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Tips to fight inflation: How Seattle-area families stretch their buck at the grocery store

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Sheila Loesch cuts a carrot at their home in Kirkland, Washington, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.
Sheila Loesch cuts a carrot at their home in Kirkland, Washington, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. (Kylie Cooper/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — A whole chicken, a slab of bacon, a carton of milk and a box of Froot Loops can ring up to $40 at the cash register now. Your wallet likely feels much lighter after a trip to the local supermarket because grocery prices have risen 13% higher than a year ago, according to the July Consumer Price Index.

The high costs of meat, bread and, well, everything along the grocery aisles mean many families have had to make adjustments to their diets or buy cheaper generic brands, as we found when we interviewed several shoppers around the Puget Sound area. Here’s a look at the many different ways shoppers are trying to stretch their dollar at the grocery store.

As first-time homeowners, Sheila Loesch and their partner thought they had done their due diligence and checked all the boxes when researching their new neighborhood before they closed the deal on a two-bedroom condo in Kirkland last summer. They concluded that property tax would be high on the Eastside, but the trade-off is that they get to live in a walkable area with more downtown cultural offerings than in their old neighborhood in Renton.

Loesch, who uses they/them pronouns, just didn’t account for the sticker shock of grocery shopping in Kirkland.

From one supermarket to another, Loesch found that nearly everything on the family’s grocery list — cheese, eggs, bell peppers, almond milk — costs at least a dollar more compared to when Loesch shopped in Renton or in neighboring Kent.

Each plump, shiny avocado at the Metropolitan Market in Kirkland, for instance, costs more than $4 this spring, Loesch said. Loesch later went to get their avocados from WinCo Foods in Kent, where they cost 98 cents each.

“That’s an enormous difference, one-fourth of the cost. That is a produce that I buy for a lot of meals I cook at home. … I don’t eat meat,” said Loesch, a 29-year-old freelance editor and writer.

Every two weeks, Loesch drives 30 minutes to grocery shop at the WinCo supermarket in Kent. Their family grocery bill rings up to $550-$600 a month, at least $100 higher compared to last year’s, but those receipts would be much higher if Loesch were to shop exclusively at the local Metropolitan Market, Safeway, PCC and QFC, they said.

Loesch now buys eggs, beans, granola and other shelf staples in the South End and makes an occasional run to their local Kirkland Safeway for specialty items — maybe an English cucumber for a salad, a cauliflower for dinner or one or two ingredients they might need for a particular recipe.

Loesch says the high grocery bills have dampened the household’s saving plans. They have a 2008 hatchback that has maybe two good years left, according to their mechanic, so the couple is trying to save for another used car while also attempting to pay off their mortgage early so they can retire before they turn 65. Even with the high cost of gas, Loesch says they still save hundreds of dollars by driving 30 minutes south to grocery shop as opposed to walking to their nearby supermarket.

Lessons from the Great Depression

For Susan River, the penny-pinching-lessons that her late mother — who lived to be 102 — picked up to survive during the Great Depression and passed on to her still resonate today.

River, 69, spends $100 on a box of 20 Alaska wild salmon fillets, squirreling them away in the freezer and rationing them out for “luxurious” dinners for her and her roommate Paul Allen, 70.

Their relationship is, um, complicated.

The two married as high school sweethearts and raised two sons before divorcing in 1988. Thirteen years ago, after River lost her job and house because she couldn’t keep up with the mortgage, Allen invited her to be roommates in a two-bedroom West Seattle apartment he found for $1,600.

River and Allen have a platonic relationship, but say they have found that they need each other during their autumn years when the world can seem lonely and frightening during these inflationary times.

They share household chores and take turns running errands. But cooking is River’s domain.

Despite her health concerns about eating too many carbs, River has reintroduced pasta, potato and rice into their diets because they’re cheap and filling.

“Our menu is based on what is on sale,” she said.

After their grocery bill escalated as high as $500 per outing in the spring, River now watches every dollar she spends. She’s cut her monthly grocery bill down to $300 a month, partly by buying in bulk at Costco and splitting those purchases with another family “because that’s cheaper than buying at Safeway,” she said.

The couple can’t afford to retire, but no matter how high food prices rise, she said they will find a way to make it. “I’ve known Paul for 55 years. Our mindset is ‘we know how to do this,’” River said.

Eating to live

By January, the high cost of food meant the end of date night at nice restaurants for Zack Ballinger and his partner Kai Gallo. When that cutback wasn’t enough to help them make ends meet, Ballinger cut out the gourmet meals they cook at their home in Mountlake Terrace.

Now, Ballinger, 24, shops mostly for discounts, swapping out beef and other costly meats for tofu and plants, even buying wilted veggies and other produce that’s nearing its expiration date to save a buck or two.

“I live paycheck to paycheck. Everyone said, ‘you should save at least 20% of your paycheck’ or whatever, but that’s just not realistic with how this economy is going,” said Ballinger, who makes $16 an hour as a full-time bookseller for Third Place Books. “I have no hope that prices will go down substantially.”

When Ballinger rolls the cart down the aisle at his local Fred Meyer or QFC, he’s disheartened by how “even basic commodities like dry beans and rice and eggs are so much more expensive. These are not fancy items,” he said.

Last year, Ballinger splurged on gourmet home-cooked meals, such as picking up a Copper River salmon that caught his fancy for a recipe, or buying a head of black garlic and other unusual ingredients “to try out.”

Now, eating is less about enjoyment and more about sustenance, as Ballinger tries to keep the monthly grocery bills to under $250 a month. Dinner usually consists of brown rice with tofu or chicken and “whatever vegetables are on sale.”

Ballinger buys a whole chicken and breaks it down since that’s cheaper than buying a tray of breasts or wings. And “we have a lot of frozen vegetables because those are cheaper.”

Embracing the freezer

With the high cost of meat, Tina Mankowski realizes now that her freezer has become a great investment. She buys poultry and slabs of meat when they’re on sale and stores them in the freezer in the garage of her West Seattle home.

“I’m trying to stretch my dollars because everything is so expensive,” said Mankowski. “I bring home a bag of groceries. I get just six items and it adds up to $60. I am single. I don’t see how families on fixed income can afford to feed their kids.”

She saves by turning a single meat purchase into a week’s worth of meals. A chicken she brines and then roasts, for instance, will be the dinner the first night, and the leftovers become a chicken salad sandwich and then a stir-fry dish while the bones are used to make chicken stock for soup.

“Thank goodness I like chicken,” she quips. “I don’t mind eating it four or five times in a row.”

Her latest meal deal of the week is the ground turkey she gets at Trader Joe’s for under $4 a pound, turning that tray of meat into a burger, red bell peppers stuffed with ground meat and rice, and Thai lettuce wraps with the ground turkey flavored with Asian seasonings.

“I am very resourceful when it comes to stretching the dollar,” Mankowski said.

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