Where to buy food and clothes

Where to buy in the US, photo copyright UK Aid, CC.
Shopping in the US, photo copyright UK Aid, CC.

There are many different places and ways to go shopping in the United States. It may be hard to know where you to buy traditional foods or to know where to buy things you want for your family.

Generally, if an item has a price tag on it, you have to pay that price. Shops in the US do not usually barter (negotiate prices). However, this is less true in markets or stores selling used goods.

Food and groceries

Some refugees say they have a hard time adjusting to eating in the US. They are not sure where to buy things for their home and they may miss the food from their home country. Sometimes, they feel like they do not have enough money for the food they want to eat. You should try to spend about 20% or less of your total family income on food and groceries each month. This means if have $1000 in income each month, you should spend $200 or less on food and groceries. If you get $500 each month, you can afford to spend only $100 or less on food, if you are to also pay for shelter and utilities.

Some things that were cheap (low cost or inexpensive) in your home country may be expensive (high cost) in the US. For example, refugees from Burma may like to eat fresh coconuts and mangoes, but these items are expensive. Meat and fruit are often expensive in the US. So, you may need to try to eat some new foods as well as your traditional foods.

Buying food, especially rice and beans and many vegetables, from the grocery store and cooking it yourself is generally less expensive than buying food from a restaurant. Here are some different places you can buy food:

Grocery stores

Grocery stores in the US are large stores that carry many different types of food. There are several large grocery “chain stores.” A chain is a group of stores that are the same in different cities across the US. Grocery stores are divided into sections such as fruit and vegetables, meat, canned foods, etc. Many large grocery stores encourage you to sign up for free “Club” cards, or “membership cards. This is good to do because you often receive a discount on your food with a card, even though the card is free. Other stores, such as Costco, do charge for their cards and sell large quantities of food more cheaply. These are worth joining if you have a big family and are buying food and household items in large quantities.

Farmers’ markets

Most cities in the US have farmers’ markets, especially in the summer. At a farmers’ market, you can find fresh fruit and vegetables grown and sold by the farmers themselves. In summer, you may spend less money then you would at a grocery store for the same items, but not always – some big grocery stores are able to sell for less than farmers who grow small amount of organic produce, for example.

Convenience stores

These are small stores that sometimes sell small amounts of groceries or food. While these stores may be convenient because they are close to your house, they are often more expensive than the grocery store.

Ethnic stores

Some communities have ethnic stores, meaning a store that sells groceries from a particular ethnic background. For example, there might be an “Indian Market” or a “Chinese Market” that sells foods from those countries.

You can find ethnic grocery stores in many cities on our Local Resources page. This directory also lists specialty food shops around the country: Specialtygrocery.net


Restaurants in the US tend to be the most expensive place to get food. Fast-food restaurants are cheaper than regular restaurants, but you have to choose carefully so as to not eat too much sugar or salt.


There are a number of websites which sell food and products that may be hard to buy in your town or city in the United States.

Websites offering ethnic foods change all the time. Please email info@therefugeecenter.org to tell us of any recommendations you have for where to buy ethnic food online in the US, and we will add them to this page.

How to buy online

  • If you have a credit card or a debit card, it easy to buy online. It is safer to use a credit card than a debit card. Credit cards are not connected to the money in your bank account. If the card number is stolen, the thief cannot get into your bank account.
  • If you do not have a credit card, you can still buy online. You can use a prepaid card. You can buy a card with numbers like a credit card. There is a set amount of money on the card. You can add more money or get a new card when the money runs out. This is a very safe way to buy online because you do not have to give any personal financial information when you pay for things. You will pay a fee when you buy or put money. So compare fees on different to get the best deal.  Find recommended cards from Consumer Reports.org.
  • You can open a Paypal account and pay online from there. You need a bank account or credit card to buy online regular paypal account. Or, you can get a Paypal prepaid Mastercard without a bank account.

Clothing and household items

In the US, you have lots of options of where to shop and what to buy. You should always try to buy things when they are on sale!

Thrift stores or used and secondhand stores

When you are thinking of where to buy clothes, consider thrift stores if you want to save money.  Thrift stores sell clothes, home items, and furniture other people have given away. If you take time to look, you can often find very nice clothes, items for your kitchen, furniture, toys, and more at thrift stores. These stores tend to be very low-cost, and they often have days where everything in the store is on sale.

Garage sales and yard sales

A garage sale or yard sale is a great place to find used clothing and household items. These items are normally quite cheap. Garage sales and yard sales are one of the few places you can barter in the US. This means if you are at a garage or yard sale, you can try to ask for a lower price than what is written on the item.

Department stores and malls

You can also shop at department stores or the mall. These stores tend to be more expensive and have famous name brands. This means the items are popular because the brand is well-known, such as Nike shoes.


Superstores are stores in the US that sell nearly everything. These include stores like Walmart, Target, and Kmart. These stores are generally cheaper than name brand department stores.

Shopping locally

There are probably also lots of local stores in your new town. It is nice to shop locally because your money stays in your community. You may even find a store owned by another refugee.


You can also buy nearly everything you need online such as clothes, household items, computers, etc. Shopping online is convenient because everything is sent to your home. You have to be careful because you don’t get to test the product before you buy it. Check before you buy that you can return it if you keep the receipt and original packaging and have not used the item.

  • See above (under Food on this page) for how to buy online

Hardware stores

If you need items for your house or to repair your home, you can shop at a hardware store. The people who work at these stores can help answer your questions about home repair.

Returning items

Whenever you shop, keep your receipt. This is proof that you bought the item. If you decide you want to return an item, you will also need the receipt. Stores in the United States let people return goods if there is something wrong with them or even if they just change their mind. But they will not allow you to return it after you have used it.

Buying a Car

Buying a car is a serious commitment. In order to buy a car, you will need to have a driver’s license. You will have to pay for the car or get a loan from your bank or credit union. You will have to register the car with the department of motor vehicles in your state to get license plates, which are required. When you have paid for your car or paid off your loan completely, you will get the “title” to your car – the official document proving you own it. You will also have to pay for monthly insurance to drive the car and gas and maintenance for the car.

It is generally cheaper to buy a used car than a new car. Buying a car is another time you can “barter” or negotiate on the price. If you are buying a used car, it is a good idea to have a mechanic look at the car before you buy it to make sure that nothing is wrong with the car. You will also want to test drive the car. This means you will take it for a drive and check to make sure everything is working before you buy it. When you buy a used car, you need to make sure that the car “title” (which shows proof that the person you are buying it from owns it) is clear. You should get the car title notarized (officially signed) and make sure you get a receipt, even if it is hand-written, from the owner of the car.

You can sometimes get a loan from the bank to purchase a car. But if you get a loan, you have to pay interest on it every month so the car will cost more than if you saved money to buy it with cash.

The RCO recommends you have an American friend or mentor help you the first time you buy a car. This website gives suggestions to help car buyers.

The RCO also recommends using public transportation as much as possible. You can visit our public transportation page to learn about subways and buses in America.

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