Want to Save on Groceries? Try an International Market

Japanese grocery store
Japanese grocery store

Over the past few years as household budgets have slimmed and thrift has come back into style, consumers have cast about in search of new and better ways to save money. But while many money mavens have exhorted the newly cash-strapped to cut out the Starbucks lattes and start carpooling to work, most have ignored the incredible values available at international grocery stores. These unassuming little markets, which can be found in most towns with even small international communities, often have great deals on common staples.

The major supermarket in my neighborhood is an Associated, a New York City regional chain with 130 stores. Around the corner from me, though, an Indian family operates the Naveen Halal Meat and Grocery Store, a hole-in-the-wall market filled with aromatic spices, exotic sauces and ingredients from around the world, in addition to a wide selection of more familiar foods.

To get a feel for the savings to be achieved through international grocery shopping, I compared prices at the two stores. (It's worth pointing out that, as I live in New York, prices at both stores are considerably higher than they would be almost anywhere else.)

Lower Prices on Rice -- and Peanut Butter

If there's one thing that Asia is famous for, it's rice, so it's not surprising that the popular grain would cost a lot less at the Indian market. What was stunning, however, was how much the prices varied: Naveen charged $3.99 for five pounds of jasmine rice, almost 60% less than the $9.49 that Associated charged. Flour was also a great deal: Naveen offered five pounds of Gold Medal or Pillsbury all-purpose flour for $3.50. Associated's prices were almost 25% higher, at $4.39 for exactly the same brand in exactly the same size.

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Salt and baking powder were marginally cheaper, but the best deals lay in cooking basics like oil. At Naveen, vegetable oil cost roughly two-thirds of the price that Associated charged, and olive oil clocked in at just 46% the price that Associated was asking.

Surprisingly, many of my family's favorite brands also found their way onto Naveen's shelves -- at very good prices. Jif Creamy peanut butter was available at a sharp discount, as were Heinz ketchup and Goya canned beans. Hunt's canned tomatoes and Contadina tomato paste were especially good deals, -- about a third less than at the nearby supermarket. The biggest surprise, however, was Lea and Perrin's Worcestershire sauce, which cost about 20% less and, unlike the sauce made for the American market, didn't contain high-fructose corn syrup.

This isn't to say that everything is cheaper at the international market. Brown rice, which is largely disdained in Asia, actually cost less at the chain supermarket, as did red wine vinegar, white vinegar, and canned tuna fish. As a general rule of thumb, expect items that don't fit into traditional Asian cuisine to cost a bit more. However, given the wide variety in Asian cuisines, the chances are good that a lot of your favorites are available for a lot less money in your local international market.