small change toward a rich life

The cost of food in Mexico: comparable

Last post, I covered a few imported things that were so frighteningly expensive in Mexico that we will just have to do without. For a majority of items, however, prices are comparable to those in the States.

This means that groceries are not going to be our primary source of savings — not given that we’re currently spending a bit over $3k per year for two adults (and three pets). It’s not that Mexico is expensive, as world economies go, but rather that U.S. food is a lot cheaper than those of us who live here often appreciate.


I had a long list of food items I wanted to check prices on; Jak zeroed in on just three. What was even more urgent than shredded wheat? Coffee.

He drinks about two cups a day of strong espresso roast. At home it’s easily our most expensive regular luxury: I’ve been paying $6 a pound at Costco, recently bumping up towards $7 as inflation slowly takes its toll.

I confess I was nervous about what we’d find. Mexico is not the big producer of coffee that Central American countries are, and few Mexicans actually drink it. Crappy coffee, or $15-a-pound coffee, would put a serious hitch into the whole Mexico plan.

coffee beans at Cafe Grano CafeFortunately, the many Canadians and Americans in the area had paved the way for us: Ajijic has its own little roasteria. The bulk coffee at the tianguis, at $4.20/pound, did not pass the Jak taste test. But Cafe Grano Cafe’s ‘Oaxaca’ espresso roast did. Cost: 162 pesos per kilo, or about $5.66 per pound. Score!

‘Coffee’ in Jak-speak doesn’t just mean coffee, though, because it requires the addition of half-and-half. Real dairy, not Coffee-mate. At home we buy it by the half-gallon at Costco for $2.75, about two cartons per month (more if I steal some for cooking).

We soon learned that ‘half-and-half’ is not a Mexican concept, and ‘crema’ doesn’t mean what we think: it’s a much more solidified substance than we’re accustomed to, similar to creme fraiche.

Mexico has Costcos, but Mexican Costcos do not carry half-and-half. ‘Crema ligera’, when we could find it, was at best MX$29.90 for 980ml … or about US$4.44 per half-gallon. Even worse: crema ligera is only 10% fat, not the 12-15% of half-and-half in the States.

Jak was a trouper; he was willing to try the semisolid crema in his coffee, as long as it was real dairy. A small can that lasted him about 4 days cost 9 pesos, and a 900g tub at Costco was MX$33.5. Our trip home cut the experiment short, but he’s optimistic that we can manage a workable substitute — perhaps a combination of Mexican crema and milk — for not too much over the U.S. price. With beans being a little cheaper, we’ll call coffee a wash.

•   •   •

Dairy was initially a source of alarm all around. Our first shopping excursion turned up not only overpriced half-and-half, but also butter at US$4 per pound, and cheese (Cheddar or Monterrey Jack, imported from Oregon and California) in the range of $7.50 to $8.

butter (mantequilla) title=At home in Seattle butter is also $4, but here in the land of coupons and sales that doesn’t mean the same thing at all. In fact, I’ve never once had to pay more than $2 per pound, even for brand names like Tillamook or Challenge. I simply wait for store coupons or loss leaders, buy the maximum quantity of 2 to 4 pounds, and freeze them (butter freezes beautifully).

Even during a five-month period last year where butter never hit my $2 buy price, I was able to keep supplying out of my freezer stash. Even Costco’s butter had slowly climbed to well over $2/pound, so at the time I feared we were experiencing a permanent inflationary increase. However, the price came back down before I ran out of freezer butter. (Jak has been known to rib me about my freezer butter, since it became clear that I had more than a six-month supply down there. Chest-freezer organizational fail, once again: to this day I couldn’t tell you how many pounds of butter I have. At least seven … )

Mexicans historically use lard rather than butter … but thats not a viable option for this non-meat-eater. Margarine is also popular, and very cheap. But that’s another one of the few substitutions, like maple syrup, that I refuse to make. I grew up with margarine; I switched to butter as soon as I started buying my own groceries, and never looked back. I admit that perhaps it’s not entirely rational, but my cholesterol count is fine, and I want the real thing. (Jak concurs; when I asked for his opinion of margarine he offered an eloquent ‘bleh’.)

Fortunately, we did find better butter prices. $3/pound turned out to be more average than $4, and Super Lake had a kilo package for MX$70, or about US$2.45 per pound. I can live with that.

Then there was cheese. Not to disrespect my several cheese-loving friends in the States who will pay $8 for a 4-ounce sliver of something artisanal, but I can barely imagine spending as much as $8 per pound. And if I do, I want a nice double-creme Brie, not ordinary medium Cheddar. All I really need is some basic cheese for cooking and occasional snacking — the sort of thing I buy at home for $3 or $4 per pound.

Oaxaca cheese ballIf you stick with familiar American cheeses, you’ll pay about double in Mexico. The solution: substitute local.

Neither Jak nor I cared much for the ultra-soft and bland panela, but Oaxaca string cheese is both ubiquitous and good. Half-kilo balls are MX$35 — about US$2.44 per pound — from various tianguis vendors (and we learned to sample first, as some are better than others). On our last week we stumbled across a homemade cheese that became our instant favorite for snacking. Sadly, we both forgot the name. It looked a lot like Havarti — same color and tiny irregular holes — but had a stronger, saltier flavor. That one was 80 pesos per kilo, or $2.79/pound, and better than anything I could buy in Seattle for twice the price.

•   •   •

When it comes to ice cream, I am a vanilla girl through and through. Can’t stand anything with chocolate, don’t have much use for strawberry or butter pecan. I firmly believe that vanilla is the best ice-cream flavor ever, but few vanilla ice creams can meet my exacting standards. I grew up in Texas, which means my bar was set by Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla. If you’ve ever had it, you’ll know what I mean.

Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream, half gallonI haven’t tasted Blue Bell ice cream since I moved away from Texas twenty years ago. But there was a Blue Bell store in Ajijic just three blocks from the house we rented. Even better, there was a half-container of Homemade Vanilla sitting in the freezer.

I might have cried for joy. Just a little. Maybe. Like, every single time I put the spoon in my mouth.

One half-gallon of Blue Bell is 126 pesos, or about $9.69. I’m sure to anyone from Texas or the other 19 lucky states in which Blue Bell ice cream is available, that sounds laughably high. However, it’s all about perspective. In Seattle, the Land of No Blue Bell, Haagen Dazs is regularly $5 for 14 ounces. That comes out to $22.81 per half-gallon. Catch a sale and it comes down to $18.24!

Needless to say, I haven’t had good vanilla ice cream in quite some time.

I will buy ice cream for $2 per pint — far below any sale, but I can periodically find Ben & Jerry’s overstocks at Grocery Outlet. Flavor choice: limited, random, and never vanilla. Sometimes I’ll catch a sale on Tillamook at $3.99 per 1.5 quarts, but their vanilla isn’t that great.

So yeah, that’s $.43 more per pint than my current max, but it’s Blue Bell vanilla. I will find the money for that.

•   •   •

L.A. Cetto Chenin BlancI had braced myself for the painful possibility that I might have to give up wine, at least aside from special occasions. Mexico not being much of a wine country, I wasn’t even sure whether it would be generally available, much less affordable.

But to my delight I discovered that not only is there a good Mexican winery in Baja California, but that there are also many Chilean and Argentinean imports, some of which are reasonably priced. The L.A. Cetto Blanc de Blancs might be good enough to keep me from missing Chateau St. Michelle’s Rieslings — and at just 85.5 pesos ($6.58), it’s only about 10% more expensive.

Chaokah coconut milk canOther things that were about on par with Seattle prices: whole grain sandwich bread, imported liquors, beer, olive and canola oils, and Kirkland premium dog and cat foods. Milk was almost exactly the same, at around $1.25 per half-gallon. Eggs go for slightly less than Seattle loss leader prices: $.94 for a dozen large.

Given my love of Indian and Thai, I feared the price of coconut milk, but it wasn’t too awful — about $2 per 400g can Chaokoh brand, compared to $1.69 at my local Asian supermarket. The curry is ON.

I haven’t bought oats recently enough (overstocked pantry) to know the going rate offhand, but I suspect $.77 per pound will be close. Ditto popcorn at $.66.

Pasta was a bit lower — somewhat surprisingly, because I don’t think of pasta as being a major Mexican staple. But 500g of Barilla brand was just MX$12.20, or $.85 per pound, whereas at home I have to wait for the 10/$10 sales and stock up. On the other hand, I expected dried beans to be cheaper, but not so much: $.91 per pound instead of my local Grocery Outlet’s $.99.

•   •   •

So that’s a sampling of what we can get at costs comparable to home. A moderate level of flexibility is important, especially where dairy is concerned, but I believe we can hold out for some of our favorites without the cost getting too far out of hand.

One more part to go, and it’s the most fun: what’s wondrously cheap in Mexico?


7 responses

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  1. Deb says

    You know it’s often said that we (as Americans) don’t pay enough for our groceries, we don’t value the labor involved and that there are wider environmental/socio-economic implications. What are your thoughts on this? Or what about the changes a move like this can make on a local communities economic structure.

    I’m really interested in what you are doing, and you and Jak both seem smart so I’m sure you’ve thought of this.

    • Karawynn says

      Deb, I definitely agree that the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of food production are important. I try very hard to walk the fine line between keeping my family’s nose above water with frugal spending, and ‘voting with our dollars’ for more environmentally and socially responsible food options. This is why, for example, one-sixth of our annual grocery expense goes to a local CSA.

      With regard to food in Mexico, a crucial financial strategy for us is going to be buying local rather than relying on imports — which will benefit the local economy, so in that respect the two objectives will dovetail.

      And yes, anytime there is an influx of expat money to an area, there is disruption in the socioeconomic ecosystem. This has already occurred in the area we’re considering — mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s. There are both benefits and drawbacks for the local population, and it’s hard to say which is predominant.

      Personally, we expect to make barely a ripple, because we intend to live much more simply than your average American or Canadian expat — and in fact much more simply than a large slice of the Mexican population as well. (Many wealthy Tapatios — Guadalajarans — have second weekend/vacation homes in the Chapala area — sort of like the Hamptons for New Yorkers. These people have waaaaay more money than we do.)

  2. Amy says

    I just wanted to comment that the $9.69 for Blue Bell isn’t that outrageous, or at least not significantly more so than in Texas. In Houston (which is 12% below the national average in terms of cost of living), Blue Bell costs between $6-8 when not on sale. I wait for it to drop to $3.99 on sales before I will indulge, but I remember as a kid (late 70s, early 80s), my parents would stock up when it was 2 for $5 a half gallon.

    • Karawynn says

      If I lived in Texas (not gonna happen), I would do as you do, and stock up at the $3.99 sales. It will never go on sale in Mexico, so the real price difference for me would be $5-6 per half-gallon.

      Sadly, ice cream is not something you can ferry in quantity over the border — no way to keep it properly cold for a day and a half of travel. But I WILL have my vanilla Blue Bell, one way or the other. ;)

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