Five Cent Return

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: B Tal)

I don’t love to grocery shop.  This is unfortunate, because here in Manhattan, it’s something that needs to be done frequently.  Any and everything you buy has to be carried home, and most of us don’t have large refrigerators, freezers, or storage space for stocking up.  Add in the knowledge that you can walk outside and hit any number of stores within a few blocks, and there isn’t the same pressure to remember everything you need in one shot.

The cost of groceries here, outrageous.  I know this is so because when we’ve gone on vacation and shopped for groceries at stores geared towards ripping off tourists,  while the other customers are grumbling I’m skipping through the aisles, filling the cart and trying to decide what’s practical to take home.  I try to shop at Trader Joe’s as much as possible, it’s a significant savings compared to the other groceries that are much closer.  But it isn’t always practical, it’s twenty four blocks away.  So if I’m doing a bigger shop, great! Worth the cost of the cab ride home, still saving.  But if I only have twenty minutes to get there, shop, and come home, don’t need much, or I need things they don’t carry (like regular white or brown rice), it doesn’t make sense.

Grocery Store #1

Grocery Store #1 (Photo credit: wgdavis)

I trek to Whole Foods for rice and flour (cheapest in the area, I buy it from their bulk containers, they have enough of a turnover that it’s always fresh) and soy milk for Flower Child (yes, their brand of soy milk is the absolute lowest price).  For the certain basics or when I’m running out, I go to one of the two cheapest groceries in the area.  Both conveniently located within three blocks of my apartment.  They don’t look like the artsy photo above.  Dark, dingy, cleanliness is questionable, the cashiers are surly, don’t even think of asking for help from a stocker for something you can’t reach, aisles are crazy narrow–any number of which are usually blocked by boxes waited to be unloaded–and if you’re smart, you’ll check expiration dates of everything before bringing anything home.

I just ran to one of the two “inexpensive” stores this morning.  If you’re curious, a gallon of low fat, non-organic milk is $4.89 there, a half gallon is $2.99.  A gallon of store brand distilled water for top-offs for the reef tank,* $1.19.  Honey-Nut Cheerios, 12.9 oz box, $5.39.  Navel (not organic) oranges, .99 each.  One loaf of sliced wheat bread, $4.19.  A 10 oz “brick” of Cafe Bustelo–about as far from fancy coffee as you can get, $4.69.  To be fair, Bustelo goes on sale regularly.  Five years ago the sales were two bricks for $5, two years ago it became 2 for $6, now it’s 2 for $7.   I have to make a new batch of doggie gumbo tomorrow, so I bought a pound of cheapo ground beef, $3.63, and a pound of ground chicken, $4.29.

Getting the picture?  Chasing in four different directions for the cheapest prices, reasonable quality (yanno, fresh and none of those free pets that skitter across the counter as you unload), calculating, carrying, it’s exhausting.  Screw cooking, between the financial, physical, and stress tolls I don’t even want to eat.

Over twenty years ago, I had a friend who theorized the nickel deposit on bottles was instated in NY as a way for the homeless to get money to feed themselves.  Was he onto something?  I don’t know, don’t remember his entire argument, but he was one of those people who could argue anything and have you believe he was brilliant.  But while I do see plenty of homeless grabbing cans and bottles out of the corner trash cans, the real business of it is with the senior citizens.  On days when the recycling bags get put out on the street for pickup, I find seniors by every large apartment building, filling carts and Hefty bags with empty bottles.  These are not days you want to find yourself in a hurry at the aforementioned less expensive grocery stores, because you’ll be on line forever, waiting for the elderly gentleman ahead of you to have each bottle and can checked and tallied before he can turn around and shop.  Think about my little shopping list above, that’s a lot of nickels; many, many bottles to carry.  Individual, older people trying to feed themselves off of a fixed income, not organized groups with a vehicle to get to the big redemption center.

At night, in these stores, you find what Man Child calls the shuffle of shame.  On line to buy a forgotten gallon of milk, you often find yourself behind two seniors cashing in bottles, three finance-looking or professional people who are embarrassed to find themselves in this grocery store (but it’s a dollar cheaper for that box of Cheerios here than in the cleaner, higher end grocery stores), and a stinky guy buying dish detergent.  But sometimes you also find one of those New York moments.  The elderly woman who’s come back with her shopping cart, straight to the sighing, texting cashier ahead of everyone else on line. And the cashier rolls her eyes, holds out her hand, and takes the jar of applesauce from the woman, pops the seal and hands it back, so the senior can go home and eat it.  She couldn’t open it by herself in her apartment, and needed a little help.

Beverage container redemption center

Beverage container redemption center (Photo credit: Hobo Matt)

*Reef tanks use salt water.  Water evaporates, salt doesn’t, so you have to “top off” the tank with fresh water.  Because these are very delicate critters, tap water can’t be used.  Most reefers buy and run an RO/DI water filter, so they can use tap.  With a very tiny kitchen, and even tinier (1) bathroom, I can’t tie up a faucet or use the space needed to run these filters, so I buy distilled.



  1. Wow you have a good memory to know which stores you should go to! I only shop for 3-4 days, I find I save a lot of money that way because I just buy what I need for the next few meals. 🙂


  2. I’ve often wondered what you have to pay for groceries, living where you do. That would be so hard for me to adjust to if I had to, limited to what I could carry at one time and so on. As it is, I hate the insane process I have to go through to find the best deals- a,b and c at the big box warehouse, d,e, and f at the dept superstore, g and h at the convenience store, j and k at the pharmacy (yes, really!)- and then finally the rest, and generally only the loss leaders and produce at the grocery store. I envy the people I see just flying through the grocery store without even a list, dropping stuff in the cart, no notice of sale prices or anything, while I scrutinize unit prices, sale labels and figure out what’s going to save me .50. Yeah that little bit on one item, no big deal. Feeding 5? Trying to save on every.single.thing. I buy? Huge deal.

    My aunt and uncle across the street give us their cans and bottles since they don’t like to deal with them at the store. Or that’s what they say haha. Omgoodness, that adds up! It’s so cool to get an extra $10 that way every so often. we have machines that look like vending machines that crunch up all that stuff outside the stores and spit out a receipt to use at the register, though.


    1. Yup, it’s exhausting and it sucks, but it’s true, having a strict budget is hard no matter where you are.

      I like the idea of those machines, we don’t have them here. I actually don’t buy many products that yield a return, I’d be saving bottles for years before I hit $10, lol.

      It’s the one thing I miss about pushing a stroller, being able to hand bags of groceries off of the handlebars, with another bag stuffed under the seat. 😮


  3. Your prices sound like ours over here in uk and we are known for being crazy expensive, I have a dim and distant memory of a friend in NYC mentioning online shopping from warehouses off the island. No idea if I made it up though.


    1. The sad part is that the mom and pop stores are disappearing because they can’t make their rents. Real estate is SO outrageous, even the chains (except the very biggest/priciest) are having a hard time.


  4. I think that would stress me out but I guess you adapt. I pay 3.89 for a GALLON of milk! I think I bought a crate of Naval oranges for 5 bucks at costco. I only buy my meat at the butcher but even his prices for ground chicken are less. In the end I am paying property taxes for all this and they are OUTRAGEOUS. we just refinanced on Friday and they went up AGAIN…. are you ready? I am paying 11,000 in taxes and I have a CAPE! So there is always SOMETHING. We need to get out of NY!


    1. Absolutely true, nowhere is as inexpensive as it might seem initially. $11,000 though 😦

      I’d be planning where and when I could make my great escape, if I were you and hubby 😀


    2. Yeah the costs get you coming or going depending on where you live. My groceries are less (though not as much less than they used to be) …but what we pay for gas kills us (I hereby refer you to CT’s infamous gas taxes.) Living in a rural area is nice, the gas it takes to get …well, anywhere… not so much.


      1. My first thought was how much sense it would make for you to have a Prius, then I realized it probably would be too easy to get stuck, during snow and spring as the snow melts. 😦


        1. I love the idea of the mileage on the hybrids, the little backseats for my kids the age they are now- not so much. Fortunately the Forrester we have now does way better on gas than the minivan ever did and has all wheel drive!


  5. Wow – when I have visited NYC I have wondered about the logistics of shopping – When I go to the store I can load the car up with supplies – just carrying 50 pounds of dogfood home would be crazy. I only shop for a couple of days groceries at a time, but head over to a larger city about once a month to get the larger things – department store stuff. Are you able to get all you need in the city? Do you have a Target? I don’t nearby, but have to get to one every other month or so.


    1. The really heavy stuff is what granny carts are for 🙂 And I tend not to buy 50 lbs of anything. Not economical to buy smaller sizes, but practical in other ways.
      There isn’t a Target in Manhattan, but there is one just over in the Bronx.
      I have been seriously fantasizing about living somewhere where I can do a big shop for supplies–and then have room to store them 😀


      1. We are highly adaptive creatures, aren’t we? I think the idea of a living in New York sounds so modern and cosmopolitan – yet there are challenges there that may be much more difficult that living in the woods – space, transportation, prices, availability – all things that make you think hard about your purchases. Of course I can’t get take out on the way home and sometimes need a chainsaw to leave my driveway.


        1. LOL, yes, we adaptability is key.
          Hint: The beauty of NY is you don’t actually have to pick up take out on your way home. Delivery.

          I am completely and totally tired of the machinations necessary for city life…but a chainsaw? Yikes!


          1. We had a storm a couple of years ago that blocked my drive with downed trees and ice. I was iced in for 6 days. I had heat and power and satellite. My neighbors lost power but could get out. So once a day I would hike through the woods to meet them, I would bring their cell phones back to my house to charge and they would bring me supplies. It was kind of nice.


  6. I am one of those strange people who likes to go food shopping, yes you read that right I like food shopping I enjoy wondering around the ailes looking at stuff……..thankfully the cost of items do not differ much from one store to another


    1. LOL, Joanne! I know there are quite a few who enjoy it 🙂 Are you a really “good” shopper, coupons, comparison, etc? Man Child is great at it, when he is home and goes for me, we always end up with the most bang for our buck. (or pasta for our pennies, as it were)
      I’m glad you joined in the conversation!


  7. Wow this does take me back. To the years I lived in a city, long ago now. And it was on the other coast. But the flavor of the experience comes right through. “Shuffle of shame” – it was a bit different, more to do with being confronted at every turn by panhandlers, in those days, but always face to face with the uneven access to resources.

    Right now I am about out of food from the last trip to my local food bank. Fortunately I am only feeding myself, and don’t have to be concerned about kids. I am used to being able to buy the food I want when I want it, and looking at my nearly empty refrigerator is… a change of pace for sure. Since I lost my job, I am pinching pennies and new enough at it that it still has the appeal of novelty. Plus which our food bank is truly awesome. But, I am out of points til March 1. Squeaking by just fine though. 🙂


    1. I’m glad you have a great food bank, what a huge help! 🙂 A lot of the food banks around here have been running with very minimal supplies, it’s a rough, rough time for too many.
      Yes, living in a big city like this the “division” isn’t tangible. On my block, there are low/middle income apartments, multi million dollar brownstones, and “project” apartments. Not unusual at all.


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