Pride and Prejudice…at the Aldi

My first experience with an Aldi store was shortly after college. My husband and I were just starting out, and our income was small. I don’t remember if it was lack of money or just curiosity that led us to check out Aldi. I just remember that we walked in and quickly became bewildered. There was not a single food that we recognized or wanted. It was all (cue dramatic music) “generic brand” (cue fearful scream). No Hamburger Helper or Campbell soup or Fruit Loops. What alternate universe had we entered? It’s just as well that we didn’t buy anything; we would have been put out to have to pay for our grocery bags since we had not brought our own. And I don’t know if they had the policy even then that you could only borrow a shopping cart if you put down a quarter deposit.

Fast forward about eight years and two kids to a life based on one income, an income that was about to be re-distributed in a different way. Without getting into all of the details of our income and bills, we needed to find a way to cut our food budget. On a tip from various tightwad sources, I started putting together a price list of items we commonly buy and how much they cost at the various stores that we frequent. Another tip on a favorite internet forum convinced me to check out the prices at the local Aldi.

As a result, I usually buy most of our dairy and some of our meat at Aldi. Since I’m also trying to move away from so many pre-packaged foods and cook more from scratch, Aldi is a great source for cheap baking ingredients and pantry staples. I’ve also realized that “generic” doesn’t necessarily mean worse, and “brand-name” often just means “more expensive packaging”. Now I keep a quarter in the van with which to borrow a cart and be sure to take a few shopping bags with me and watch the savings roll in.

Even though I’ve been making weekly trips to the Aldi store, I also hit another local grocery store weekly to pick up those must-have brand-name items, produce, and things Aldi just doesn’t carry. I often feel discouraged, though, when I see how little I get for so much money. A few weeks ago, though, I was surprised to notice a few customers seemed to make Aldi their one and only grocery store, despite its very limited selection. The biggest shocker was the woman in the check-out buying the Aldi-brand tampons. I thought to myself, “Thank goodness, I don’t have to do all my shopping here.”

The more I thought about it, though, I was wondering if I was really being thankful or just being prideful. I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes kind of pat myself on the back for being willing to shop in the same place as all these poor folks. Isn’t that horrible? It kind of assumes that only desperate people would do all of their grocery shopping at Aldi.

And what if all these people aren’t poor? What if they are just being smart? What if that woman was using Aldi-brand tampons because they worked just as well as whatever name-brand she formally used for half the cost. An article in the Tightwad Gazette discussed how most truly wealthy people did not inherit their money but acquired it through a mix of frugality and innovation (of course these are the wealthy people who you would not realize are wealthy unless you looked at their net worth).

Have my pride in not wanting to be considered poor and my prejudices against generic brands just kept me from being a smarter shopper all these years? Well, they certainly didn’t help. Of course, the fact that I graduated from college not knowing how to cook anything that wasn’t conveniently pre-packaged didn’t help either, but that’s a subject for a whole other post. And what is it about human nature that makes a person want to feel that they are better than someone else, even if it is just because they can afford (or choose to waste their money on) a brand-name food at a fancier grocery store?

Even three or four years ago, “you could not have made me the offer [to shop at Aldi] in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it”.  But as Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth said to Colin Firth’s Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, “my feelings are quite the opposite” now.  Maybe the reason that novel has endured is because it calls to the pride and prejudices we all have that can keep us from making better and informed decisions, even if it is just deciding where to buy our groceries..

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