$5 Dinners in California – Really???

by Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom on March 3, 2010

Jessica paid $12 for all the produce you see above! Not bad!!!

I often hear…well, these $5 Dinners are great and all, but the prices I see in my stores are too high!  Jessica, who lives in the heart of San Diego, is here to say otherwise!  If you look, you might be surprised at the great prices you might find in your area!

I grew up in Southern California. Born and raised in an LA suburb, I know the beaches, the warm weather, the high cost of living. I went to college in the affluent city of Santa Barbara. And I know what it is to spend $500 a month to feed two people. Been there, done that.

When my husband and I first married, we believed what everyone said,

It’s too expensive to live in California.

You can never get ahead if you live in California.

Well, eventually we left the Golden State for greener pastures. Or so we thought. In 2003 circumstances led us to move to Kansas City where we found that most costs of living and of raising a family were not less than when we lived in California. Sure, our house cost less and so did gas, but everything else – food, utilities, clothing, and other household expenses — cost the same or more than their counterparts on the West Coast.

We’ve since moved back home and today we live a debt-free life in San Diego, raising six children, and feeding them on about $500 a month. My, times have changed.

I’ve heard people question how Erin can save money and feed her family so inexpensively. They don’t believe they can do it on their home turf, saying, “That’s great for you. But you live in the MidWest. Things are more expensive on the West Coast.” True, some things are more expensive, but not all — and certainly not food. And generally speaking, wages are higher in California than in other markets. You can totally do this! Totally.

(I am after all, a true Valley girl.)

$1.59/lb is less than I see around here!!!

Here are some tips to get you enjoying $5 Dinners right where you are:

  1. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Heaven knows that appearances can be deceiving, especially in California. Make the conscious decision to “be weird.” That’s the California way, is it not? Set your mind to dismiss the raised eyebrow that may come when you use coupons, order water instead of soda, or ask to take your restaurant leftovers home. It’s your money! Don’t let peer pressure goad you into spending more than you should.
  2. Clip coupons. It’s true; California grocery stores are more restrictive than those in other states. Ralphs will only double one coupon of a kind. Vons allows only one internet printable of a kind. But, it’s still possible to save big money. Familiarize yourself with your stores’ coupon policies and make them work for you.
  3. Enjoy fresh produce. California is the bread basket of the United States! Everything grows here. And with less mileage to travel, the costs will be lower. My produce prices regularly beat Erin’s. (No offense, girlfriend.) (Erin here…NONE taken!) Our family enjoy lots of fresh fruit, green salads, and steamed veggies. It’s not uncommon for to find avocados 3/$1 or even cantaloupes for a quarter. Stock up on great deals and enjoy a bountiful harvest.
  4. Practice stockpiling. Don’t ever pay full price – unless it’s an emergency. Regular prices are high, but sale prices and loss leaders are exceptional! Keep track of the best prices for your area and stock up when there’s a sale.
  5. Make the most of markdowns. Erin does a fantastic job on this. Learn from her and know that it can happen in the Golden State! I have found boneless, skinless chicken breast at Ralphs for $1.59/# and organic ground beef at Albertsons for $1.99/#. My Vons clearanced an excess of T-bone steaks for $2/#. Proteins are the heart to $5 Dinners! Buy as much as your freezer will hold.

Don’t buy the lie that you can’t “bloom where you’re planted.” California groceries are not overpriced. You just have to know how to shop. You can enjoy delicious and healthy $5 Dinners and get a suntan, too!

Jessica Fisher is a happy mom to six children, basking in the California sun. She writes about fun, frugality and the pursuit of a clean house at LifeasMOM and posts delicious ways to act your wage at Good (& Cheap) Eats.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Lynne in NC March 3, 2010 at 8:05 am

Jessica, Well said and so true. Thanks for posting. Peace.

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SavvySuzie March 3, 2010 at 9:04 am

I completely agree! I live in a suburb of Boston, and the “regular” price of foodstuffs is also higher than in many areas. But I can’t remember the last time I paid “regular” price for ANYTHING!! We don’t have triple coupons here, and I’ve hit restrictions on number of double coupons. But $5 dinners happen ALL THE TIME here and I’m not feeding the four of us ramen and spaghetti-o’s. If you take the time to do your homework, and stock up smartly, it’s totally possible!

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Jodi March 3, 2010 at 9:05 am

My last comment on your last post seemed that I didn’t believe that you can buy milk/eggs for super cheap. I was just surprised. But, when I tell people I can buy groceries for $50/week for 3 people, they are surprised as well.

People will be surprised if they start searching for deals, clipping coupons and walk into different stores that other people would believe are ‘expensive’ to shop at.

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sally March 3, 2010 at 9:07 am

Oh boy, Jessica…you’re telling my EXACT story. I grew up in CA, too, but hubby is from the midwest. After holding him captive on the west coast as long as I could, we moved back to the heartland 3 1/2 years ago. I thought, “well, at least it will be cheap to live out there”…only I found exactly what you did…only our house and gas are less, EVERYTHING else is more. I love it out here, and we won’t be moving back west, but I REALLY miss all the fresh produce…oh, how I miss strawberry season!!

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Megan March 3, 2010 at 9:38 am

I glad someone finally said it. I also live in So Cal and usually find around the same prices that I see on Erin’s receipts, sometimes even better. I think the big difference is that I can’t find a single store around here that will double coupons, which is a big bummer. With that being said I still only spend $60.00 a week for food and HBA for my husband, 1 1/2 year old son and my pregnant self. It is possible and we eat really good too. Thanks for posting!

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FishMama March 3, 2010 at 10:46 am

@Megan, Vons and Ralphs should double one coupon. Do you have those near you?

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Megan March 3, 2010 at 1:55 pm

@FishMama, I have a vons I shop at quite a bit but they have never doubled coupons for me. I’ll have to ask next time.

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sue March 3, 2010 at 10:13 am

So what she is saying is that she feeds her family of 8 on just $5 a night??? wow that is amazing. would she be willing to share some of her dinners here. i would love to be able to feed my family of 9 for only $5 a night and have them leave the table full!

You girls rock for saving money at dinner. Love that you get marked down meat. that is unheard of around here. Lucky to find a mangers special with a $1 off coupon.

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Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom March 3, 2010 at 11:27 am

@sue,

I’ll let Jessica answer that!

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FishMama March 3, 2010 at 12:35 pm

@Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom and Sue, Since Erin bases her $5 dinners to feed 4, my ultimate goal is to be under $10. I figure that’s only fair. ;) But, I average around $5 to $7 each night. I think my record has been a $3 meal to feed 8 of us. I often link them up to the $5 Dinner Challenge, posting from GoodCheapEats.

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Cassie March 3, 2010 at 10:50 am

Great post! I always stock up on meats when they are reduced. Just come home and freeze them and they are good to go! :)

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Blakely March 3, 2010 at 11:37 am

I just visited the LA area and loved it. My first thought was how lucky they are to be able to grow fruit trees in there yards. We have wanted to plant some, but our winters are just to cold. I know having your own trees would cut down on the cost of fruit. My husband loves to visit grocery stores while in other areas of the country. We went to a Food For Less and loved it. I thought they had some really good deal.

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Donna July 5, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Food4Less is the best! It is owned by the same company as Ralph’s (Kroger), but is SO much cheaper than Ralph’s it’s not even funny. I’ve found it works best for me to do all of my shopping there and not do so much couponing. I can spend hours gathering and using coupons at Ralph’s and still spend more than I would have at Food4Less. Grocerysmarts.com links up coupons for Food4Less, so that’s about all the couponing I’ll do. The produce at Food4Less is not spectacular, however. Although it’s not a national chain, Frazier Farms in San Diego County has amazing local produce at great prices. Anyway, just wanted to throw in my two cents for Food4Less. I know they are only in the West, but I would recommend trying your local budget grocery store. People seem to get emotionally tied to “their” store even if they are paying 30% more for groceries each week.

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Layla March 3, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Absolutley, Jessica! I live in North San Diego County and I know exactly what you mean. It can be difficult not to bemoan our cost of living here where rent is $2,000 a month and gas is $3 per gallon, but when it comes down to it, it is always about making wise choices and taking the time and effort to do a little research. Our family of six (including two teenage daughters, a ten year old son, and a two year old daughter still in diapers) manages quite well on less than $60,000 a year. My husband and I have decided to focus on the quality of our lives, not the quantity of our “stuff”.

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Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom March 3, 2010 at 1:17 pm

@Layla,

Good for you guys!

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Jaime Davis March 3, 2010 at 1:05 pm

I love this post! I live in San Diego and shop at Vons, Trader Joes, Farmer’s Market’s and Henry’s. As your post said, I just bought avocados 3/1$ at Henry’s on sale. I have drumsticks in the freezer (that I dont know what to do with), that I got at Von’s for .88 cents a pound, and catch their chicken breasts when they go on sale for 1.77.

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Melissa Stoltzfus, PA March 3, 2010 at 5:42 pm

@Jaime Davis, What to do with Drumsticks: stick them in a 9×13 pan, topping of choice (bbq sauce or a seasoned salt for crispy), and bake at 350F for 45-60 minutes. My guys LOVE this meal and I make it often.

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Karen March 3, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I live in NO Cal(near San Fran) and I feel the pinch. I used to live in the Midwest and I thought things were expensive! I am a coupon hunter for frequently bought items and I stock up on items that are on sale. I am finding that Target nearby us has stuff a bit cheaper than then nearby wal-mart….I don’t know what the ads are talking about….

I look for good sales…..our budget is about 75 a week and we are doing pretty good thing by looking for cheaper meats(i.e. chicken) and finding reciepes through here or other places like all reciepes. I found a reiciepe for a shake ‘n bake like one with leftovers in the house…ta da! :)

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Allysgrandma March 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I live in true Northern California and our produce is so much better than the East Coast where my daughter lives. I just did a challenge with my sister who lives in Oregon to spend $200.00 on food for the month and did it (with a freezer full of meat I should day). We don’t have Aldi’s, but I totally think it is doable with keeping your eyes for good buys and being creative. I am shooting for as low as I can, it is sort of a mind set. DH and I had quit watching the ads, etc, but we are back on it now. I would love to have TJ’s. We stock up on certain products when we are close to one. Thank goodness one opened in Redding, Ca, 3 hours away!

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Heather March 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Great post. Now I miss living in California. LOL I really didn’t have a problem with cost of living out there personally. Though I didn’t live in any of the fancy areas. I was in the desert.

I just moved from Texas to Alabama and all the food seems to cost more. Not that much more, but I’m being kind of a baby about it. I need to work on shopping around more.

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Kristy March 3, 2010 at 3:05 pm

We live in Orange County, having lived in San Diego before this, and I have to say that I find food more expensive in OC and even though I scour Ralph’s, Albertson’s and Pavilions I never see manager’s specials, I have even asked and in our area they have discontinued a lot of that.

In this past year I have also found that the regular price has dropped a bit but the sale prices are not as good.

So while I think a lot of the California pricing complaints are excuses, San Diego is a place with more reasonable shopping than some other areas.

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B March 3, 2010 at 4:12 pm

thanks for this encouraging post! i live in orange county so i hear ya! but you’re right, if i really plan my menu well based on weekly sales, i can do it on a budget. around here, sprouts has great sales on produce and meat – oranges were .49/lb this week. also, because of the large asian populations in california – if you live near an asian market, check out their produce! super cheap.

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Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom March 3, 2010 at 6:47 pm

@B,

Thanks for that tip B!

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Kimberly March 3, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I grew up in North County (San Diego) myself and now live in the Inland Empire. Eating well for less is totally doable, although it does take some work – and hitting the right stores. Thanks for working to dispell the myth.

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Larissa March 3, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Living near Vancouver BC and we don’t have a single store that doubles coupons…not that I’ve ever been able to find. An American thing?????
It’s true though that you can find great value if you do research and are prepared. I love the farm stands on the side of the road and can hardly wait until it’s time to shop direct again! $1.50 for 4 or 5 (sweet) peppers is a great value!

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Erin, The $5 Dinner Mom March 3, 2010 at 6:47 pm

@Larissa,

I’ve heard many a complaint from Canadian readers Larissa. It’s unfortunate that the grocery stores in Canada don’t double.

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Liz March 3, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Mmmm I am so jealous of the fresh produce! Can’t wait for spring!!!

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arianna March 3, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I live near San Francisco and I do think that groceries are more expensive here.
Thanks to people like you I started saving money, but it’s not easy and all the stores around here (with the exception of Safeway), are very difficult when I tried to use coupons. Target is the worst…I had many arguments with their cashiers.
I am glad that I run across your sites, which I really enjoy as they challenge me to spend less for food without compromising on quality.

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Melissa March 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm

If I would have known what my family had we would have NEVER moved out of CA. We thought moving out of state to TN would save us so much money. WRONG!!! Our bills are way more here then they were in CA. Go figure. My grocery bill increased by 5x and of course we know have a huge utility bill running either the heater or a/c. Oh, I miss CA….

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Rebecca March 4, 2010 at 4:03 pm

My husband is in seminary in Pasadena, CA (outside of LA). We moved here from Texas last year. And, while at first it seemed like we would never be able to save money on groceries, after figuring things out, I am spending considerably LESS here than I was in Texas.

At one of our local stores, boneless, skinless chicken leg meat is regulary on sale for $.89 per lb… I can buy 5 lbs for less than $5, have the hubby grill them up, and be set for our lunches and several dinners for a whole week. I regularly make dinners for much less than $5 that feed the both of us at least once, plus provide my husband with lunches for the week.

It is totally do-able to make $5 dinners in LA!!

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Erica March 4, 2010 at 4:26 pm

I am so glad to read to posts from those that have relocated OUT of socal and found things more expensive in the long run. We (family of 5) live in Los Angeles (Culver City to be exact) and every time I pay our $1600 rent on our 2 bedroom apt. I think to myself it’s time to leave and go somewhere cheaper. Nice to know that things even out in the end.

I find produce is cheaper here – where else in the country can you buy a lb of strawberries for 1.50 right now?And the big grocery bag of meyer lemons I got free from my friends backyard is a huge bonus! The big Hispanic Supermarket in our neighborhood is a great place to save money on meat, produce, bulk rice and beans and other things. Ethnic groceries abound in LA and they are a wonderful resource. Check them out where you live in your part of the country.

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solarra March 9, 2010 at 2:55 am

I just moved from California to Ohio almost 2 years ago and your right food here does seem higher. 5 bucks for a 5 pound bag of potatoes is nuts! I used to shop at Winco when I lived in Sacramento and I miss the heck out of it out here:) Anyone know where some excellent farmer’s markets are in the dayton area?

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