Over half of Americans are planning to spend a full paycheck to make their Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays bright this year.
That's not exactly chump change when you consider the average American makes about $50,000 a year, which comes out to biweekly paychecks of roughly $1,800. While that amount covers gifts and travel costs, it also includes food expenses. For Thanksgiving, those can be pricey if you don't watch your budget.
But if you're on a budget, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimated last year that you can get by spending just $48.90 for a 10-person Thanksgiving meal.
That seems a bit low, so I set out to determine if it's possible to actually create a basic Thanksgiving feast at Northern New Jersey outposts of five of the most popular national grocery chains: Aldi, Costco, Trader Joe's, Walmart and Whole Foods Market.
The goal: a meal consisting of a minimum of a 12-pound turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce and crescent rolls, as well as apple pie and coffee for dessert. To make all of that in a semi-homemade fashion (yes, the stuffing is from a box), the shopping list consists of 17 items to make eight complete dishes. For specifics, see the table at the bottom of this article.
To make it a bit easier, this test menu is designed for eight people. And for the purposes of this price test, I assumed you already have pantry staples like flour, sugar, oil, salt and pepper.
Here's how much Thanksgiving dinner I was able to purchase for $50 at each store, ranked by price, as well as the quality and quantity of the items shopped. Keep in mind that many of these retailers will likely roll out specials and sales closer to Thanksgiving, so prices may fluctuate over the next few weeks.
In order words, this is a guide, not gospel.
- Grocery total: $34.44
- Number of items purchased: 17 out of 17
If you're in charge of cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year, head to Aldi. For less than $35, I was able to buy every ingredient needed and didn't have to mess with any coupons. That leaves you with a lot of money left in your pocket.
A big part of that savings was on the turkey. Aldi's frozen whole turkeys went on sale for Thanksgiving on Wednesday, and the retailer has Shady Brook Farms turkeys for 59 cents per pound, the cheapest price among area grocery stores. But if you prefer, the chain also is selling Butterball Premium all natural frozen whole turkeys for 87 cents per pound.
- Grocery total: $40.22
- Number of items purchased: 17 out of 17
Walmart was about $5 more than Aldi, and a large part of that was because its Shady Brook Farms turkeys sell for 68 cents per pound. Turkey price matters.
I was, however, able to find some good deals at Walmart on national brands, such as Kraft Stove Top for the boxes of stuffing mix and Pillsbury for the refrigerated pie crusts. I could've knocked off an extra $2 if I had gone with Walmart's Great Value version of these products, but they were out-of-stock at my location.
- Grocery total: $49.00
- Number of items purchased: 13 out of 17
The total cost of a Thanksgiving dinner from Costco, $73.37, was slightly more expensive than the Trader Joe's dinner that rang in just over $66. So why does Costco score slightly higher in the ranking? Quality and quantity.
I was able to buy more complete dishes from Costco and I could comfortably feed 10 people with the quantity of ingredients I purchased. Plus, many of the products were high-quality name brands such as Pepperidge Farm stuffing, The Little Potato Company variety bag of red and yellow creamer potatoes and a 40-pack of Pillsbury's crescent rolls.
Overall, I was able to pick up ingredients for a turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and crescent rolls. While I wasn't able to buy all the ingredients for a pie, my budget allowed for the apples — sliced apples for dessert, anyone?
A quick note on Costco's turkeys: While they haven't arrived in store yet, Costco traditionally has fresh young turkeys for 99 cents per pound. I assumed that pricing when planning out a Thanksgiving meal. A spokesperson for Costco declined to comment on the chain's Thanksgiving turkey pricing and availability.
- Grocery total: $49.29
- Number of items purchased: 11 out of 17
If you're looking to spend less than $50 for a Thanksgiving feast at Trader Joe's, be prepared to give up a few components of your meal. In this case, I was able to purchase enough ingredients to make the roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce and a slightly skimpy portion of cornbread stuffing. The items needed for rolls, apple pie and coffee tipped the budget into the red.
While I wasn't able to buy a complete Thanksgiving meal, the items I did shop were top-notch: organic, free-range chicken broth, cornbread stuffing. If you do have room to spare in your budget, the grocery's chains seasonal items were also tempting, including corn pudding for $4.99 and fresh, holiday herb rolls for $2.49.
Turkeys are arriving at Trader Joe's on Nov. 15, according to the chain's Fearless Flyer circular. Their all-natural brined fresh young turkeys will be $1.99 per pound, with sizes available from 12 pounds to 22 pounds.
- Grocery total: $48.74
- Number of items purchased: 6 out of 17
If you're planning to shop for your Thanksgiving meal from Whole Foods, it may be an expensive endeavor. A total dinner for eight will set you back just over $83. It's worth noting that prices may drop closer to Thanksgiving, especially for Amazon Prime members.
You can also take all the stress out of your holiday and let Whole Foods do the cooking for you. You can pick up a fully prepped classic roasted turkey dinner for eight for $130. That includes the turkey, green beans with roasted shallots, mashed potatoes, gravy, herb stuffing and cranberry orange sauce. It isn't a bad deal when you consider that time is money.
Limiting your Thanksgiving budget to just $50 at Whole Foods will net you a turkey, mashed potatoes and a very slim side of stuffing. Yet each of these dishes are made with extremely high-quality ingredients — from a fresh young turkey to organic stuffing and organic Russet potatoes.
Here's a breakdown of the shopping:
- Don't make these 7 costly mistakes when shopping at Costco
- BJ's and Costco can both save you money—but if you want to shop online, this one's the better deal
- We compared grocery prices at Costco and Boxed— here's which store will save you more money
- 4 ways to shop at Costco without a membership that could save you money
- 9 foods and grocery items you should always buy at Costco
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