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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Frugality (Part II): Grocery Shopping

Last week, I talked about making things at home. This week, I will talk specifically about grocery shopping.

First, I will make a confession. I don't use coupons. Well, that's not entirely true. I use them for things like diapers, wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, toothpaste, things like that. Occasionally, I can get coupons for organic chicken, vegetables and the like, and our grocery store has coupons for things like canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, frozen veggies fairly regularly, but mostly I use coupons for non-food. The major exception is organic food companies like Organic Valley (we like their butter) and Organic Prairie, which we can print out when there is a good sale at our store to make our money go farther. So, I get the register tape coupons, some that come in the mail from the diaper companies, store coupons and the coupon machine ones sticking out in the grocery aisles. What I mean is that I don't clip lots of coupons and try to keep track of them. It's not part of my shopping routine. This is mostly because coupons tend to be for packaged and prepared foods or cookies or other junk we don't need. It isn't much of a savings if I am buying things we don't need and didn't plan for anyway.

I have recently discovered Shortcuts.com which is kind of coupons for people who don't do coupons. They tie your loyalty card to coupons that are automatically deducted when you shop using your card. There are only some partner stores (Kroger, Kroger Marketplace, Ralph's, Gerbes, QFC, Hilander, Smith's, Smith's Marketplace, Baker's, King Soopers, City Market, Pay Less, JayC, Dillon's, Owen's, Fry's, Fry's Marketplace), but since Kroger bought out Fred Meyer (and other stores?), they act as an umbrella for Fred Meyer for us. I still only find a few coupons that work for our family, but while we are still buying newborn sized diapers (which are not available in our store brand, which are a third the cost of the name brand ones), I've been reducing our Huggies bill, along with getting some good deals on organic meat (I get them marked down, use the shortcuts coupon and either use immediately or freeze) and vegetables. I have diapers and canned tomatoes on there now. These coupons work along with any paper coupons or store coupons you have, so if you have those, you can really reduce your bill.

The major things I do to save money on groceries are to buy on sale, buy in season and buy in only a few places. We have five major grocery stores in our town (one of them has two locations). Fred Meyer is one where we find the best overall deals, so rather than shopping the sales at all of these places, I primarily shop at this store. I know in other areas there are Wincos, HEB, Aldis, and other places where the prices are consistently lower, if that is what you have, shop there. There is a local store that isn't a chain, which focuses on foods (they don't have cleaning supplies, paper products, batteries, or other things like that), and carries as much local produce, meat, dairy and canned/jarred goods as they can. We shop there for the quality, just watching sales and specials. Their meat is better quality, raised local to our region with no additives or antibiotics, so for the times when I can't get to the butcher shop or if they have a great sale, I buy there. They also have great, local, seafood for good prices, items I can't find elsewhere, and surprisingly fair prices on locally raised and organic produce. They also give us the greens they trim off to feed our chickens, if we come in at the right time. This is the place I got 15 pounds of organic bananas marked down to $4.00 for the whole lot. They can do this because it is their own store, it is not a chain, so they can change the prices however and whenever they like. If you are interested in the name of the store, leave a way for me to contact you.

We don't have a Costco card. We used to, but we have a Cash and Carry right near our church along with a Grocery Outlet, and between the two, we were able to get the same kind of deals or better without paying for the membership, dealing with the crowds, the lines or buying a gross of everything (even our family doesn't need 10,000 rolls of toilet paper), not to mention that we never quite made it out of there without buying things we didn't need. I've heard that there is a place called the Grocery Depot, which has great deals on organic foods and I think in some places there are stores with names like Canned Food Outlet or Rainbow Outlet, if you don't have a Grocery Outlet near you.

I also shop at Trader Joe's about once a month. I know that sounds like it would cost a lot of money, but the reality is that if you only shop for ingredients there, you can save quite a bit. Their packaged foods seem to be of a higher quality than other packaged foods, but they are still not as good as if you made them yourself, and cost much more. We buy things like olive oil, parmesan cheese, organic evaporated cane juice (they only carry the organic powdered sugar at this time of year, so stock up!), frozen vegetables and fruit (the pineapple is about the same price as in the can, but much, much better), dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips and such there. I buy quite a bit at a time when I go there (enough to last the month or more), so I can minimize the number of trips I make there, as it is a little out of the way.

I do not shop at any other grocery stores anymore, with very rare exception. I don't spend my time and gas going from store to store. We get our milk from a local farmer, our meat from a local butcher, our seafood primarily from local fishermen. All of those pickups I do on the same day while I am in the same area, to minimize time and gas expenditure. Also, we have been able to get the best price on the best locally available chicken feed by buying it from the farm where we buy our milk. So, twice a month, I pick up feed there when we pick up our milk. This works out to about $11 a week in chicken feed, which for 120-180 brown, white, pink, green, blue, speckled and cream eggs a week, from ranging, cage-less chickens and ducks is not so bad. Our eggs are larger than the large eggs in the store, have much richer yolks and because they eat grass and weeds, bugs and such, are much higher in all those omega fats we are supposed to eat. You cannot get eggs like this at the store for between $0.75-1.00 a dozen. We also give them scraps from our table and the clippings from the greens at our local market. Sometimes, Rich is able to pick up bread from a bakery or sandwich shop to give them, which is more like candy and snacks for them, but a nice treat every now and then. There is a local real estate company that gives away pumpkins each year, and we collect their extras to give to the chickens for added nutrition, we just break them up and they eat them down to a paper thin skin. We've even had people from church bring us their failed baked goods to give to our chickens so at least someone could eat it!

I've mentioned that our main grocery store is Fred Meyer. They have a rewards card that gives you store rebates and gas discounts. We got their rewards credit card and pay for everything on it. We have a huge credit card bill every month, but it is almost all of our expenses, including utilities, phone, insurance, everything, and we just pay it all off once a month. This gives us double the return on our rewards, and since we do most of our grocery shopping there, this works out to at least one free week of groceries each quarter, plus the credit card usage gives us a $0.15 discount per gallon on their gas, which is the least expensive in our area. I paid $2.24 a gallon for gas last week! And this is in the state with the highest gas tax of the entire USA! I'll talk about gas and travel in another post. If you live near a grocery store that offers this, and you are able to pay your entire credit card bill off each month, I highly recommend applying and using it as your primary or only credit card.

So, limiting where I shop to the nearest and least expensive is the first step in lowering our grocery bill. Although there are five grocery stores where I shop, only two do I go to weekly, two others about twice a month and another once a month. Going on a single grocery trip a week has saved us money, both in gas and groceries, because I have had to discipline myself to keeping a good list and sticking to it for the most part. I buy diapers each week, even if we have some left, for instance, so we can stay ahead of the game. This may sound obvious to some of you, but evidently after six children who have all worn diapers at some point in their lives, I have finally figured out that, yes, we will need diapers next week, too. I also buy things in twos or more, so that when I am down to one of something that we keep on hand (maple syrup, dish detergent, whatever), I buy another two to put in the pantry, cupboard or what have you. This means, we do not run out. I'll talk about storage methods in another post.

My free iPod Touch has helped me tremendously in this regard, so if you have any notebook capabilities on your cell phone or on an iPod type device, I'd advise using it. I keep a running list, add to it as needed, it is organized by store and department in each store, and I just pull that one thing out while I shop. I even note if there are store coupons for anything on the list. I don't recommend buying one just for this purpose, though. If you already have one or if you can get it for free, go for it. Otherwise, you can use my old method of writing your list on the back of an envelope, stuffing it in your purse and losing it a thousand times, only to find it six years later and wonder why you've held on to so many grocery lists.

I'm sure you have read this advice many times, but I will repeat it. Buy in season and buy on sale. This will cut your grocery bills. I plan our meals based on what we have, what is on sale and what is in season. When it is on sale or just a lower price because it is in season (or on a seasonal special like now for the holidays coming up), buy as much as you can afford and safely and easily store. ETA: This time of year is a great time to get turkeys, hams, roast beef, as well as flour and baking supplies. Buying extra and storing the rest means you can have them during other parts of the year as well. Learn how to safely store your food for longer storage, including airtight containers, freezing, canning, drying or those vacuum sealer things. This means that when those berries are out of season and outrageously expensive, you can pull some out of the freezer and mix up some pie or make muffins or whatever you want. You don't have to go without, you just have to plan ahead a little.

If you don't know what is in season at what times of year in your neck of the woods, find out. Search online for a county extension office, or in more general terms for your region, ask a nursery or garden shop. We can get asparagus for $0.99 a pound in April and May, because it is grown in our state and comes in plentifully. Needless to say, we don't spend the $4.99 a pound in November. Something we've talked about, but haven't gotten around to doing yet, is going in with another family on a whole steer and a whole hog. We've bought an entire lamb for our family, and we actually could probably buy two of them if we wanted it to last the whole year. Our family size is such that we might actually be able to buy a whole steer and a whole pig ourselves and eat on them for the year. This would leave poultry and seafood for us to buy through the rest of the year. If you know of a family (or two, depending on your family size), who might be interested in doing such a thing with you, it can save a lot of money, and you get a much higher quality of meat to boot. (Kristine, I don't know how close you are, but there is a pig farmer in VT I know of who might be able to sell you some nice meat at a decent price.)

Because of our seasonal purchasing and our storage of foods from one season to the next, even with our sad numbers in preserving this year, we have enough food in our house to last us any natural disaster, any nuclear holocaust, any terrorist attack, any hostile governmental coup or whatever else gets thrown at us. We could easily eat and drink for a year without shopping again. So, you know, if the excrement hits the fan, head on over to our place with your food, water, toilet paper and any tools/skills you have to hunt, make or do. We'd run out of milk, we wouldn't necessarily have exciting meals, but we'd eat well and enough. We get, windstorms, earthquakes and volcanic activity where we live, mudslides and floods often come with them or on their own. I don't know what kind of natural disasters you have in your area, but it is wise to be prepared for them before they happen. I'm getting rather antsy about our candle shortages right now. We don't have enough to last us a week without power (which we've had to do before), and I want to rectify that. Emergency preparedness is another issue I should talk about later.

I corrected my first post in this series to show that we've been spending more like $600 a month on all our groceries. This is partly because of how I shop and store and partly because of us growing and raising more of our own food. Generally speaking, we don't eat tomatoes, unless they are canned, outside of summer and early fall. When we have a better crop, we can store the plants upside down in our basement and get ripe tomatoes through the spring sometimes, but this is not always the case. We buy oranges in winter, not in summer. We buy peaches in August. We eat more seasonally this way, we save money this way, we even tend to buy more locally this way (though, of course, we still have to buy from afar when we get citrus, avocados, coffee and things like that).

Another major way we save money is buying in bulk. Almost everything we can buy in bulk we can get for a considerable savings. We have invested in these rolling storage carts, made by IRIS, which are intended as pet food storage, but they hold 50 pounds of flour perfectly. I use them for bread flour, oat flour, semolina, sugar, all sorts of things. They seal very well, they hold a lot, and they have casters and wheels so you don't have to try to lift them. We have all sorts of rubbermaid and other types of containers in various sizes for other things that we buy in quantity. Even if you don't buy large quantities, but just reuse your old oatmeal container to fill it with rolled oats you buy in bulk, you will save. Likewise with steel cut oats, cornmeal, or anything else you can get.

I hope this has been useful information, if you have any questions, please ask me. Next week I will talk about reducing waste in your kitchen. This is a huge way to save on your budget.

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Thank you for thinking of me! Right now, our next step in getting our grocery costs down is finding a house to rent for the same cost as an apartment, and it looks like this might actually happen. Then, I could get a deep freezer.

We hardly ever eat pork -- I don't know why, but I hate the taste -- if you know a good chicken farmer who could save me a buck, let me know about that for sure!
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