Even with all the budgeting and, dare I say, money micro-managing in the world, there are some weeks where my family and I simply don’t have the extra cash to head out to our favorite restaurant for a cheap bite to eat. Sometimes, we eat up our dining out money by making an unexpected trip to the pediatrician’s office for one of our children, where we’ll pay a $25 co-pay; other times, an unexpected spike in gas prices may throw our financial planning out of whack. During weeks like these, I’m always looking for ways to experience the luxury of dining out without actually going to a restaurant.

That’s why I’ve started shopping at high-end grocery stores from time to time. For years, I did all my food shopping solely at low-cost retailers like Walmart or Aldi, hoping to pinch as many pennies as possible. Over time, I learned that by taking advantage of coupons, in-store loyalty programs, and predictable sale-cycles, I could come close to replicating the prices I was getting at those big box retailers even when I chose to frequent their more upscale competitors.

Over the years, my husband and I have hopped from city to city, state to state, as our careers took us from North Carolina to New York, Texas to Georgia. I’ve learned to appreciate a high-end supermarket when I see it. Here are my top three.

#3. Publix

My husband and I grew to love Publix while living in the heart of Georgia. Publix is a decidedly Southeastern grocery store chain with a decidedly Southeastern feel: the majority of its more than 1,100 stores are located in Florida, with the rest scattered across Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. Because Publix is a regional supermarket, it has the ability to make stronger connections with local and regional suppliers. I saw this in action in my Macon, Georgia, store’s produce department, where everything from peaches to berries were advertised as locally grown. You don’t see that in many national chains, where everything from produce to dairy to meat products often travel across state – and international – borders to reach the shelves.

On the whole, Publix’s prices were highly competitive as well – in fact, surprisingly so. Publix has an exceptional coupon-matching policy, which – in my experience – goes far above the policies of some of its competitors. For example, say you have an ad for a buy one, get two free deal at another grocery store; Publix will honor it. Likewise, if you have a coupon for a free gift card with the purchase of a certain item, Publix will honor it. They even honor private label coupons from competitors off Publix’s own in-house brands. During my days in Georgia, I took advantage of this generous policy to do most of my shopping at Publix, simply clipping out the ads from Walmart to get the lower prices!

#2. Whole Foods

Early on in our relationship, my husband (he was actually just my boyfriend at that point) and I had the chance to live in Austin, Texas. This was the first time I learned about the glory that is Whole Foods. Founded in Austin just two years before I was born (I’m 30 – no, really, I am!), Whole Foods has exploded over the past three decades to an international organization. The company now manages 310 stores in 40 states, two Canadian provinces, and the United Kingdom. The company was founded on the principles of bringing fresh, organic food to the masses – and it’s succeeded. I can honestly say that I’d never even considered the source of my groceries before the summer I spent in Austin.

I’m not going to make any bizarre claims that Whole Foods is an inexpensive way to shop for your groceries – I’d be unable to back up those claims. The reason I enjoy shopping there is because of the culture. The company’s motto is whole food, whole people, whole planet, and they’ve stayed true to that. In fact, Whole Foods is routinely ranked among the best 100 companies to work for. And, if you’re someone who likes to shop for “day of” food – meaning you’ll be cooking your purchases immediately after buying them – deals, rather amazing ones at that, can be found at Whole Foods. The stores routinely put produce that’s leaning toward becoming overripe on deep discount; same goes with meat and dairy products. If you plan to grill that steak immediately, or will be preparing a fruit salad for a dinner party that evening, it could be a gold mine.

#1. Wegmans

If you’ve ever been to a Wegmans, you know why I’ve got this supermarket ranked in the top spot on my list. Wegmans is the smallest of my top 3 grocery store chains, with just 81 stores spread out – rather sporadically – through six states. My husband and I shopped at Wegmans while we were students at Syracuse University, then later as newlyweds. Wegmans’ locations stretch from the shores of Lake Ontario – take a break through the Adirondacks – only to pick up along the I-95 corridor through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Wegmans combines the size and variety of Walmart – stocking more than 46,000 items online and in its stores – with the ambiance of Whole Foods. How on earth is that possible, you’re probably asking. I’ll admit, it’s tough to make a grocery store that’s the size of an athletic stadium feel cozy, but somehow the folks at Wegmans pull it off. You’ve probably heard the older supermarket adage that you should do most of your grocery shopping along the store’s perimeters, where the healthiest items – products like produce, dairy, fresh meats – are located. In Wegmans, these areas seem to encompass the majority of the floor space, akin to Whole Foods. Additionally, in many locations, these healthier sections are adjacent to one another, meaning you could do all your shopping in these areas without veering into the aisles of processed foods (from which Wegmans doesn’t shy away). Combine all that with an expansive prepared foods section, where you can purchase everything from fresh stuffed chicken breasts to sushi to a salad bar, and you have an ambiance worthy of my undying shopping loyalty – yes, it’s been six years since I’ve lived in a state that has a Wegmans, yet I’m still utterly devoted to this brand.

…Trader Joe’s: My New Favorite?

Later this year, my area will finally get a Trader Joe’s. My aunt, who lives in San Diego, already raves about TJ’s. My mom up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, does as well. Even my friend Julie, recently relocated from Philadelphia, is obsessed with this chain. Why? They swear it combines the quality of Whole Foods with the value of Walmart – even better than my current favorite, Wegmans, says Julie (who has recently lived in an area with access to both stores – lucky her!). I’ve never shopped in a TJ’s, but I’m eager to see if this store can help turn my grocery buying errands into a luxurious experience during those weeks when I’ll be doing all the cooking!

What are your favorite grocery store chains? Why?