Do you ever consider how much you’re spending when you go to the grocery store? For many of us, it may be one of the larger expenses we have in our lives. After all, since eating is a necessity, we’re more inclined to just accept the prices we pay instead of looking for alternatives.
I remember when I first realized that different grocery stores had different prices. Until that point, I guess part of me assumed it was mostly standardized except for a few sales here and there. A few years later, when I was living on my own, I also discovered how much cheaper off-brand items were and that there were even some chains (e.g. Trader Joe’s) that stocked their own set of items. Then, when my wife and I moved, I was made aware of another grocery store chain that did things a bit different in order to save their shoppers money: Aldi.
Over the last three years, I’ve come to really love Aldi and a lot of what the have to offer. Although I’ve mentioned them in past posts here and there, I figured it was about time to go all out and compile my ultimate guide — complete with a primer of what to expect as well as a list of must-try items. So, without further ado, let’s talk about Aldi.
Aldi Shopping Tips Before You Go
Finding a store
If you don’t already know where your local Aldi store is, there are several easy ways to find out. One such option is to use Aldi’s “Find a Store” feature on their website. In addition to viewing the address, weekly ad, and store hours for your nearest location, you can also adjust your search to find stores that sell beer and wine.
Alas, given the chain’s current footprint, your nearest Aldi store might not actually be that close to you… or even in the same state. If that’s the case, you may be in luck as the company is continuing to expand in the U.S. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for news on new locations and perhaps even give Aldi a test run if you happen to be visiting an area in which they currently reside.
Grab a quarter
While most Aldi’s now accept various credit and debit cards, you’ll likely still need to have a little bit of cash on hand for your visit. More specifically, you’ll want to come armed with a single, U.S. quarter.
Why? Well, in an effort to reduce their labor costs and keep food prices low, Aldi doesn’t employ cart wranglers for their parking lots. Instead, customers are responsible for returning their own carts to the designated area. To enforce this, each cart is chained to the cart in front of it, with this link only breakable by inserting — you guessed it — a quarter into a slot on the handle.
Obviously this can be a big inconvenience if you aren’t prepared, but it’s really for the greater good. If you do forget your quarter, you can probably still find some good samaritan willing to part with theirs in a bid to help you out, although that won’t spare you any of the embarrassment. Bottom line: grab your quarter and keep it close.
Make a list
As you’ll see, Aldi stocks a number of essential items at great prices but they can also throw you a few curveballs. This could mean they don’t have all the items you need at a given time or you may find yourself getting tempted by additional deliciousness you should probably pass on. In either case, it’s always helpful to have a list handy. This is especially true on your first visit, where you can benefit from exploring the store in depth.
When my wife and I first moved to Springfield, I had never been to an Aldi and she hadn’t been in years. As a result, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of their selection and how they’d meet our needs. What ended up happening is that, after a couple of trips to Aldi and some visits to other local stores, we were able to get a sense of what items we would buy where. Given this experience, if you’re looking to start shopping at Aldi as a way to save money, I’d definitely recommend making a list of what you would typically need and going through the same process we did.
Pack your patience
Finally, you should probably know that — at least in my experience — Aldis can be quiet popular, and thus packed. In fact, there was a time when I more or less refused to go there if I didn’t have to just because I found the experience so stressful. However, since that time, Aldi has been renovating some of their locations in order to alleviate some of the issues the old design led to. For example, while our local store used to funnel all shoppers into a single aisle before they could break free, a remodel removed that rat-in-a-maze feel and made it much more navigable.
While these updates have certainly helped and Aldi’s checkout crew are lightning fast, just be prepared for “Sam’s Club on a Saturday” type crowd levels whenever you choose to go — that way you may be happily surprised when it’s relatively empty.
The Aldi Shopping Experience
Private label vs. name brand
Most of the items that you’ll find on your Aldi visit are what are known as “private label” — in more layman terms, “generic.” At the same time, among these offerings are a few name brand items like Coca-Cola, Pop-Tarts, and other hyphenated favorites. The problem is that, while you can score some great deals with many of Aldi’s private label goods, you’ll save little if anything by buying the name brand stuff.
For those who are picky, this could be a problem. Meanwhile, those willing to take a chance on a no-name brand can save a ton shopping at Aldi. Additionally, you can also employ a hybrid shopping method like my wife and I do, purchasing a number of items at Aldi while completing the rest of our list elsewhere.
Aldi Finds and other temporary items
Another important thing to note about Aldi is that you may just find something you love that might not be there the next time you arrive. That’s because the chain often offers what they call “Aldi Finds.” These might be completely original items, different twists on existing products they may be testing, or seasonal offerings. As a result, you never know what you might discover.
Beyond the Aldi Finds, I’ve also noticed that certain products pop in (especially in the freezer section) one week and then disappear not long after. The advantages here are that you can often find some special items to spice up your routine and perhaps even inspire some culinary creativity. Of course, the downside is the potential frustration you have when that item you adored is nowhere to be found. All this said, I should make clear that most of the items at Aldi are stocked regularly, so you don’t have to worry about a complete upheaval of your shopping list.
Checking out and bagging
Like I mentioned earlier, one of the quirks in Aldi’s business model that allows it to offer such low prices is that it keeps its staffing as efficient as possible. Beyond the whole “no cart attendant” thing, that also means that you won’t find any baggers. Moreover, in an effort to help get shoppers checked out as quickly as possible, all of the bagging is done in a separate area after the transaction is completed.
When I tell you that Aldi’s check-out cashiers are fast, I mean it. Heck, half of the time I feel like I’m holding them up if I don’t pre-swipe my credit card (or use Apple Pay) or can’t move my cart out of the way quickly enough. To avoid this from happening to you, here’s what you need to know.
First, if you don’t have reusable bags with you and don’t want to carry all of your items in a big pile, you’ll need to purchase — yes, purchase — bags as you check out. In addition to some reusable bags for sale, Aldi also offers you the option to purchase standard paper grocery bags for a few cents each or thick, plastic bags for a similar fee. Alternatively (or additionally), you are welcome to take some of the extra cardboard boxes lying around to help you tote your items.
With that out of the way, you’re ready to check out. One thing you’ll notice as you get closer to the front of the line is that there’s always a cart at the end of the check-out. This is so that the cashier can easily scan your items (fun fact: you’ll notice that many of Aldi’s products have giant barcodes on multiple sides to make scanning even faster) and throw them into the cart for you to take to the bagging area. As a result, there’s no need to worry that the cart they’re filling isn’t actually yours. Once you’ve checked out, just take the cart of your items and move your empty cart next to the cashier for the next guest.
Once you reach the bagging area (in our store, this is essentially a long counter where you can set up shop), it’s up to you to decide how you want to arrange your groceries. Luckily, if you underestimated your bagging needs, you can always hold onto your cart until after you’ve packed your car.
Returning your cart
Finally, don’t forget the cardinal rule of Aldi shopping: return your cart. Not only is this essential for getting your quarter investment back but it’s also just part of being a good citizen. Speaking of good citizens, on many of our trips, we’ve actually spotted someone heading into the store just as we’ve emptied our cart (or vice versa). In these cases, the other person is typically happy to swap a cart for a quarter, leaving both parties to go their separate ways. These arrangements are completely acceptable — as long as each cart makes it back to its home eventually.
My Aldi Shopping List and Top Picks
Eggs, milk, and cheese
Some of the best items to get at Aldi are some of the most essential. For example, it’s nearly the only place we go to when it’s time to stock up on milk and eggs. In terms of price, a gallon of Aldi’s nonfat milk usually goes for about $2-$2.50 a gallon while a dozen eggs can fluctuate from around $.15 to $1.50. As far as we’ve seen, this has always been the best price — sometimes by a lot.
In the interest of full disclosure, it’s typically my wife that makes the most use of the milk and eggs while I’ve assumed control of what I consider to be a different essential: cheese. On that note, Aldi has really surprised me with their cheese selection. Although you might expect a store of its caliber to merely stock individually-wrapped American cheese and maybe some shredded mozzarella, I’ve been delighted to find slightly more exciting options like sliced muenster, aged swiss, and fresh mozzarella. A few weeks ago, I even came across some applewood smoked gouda that was phenomenal. All of these options are also priced far lower than a comparable option at another grocery store, allowing me to stock up and sample Aldi’s full variety.
Ice cream and desserts
Admittedly, when it came to Aldi products, I wasn’t immediately on board. That started to change the first time I tried their chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. First of all, it was packed with dough (an essential element for me) and, to my amazement, was only about $2.50! I give their peanut butter s’mores, mint chocolate chip, and the limited “Kitchen Sink” Aldi Find flavor all equally high marks as well.
As much as I love their ice cream, my beloved cookie dough recently lost its crown as my favorite Aldi product. On a recent visit, three cookie flavors caught my eye; caramel coconut fudge cookie, peanut butter-filled cookies, and fudge mint cookies. Yes, these glorious Samoa, Tagalong, and Thin Mint knockoffs are literally just as good if not better than the Girl Scout Cookies they emulate. The best part? They’re $1.39 per package! If you want to support your local Girl Scout troops, make a donation, but if you want delicious cookies, I say head to Aldi.
Sparkling water, coffee, and other beverages
Lately it seems like sparkling water-based beverages like La Croix are all the rage. I swear this is actually a trend I started years ago, as I’ve been drinking seltzer, club soda, and other bubbly water products since I was a kid! But I digress… The point is that Aldi recently started stocking cases of their own sparkling water that come in at a fraction of the price other brands charge, making me a very happy customer.
While we’re on the topic of drinks, another real steal we’ve discovered at Aldi is the packaged coffee. My wife used to buy Café Bustelo at Walmart before finding it for more than a dollar less at Aldi. Additionally, while we haven’t tried any of them just yet, it’s worth noting that Aldi does stock a number of K-cups at reasonable prices to help you get your morning fix.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beer and wine that some Aldi’s stock. Personally, I don’t drink, but my wife has tried a number of Aldi’s libations. Akin to Trader Joe’s famous “Two-Buck Chuck,” she says these wines are nothing to write home about but are a great option for the price you’ll pay.
Meats and more
Up until recently, the only meats we purchased at Aldi were (pre-packaged) deli items and the occasional ham steak. That was until we realized that Aldi’s boneless-skinless chicken breasts were $.10 less per pound than Walmart’s. Seeing as poultry is typically our protein of choice, these savings really can add up.
Similarly, I’ve often noticed that Aldi stocks some larger meat items like hams and turkeys for various holidays. Again, I haven’t had the chance to try these out for myself, but I’d be willing to bet these are also pretty reasonably priced (and delicious).
Just as Aldi often has amazing prices on essentials like milk and eggs, they also maintain low prices on things like flour, baking soda, spices, and more. This allowed my wife to get all the supplies she needed to bake upwards of 300 cupcakes for a wedding last year, maximizing the profit she made off it. Of course, Aldi also stocks a number of baking mixes if you’d rather go that route for making your own small batches of cakes, cookies, or what have you.
Finally, there are a few other Aldi products you can’t go wrong with. Among them, their variety of cereals. Ranging from $1 to $3 a box on average, you can likely find versions of your favorites at a great price. For those with healthier taste, they also have some unique but affordable options such as their Organic Coconut & Chia Granola.
Some other Aldi items I’ve really enjoyed include their pierogi, buffalo chicken take and bake pizza (note: not terribly cheap, but yummy), and their pesto — which my wife declares is “the besto.” But half the fun of Aldi is finding your own favorites and racking up savings while you do so.
After shopping at Aldi for the past three years or so, it’s easy to see why this discount grocery chain is currently undergoing a sizable expansion. Thanks to some clever efficiency measures, great deals, and tasty private-label goods, Aldi has grown to become one of my favorite places to shop. Hopefully, if there’s not already one in your area, an Aldi will be springing up soon, allowing you to experience the same savings, surprises, and satisfaction that we do.
This article was first published on Money@30