Why Your Trader Joe’s Bill is So High

by Katy on March 30, 2017 · 41 comments

This post first appeared over at ClarkHoward.com.

I’m a huge fan of Trader Joe’s. I’m addicted to their hummus, and rely on many of their house brand products such as their 100% recycled content toilet paper, their eco-friendly dishwasher detergent and I always keep a bag of their Mandarin orange chicken in the freezer to stave off expensive takeout on busy nights. However, I feel like I need to don blinders whenever I enter the store, as Trader Joe’s is stocked to the gills with impulse purchases that are sure to derail my carefully crafted budget.

I stopped by my local Trader Joe’s last week and filled two grocery bags for a mere $20.25. I was amazed at the low price and joked to the clerk that it must be a record. His reply was that “it was because you didn’t buy any booze, nuts or vitamins.” This got me thinking, what are the Trader Joe’s products that cause a bag of groceries to skyrocket from $15 to $70?

I’m the first to defend that Trader Joe’s has some great deals. Their dried pasta is always 99¢, their canned marinara sauce is $1.99, and you can’t beat their Three Buck Chuck. However, Trader Joe’s is a skilled seductress when it comes to tempting you with their tasty nibbles. Check out following list, and maybe you’ll be able to leave the store while still making your student loan payments.


The Trader Joe’s/Charles Shaw brand wine, (A.K.A. “Three Buck Chuck”) is a terrific bargain, but only if you’re not using the low price as a rationalization to buy more wine than you’d normally stock up on. One or two bottles are a great deal, buy it by the case and you’ve suddenly spent a fair amount of money.

Vitamins and supplements:

Vitamins can quickly add to your grocery bill, especially when you consider that current research on daily multi-vitamins shows that there’s “no proof of benefit,”  as well as “evidence of possible harm from high doses of certain vitamin supplements.”  Eat your greens and leave the multi-vitamins on the shelf.


Although the price per pound on the wide variety of Trader Joe’s nuts is a comparatively good value, mindless tossing of bags into your cute red cart is sure to bring your total to a surprisingly high amount.

Cookies, cookies, cookies:

Those clear plastic tubs are almost more famous than their delicious contents. Whether you’re buying the popular $1.99 “Cat Cookies” or $4.99 “Chocolatey Coated Chocolate Chip Dunkers,” just make sure these impulse purchases are actually on your shopping list. Add in that there’s no “pause point” in the packaging, and it might be a better idea to take a deep breath and move along.

Nut butters:

I ran a non-scientific poll of my co-workers asking which Trader Joe’s items have a tendency to derail their food budgets, and “nut butters” was a surprising answer. Choose both the crunchy and creamy almond butter, and you just added $14 to your total.

I stood in front of the energy bar section for a few minutes and quickly observed that shoppers grab these items by the handful. Considering that many energy bars have more sugar than a Snickers bar, indulging in these items are sure to weigh down more than just your grocery bill.


Walk into any Trader Joe’s and you’ll be greeted by a cheerful wall of mixed flowers. And since even the most expensive bouquets are just $9.99, it may seem like a benign choice to grab a bouquet. But it’s exactly this type of impulse purchase that makes Trader Joe’s a dangerous place for your credit union balance.


A traditional grocery store will always feature shelves of tempting candy to derail your best efforts at self control. Of course, those candy bars will only set you back around 75¢. However, Trader Joe’s isn’t selling Snickers bars, which means that you’ll spend $2 for that end of shopping reward for yourself the kids.

There’s a reason why Trader Joe’s are so popular, as their stores offer great deals on unique and quality items. However, remove all the impulse items from their stores, and you’d quickly develop an powerful echo. I’m not suggesting that you never treat yourself to a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers or an after dinner treat. Just make sure you’re doing so with thoughtfulness and an awareness of how $2 here and $7 here can add up to a $70 bag of groceries.

Here’s how much extra you would have spent had you bought all the impulse items from this article:

  • 1 bottle of wine — $2.99
  • 1 bottle of multi-vitamins — $11.99
  • 1 pound of pistachios — $6.99
  • 1 tub of cookies — $4.99
  • 1 jar of almond butter — $6.99
  • 5 energy bars — $7.45
  • 1 medium flower bouquet — $5.99
  • 1 Ritter Sport chocolate bar — $1.99

Total — $52.37

And you’d still have nothing for dinner.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate March 30, 2017 at 10:43 am

One of the bonuses of living in a relatively rural area is the lack of ability to shop at such places as Trader Joe’s. When we have been to one while traveling, my son’s tree nut and peanut allergies is another money saver – no nuts, nut butters, or virtually any of the chocolate.


nanpetty March 30, 2017 at 10:46 am

Excellent article!
I do love Trader’s over others as if you use this restraint from indulgent items it is really an excellent value and if you are just buying for one as I am and have learned from Clark how to squeeze a penny you can actually come out better and healthier than shopping at Walmart or other discount chains.
The other thing I love about Trader’s is the fact that I have had to go Washington state not on pleasure for family reason’s where the cost of living is so outrageous that they have many food banks and Trader’s is one of the main stores that recycles to people who need it versus throwing there almost outdated food in the dumpster.


Betty Winslow March 30, 2017 at 10:49 am

A bottle of wine, cookies, chocolate – sounds like dinner to me! LOL (Just kidding. Kind of.)


WilliamB March 30, 2017 at 1:30 pm

No kidding here. Or maybe add an energy bar or two.


Madeline March 30, 2017 at 10:49 am

I LOVE Trader Joe. I keep to budget the same way you do: We don’t buy nuts very often. I do buy some wine but not in excess, and it’s way cheaper than the wine store. We buy only B complex, Vitamin C, and magnesium from a wholesale house and buy a years supply to avoid shipping.That’s all we take. We are not on any meds.

Sometimes I want flowers: I recently found their “daffodil stems:” just what it says, they are green stems with no flowers for $1.49 a bunch! Take home,snip bottoms and overnight they burst into gorgeous daffodil blooms!!!!!!!!

I keep “emergency” items in freezer,too, to avoid sudden take out or go out syndrome! We love the bagged frozen CIOPPINO served over a scoop of rice..that makes one bag stretch to feed 2 of us. I also love the Mandarin Orange chicken and the boxes of Arancini to dip into spaghetti sauce. I keep a few of their frozen pizzas on hand and cans of anchovies for pizza night.

I find their bakery items to be too expensive and I never really like the way they taste– haven’t bought any in years.

I can buy most of my week’s groceries in Trader Joe, with a quick run to Sprouts for fresh veggies..they are right next door to one another in my town!!!!


janine March 30, 2017 at 10:51 am

Darn! I passed on the hummus on the theory that I would make some today – didn’t happen. However I did decided to try their veggie patties….


Teresa March 30, 2017 at 10:57 am

Love the fettucine or gnocchi in Alfredo sauce — heats up in just a few minutes.


nicoleandmaggie March 30, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Timely– we just spent almost $300 at TJ’s last weekend (a new record for us). BUT we hadn’t been in months and probably won’t be back in a while. The only thing on your list we bought was nuts, but they are at least $1/lb less expensive at TJ’s than at our grocery store where we would otherwise buy them. Oh, and chocolate, but again, we would buy chocolate anyway for more money elsewhere– their pound plus bars are a really good deal. Our freezer is packed to the gills and our pantry is pleasantly full.


Roberta March 31, 2017 at 5:59 am

I do the same thing! Once in a while the sale at the grocery gets down to equal price, but otherwise the TJs price is the best around here. And the nuts are worth it to me, for filling up my family at breakfast.


Jessica March 30, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Totally agree – if you go in with a list that you can stick to, and maybe leave your 6 year old at home, this store is a great deal…


WilliamB March 30, 2017 at 1:33 pm

I did an intensive survey a number of years ago and determined that TJ’s has sweet spot for reasonable quality chocolate at a good price. Not the top quality chocolate, and not the cheapest, but an excellent intersection of quality and price.

They also pulled me in for the energy bars when I was a serious weightlifter. TJ’s really means it when they say they’ll take back anything you don’t like. For me it was a frugal choice: I bought one of everything I might like, returned the ones I didn’t, kept buying the ones I did. No money wasted.

Did you know that TJ’s will donate a gift basket to any charity, just for the asking?


A. Marie March 30, 2017 at 1:42 pm

As other commenters have said, I justify the occasional nut purchases on the grounds that (1) nuts in moderation are healthy and (2) they’re cheaper at TJ’s than elsewhere. My personal unhealthy TJ’s addiction = the @#$!! plantain chips. I’d have given those up for Lent if I didn’t consider the whole idea of Lent in area code 315 to be excessive punishment. 🙂


Lynn D. March 30, 2017 at 1:55 pm

I buy their white or whole wheat pizza dough and make healthier homemade pizza and bread and breadsticks with it. The dough freezes well so it’s nice to have on hand. Yes, I could make my own dough, but I don’t.


Chris March 30, 2017 at 2:12 pm

I always carry a few of their Cliff bars when traveling. Way cheaper than airport food, probably healthier, and they hold up well in whatever bag I toss (bury) them in!


Bee March 30, 2017 at 2:37 pm

I love TJs! My food bill went down considerably when they opened near me. I am allergic to wheat which means I follow a wheat-free, gluten free diet. TJ’s has a multitude of GF options at reasonable prices — tortillas, flatbread, brown rice pasta, rice crackers, pretzels, and cinnamon raisin bread. What’s more, they will supply you with a list of all GF options available.


Bee March 30, 2017 at 2:41 pm

One more thing– they treat both their customers and employees well. This is the sign of an exceptional company.


Susie's Daughter March 30, 2017 at 2:40 pm

When we lived in DC, I was there every Thursday am when they opened to do our shopping for the week. Now it is an hour and half away and I plan much more carefully. “Take Out” substitutes still make the trek home since there are few restaurants in our area – microwave Indian meals for lunch treat this week and Mandarin Orange Chicken to the dinner rescue tonight. Thank you Katy for the reminder that I had it in the freezer!


Marilyn March 30, 2017 at 2:58 pm

I love TJ’s reduced sugar jams. And they sell my favorite cereal (Weetabix) for about half the price of the other grocery stores. So I go to TJ’s about 3 times a year and load up on these 2 items. The items which tempt me to overspend are the flowers and plants which they display in the front of the store so you can not miss them. They are so cheery at this time of year when we are getting over this cold gray gloomy weather.


Meghan March 30, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Katie, what do you buy that fills two grocery bags for under $20? I would love some recommendations for good buys at TJ. I always feel a little lost in that store.


Lilypad March 30, 2017 at 4:05 pm

I adore Ritter Sport. I used to bring back 20+ bars in my suitcase when I went to Germany once a year back in the old days when you couldn’t find it in the U.S. As far as I’m concerned, Ritter Sport is for dinner! 😉


Susan March 30, 2017 at 4:09 pm

This made me laugh as I have just returned from TJ’s with several (many) unexpected items. I am rationalizing it as “we have a guest coming for the weekend and if we eat at home more, it will cost less.” 🙂 I did knowingly purchase said items with a plan for their use, but amazing chocolate croissants are probably not a must have for the weekend. 😉 Debatable, I suppose…..


Mariana March 30, 2017 at 4:30 pm

Costco and Trader Joe’s are my main two stores.
I usually average around $90 for 3 bags but I always sneak in something from your list above! Like nuts or cookies. Ouch. I actually manage to bring at least 2.5 bags of dinner staples. The other half bag are goodies I did not plan to buy…


Jean March 30, 2017 at 5:16 pm

Since I have to travel to St. Louis or Kansas City to shop at Trader Joe’s, it is at best a 4 time a year opportunity–although I have been known to have my sister bring us some things from there when she is heading our way. So we always have a carefully considered list, and not a lot of trunk space for extra temptations! Our basics there include spices (their 21 Seasoning Salute is the BEST no salt seasoning mix I have ever used), olive oil, brown basmati rice (more fragrant and flavorful than any other I’ve tried), taco seasoning (the package says it will season 2# of meat–for $.79–but I can get at least three meals out of it, as it’s flavor is intense), organic canned garbanzo beans for use in hummus, soups, etc., unsalted nuts as these are a great snack for my diabetic husband, wine, Joe’s O’s, wild rice, lentils, sun dried tomatoes, the Harvest Grains blend which we use as a side dish or in soups, and the Brown Rice Blend. All of these items are priced lower than I can get them locally, and the quality is much higher.


Mrs. Picky Pincher March 30, 2017 at 5:20 pm

Man, I do love Trader Joe’s, but I’m a little hesitant to shop there. I’m not sure how much truth there is to it, but I read an expose by an investigative journalist saying many of Trader Joe’s products are mislabeled. Just something to keep in mind when you see super-cheap, you should question it!


Jessica March 31, 2017 at 5:13 am

If you have a moment, can you link to the article? I have not seen this from any reputable source that I would consider to be a legit investigative journalist. Not saying it’s not out there, just saying that journalism is also often mislabeled.


Bee March 31, 2017 at 9:26 am

Because the labeling of food is regulated by the FDA and FTC, it would be difficult for a company the size of TJ’s to purposely or dangerously mislabel foods. There are strict guidelines for labeling food as oragnic produce or grass-fed beef. However, there is some concern that labels such as “100% natural”, “low salt” or “high in vitamin C” may be somewhat vague and arbitrary. No matter where you shop, it is important to learn to read the nutritional info and educate ourselves and our children on matters of nutrition.

I hope that I don’t sound too preachy. I come from this from a place of concern not judgement.


Shevaun March 30, 2017 at 5:22 pm

Hm. I have a family of 5 humans and 3 animals (3 adults, 1 potty-training toddler, 1 baby, 2 dogs, 1 cat), and our weekly grocery budget INCLUDING diapers is $150.

Every 2 years, I do a price comparison (by unit price) of every grocery store and grocery-carrying store within a reasonable driving distance of my home. That, then, forms the purchasing plan for the next 2 years.

TJ’s has never been a winner in this analysis. (BTW, Walmart has always scored either last or second-to-last, whodathunk?)

So. Maybe my family is just already at the outer fringes of frugal. Or we’re cheap. Or maybe we’re just straight up poor. Hm.


Shevaun March 30, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Oh, and I’m counting our teenager as an “adult” for grocery-budgeting purposes.


Deb April 2, 2017 at 11:03 am

Shevaun – you are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! I have used a price book and coupons on loss leaders for years so I know where the good prices are and Trader Joes is off-the-charts expensive. (I shop at more than one store for the sale items and then build my menus around those.) Having said that, the one thing I have purchased there is the flower bouquets. Instead of buying flower arrangements for luncheons/showers I host, I purchase several of the $4.99 bouquets at Trader Joes and then take them apart to make my own using containers and ribbon I have saved. I get so many complements and nobody has any idea unless I tell them.


Vickey April 3, 2017 at 2:14 pm

Shevaun, what do you find the cheapest stores to be? I think we’re both in WNY (along with Marcia and a few others on here). The nearest COSTCO for me is two+ hours away in Rochester, and TJ’s is nearly an hour away. I bargain hunt at Tops, Aldi, Wegman’s, and our local buying club’s distributors.
It also appears prices within chains vary widely by region. That said, I know from visiting family that Portland and the PNW in general has much higher food prices than we typically see here. Embedded real estate costs, for one.


Vickey April 4, 2017 at 7:08 am

Shevaun, what do you find the cheapest stores to be? I think we’re both in WNY (along with Marcia and a few others on here). The nearest COSTCO for me is two+ hours away in Rochester, and TJ’s is nearly an hour away. I bargain hunt at Tops, Aldi, Wegmans, and our local buying club’s distributors.
It also appears prices within chains vary widely by region. That said, I know from visiting family that Portland and the PNW in general has much higher food prices than we typically see here. Embedded real estate costs, for one.


Vickey April 4, 2017 at 7:09 am

Oops! Pardon the duplicate posting. Not sure what went wrong.


Sarah C March 30, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Since starting to shop at TJs regularly, my grocery bill has gone down about %20. AND I buy their flowers every week! Life is too short to pass up a 3.99 bouquet that makes me smile when I see it and lasts a whole a week!!


marieann March 31, 2017 at 4:30 am

We don’t have a TJ here in our part of Canada but that is how I’ve always shopped in grocery stores, I go for ingredients to make real food.
I have to disagree about the vitamins not being needed. The Dieticians of Canada recommend that everyone take Vitamin D in the winter as we don’t get enough sun at our latitude.
I had a Vitamin D level drawn after taking a supplement for 3 months and my level was very low, so I take 3 tabs in winter and 2 in summer.
Vitamin B12 in not readily absorbed in persons over 50, one of the symptoms of a deficiency is confusion. My husband was deficient and he takes a daily supplement.
We have a vitamin manufacturing plant in our town so I try to buy local whenever possible….of course I wait for it to go on sale and stock up


Amy March 31, 2017 at 6:43 am

TJ’s was one of the stores I regularly used for groceries 10-15 years ago. I began to notice a price creep of some of the basic items I purchased there (i.e. frozen, sliced multi-colored peppers for under a $1). Before I knew it I was only going for 1-2 things, and it wasn’t worth the time to get over to the single store in town.
In my area, I do better with Aldi, Kroger and a little local market that has great prices on produce.
But TJ’s hummus is good. 🙂


Diane C March 31, 2017 at 8:19 am

TJ’s doesn’t do it for me any more. My loop for big shops is 99 Cents Only, Grocery Outlet, then Costco. Sprouts to stretch time between major shops. I hit Winco for bulk staples about once a quarter, when my travels put me in proximity to one. The same principles apply, wherever you shop.

Oh, and my heart does yammer for an Aldi, but alas, there none in our area as yet. Someday.


Randi April 3, 2017 at 11:07 am

Our 99 cents only is amazing. I know when the truck comes so I get there right before they unload and get amazing deals. I got Oscar meyer bacon last week for 1.00. Its 7.99 at Ralph’s.


Isabelle March 31, 2017 at 10:42 am

I’m looking at those prices and they seem pretty reasonable to me. Then again, I live in Canada, where groceries are more expensive.
You can grocerie shop cheaply anywhere you shop I think. But this is an area where I don’t “cheap out”. Yes, nuts are expensive for example,. but they are also really healthy when consumed in moderation. You are what you eat they say… I believe it. I don’t want to only eat apples, carrots and potatoes because they are cheaper. I’m willing to pay more to get strawberries and broccoli and asparagus, etc. And nuts, and nut butter, and good quality chocolate, and natural meat,etc. But I check the flyers, I price match and I do try to buy them when they are on sale. I prefer to save elsewhere than cut on my groceries.


Chris March 31, 2017 at 12:04 pm

Thanks for this article – I love Trader Joe’s – I shop there a couple of times a week.

I’m on a fairly strict budget, and also I’ve been trying to cook simple meals mostly from scratch for health reasons. So, I really try to avoid their prepared foods, which are great, but add up expensively. I can’t have nut butters in the house, because I can easily eat half a jar at a sitting, so I save money there. 🙂

I do a monthly run to our local Winco for things like dried lentils, grains, bulk spices, etc. Nuts are much cheaper there, too.


Deitra March 31, 2017 at 10:26 pm

Lucky for me I don’t drink and am on a gluten free diet as for the nuts ,if I am craving nuts buy them from the 99 cent store. It also helps I can only get to Trader Joe’s when I am in Los Angeles (live in Madera).


Randi April 3, 2017 at 11:06 am

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of TJ’s. I think they are really expensive. 1. I do take a multi-vitamin a day because I’ve had sleeve surgery and its recommended. 2. I can get much better prices on Nuts at Sprouts, especially when combined with a sale( which they have all the time). 3. Did you know that Chocolatey means “fake chocolate”. They can’t call something that doesn’t contain a certain precentage of cocoa butter chocolate, so they came up with chocolatey. Stay away from anything that has those words, especially for 5.00. 4. If you’re going to buy flowers, buy them there, their prices are pretty good. 5. I don’t buy cheese there anymore, not after discovering grocery outlet.


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