I don't use coupons. This is going to make some of you cringe. I hear people say things like their total was $184 and they only paid $62. I think it's amazing. But I just don't do it. I tried it, and I thought it was a lot of work to save $3 here and there. When I look at coupons, there aren't coupons for things that I use. I'd cut out coupons and then find that the store brand was less expensive. I'm one of those people who only buys produce, meat, and a few staples here and there. We don't buy chips, granola bars, or frozen food. We rarely have cereal. So coupons just don't work for me. I want to share a little bit of my philosophy on groceries and how I save money. I know I probably spend more than most people, but I have some tips that I think will help people using coupons or not, shopping organically or not.
Where we live now, we have to drive an hour and a half to get to Whole Foods. We do this every other week or so. We get looks from people when they find out we shop there. I have found that most people who talk bad about stores like Whole Foods have never even stepped foot inside it. Case and point: my inlaws. We asked them to bring us down some milk when they visited on Sunday. They had never been, but I'd seen the "look". When they got to our house with the milk, they mentioned that they were excited to shop there soon. Hmmm... :)
Let me tell you about the milk we buy. It's from a local dairy farm, stored in glass bottles [extra cold!], and pasteurized at a low temp to keep its nutrients. It's $3.14 a half gallon. Before you get all up in arms, hear this: there's a bottle exchange. I get $2 CASH back for every bottle I return to Whole Foods, meaning I pay $1.14 per half gallon, or $2.28 a gallon for some of the best quality milk in the state. Do you know how much a gallon of Wal-Mart brand milk is in my town? $3.39! So I am saving over a dollar by purchasing this amazing milk at a 'snobby' grocery store.
We have always, in our marriage, strived to eat good food. Not just good tasting, but good for us. Even when my husband was in seminary and we had a tiny income, we still shopped at Central Market in Fort Worth, TX. The key to shopping for this type of food is knowing what to buy and when to buy it.
By no means do I purchase everything 'organic', 'all natural', etc. I've been balancing a grocery budget for a while now and the biggest thing I've learned is to supplement. I buy what I can at Whole Foods, the farmer's market, or the local co-op and then fill in the rest from either the local grocery store or Target. Well, Wal-Mart where I live now. If I can't afford a certain thing, I just don't buy it this time.
Before I offer my tips on saving money while eating organically, I do want to offer a disclaimer of sorts. Sometimes people can barely afford to put food on the table, much less purchase an organic air-chilled chicken. I know what that feels like; I grew up that way. Eating good, healthy food [organic or not] is what's most important. I will say, however, that just because you have a low income does not mean you should live on cheetos, spaghetti, and balogna sandwiches. Wherever you are in your grocery budget, I just want to encourage you to buy the best that you can to provide nutrients, not just a full stomach.
There is an ongoing debate on the necessity of eating organically. If we could go back to the time in which our grandparents were growing up, everything they ate was essentially organic because food was not processed the same way that it is today. "Processed", unfortunately, is the problem. I saw the movie Food Inc. a while ago, and it further opened my eyes to the food industry in America and encouraged me to get back to basics. I won't go as far as to jump on the emotional bandwagon that this movie ensues, but it is educational about the major companies that control agriculture and the lack of government involvement thereof.
We have a strict budget in our family, and I alot $300 per month for groceries [for two people]. I don't know if that's too much or not, but it works for us. Sometimes I don't spend it all, so we save it for times when we want to have others in our home for a meal or have a special occasion coming up. I've been sticking to a budget and shopping for whole foods for about 5 years now, and here are some of the guidelines that I use.
1. Meal plan, meal plan, meal plan. I can't stress this enough. If you will sit down and plan out your meals I promise you will save money. You can start out by planning 1 week at a time, or even plan out the whole month. I plan out 2 weeks at a time because I go to the grocery store when Justin gets paid. Ideally, you purchase all of your needs and eliminate extra trips to the store. I like to pay cash for my groceries, and I walk around with a calculator in the store [much to Justin's embarassment]. I usually do make a quick trip inbetween big shopping trips to stock up on fruit/produce, but that's about all we ever run out of. If we decide we want to make something that we don't have the groceries for, we just plan for it on the next meal plan. We used to decide we wanted a certain thing for dinner and go spend $25 extra at the store when we already had plenty of groceries. Well, not anymore! I'm sure I've saved us hundreds by doing this. Besides, who likes stopping by the store on their way home from work? It's kind of fun to see our meal plan up on the fridge. Justin really enjoys that. I would add that it's always good to have a couple of meals that you can exchange if the prices aren't good on certain items when you go to the store.
2. Stick to your list! When you buy lots of extra things that you didn't really need you're going to spend more money. There is a loop hole though, and that loop hole is price. Sometimes I might have a need for eggplant or pork tenderloin, and when I get to the store I either don't like the looks of the eggplant that day or the pork is expensive. So that's when I engage in substitution. It's ok to change what's on your list, but don't add to it. Adding is a sure fire way to spend more than you want.
3. Look for private label organic brands. The best is Trader Joe's. I don't get to shop there anymore since there isn't even one in our state, but we do periodically travel back to Atlanta or pass through Nashville or Cincinatti where we can stop in at one. I buy a lot of the Whole Foods brand, 365. I'm pretty satisfied with it and when I compare it to store brands like Kroger and Wal-Mart, I'm paying about the same.
4. Freeze the surplus. After a while of sticking to your budget and meal planning, you'll find yourself stocked up on things. That means that sometimes you don't have to spend all of the money that you normally budget. You can save it or use the extra $10 or $12 on stocking up on produce which you can then freeze to have on hand.
5. Canning/freezing. If you have the space in your freezer or cabinets, spend the summers canning and freezing. It's a great way to have fresh produce that you grew or picked up at the farmer's market all year long. You'll have to spend some money on the front end purchasing materials for canning [freezing doesn't take much] but it will pay for itself in one season of canning. And, you won't have to replace the canning materials for a long time, if ever.
6. Purchase whole chickens. Some people can be so dramatic about this. "I don't like chicken on the bone", they say. Well, you don't know what you're missing! The flavor is so much bolder when chicken has been cooked on the bone. I buy whole chickens and roast them. Sometimes I put compound butter under the skin and fill the cavity with lemons and onions; other times I just coat with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. I start the oven at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes to crisp the skin and then turn it down to 350 to finish the cooking. I take the meat off and put it into 2 cup portions in freezer bags and have it ready throughout the week to put in soups, tacos, or salads. I then take the bones and skin and make my own chicken stock. It's a big money saver!
7. Frozen fruits and veggies. This can be a big money and time saver. Sometimes fresh produce is more expensive that frozen. There are great organic options in the freezer section, but beware that the portions are smaller. You can stock up on frozen fruit for smoothies and you don't have to spend time chopping and peeling. Frozen veggies are ready for soups and casseroles in a flash.
8. Don't buy microwave popcorn. It's so much more expensive that purchasing popcorn kernels. Popcorn made on the stove or in an air popper is so tasty and definitely healthier than microwavable. It also doesn't take any more time to make it. The only difference is having to was the pot or machine you made it in. If you haven't tried making your own, I encourage you to do so on the next movie night and I bet you'll agree with me.
9. Make your own food. Bread, chicken stock, butter, jams, applesauce, vanilla extract, tortillas....these are just a few of the items that I make myself. Remember, simple doesn't always mean easy. I know when you have a job and kids, time is of the essence. It's really easy to let your grocery store do the work for you. I believe, however, that with proper planning and setting aside a Sunday afternoon, you can prep all that you need for the week. You'll find that a little preparation will actually give you more time after school with the kiddos because you won't be worrying about having to stop by the store or figure out what to eat for supper. Sometimes we sacrifice goodness for convenience at the grocery store. I'm not asking you to be Little House on the Prairie and sew your underpants while tending to the chickens, but making your own food is a good thing. It helps me feel connected to my food and my body when what I made with my own two hands is what's nourishing myself and my family.
10. Relax. It's just food. If you can't get meal planning done, don't sweat it. Keep a pan of lasagna in your freezer for emergencies. If all else fails and you have to order pizza, don't worry about it. You can eat lighter the next day. No one is perfect--certainly not me--but we can all try our best to make shopping and getting great meals on the table easy and fun.
I hope you find my tips helpful and healthful. Sticking to a healthy diet and budget are a great way to start 2011.