10 Ways to Purchase Good Food at Great Prices

As I detailed in my previous post, using a portion of my food shopping budget at Costco has allowed me to regain control of my out of control grocery bill.

While I do find shopping at Costco helpful, it is not the answer to everything for me.  I know that I am not alone in my quest to save money at the food store.  I’ve read more than a few blog posts about how people save money on their food bill.  I’ve seen the photos that people include of their weekly grocery hauls.  But what is missing from almost every photo and grocery list?  Real food.  I’m talking fresh fruit, vegetables, unprocessed meat…they are missing or barely there in almost all of the posts that I have read (not all, but most).

I am not a food snob, but I am committed to providing nutritious meals to my family.  I am not willing to accept the fact that in order to stay within my food budget I must feed my family boxed meals, frozen dinners, processed meat, and fluorescent colored fruit-type things.  I’m sorry, but I just won’t accept that.  But that is the lie that you are led to believe you must accept.   I’m here to tell you that that is just false.

What it comes down to are choices.  If I have a dollar to spend I can choose to buy a bag of chips on sale, a box of macaroni and cheese, or a pound of dried beans.  That same dollar can buy cheese cracker sandwiches at the local dollar store, a bag of candy at the check out line, or a huge bunch of fresh kale from the produce section.  Some of the most nutrient dense foods are actually cheap, like the kale and beans in the examples above.

Eating well on a budget can be done.  Below you will find a few of the places that I go to to find bargains, along with some of the unconventional methods I employ to purchase food.

How to save money on fresh produce.


(1)
Start you own produce co-op.
Did you know that you can completely eliminate the middle man (the grocery store) when it comes to buying fresh produce?  Yep, you can.  I do it every single week.  Most food distributors are more than willing to sell directly to you.  You will likely need to meet a minimum order amount, and unless you are interested in eating forty pounds of carrots by yourself, you should gather up a few friends.  Do a search of food distributors in your area.  Contact the sales department and ask them if they will sell directly to you.  They may very well say yes.  You will be amazed at how much you save.  We’re talking 40-60% less than at the supermarket for the exact same product….except it’s far fresher coming from the distributor.   You can buy a few cases and split it among friends.

(2) Participate in a local produce co-op.
Not interested in doing all that work yourself?  Search out local produce co-ops.  There are more out there than you may realize.  Some of them save you money; some of them don’t.  Be wise.  The quantity you receive may not justify the check you write.  Most co-ops are set up to where you do not have the ability to choose your produce.  You may receive burdock root, daikon, and rutabagas.  It’s not that these ingredients are horrible, it’s just that you may not want them.  Do your research.

(3) CSA
CSA’s (community supported agriculture) are another option.  Here you buy a share in a farmer’s harvest.  It’s a great way to support local farms.  I would so love to be able to do this, but I can’t work it into my budget right now.

(4) Shop store front farmer’s markets.
I’m not sure if this is a Northeast thing or not, but there are more and more store front, farmer’s market type stores cropping up (ha!).  The name is a bit deceiving because it’s not a farmer’s market.  It’s more like a discount produce store.  I have a friend who shops at one such store every week.  She tells me of $.75 cauliflower, green beans that are $.59 per pound, and apples for $.79 per pound.  I am amazed at the amount of fresh produce she bags for a few dollars.

(5) Grow your own.
Begin to garden.  Use what little space you have to try your hand at growing something.  Greens are easy to grow and freeze nicely once blanched.  Tomatoes can be canned, made into sauce, or sun-dried.  It’s incredibly rewarding to whip up a meal using ingredients that you have grown yourself.

How to save money on bulk items.

(6) Start your own buying club.
Buying clubs are sponsored by several companies.  The idea here is to gather people together, form a group, and buy in bulk directly from the company.  Buying clubs are not for everyone.  You need to be able to store twenty five pounds of oats or fifty pounds of flour.  The quantities are large, but manageable if you split it with friends.   As with everything else, not all items are cheaper in a buying club.

As the coordinator of a group, you are able to earn money on purchases that group members make.   The current company that my group is with credits the coordinator with 5% of the group’s sales.  The people in my group pay nothing towards this; it’s a benefit that the company gives out.  There is a bit of work involved in coordinating a group, but it’s not too much.  You are also able to earn credit if you refer people to the company.  For instance, Wholeshare, the company I work with, provides me with a $100 credit if someone I refer starts up a group and places an order.  There’s also a $50 bonus for the person who starts a group.  It’s a win-win for everyone.  Here’s the link to get you started if you are interested.

(7) Participate in a buying club.
Maybe you do not want to do the work involved in coordinating a group of your own.  You should search out groups in your area and join.  Companies like Wholeshare and UNFI likely have established groups in your local area.

(8) Websites
There are so many sites available it can be a bit overwhelming.  I’ve streamlined my online buying to two sites:  Amazon and Vitacost.  Amazon has many benefits and frequent sales, so it worthwhile to stop by and browse.  Their Subscribe and Save service offers additional savings.  Even if you opt to subscribe to regular deliveries of an item, you can cancel out that subscription at anytime.

My favorite site to go to is Vitacost.  Hands down, they have the best prices on organic and all natural foods.  They run sales regularly and offer codes for additional savings nearly weekly.  Again, check out their prices, then wait.  I can almost guarantee that the item you need will go on sale in short time.  I also like the fact that Vitacost offers a sign up bonus on referrals.  If you open an account at Vitacost using a referral link (like this one) and place an order, both you and I receive a $10 credit.  Nice for everyone.

How to save money on meat.

(9) Buy in bulk directly from the farmer.
There is nothing like sourcing your meat directly from the farmer who raises it.  You have the ability to talk with the farmer about how he cares and feeds his animals.  Your direct purchase from the farmer supports that farmer, his family, and his livelihood.   The quality of meat that comes from small farms is superior to that of large, commercial farms.  There is just no comparison.  The prices are often better than you will find at the grocery store or local butcher shop.

We view a purchase like this as an investment.  The price up front is high, but in the long run, there are great savings to be had.  For this venture, it is great to have a group of friends to go in with.  It lessens the financial strain, and you won’t have to worry about where you will store six hundred pounds of beef!

How to save at the grocery store.

(10) Little tricks.

  • Use coupons.  Go directly to a company’s website for coupons that you can download.  This way you are saving money on the products you already use.  You can also call up companies and simply ask them to mail you coupons.  I’ve done this, and most companies are generous, sometimes even including coupons for free items.  You can also sign up for free coupon services like Mambo Sprouts.  They offer coupons for organic and natural products.
  • Buy in bulk at the store.  Certain stores like Whole Foods offer a 10% discount when you purchase a case of a particular item.  If an item that I regularly use goes on sale at Whole Foods, I purchase a case, if I can, to stack the savings.
  • Shop for meat when the store opens first thing in the morning.  I have found that the best deals in the meat department are found in the morning.  The shelves are freshly stacked.  Often times meat that is marked at clearance prices is widely available.  Our store marks down meat when it is within two days of the sell by date.  That mark down meat is still perfectly good (but do be sure to double check the dates).  Take it home and pop it in the freezer.  Mark downs on meat are hit and miss, but it is always worth a look.

 

PHEW!  That’s a lot to digest.

Do you have any tips to share?

 

Disclaimer: Some of the above links provide me with a credit/bonus if you sign up and make a purchase.  As mentioned, each link also provides a bonus to you as well.

How Costco Saved My Food Budget

Is it me or are food prices out of control?   It seems as if product quantities are continually shrinking, while their prices are steadily increasing.

There is no doubt that trying to feed a family on a budget is challenging.  If you are trying to feed your family healthy meals, the challenge is even greater.  Factor in homes where there are dietary restrictions due to food allergies and intolerances and you have what seems to be an impossible feat.

I feel your pain on all three levels.

I enjoy cooking, and while I do not need to feast on filet mignon and lobster tails, I do like to focus on good quality, whole foods while preparing my meals.  I’m not into processed foods, but when I do purchase them, I am very discriminating, avoiding artificial ingredients, preservatives, and as much garbage as possible.  I purchase organic items when I can, but have loosened my grip on that a bit in order to work around my food budget.  Some of my children and I have food allergies, making the purchase of special foods mandatory.  I am a stay at home mom; we’re living on a single blue collar salary.  Things are tight.

I have to be honest.  For several years my food budget was out of control.  While I tried my best to make every dollar stretch, it just never seemed to be enough.  I was not buying extravagantly either; I’m just talking about necessities.

About two years ago I really felt burdened to get this under control.  I was not being a good steward of what the Lord had given me.  He had already provided me with what I needed, and it was my responsibility to find ways to make it work.

I prayed a lot, and then sat down to try to identify specific problem areas.  Was I buying needless items?  Was I not planning meals?  Was I foregoing a shopping list?  Was I too set in my ways?  Was I wasting the food we had?  Was I not shopping the sales?

I answered yes to some of those questions, not all, but a few.  But then, it hit me.  The problem in our home was quantity.  For years my food budget reflected a home with younger children.  I now had two teenage boys and one preteen boy.  They ate like adults not little kids.  They were not gluttons; they were growing, active boys.  They ate more.  That was the simple reality.

For a time, I worked to ration our food.  I would portion food out into little snack bags.  I would refuse to make a second trip to the grocery store once food shopping was completed.  This helped a bit, but it didn’t solve the problem.

Then a friend popped over.  Her family situation was very similar to mine.  She focused on feeding her family wholesome food, organic when possible.  She had to navigate food allergies.  She also had teenagers to feed. We got to talking about the struggle we both had in making our dollar work for us.  She told me that she had been shopping more and more at big box stores like Costco.  I shopped at Costco…for water.  But Costco scared me…seriously.  Those big cases came with big price tags.  I didn’t see how this would help me.  I also had the notion that nothing wholesome could be found down the aisles of Costco.  I found our conversation interesting, but not something that I would consider.

However, I must admit that the Costco conversation kept coming to mind.  I couldn’t ignore it.  So, the next time I went to Costco for water I decided that I would walk the aisles and look around.

I did and discovered two things:  there were many organic items, some that I used regularly, filling nearly every aisle, and, their prices were reasonable, and in some cases, insanely good!

So, I decided to do a one month experiment.  I would take my food money and allot two-thirds of it to shopping at Costco, while leaving one-third of it for shopping at my regular grocery store.   I shop once every two weeks.  I would buy enough for two weeks at a time, splitting some of the items up and storing them in the basement for the second week.

Fast forward one year later.  I am still following the plan.  The experiment was a success.  Costco has provided us with the quantity we need and has allowed me to spend less money.  I still shop at the grocery store for meat and other items, but the bulk of my items come from Costco.

I do forewarn you that not everything is cheaper at Costco.  You certainly need to compare prices and make decisions accordingly.  If I know that I can make a wiser purchase at the grocery store or online, then I do.  I have to shop carefully, only with cash, to avoid picking up items that I do not need.  I also tend to shop alone; that keeps me focused on buying what is needed, not what someone else wants.  Like all other big box stores, there is a yearly fee, but I have figured out that I save a whole lot more money this way, even taking into account the membership charges.

To hammer home the point, the items below were purchased at Costco.  I also went to my grocery store to find out the price of the same item (or comparable).  The numbers say it all.

Silk Almond Milk:

Costco:                 $7.69 for three half gallons
Grocery Store:    $3.99 for one half gallon

Udi’s Gluten Free Bread:

Costco:                 $7.59 for a 30 oz. loaf
Grocery Store:    $4.99 for a 12oz. loaf

Organic Frozen Blueberries:

Costco:                    $11.99 for three pounds
Grocery Store:       $3.99 for 10 oz.

English (Hothouse) Cucumbers:

Costco:                  $3.99 for three
Grocery Store:     $2.99 for one

Kind Bars:

Costco:                   $12.99 for 24 bars (about $0.54 per bar)
Grocery Store:      $2.99 for one five bar box (about $0.60 per bar)

Classico Tomato Sauce:

Costco:                  $7.49 for three 32 oz. jars (about $0.07 per oz)
Grocery Store:     $2.50 for one 24 oz. jar (about $0.10 per oz.)

Organic Maple Syrup:
Costco – $11.99 for 32 oz.
Grocery Store – $19.99 for 32 oz.

Crest Mouthwash:
Costco – $6.99 for three liters
Grocery Store – $5.69 for one liter

Organic Eggs:
Costco – $6.99 for two dozen
Grocery Store – $4.49 for one dozen

This system works for our family.  This is not an advertisement for Costco (I do not receive any money or consideration from Costco or the brands above).  I have simply outlined what I have done to keep within my food budget.

There are other ways to trim down your food bill, but I will keep those tucked away for a post in the near future.