I wanted to take some time to address some of the questions we’ve gotten about the project, although it will be slow-going because let’s be honest, this planning/cooking/photographing/eating/writing/cleaning schedule we’re keeping is a second job. Krista has done most of the cooking. Since we have equitable and balanced household responsibilities, that means I have done so many dishes. Let’s start with one of my favorite topics:
I wanted to be one of those people who has a file folder sorted with tons of coupons, like the kind of couponer who has been profiled in the local paper for their extreme frugality. I am amazed by people who get hundreds of dollars of groceries for pennies and donate their excess bounty to the food bank or shelter. There are many websites of people who are dedicated to this practice, and I applaud them. I have studied many of them. When Krista & I merged households after we got married, we lived on one income for a while. I thought, “With all this free time & less income, I can become an AWESOME COUPON MASTER!” I am nothing if not enthusiastic & hyperbolic.
So, I learned about loss leaders, weekly circulars, sale cycles, stacking coupons, stores that double and organization systems for your collection of coupons. (if you don’t know what those things are, don’t worry. it doesn’t matter) I spent hours learning and practicing coupon-ing like it’s a competitive sport.
After a few months, though, I stopped clipping coupons. I put away the filing system. I recycled my coupons before they expired. I learned several valuable lessons that rendered coupons irrelevant in our grocery shopping budget. I want to emphasize that we are feeding our family quality, nutritious food on less than $5/day, and we’re not putting any effort into using coupons. How is that possible? Here we go:
1. Be Disloyal
Maybe it would be better to recommend flexibility instead of disloyalty. Be flexible! Name brand stuff is not important to my family. Actually, that is an understatement. We don’t like brands. We seek out clothing without recognizable logos or branding, and that extends to our food shopping. Neither Krista or I like to buy food of a specific brand. We buy the store brand whenever possible. The quality of store brand products is comparable to major brands, so the main difference is that we can afford store brand organic food. Also, we save money by not paying for a dinosaur/monkey/rabbit/rooster to sell us cereal/packaged dinner/frozen food/canned goods.
There’s always an exception: There are some local or organic producers who create very fine goods that we are loyal to. We do keep an eye out for the rare coupons and sales for these products. Some examples: Newman-O’s (organic cookies, trans fat-free, totally out of the budget this month), or Dave’s Bread (made in Portland, OR. with no nasty crap, also out of the budget). These brands are more the exception than the rule.
2. Whole Foods
Not the “Whole Paycheck” store, but real foods that are close to the condition that nature produces them. When I was coupon-ing, I found that the best bargains and deals were usually for name brand, processed food. I have never seen a coupon for tomatoes, bananas or bulk rolled oats. When I started learning about coupons, Krista’s only request was, “Let’s not eat a lot of packaged and processed food just because we can get it for free or cheap.” This cuts out most available coupons immediately, but the money you save using a coupon on crappy food just gets spent somewhere else (health care, for example, or the gym).
In case you get lost in the grocery store, SummerTomato can help you find real food at the supermarket with this handy chart.
Do we eat some processed food? Of course we do. We are very imperfect people. But I’m not going to get coupons for bad food, plan for it, work it into my lifestyle and make it easier and cheaper to eat food that is bad for me. In general, we buy ingredients instead of meals.
3. Bulk Food
We are not Costco people. Both of us feel strongly that you shouldn’t pay money to spend money. Places like Costco rely on the “it’s such a good deal” mentality, betting that shoppers will over-buy and ultimately spend more in their store. I have a little house and no room to store 47 boxes of Boca burgers. We can’t eat 7 lbs of salad mix before it turns to mush, even if it was a really good deal. Thus, our bulk shopping is limited to three sources: bulks bins at the grocery store and co-op, food directly from a farmer, and our local restaurant supply store (Cash & Carry).
This is probably the most important, cost-saving measure I can recommend for anyone who wants to save money while eating better: find a grocery store or food co-op with bulk bins. Build your meals around bulk bins. Why do you think Walmart’s prices are so low? Volume. (and also highly unethical business practices, exploitation of workers, complete disregard for local economy, etc, but volume is one major reason) You, one single person, can harness the buying power of volume by shopping at bulk bins. Between our co-op and Fred Meyer bulk bins, we can buy grains, pasta, beans, nuts, cereal, spices, tea, coffee, 30 kinds of flour, 20 kinds of rice, and most other pantry staples. Normally “bulk” indicates that a shopper can buy giant quantities, but with bulk bins, we buy as little as we need for a specific recipe. We don’t have to store extra food, and we don’t have to try to use it up before it goes bad. Bulk bins are better for the planet, too, since items are not packaged individually. Just bring your re-usable containers.
Many food co-ops will let you order cases at a discount, including produce or staples like non-dairy milk. I have gotten some incredible deals on organic fruit for various canning and preservation projects through my co-op. Ask around farmers markets, roadside stands and produce departments. Try to find producers (usually farmers) who have an abundance of something, and strike a deal. It’s awesome to combine quantity discounts with seasonal sale prices. Food comes from somewhere, and the closer you can get to the source, the less middle men you have to pay.
Once we established the habits of shopping in bulk, eating whole foods close to the source and buying store brands, coupons were basically irrelevant to our budget. I still keep an eye out for coupons I can use on staples we buy a lot. Almond milk is a great example because we have absolutely no brand loyalty, and the grocery stores all give me coupons for competing brands to woo me away from the others and there is always a sale. If we can’t get a great deal on almond milk on a given day, I bet we can get a great deal on soy milk.
It’s almost silly to write all of this down, since I don’t think any of these ideas are novel. We save a fortune with these practices, though, and we’re eating really well on a small amount of money. So far, here are the coupons we have used in this project:
* 55c off almond milk(manufacturer’s coupon, at the almond milk display)
* 1.00 off almond milk (store coupon given when I bought a competing brand)
* 2 for $4.00 coupon for 32 oz. yogurt (store coupon, at the yogurt display)
Yep. That’s it.
I will never get $300 worth of groceries for $25, but I’ve made my peace with that. The value of what we eat is immeasurable.