Buying groceries, Mexico style
Pocketmint is documenting a month of personal finance in Mexico. For the backstory, see this post.
Now that I’ve described my usual grocery strategies, here’s how they apply to Mexican shopping:
Price tracking: extremely useful in a between-store sense, much less so in an over-time sense, because …
Weekly sale ads: don’t exist. There are no ads because there are no sales, at least on groceries. The price is the price.
Storage: useful to the extent that it keeps you from having to shop every single day, but without major price fluctuations, there’s not much incentive to stockpile.
Coupons: luckily I don’t rely on them, because coupons are also Not a Thing.
So to sum up, the frugal and efficient grocery shopping strategies that I’ve spent years perfecting? Completely useless in Mexico.
There are three American-style supermarkets in the area: a gargantuan Wal-Mart, a smallish general grocery called El Torito, and an import-heavy independent store called Super Lake that caters primarily to Canadian and American expats. (Farther away was a Soriana, which expats describe as ‘the Mexican Wal-Mart’, but it was outside of our domain for this trip.)
As I very quickly discovered, American-style shopping would be needlessly expensive. Wal-Mart, for the record, didn’t have the best prices on any item of food on the long list I checked.
Instead, I learned to shop the Mexican way, which means taking a long circuitous walk down narrow sidewalks and cobblestone streets, making the rounds of various small specialty shops, or tiendas:
- frutería — for fruits and vegetables
- pescadería — for fish and seafood
- tortillería — you guessed it, tortillas
If I ate meat, then I’d be adding a carnicería to the list. Another little tienda sells bulk grains and spices. Need bread? Find a panadería. And so on.
Then you have the weekly markets, or tianguis (pronounced tee-AHN-geese). The largest one, every Monday in nearby Chapala, is kind of like a farmers’ market crossed with a flea market. In Ajijic, the tianguis is on Wednesdays, and is partially aimed at tourists: less food, more arts and crafts.
The Chapala tianguis had the best prices on produce — but only if you buy large quantities at once, like two or three kilos (five to seven pounds). For large Mexican extended families, I assume this makes perfect sense; when I’m feeding just two people, seven pounds of anything perishable is a waste.
There are also little corner groceries, much like New York City bodegas, here called abarrotes. Like convenience stores everywhere, they have only the most popular staples, in small quantities and with higher prices. I used them only in a pinch.
So every two or three days, I’d go out and make the long circuit of the fruteria, the pescaderia, and so on. I definitely spent more time at this each week than I do at home, but I mostly didn’t mind.
Thing is, pretty much everything takes longer in Mexico. You just kind of have to go with it. If you try to follow a schedule, you’re bound to end up frustrated. I chose to view it as relaxing instead — as permission to stop rushing and smell the flowers, as it were. (And there were a lot of flowers.)
So how expensive is food in Mexico? Can we really eat there even more cheaply than we do here in the States?
The answer is a resounding “It depends.” More in my next post …