Let’s spend a day with an expert at the grocery hustle, my dad.
There are lots of strategies to save money on food, and ordering restaurant delivery is not one of them! My brother’s strategy in his twenties was to work at a restaurant on the side, getting free lunch and dinner with every shift. My strategy is to cook at home, avoid having any kind of pantry, and finish off anything in the fridge each week. I have a friend who does extreme couponing. Another friend is part of a neighborhood bulk buyer’s club, invitation only.
These strategies depend on individual living situation, household composition, and whether anyone in the home knows how to cook. My bachelor brother ate quite well at his side hustle steakhouse, and he didn’t have to shop, cook, or do dishes. That’s important for someone with two jobs. My couponing friend is a single mom with four kids, and her strategy allows for a lot of kid-friendly packaged foods. The bulk buyer’s club requires volunteering to drive around distributing everyone’s orders. My husband and I both enjoy cooking, and our tiny kitchen prohibits “stocking up” on anything. Then there’s my dad’s way.
The key factors in a grocery hustle like this are desire and knowledge. It also takes reliable transportation, a flexible schedule, and plenty of storage space. A rural household could probably do it with careful planning, but it’s easier for people closer to an urban area, partly because it includes a range of specialty and ethnic grocery stores.
My dad starts his workday at 3:00 AM. He’s done for the day by noon.
Most days, he does the grocery circuit looking for bargains. He has his chosen stores mapped out and he knows what time they get their deliveries. He may do three stores in a day, and I’ve been with him when he’s done four or five!
This is important, because the grocery hustle is competitive. Just like thrift stores, there are people hovering and waiting to pounce on the best deals the moment they hit the shelves. Some will grab stuff off the rack or cart before it’s even stocked. Someone who shows up the next day, or even three hours later, will see a completely different inventory. It’s different every day and some deals never appear again.
The thing to know about the grocery hustle is that different stores charge different amounts for different items. A deal at that location or in that chain may still be more expensive than what you’d pay somewhere else.
We’re arbitraging between the bulk aisle, the big box warehouse store, 10% case discounts, in-store specials, coupons, international grocers, grocery liquidators, the day-old bread store, produce stands, what we can grow at home or trade with other gardeners, and the occasional freebie. (Many stores will give away spotty bananas for the asking).
Without this contextual knowledge, we may be saving a little money, but not the maximum possible. Because of the time, transportation, and storage space involved, we may be better off spending our resources on something else. We have to be calculating our savings rate per hour. We may also be throwing money away if we can’t or don’t eat everything we buy.
This is why I don’t use this method, because in my region I save a LOT more by living in a studio apartment and not owning a car than I would with a grocery hustle. I know how to do it, I live in a large international city just like my dad does, and I also have a flexible schedule. But he can afford a big house in the suburbs and I can’t. That’s partly due to our belonging to different generations; I was far too young to buy a house in 1990, yo.
My dad has two fridges, two huge pantry cupboards, a large kitchen, a single-car garage, and a pickup truck. Not to mention a garden and some fruit trees.
I live in a studio that charges for parking and I have to keep all my food supplies in my fridge. I barely have enough cupboard space for my pots and pans, much less a can of soup.
It’s not a can of soup we’re talking about, either. It’s cases of stuff, family packs, two-for-one items. The grocery hustle works best when you have the resources to process large quantities of food before it goes bad. A lot of this stuff is on the brink of expiration, and by that we mean: compost quality. Eat it today or tomorrow, freeze it, or I hope you have yard chickens, which my dad also does.
Grocery liquidators are fascinating. They have a mix of utter trash junk food, foofoo high-end luxury items, normal condiments and staples, ethnic groceries in several languages, and both perfectly fine and very very funky produce.
The day I went on grocery hustle with my dad, they had a deal on organic Brussels sprouts that looked great. Why? Because not that many people buy Brussels sprouts! A few feet away was a display of leopard bananas, farther along than what I usually use to make banana bread.
What else did we find?
Mostly stuff we wouldn’t eat. White bread, frozen dinners, soda, meat and cheese, creamy peanut butter, candy, kid food like juice boxes and cereal. Spotty grade-C unfresh vegetables.
Then there’s the specialty stuff that we did buy. Vegan meatballs for $1 a pack. (Dad and I are both vegan and he made us meatball subs for lunch). Cases of strawberry nondairy yogurt. Vegan pepperoni, deli slices, and frozen pizzas. All different varieties of nondairy milk.
SCORE! I bought a giant bag of big vegan cookies for $3.49, mixed in with half a dozen protein bars that went to my dad’s work. These cookies retail for $2-3 and I buy them all the time. I got nine. Do the math. That’s 39 cents each, or at least 80% off, not including the windfall that went to the breakroom treat box.
This particular store often has large produce boxes, taped shut, full of a mix of random treats. Chips, candy bars, nuts, cookies, beef jerky, you name it. You can’t see what’s inside until you take it home. My dad buys these, takes the stuff he wants, and then sells the other stuff for $1 an item. The profit goes toward fresh bagels for all.
Most of the foods at the grocery liquidator are 60-90% off.
You can basically feed the neighborhood on a grocery hustle if you do it right!
When I ran an open house in my big house in the suburbs, several years ago, I had the space, time, and resources to do this. I also had a mini-horde of hungry students. I could have fed a dozen kids. (I did it anyway, off bulk food, but with a grocery hustle I could have done it most days of the week).
A grocery hustle can make a great excuse for feeding a hungry relative or neighbor while allowing them to preserve their dignity. “Please, take this off my hands, look, I got a dozen of them for $2 and my freezer is full.” Elders on a fixed income, families with small kids, students and young roommate households, anyone going through hard times can always use an extra meal. My dad paid the $3 tab of a frail granny who was shaking out her purse. Frugality ripples outward.
Of course you can always try a grocery hustle and just eat it all yourself! Save your money for retirement, buy a new mattress, go on vacation, or replace your bald tires. Spend money where it matters to you and save it where you can.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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