Is Whole Foods Actually Cheaper? We Did the Math

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Whole Foods has long been thought of as a prohibitively expensive supermarket for many. But times — and the national grocer’s business model — have changed. There’s even an argument to be made that you could save money by shopping at Whole Foods

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Sounds shocking? Hear me out.

It wasn’t long after Whole Foods Market expanded nationally that the “Whole Paycheck” nickname took hold. (Urban Dictionary reports it appearing as early as 2006.) As it was one of the first chain organic grocery stores, this probably has at least something to do with the sticker shock most Americans experienced from the price increase from conventional to organic groceries. It’s also possible that Whole Foods’ attractive layout and deep selection can convince us to load up our carts with more than we really need. Maybe it’s just the jaunty Whole Foods font that subliminally speaks to us and says, Put it in your cart.

Read moreBuying Groceries Online vs. In a Store: We Find Out Which Is Cheaper

But after doing a price comparison between Whole Foods and other organic and conventional grocers for certain items, I’m not so sure that Whole Paycheck nickname is appropriate. There are certainly items that can be overpriced due to the overhead of maintaining a store like Whole Foods, as you’ll find with any retailer, but there are also values to be found. Crunching the numbers, I came up with several strategies that illustrate how shopping at Whole Foods can actually save you money.

For more, check out CNET’s top picks for the best produce delivery services and best places to buy quality meat and fresh seafood online in 2022.

Editor’s note: Specific prices outlined below were sourced online through Whole Foods Market via Amazon in New York City, and comparative prices were found using various local grocery stores including Wegmans, Stop & Shop, Key Foods and ShopRite via Instacart. Other national retailer prices, such as Target, were sourced via their websites.

Get the Amazon Prime discount

Amazon acquired Whole Foods in 2017, establishing an online ordering system for pickup in stores, and even offering delivery in certain areas. Along with the convenience of buying groceries online, Amazon passed certain savings along to its Prime members. By downloading the Whole Foods app and connecting your Amazon Prime account, you can get an additional 10% off sale prices at Whole Foods. That doesn’t just apply when you’re shopping online — an Amazon Prime barcode is available to scan at in-store checkout. Additionally, there are special weekly deals for Prime members only, and even deeper discounts on groceries available at Whole Foods during Prime Days, with savings up to 50% on certain items. (Prime Day discounts for Whole Foods took place from July 6 through July 12 this year). If you don’t yet have an Amazon Prime account, you can try it free for 30 days.

Sign on a store shelf for a Prime Member Deal

If you want to save money at Whole Foods, the first step is signing up for Amazon Prime.

Amazon/Whole Foods

Some math: As of this writing, a prime example of an in-store sale available at Whole Foods is grass-fed boneless beef New York strip steak for $14 per pound — with the Amazon Prime discount, that’s $12.60 per pound. Compared with as much as $24 per pound for the same-quality steak elsewhere, that’s a potentially massive saving on your summer cookout. Looking for sale items is a good strategy to begin with; with a Prime discount it’s even better.

Read moreAre Meal Kits Worth the Money? I Did Some Math to Find Out

Buy organic

Whole Foods sells conventional groceries as well, but it’s a good place to buy organic ones. You can even get organic groceries under its store brand, 365 by Whole Foods Market. While organic groceries are generally more expensive than their conventional counterparts — whether at Whole Foods or anywhere else — you’ll generally pay less for organic groceries at Whole Foods than you would at conventional markets for the same organic products. If you’re interested in only or primarily eating organic foods, you may already be shopping at Whole Foods anyway, but let this be a reassurance that you’re making sound mathematical choices.

Whole Foods produce section

Organic produce and other groceries are often cheaper at Whole Foods than other markets. 

John Leyba/CNET

Some math: Organic grapes currently retail at Whole Foods for $3 per pound ($2.70 with the Amazon Prime discount) in my area (see editor’s note above), compared with $5 per pound at Stop & Shop, Lincoln Markets and other area grocery stores. I also compared the cost of organic broccoli at Whole Foods and the competition. Whole Foods clocked in at $3.49, cheaper than a pound of organic broccoli at Aldi ($3.65), Brooklyn Harvest ($8.09), Stop and Shop ($5) or any other option that populated on Instacart.

Get milk

At $3.69 for a half gallon, 365 by Whole Foods Organic Milk alone may be worth the trip to Whole Foods. (Depending, of course, on how close you live to a Whole Foods. Gas is expensive these days.) One of the myriad benefits of organic versus conventional milk is that organic milk stays fresher longer, due to its natural preservative qualities that haven’t been compromised by fertilizers or other chemicals. 

A gallon of organic milk from Whole Foods

Its 365-brand organic milk proves Whole Foods can save money for certain types of shoppers.

Whole Foods

Next time you’re at any grocery store, look at the expiration dates between conventional and organic milk brands. Case closed. If you’re someone who keeps milk on hand for coffee or the occasional bowl of cereal but has a hard time using it all up before it goes sour, this may be an effective strategy for you. You not only save money on Whole Foods organic milk versus other organic brands, but you potentially save money on milk, period, by never having to pour any down the drain. Am I speaking from personal experience here? I am. I don’t always bother with organic products, but milk is a firm exception. And while you’re already in the dairy section at Whole Foods, you might also look at the great prices for organic eggs.

Some math: 365 by Whole Foods Organic Milk is $3.69 for a half gallon, even when it’s not on sale. Try to find a lower price; I’ll wait. For comparison, other popular organic brands such as Organic Valley, Horizon and Stonyfield Organic tend to retail for $3 to $4 more per half gallon. Even proprietary or generic brands such as Full Circle, Wholesome Pantry or even Good & Gather start at $4 per half gallon and up.

Know the 365 brand’s top performers

365 by Whole Foods Market is to Whole Foods as generic brands are to conventional grocery stores, and these will always be the best savings wherever you shop. Items labeled as 365 by Whole Foods are going to be cheaper than those same items with any other brand name affixed. That’s always a good place to start when shopping at Whole Foods with a money-saving mindset, whether or not any particular 365 brand items are necessarily cheaper than the same generic products at other stores. (As already mentioned above, milk is a notable exception.) 

various Whole Foods 356 brand items on a green background

Choose Whole Foods’ 365 brand for added savings when filling up your cart.

Whole Foods

There are known 365 brand items, however, that “over-deliver” for their price and are worth a few extra cents for their favorable reviews and the customer loyalty they inspire. No matter which list you want to consult for this, a simple Google search of “best 365 brand products” will reveal several repeat contenders for the top few spots, especially organic almond and peanut butter, extra virgin olive oil and riced cauliflower.

Some math: At $8 for 33.8 fluid ounces of extra virgin olive oil, $11.79 for 16 ounces of creamy organic almond butter and $2.39 for 12 ounces of organic riced cauliflower, these are all great values for excellent versions of these products.

Say cheese

Whole Foods has some serious buying power where artisanal cheese is concerned, but unlike a lot of other major retailers, it has a bonafide cheese expert, Cathy Strange, at the helm of the program. Different Whole Foods tend to have different cheeses available depending on the stores’ relationships with local dairies. Thanks to the company’s buying power, it can offer prices on artisanal and other gourmet products that smaller, specialty stores can’t often match. While “buying gourmet” doesn’t necessarily amount to a money-saving strategy, when it comes to entertaining or your other cheese plate needs, it’s good to know where to get good cheese for a little less. 

Whole Foods not only has a great selection but some of the best prices. And since it’s never too late to start planning for the winter holidays, especially with inflation at its current level, watch this space for info about Whole Foods’ annual 12 Days of Cheese promotion in December, with discounts up to 50% on 12 different cheeses for the season.

cheese from Whole Foods

Because of its buying power, Whole Foods can offer low prices on certain artisanal cheese.

Whole Foods

Some math: Parmigiano Reggiano, for example, is a cheese that has strict DOP regulations, meaning that the quality of cheese that bears that name is assured. At $21 per pound at Whole Foods, it’s also a steal compared with $24 and up at other retailers. Other world-class cheeses available at Whole Foods are typically $2 to $3 per pound less on average than what’s available from specialty cheese markets, or even online gourmet retailers.

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