How to Save Money on Groceries (even in Alaska!)

Alaska is not a cheap place to live. It is also really hard to determine a “price point” for any item here because they can fluctuate greatly based on barges, etc. And Alaska doesn’t follow the usual, consistent grocery cycle budget-conscious shoppers in the lower 48 count on. With that in mind, there are ways to cut down the costs significantly on groceries in Alaska. Here’s how we do it:

  1. Eat Salmon Weekly – Salmon is a resource we are able to harvest here in Alaska. We go dipnetting once a year and store enough salmon in our freezer to eat it about 2 nights per week. One giant fillet (cooked to perfection by Mr. T, himself) can feed all five of us for two nights with a grain and vegetable on the side. At $3.93/lb, this helps our grocery budget significantly.

    One of our delicious salmon dinners.

    Almond crusted salmon with a delicious salad.

  2. Don’t Eat Meat – Other than our weekly salmon, we don’t eat a lot of meat. We buy a bag of frozen chicken breasts from Costco about 4-5 times/year. We buy about two whole chickens ($4.99!) at Costco per year to eat for dinner and then use the carcass to make chicken broth. And, we sometimes splurge and buy one pack of pork loins per year at Costco. Meat is expensive and it’s good to cut down on the amount you eat. We probably have one meal a week (not counting salmon) that includes meat. And even then, meat isn’t the entree, but rather included in the dish (ie: Chicken enchilada soup or coconut chicken curry). The exception to the “don’t eat meat” rule is if you have friends that are hunters (we are not) and you can get moose meat (or other game meats) from them for free (or nearly), then you have no financial reason to not eat as much meat as you want.
  3. Shop at Costco – We’ve found that nearly every food that can be bought at Costco will be significantly cheaper there than at the grocery store. When staple foods are part of Costco’s monthly coupons, we stock up (we may have 12 boxes of Annie’s Mac and Cheese in the garage from when they went down to less than $1.00/box… the kids love it so much they’ll take it to school cold in lunch boxes!).
  4. Import (if possible) – Alaska Airlines offers Alaskans two free bags per flight (as part of the free Club 49). For a family of five, that means a ridiculous amount of luggage. There are a few ingredients we use a lot that cost significantly more up here. We allot one big suitcase to bringing up those ingredients (primarily canned coconut milk, diced green chiles, whole wheat couscous, and Israeli couscous… all from Trader Joe’s). We also bring up jars of blackberry jam from Mr.T’s family. They make tons from the blackberries that grow as weeds all over their neighborhood.
  5. Buy in Bulk – Other than buying nearly everything at Costco, look for other places that ship up giant amounts of something. We buy 50 lb. bags of wheat and oats and 7-grain mix from a co-op company that does a big bulk order twice a year. For breakfast, we use a hand-crank wheat grinder to crack the oats and 7-grain into a steel-cut style oatmeal. We add frozen berries (either purchased at Costco or frozen from our own summer berry picking), bananas, and some kefir (see #7). This is a very inexpensive breakfast for all of us.
  6. Make Your Own – Making your own meals is an obvious money-saver, but buying pre-made ingredients can cost significantly more. We buy hardly anything pre-made (imported Trader Joe’s brownies and Annie’s Mac and Cheese aside). We make and freeze our own chicken broth and enchilada sauce. We grind our own wheat, crack our own oatmeal, and make our own bread.

    We start our plants inside because you can't plant most things outside until June 1 in Anchorage.

    We start our plants inside because you can’t plant most things outside until June 1 in Anchorage.

  7. Grow Your Own – The all-night sunlight makes the short growing season super efficient. If you don’t have a little pot of lettuce, start one next summer. Figure out what vegetables would be best for your family and start there. Some grow better than others up here. Greens do very well. What you can’t grow yourself, keep your ear out to mooch from other people that have a bumper crop. We also have kefir grains on the counter in a jar of milk. The kefir it produces serves as both yogurt and buttermilk in our house.
  8. Shop the Local Farmer’s Markets – The things you can’t grow yourself or make yourself can often be found at the markets for cheaper than stores (sometimes they are much more expensive, however). Also, we buy all of our spices at the Farmer’s Market from a place that sells it all for $1.50/bag. Just take a look at the selections at the many markets around town and see if you can find some good deals.
  9. Plan Your Meals – I plan enough meals for the whole month and write them on the sidebar of my calendar. At the beginning of eat week, I’ll plug in which ones we’ll make that week so that I can be flexible on when to make what and also shop monthly for the ingredients (with the exception of a few fresh items per dish). Planning out your meals and your shopping trips saves you money simply by having a shopping list and not shopping as much. Also, each month, each kid gets to pick a meal to add to our monthly dinner plans (we eat spaghetti and nachos almost every month) which has cut down significantly on dinner complaints (even when it’s not their dish!).

Do you live in an expensive place? What grocery hacks do you use?

Groceries

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4 Comments

  1. Love this list of tricks you’ve developed! We also live in an expensive place, and pay the mountain premium, although I’m sure it’s nothing like the jet-and-barge premium. We’ve shared that our grocery bill is not especially thrifty, owing in part to the mountain premium, and in part to our insistence to buy as much organic, unprocessed food as possible. We keep our costs lower than they could be by knowing the prices at all of the possible stores, and buying certain items at the stores where they’re cheapest, as well as eating as seasonally as possible. While some of our staples like brown rice and black beans are things we buy all the time, we try to buy only the produce that’s locally in season, which means getting it for the best price — and the best flavor! We also buy very little meat or dairy, which helps too!

    • MaggieBanks

      I wish I could count on prices being the same at certain places… it’s a constant moving target! We also focus on the unprocessed foods, but can’t eat all local (or we would be stuck with just kale and cabbage and potatoes!). It’s fun hearing what people do in different places!

  2. I am right with you on meal planning. I have a 30 day plan, but it is still a work in progress. Meat and vegetables are the main item for each dinner, something we all agree on . It is the side dishes that we struggle with. I would love to see your plan, if you are willing to share how you don’t eat that much meat.

    Stocking up on items has actually been one of our downfalls because I sometimes forget what I bought, overestimate what I need for that month, or we eat too much too fast because it is in the house – especially junk food! Buying only what we need that week (or in the real near future) has helped me keep our budget on track, even though we may run out of things from time to time. Of course, we live near many reasonably priced stores.

    • MaggieBanks

      Lisa – we eat primarily meals like pasta and curry and soup and enchiladas where meat is either just a little part of it or can be replaced. They also have lots of veggies in them and either have a side built in (rice for curry, bread for pasta) or they don’t need one (we add avocados and sour cream to the top of enchiladas, etc). Our salmon meal always has a grain as a side (couscous, quinoa, or rice usually) and a vegetable (a salad, steamed veggies, or curried veggies). But other than the salmon, we moved ourselves away from meat meals with a side of veggies and transitioned into more complex meals with meat included as a part of the whole (or not included at all).

      I love your thoughts on stockpiling. I agree to an extent. I usually only stockpile staples that have a long shelf-life (like pastas). And I wish we lived near a bunch of reasonably priced stores! Alas. We’ll keep our salmon and stop complaining! 🙂

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