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About ten years ago, after landing a big job with a huge bump in pay, we kicked our debt payoff and financial independence journey into overdrive. But not every surplus dollar went towards paying down debt or investments. We spent some of it too!
Most of the big splurges were on unforgettable travel experiences. The smaller splurges were on upgrading our wardrobe, home furnishings and a case of wine we’d normally only purchase on special occasions. Since we’re foodies, we were especially excited about upgrading our primary grocery store. While we liked the convenience and food we were getting at our local Publix, we really wanted to purchase more of our groceries from Whole Foods.
Back then, we really only went to Whole Foods for the hot bar, the fresh fish and meat counters for special dinners. Julien would be in a literal wonderland walking around the stores like it was a chef’s paradise. But when we’d see the prices, we were immediately brought back to reality.
Someday—we’d say to ourselves—we’ll be able to shop here regularly and not feel the sticker shock.
Well, that day had finally come and we gladly hopped on the gourmet, organic and specialty product train believing it would have a compounding effect on our lives. We believed the convenience of the store, higher quality food, removal of harmful products and wider variety of produce would improve every aspect of our lives. And for a while, it did.
But in 2018, we moved to another neighborhood [where we are now] that didn’t have a Whole Foods nearby. Instead, we have three Publix’, three Kroger’s, two Sprouts’, a Nam Dae Mun [international farmers market] and an Aldi; all within a few miles of each other. We’d visited every one of these stores except the Aldi until one day, we decided to check it out.
It’s fair to say; after our first experience, we weren’t impressed and didn’t buy anything. Then, on a whim, we opted to order from Aldi on Instacart and again, weren’t thrilled with the experience. We were completely thrown off by our order not being delivered in bags and couldn’t figure out why anyone would think that was a good idea. That coupled with low quality food sent us back to square one as we tried to adjust to our neighborhood.
And after trying to create a new rotation of grocery stores, we grew frustrated and buckled. Foregoing the importance of convenience—and price—we opted to go back to Whole Foods regularly frequenting the store on the other side of town. It was once a [now defunct] 365 store but was renovated to include more of the elements to make it a fully operational Whole Foods supermarket.
Well, that all came to a head during the pandemic as we’ve steadily watched our grocery bill grow to uncomfortable levels due to inflation, a growing child, opting to make his school lunches, and admittedly some bad habits. So upon reflecting on many conversations we’ve had with our peers in the personal finance world, we felt compelled to revisit Aldi as a grocery store and we’ve gotta say; it was an unexpected and overwhelmingly positive experience.
One that had us asking ourselves—are we an Aldi family now?
What we loved about shopping at Aldi
It’s hard NOT to start with the obvious benefit here which is about price. When you spend as much time in grocery stores as we do, you get a feel for the price of food and can tell quickly when something is more expensive than it was the last time you purchased it. With that said, when we decided to get a recent grocery haul at Aldi, after looking down in the cart, we were fully prepared to see a receipt amounting to about $160.
Instead, the total charge was just under $93; over 40% cheaper than I’d expected.
This included an entire side of fresh salmon, a pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, tons of fresh produce, organic products, canned goods, pastries and specialty items. So when it didn’t even crack a hundred bucks, we understood immediately why Aldi has such a strong and loyal fan base.
We can also say with confidence, there was little to no difference in quality of any of the products we purchased. You might also think the portion sizes would explain the drastic difference in price but you’d be wrong in that assumption. In fact, in some cases the portion sizes were larger which further explained the love affair many of our friends and family have with Aldi, especially if you have children. You literally get more for less.
Other highlights included the cleanliness of the store, the selection of meats, cheeses, international and specialty diet products. We’d just splurged on a charcuterie board for our Thanksgiving dinner and had we known we could get everything at Aldi, we would’ve saved tons of money. There was also a pretty impressive grab-and-go section with ready-to-bake pizzas, flatbreads and pre-cooked foods for people who are looking to save time preparing dinner. Also, we were really impressed with the selection of chocolates which reminded us of time spent in European cities. After a few minutes browsing, it was clear Aldi had made some major improvements in their offerings while still prioritizing affordability. And at the end of the day, who wouldn’t be down to lock in a 40% immediate savings without sacrificing quality or convenience.
What we’re still learning to love about Aldi
As soon as we got home the very first word we used to describe the return to the store was disorienting. In part, this is because we’d grown so accustomed to shopping at other stores and the Aldi experience is a huge departure from the standard supermarket model. Here’s what we mean.
At most grocery stores, you can freely grab a grocery cart or basket in the parking lot or as you’re walking into the store. But at Aldi, to get a grocery cart, you have to insert a quarter into a locking device. When you do this, it unlocks the cart from the stall while keeping your quarter in the device mounted to your cart handle. To get your quarter back, you have to return the cart to the stall, insert the locking key which then, pops your quarter back out.
Aldi does this to save money. By incentivizing shoppers to bring their carts back to the stall, they don’t need a parking lot attendant and thus, pass the savings onto shoppers.
Aldi product offerings and store design
Aldi is also significantly smaller than any other grocery store we’ve ever been to. This is because they have limited products, a smaller selection and absolutely no frills. For example, you’re not going to find Hickory smoked, honey, spicy sriracha, classic, South Carolina style and old-fashioned barbecue sauce to choose from—just barbecue sauce. On one hand, this means, you can be a lot more efficient as you get in and out the store instead of evaluating seven different versions of products like we do in other stores.. The carts are also pretty large which, when combined with a smaller store, can lead to some traffic congestion in popular areas like the meat and produce section.
Aldi sells a good amount of products that aren’t actually groceries which sometimes made us feel like we were in a random aisle in a Dollar Store, Walgreens or Five Below.
For example, we planned to make a quick cornbread to pair with a soup we were making. After searching the aisle with box macaroni and cheese, stuffing, flours and pantry goods we didn’t see any and assumed they simply didn’t sell it. But after wandering down the Aldi Finds aisle, we just happened to look down and saw three large boxes filled with Martha White cornbread mix. It was on the floor between sparkling water, tortilla strips, keto cookies, Bugles, chocolate nut pie crust and an assortment of holiday inspired sweets. For all we know, there was probably a Snuggie and a Shamwow hiding in plain sight.
It makes sense Aldi would have the equivalent of a discount rack for leftover, seasonal products but it didn’t make sense to us that the cornbread mix would be among this collection. While it was certainly cheap and ultimately delicious, it felt like we were shopping in a lost and found.
Check out and bagging your own groceries at Aldi
Perhaps the most stressful part of the experience was checking out. At most grocery stores, there’s someone ringing up our food and bagging our groceries. On occasion, we even help speed up the process while ensuring they’re not squashing something delicate like eggs or bread. But at Aldi, you have to bag your own groceries and bring your own bags. If you don’t have bags, you can buy a few at the checkout, carry it in your hands or use an available box or carton the store tends to leave lying around.
But that’s not all. You’re not expected to bag your groceries at the checkout line. Instead, while the cashier rings you up, you’re supposed to have moved your cart up within arms reach of them so they can place your groceries back in the cart. When they’re done, you’re then expected to move to the equivalent of a standing area with a shelf along the wall where you then, bag your groceries before returning your cart.
To up the ante, the whole checkout process moves at lightning speed and while the cashiers are generally nice and willing to explain how it all works, we could sense a slight annoyance at how unfamiliar we were with the process. Apparently, we weren’t the only one’s thrown off by this. There are hilarious social media posts about it from traumatized shoppers all over social media.
The sound of silence…followed by yelling
Lastly, we’re not big fans of yelling and there were a few occasions where cashiers were yelling at folks in line to tell them which aisles were open. We’re accustomed to this being done over a sound system in between a good old fashioned supermarket playlist. I mean, who doesn’t like a lil Bruno Mars, Louis Armstrong and some Phil Collins while strolling through the store? But there’s no music playing in Aldi—like none. So when the cashiers make their announcements, it feels like you’re going through airport security and annoyed TSA agents are reminding first-timers not to take out their laptops, remove their belts or shoes for the five hundredth time that day.
Why we plan on shopping more at Aldi
Look, we’re all adults right? Or at least we can all agree to pretend like adults when it benefits us. Either way, we know that adopting any new routine requires patience so we can’t blame our unfamiliarity with the in store experience on Aldi. Furthermore, we don’t blame them for creating an efficient shopping experience, especially when we—as shoppers—benefit from it in the form of cost savings.
The bottom line is, the store is convenient to our home, the quality of most of the food we brought home was comparable and it was UNBELIEVABLY less expensive than what we’re accustomed to. It takes a lot to excite us but switching to Aldi as our primary grocery store is definitely something we’re looking forward to.
There’s no reason for us—or really anyone— to pay more for staples like beans, fruits, vegetables, pasta sauce, cereal, oatmeal, pretzels, frozen foods or cheese.
given my [Julien] experience with food, having cooked professionally early in my career, if I can’t tell the difference in quality, I seriously doubt many others can.
We view switching to Aldi as our primary grocery store no differently than we do switching a cell phone provider, internet provider or insurance company providing comparable service and coverage. And when we do uncover the inevitable inconsistencies, declines in quality, or have a taste for really specific products, we know where to get them. But until then, we’ll gladly be enjoying this immediate and delicious cost savings.
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