A quick disclaimer (and some context).
This strategy won’t work for everyone, and I’m sure the prices will vary depending on where you are, so just keep in mind that it’s not necessarily wholly applicable to every corner of the country.
This was my approach when I was living in Xalapa, Veracruz. Xalapa is very unaffected by tourism (Mexican or international); as a result, prices are not elevated. Plus, it’s a university town, so there are lots of cost-effective options to accommodate student budgets (which is awesome for anyone looking to save $$).
I’m not sure how my experience in Xalapa compares to other cities in Mexico (other than Playa del Carmen, where I also lived for a time and definitely spent WAY more on food).
When I lived in Xalapa, I was living with my partner, who was Mexican and working locally. Because his budget was lower than mine, we lived more in line with his budget than mine. Plus, we tried to keep expenses low so we could put aside money for trips and other experiences. In other words, we were pretty frugal.
At the same time, finding the absolute best deals wasn’t my top priority. I wanted to be thoughtful about what we spent but also prioritize getting quality ingredients. And, while the following 1,000 words might suggest otherwise, I don’t actually enjoy grocery shopping (LOL), so I opted to make it easy for myself by shopping nearby whenever possible.
We lived in the center of the city, so we were able to walk pretty much anywhere except for Costco. Our preferred Chedraui was one in a suburb so that required a taxi too. If you’re really looking to save money, the cost of transportation to the store should be factored in, too.
I don’t know for sure, but I believe we spent around $200-250 USD per month on groceries, but likely less. We weren’t going all out and making super lavish meals, but we ate well.
I’ll add… I’m fortunate to have no food allergies, dietary restrictions, or even any food aversions that keep me from eating anything. I’m basically very flexible. But I know this isn’t the case for everyone. If you have specific dietary requirements or allergies etc., it may be harder for you to shop this way.
That said, here’s my strategy. Take what works and leave the rest!
For fresh produce, fruit, and eggs, I shopped at the Mercado San Jose in the center of Xalapa. Like any market, there were multiple stalls selling similar things. I don’t know what led me to pick my produce stand other than the people were really friendly. It was family-run, and I got to know all of them!
They’d help me pick the best fruits and veg based on what was in season and what was most delicious. Sometimes they even gave me fruit slices to nibble on while I shopped! When I’d buy avocados, they’d ask, “for when?” and then choose the ripeness according to when I was planning to use them. And, if there were something I needed that they didn’t have, they’d tell me where in the market to buy it.
Now, Veracruz has a lot of farms, so I’m sure produce was less costly and more fresh there than in some other areas of the country. Generally, a market haul would result in two grocery bags full of fruits and veg and cost under 200 pesos.
If you’re new to market shopping, do a few laps and see what jumps out at you. Over time you’ll get to know who has the best products and who you get along with. Usually, there are certain things you’ll want to buy from one place versus another. You can also ask around and see which stalls people recommend or take note of which ones are busy.
Pro tip: Your best bet is to buy whatever is in season. It will be the least costly and the most delicious. If you’re not sure, ask. Some vendors aren’t as forthcoming as others, so if you ask what’s in season, they’ll say “everything” or direct you to some fruit that wasn’t grown anywhere near the ground you’re standing on (say, apples from Washington), but most people are honest, especially if you’re a repeat customer. I usually stuck with these staples:
- zucchini (my faves are the ones that look like tiny watermelons)
I’d also throw in whatever else I needed for my planned meals that week.
Note: You can buy pretty much anything at markets, from rice and beans to meat, dairy, and spices. Even pet food and cleaning products. One of the great things about shopping at markets if you’re on a budget is that you can buy things in bulk, meaning you can control the quantity.
If you need a teaspoon of cumin and don’t want to splurge by spending 85 pesos on a whole jar, you can buy a teaspoon of cumin at the market. The same goes for rice, beans, etc. This makes it really easy to control your budget if that’s a concern.
I’d buy all my general packaged grocery items, like condiments, pasta, pasta sauce, rice, dairy products etc from my local Chedraui. I also bought cleaning products, laundry detergent, and other household items there.
There are all kinds of supermarkets in Mexico… La Comer, Mega, Superama, Soriana, etc… and they vary a little in prices and product availability. I always found Chedraui to be pretty middle-of-the-road in terms of prices and variety of products. Of course, product variety depends on the location too.
The Chedraui in Xalapa’s affluent Las Animas neighborhood had far more imported and higher-end products than the one in downtown Xalapa. I tried to avoid buying too many packaged foods or imported products, but there were certain things I stuck to.
I don’t have much experience with supermarkets other than Chedraui— it originated in Xalapa, so it was very common there. But, from my limited exposure, I felt that Superama was one of the more expensive ones. It’s also owned by Walmart.
Every four to six weeks, I’d make a Costco run and stock up on meat, pet food, and paper products. I don’t know that the meat products at Costco were less expensive than anywhere else, but they seemed to be the highest quality, and they had a good variety of different cuts.
Costco was also great for picking up certain alcohol at competitive prices. If you imbibe, don’t overlook their selection. I usually grabbed a bottle of Herradura Reposado here for about 10% less than I would have paid at Chedraui.
Note: Sam’s Club is popular in Mexico, too. I didn’t shop there, but if you have a membership, I’m sure it offers a similar experience.
These are those stores that end in ría — you know, carnicería, panadería, tortillería, etc. There are all kinds of specialty shops selling everything from bread and meat to yogurt and seafood. These are a little trickier because they can be hit and miss (especially the carnicerías— one bad experience put me firmly in the Costco camp). I found a local bakery and a coffee shop where I could buy freshly roasted Veracruz coffee beans for $200 pesos per kilo.
I suggest asking around to see where other people shop. Locals aren’t going to waste their money on someone with subpar products, so you’ll get honest answers.
This is a great way to support your local community and get your hands on fresh products. It may take some time and experimenting before you find shops you like, but once you do, you’ll have competitive pricing and great service.
For tortillas, there’s usually a tortillería nearby, but you’ll also find people going door to door selling them on foot or by motorcycle. I usually bought mine from these vendors.
When it comes to grocery shopping, your costs will be lowest if you stick to cooking with Mexican staples. It may take time to adjust your cooking style accordingly. Consider taking a local cooking class to learn the basics or watch De Mi Rancho a Tu Cocina on YouTube for ideas.
I probably don’t have to tell you, but beans, rice, tomato, onion, garlic, and chilis are the foundation of much of Mexican cooking. If you spend time in a Mexican home, you’ll notice that many people will prep a big pot of beans, a pot of Mexican rice, and a batch of salsa at the beginning of the week and use those as the building blocks of their meals. If this sounds boring, it’s just because you don’t know how to cook it right just yet. I promise it’s awesome.
Pair beans and rice with cecina (a thin, salted steak), chicken milanesa (thin, breaded chicken), short ribs in sauce, or any other cut of meat, and you’ve got a simple, delicious, and affordable meal to enjoy.
For a vegetable side, I always enjoyed steamed zucchini or sauteed mushrooms.
Also, it’s probably blasphemy to admit this in a group dedicated to living/traveling Mexico, but I would often use my rice and beans to make burrito bowls for my lunches every day (…you can take the girl out of California!..). To keep it interesting, I’d experiment with different homemade salsas (my favorite is a mango/jalapeño one) and add shredded lettuce and sliced avocado on top.
These meal suggestions are very basic, but I hope they give you an idea of what worked for me.
I’m happy to answer any more questions or expand on anything that isn’t clear! And if you have any tips of your own to share, please do!