13 Deals You Should Never Pass Up at Trader Joe’s — and 9 You Should

August 24, 2016
by Jamie Cattanach
Staff Writer
what to buy at trader joe’s

Trader Joe’s is a standout among American supermarkets.

From its hand-painted signs to its friendly customer service, it’s a pleasure to shop at. So much so that it’s got a non-authorized, unaffiliated, apparently-legal-enough-to-stay-in-business Canadian spinoff. Even Wegmans can’t boast that kind of brand loyalty.

And the pleasant atmosphere isn’t the only reason shoppers love Trader Joe’s so much.

Trader Joe’s boasts the best (read: lowest) prices in the business, according to Consumer Reports. Better yet, it’s a nationwide chain, so there’s probably one in your area.

But as with any bargain shop, some deals are better than others.

How We Found the Best Deals

We wanted to find out which items were knock-it-out-of-the-park deals and which were only so-so — or worse.

So we grabbed our reusable grocery bags and checked out our local TJ’s, as well as a Walmart and our main regional grocery store, Publix, to see how prices stacked up on a variety of products.

And some of our findings might surprise you.

A quick note: Grocery prices are geographically dependent and subject to constant change.

After all, the oranges in my Floridian store only had to travel a few miles, which might not be true in, say, Kansas. Plus, farming isn’t an exact science — one year’s yield might not be the same as the next!

But while your mileage may vary, pricing trends are still helpful, especially when it comes to stable, shelved items like cereal or coconut oil.

So without further ado, here’s what we discovered about the best and worst deals at Trader Joe’s.

What to Buy at Trader Joe’s

Here are the items you’ll likely find cheaper at Trader Joe’s every single time.

1. Cheese

what to buy at trader joe’s

I. Love. Cheese.

If you do, too, you’re definitely going to want to check out TJ’s cheese case.

From espresso-rubbed Bellavitano to triple-creme Brie, Trader Joe’s boasts lots of options. The store also frequently cuts its cheese wheels small enough that you can get a wedge for less than $5 — a nigh impossibility at my local Publix.

And gourmet cheese does not exist at Walmart, at least at my local store. Looking beyond cheddar pays off, I promise!

Even better, Trader Joe’s stocks both pricier imports and cheeses made here in the states, so you can try pretty much any exotic, creamy variety you desire on the cheap.

2. Cereal

what to buy at trader joe’s

Trader Joe’s has great deals on cereal — so long as you’re not a stickler for the big-box brands advertised during Saturday morning cartoons.

You can get a big box of “Joe’s O’s” for just $1.99, with regular-sized boxes of tons of other varieties starting in the mid-$2 range and going up to about $4.30.

Most regular-sized boxes at my local Publix started around $4, so I’d consider TJ’s a win. That said, if you’re serious about cereal, you could save more by buying generics in bulk at a vendor like Walmart or a warehouse club store.

3. Bananas…

what to buy at trader joe’s

… if you don’t eat a ton of them.

The bananas at Trader Joe’s are sold by the piece (19 cents per banana, when I checked) rather than by the pound, as at most other grocery stores.

So if you’re like me and only want one or two bananas in a given week, you might save a lot just buying what you want, rather than watching a whole bunch go brown before your eyes.

(Psst — if this happens to you frequently, check out our post on how to store produce to keep it fresher longer. You’ll never guess the secret to keeping bananas yellow and firm!)

4. Eggs

what to buy at trader joe’s

Here’s the thing.

The eggs at Trader Joe’s are dirt cheap — cheaper than Walmart’s, even.

But Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry any ethical eggs, despite the appearance of “cage-free” or “vegetarian-raised” on the label.

(Confused about the differences? Check out our guide to what all those egg terms actually mean.)

We recommend you find a vendor that sells pasture-raised eggs.
But if you’re already planning on buying cheap, conventional eggs, TJ’s is the place to do it.

5. Frozen Pizza and Prepared Foods

what to buy at trader joe’s
5second / Getty Images

Trader Joe’s is well-known for its creative options in the frozen, prepared foods aisle.

From the simple and delicious (mac and cheese bites) to the full-on gourmet-to-go (burrata, prosciutto and arugula flatbread) there’s stuff you definitely want to eat in the Trader Joe’s freezer — and it’s all pretty darn well-priced.

Prices start around $2-$5 depending on the item, and most packages are large enough to enough to feed a family of four — or, you know, you by yourself on the couch during a movie marathon.

I will say this: The frozen goods at Trader Joe’s are less about the all-in-one, prepared, single-serve meals we used to call TV dinners (think Lean Cuisine) and more about a dish to prepare as needed or all at once to incorporate into a family meal.

So if you want a Hungry Man dinner, look elsewhere.

As far as frozen pizzas are concerned, I think Trader Joe’s offers great value. Its pies start around $4 and could easily feed a family with a tossed salad on the side — and I didn’t see DiGiorno going for less than $5, even at Walmart.

Plus, as with the rest of its prepared foods, TJ’s has lots of organic and vegetarian options.

However, none of the pies were gigantic. So if you’re looking to feed a teenager sleepover, maybe head to Walmart — heaven knows you’ll need to pick up a flat of paper towels, anyway.

6. Olive Oil

what to buy at trader joe’s

OK, first things first: If you regularly buy olive oil from anything but a specialty store, you’re probably not getting a pure product.

I’ve heard it said that when Americans finally taste real olive oil for the first time, they’re shocked, because the mix of oils we’ve come to accept as the real deal are so thoroughly outshone.

But if you cook with this flavorful (if fake) fat as much as I do, maybe do your wallet a favor and buy it from TJ’s from here on out.

I saw a 33.8-ounce bottle of imported olive oil for just $5.99 — while $8 for 16 ounces was on the cheaper side of Publix’s non-U.S. options. And although its import status doesn’t guarantee a genuine, quality product, it’s probably better than the giant bottle you can get for $4.99 at Walmart.

7. Nuts

what to buy at trader joe’s

Nuts are an awesome deal at Trader Joe’s. I saw a pound of almonds for just $6.99 — as opposed to the almost $10 I’d pay at Publix.

Plus, TJ’s dresses them up in a variety of roasts and flavors — from wasabi to cinnamon to good old salt — so you’re sure to find a palatable way to incorporate this heart-healthy snack into your diet.

8. Dried Fruit

what to buy at trader joe’s

Ah, nature’s candy.

Dried fruit is full of sugar, but it’s still backed by all the vitamins and nutrients other treats (i.e., Snickers) are missing.

Although I found 12-ounce packages of common fruits for $4.29 at Publix,  the smaller, 8-ounce packages at Trader Joe’s were just $2.69, which is actually a couple of cents cheaper per ounce.

Plus, they had so many options, as opposed to the small shelf of raisins, craisins and occasional cherries at the other stores.

At TJ’s, you can choose from options like dried mango, several different types of figs or cleverly-flattened banana — can you say peanut butter sandwiches? Yum.

9. Tortillas

what to buy at trader joe’s
4kodiak / Getty Images

So, tortillas at my local Walmart were priced at $1.88 for eight.

Trader Joe’s sells 12 for $1.49… and they look handmade, instead of the generic stuff on Walmart’s shelves. If tortillas make a regular cameo on your shopping list, I’d suggest grabbing them at TJ’s!

10. Ice Cream

what to buy at trader joe’s
e-anjei / Getty Images

As with cereal, Trader Joe’s ice cream selection won’t include household names — the store sticks to its proprietary stuff, as well as some other organic and specialty brands.

But while there’s no Ben & Jerry’s, you can grab a quart of one of its many tempting flavors for $4.49.

Prices are usually over $5 for that amount in grocery stores. Heck, you can spend more than $4 on just a pint, depending on the brand.

Plus, Trader Joe’s carries mochi. It’s not cheap, but if you’ve never heard of it, do yourself a favor and try it.

11. Flowers

what to buy at trader joe’s
Image Source / Getty Images

If brightening your space with some floral friends is important to you, Trader Joe’s is a great place to grab ‘em. The store’s got good-sized orchids for $12.99 (even smaller ones were $15 at Publix), and bouquets from $3.99-$9.99.

I’ve seen succulents and other seasonal specials even lower, and they don’t die instantly. While you might do better at a farmers market or florist, TJ’s knocks other grocery-store bunches out of the water.

(Please keep your flowers in water if you want them to live.)

12. Coffee

what to buy at trader joe’s
Henrik Weis / Getty Images

Full disclosure: If you’re just looking for something warm, brown and caffeinated, you can definitely get cheaper coffee at Walmart.

But if quality and source matters to you, Trader Joe’s can’t be beat. Where else can you get 13 ounces of a scrumptious, single-origin bean for less than $10?

If you’re new to the wide world of coffee for coffee’s sake (as opposed to “I otherwise cannot keep my eyes open before 10 a.m”’s sake), check out TJ’s coffee character field guide. With its prices, you can afford to experiment and find out what you actually like.

13. Wine

what to buy at trader joe’s

I’ll come clean: The main reason I suggested writing this post was to have yet another opportunity to gush about the quality and price of Trader Joe’s wine selection.

And no, I’m not talking about Two-Buck Chuck. Sorry, that stuff kind of sucks.

But if you’re willing to spend $10 instead of $2, you can find a prime example of almost any varietal or region you’re looking for. And if that means nothing to you, no worries: Just grabbing blindly in the $8-$10 range at TJ’s probably won’t steer you too far wrong.

To get you started, here’s a favorite red and favorite white of mine to try out — both were just $7.99 at TJ’s.

What to Skip at Trader Joe’s

Although it might make more sense to pick up whatever you need at the same store, the following items aren’t exactly killer deals at Trader Joe’s — so consider buying them elsewhere.

1. Peanut Butter and Other Nut Butters

what to buy at trader joe’s
BarnabyChambers / Getty Images

Although Trader Joe’s selection of nut butters might be impressive, you can probably get a brand-name product at a similar or lower price at Walmart.

And if you’re used to sweeter peanut butters, you might be disappointed by TJ’s health-geared products, which contain little but the nuts themselves — and which therefore might be too grainy or muddy-tasting for your liking.

2. Coconut Oil

what to buy at trader joe’s
Ekaterina Minaeva / Getty Images

For $5.99, you can get 29 ounces of coconut oil at Publix… but only 16 ounces at Trader Joe’s.

Yes, the latter is organic, but since the science around organics is shaky at best (and since rampant greenwashing means the label might have less to do with the food itself than with how much money the producer has to spend on fancy certifications), this one’s a no-brainer for me.

3. Frozen Fruit

what to buy at trader joe’s
BravissimoS/ Getty Images

Prices at Trader Joe’s were good, but nothing jaw-dropping.

It carried a 1-pound bag of frozen cherries for $3.69, which was on par with Walmart, where you could buy a bigger size for less per ounce — not an option at TJ’s.

4. Produce

what to buy at trader joe’s
Noel Hendrickson / Getty Images

While some of the produce at Trader Joe’s is well priced, some is definitely not. For instance, the avocados that were $1 apiece at my local Publix were $1.69 at TJ’s when I checked.

And hit-or-miss pricing isn’t the only issue.

If buying local produce is important to you, Trader Joe’s doesn’t fit the bill. Unless you live in California, the origin of almost every piece of fruit I saw in the store.

However, the price-per-piece model is unique among stores I frequent, and may save you some money if you’re eating alone and can only handle a little bit of produce at a time (see bananas, above).

5. Meat

what to buy at trader joe’s
luoman / Getty Images

Unfortunately, meat at Trader Joe’s just isn’t a great deal. Not only is it just as expensive, if not more than what you’ll find at other stores, it’s most likely not as fresh. You’ll notice there’s no butcher in the store, so all of it has to be shipped in and likely frozen.

Even when it comes to pre-cooked, prepared meats, TJ’s falls flat. The store’s ready-to-serve chicken breast was 44 cents per ounce, whereas Walmart’s was 37 cents and Publix’s was, shockingly, just 33 cents (although it was part of a BOGO sale).

If you want to feed your family meat and still save serious cash on groceries, you might want to try a wholesaler — or one of these other clever tactics.

6. Prepackaged Salads

what to buy at trader joe’s

I’m not talking about bagged lettuce, which falls into the “exception” category as far as TJ’s produce is concerned. The washed-and-ready leaves are often a dollar or more cheaper than what I find at Publix. And considering I have a salad almost every day, that’s a huge win in my book.

But the prepackaged lunch salads with everything included? You probably want to steer clear of those.

Although they might seem like a deal between $3 and $4 a pop, they’re much smaller than similar items you can get from your regional grocer or even Walmart.

Worse still, they’re not necessarily that healthy. If you use all the dressing, most of them have more than 500 calories — a buzzkill when you’re talking about such a tiny amount of food.

7. Milk

what to buy at trader joe’s
Maximkostenko / Getty Images

As with coconut oil, if you’re already buying organic milk, Trader Joe’s might have a workable option for you.

But there isn’t any conventional milk, and it’s hard to find a carton smaller than a full gallon, which is a lot of milk. Prices started at $3.99, more than a dollar higher than what you’d find at Walmart.

8. Soap

what to buy at trader joe’s
Malyeuski Dzmitry / Getty Images

I hate to say this because I really love some of the scents Trader Joe’s soaps come in, like clean laundry and rosemary.

But it only carries its proprietary brand, which means you’ll pay $3.99 or more for a regular-size bottle of hand soap, or $2.99 for 25 ounces of dish soap.

It won’t break the bank, but there are definitely better options in bigger sizes if you go somewhere like Walmart — especially if you aren’t concerned with the words “natural” or “organic” appearing on the label.

9. Paper Products/Miscellaneous Home Goods

what to buy at trader joe’s
MoreISO / Getty Images

Since you’re a Penny Hoarder, I’m assuming you already buy most of your paper home goods in bulk.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible at Trader Joe’s. Toilet paper only comes in one package size, which holds six normal-sized rolls priced at $3.99. Again, it’s not expensive — but you can do a lot better if you buy a bigger package elsewhere.

The same is true of other home goods, like paper towels and cat food, which is a shockingly outpriced $5.49 for three pounds.

Also: Where are the trash bags?! It’s nice to pretend you can always be sustainable, but sometimes you have to throw some stuff away.

Love Shopping at Trader Joe’s?

Although some deals are better than others, Trader Joe’s is a great bargain grocery store, and if you go the easy route and just buy all your groceries there, you’ll still probably end up saving money.

But in the end, the best store for you depends on your priorities.

For me, Trader Joe’s is almost perfect.

It’s partly because I live alone and profit from the per-piece produce pricing.

Plus, wine and cheese are basically my favorite non-people things on the planet. Since I’d happily eat a wine-paired cheese board for every meal in my life and be perfectly happy (if a little unhealthy), it’s like TJ’s was made for me: cheap nuts, dried fruit, cheese and wine! Done and done.

To figure out your best grocery store, the best course of action is to perform your very own grocery store comparison. Then you’ll know where to find the best prices for the items you actually buy.

Here’s a printable chart to help you get started — a quick, no-nonsense way to make sure you’re paying as little as possible for groceries.

We’ve got tons of other resources to help you save on groceries, too.

Check out our guide on how to start couponing — TJ’s does accept manufacturer coupons, although the company doesn’t have many of its own!

And while I haven’t seen Trader Joe’s show up on Ibotta yet, make sure you’re using the app when you shop at other stores. I mean, it’s free money just for taking a picture of your receipt.

And no matter what you do and where you shop, know where your money’s going. Just keeping track of how much you spend on food could be eye-opening — even life-changing.

Here’s our guide to starting a budget — and how to set financial goals once you do.

Because I don’t know about you, but a good deal of my financial goals revolve around food.

Your Turn: What are your favorite deals at Trader Joe’s?

Jamie Cattanach is a Trader Joe’s enthusiast and staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at Word Riot, DMQ Review, Hinchas de Poesia and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

by Jamie Cattanach
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

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