop ringing up additional items.

Did going with a price limit change the way you shopped?
Definitely! I shopped more thoughtfully and could not give into the temptation of splurge buys.
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Name: Whembley
Supermarket: Stop & Shop
Items Purchased: 9
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Why did you buy your specific items? I bought my items because a lot of them were things I typically eat. The produce was also all on sale.

Did you have a game plan going in or was it spontaneous?
I went in with the intention of trying to make as many full meals as possible out of $20, but found myself zig-zagging all over the store, picking things up and putting them back down. Then I realized my best bet was to shop the way I normally would, for the foods I normally buy, but see if I could keep it under $20. It was fascinating to see how fast things added up, though.

Do you normally grocery shop according to a budget?
I am extremely budget conscious when I shop, but I rarely set my budget at $20. I usually have some variation of avocado for breakfast, and some sort of veggie/protein combo for lunch, so it was great to see that breakfast and lunch for a week can be done for $20.

Did going with a price limit change the way you shopped?
I had to be much more strategic and cut out any extraneous indulgences. I had picked up a juice that was only $1.39, and ultimately even that seemingly small expense didn't make the cut!
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Name: Deb
Supermarket: Key Food
Items Purchased: 11
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Photographed by Paul Sirisalee; Prop styling by Marissa Herrmann.
Why did you buy your specific items?
I was curious to see how much non-packaged, "whole" food I could buy with $20.

Did you have a game plan going in or was it spontaneous?Yes - use my money to buy fruits, veggies, a starch, and protein.

Do you normally grocery shop according to a budget?

No, but I should...

Did going with a price limit change the way you shopped?
Absolutely! I didn't double up on anything and was confident that I'd actually use everything I bought before it spoiled.
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