In the previous post we established that clipping coupons and buying sale items are not the most effective ways to cut grocery costs. That post focussed on “gleaning” as a great way to dramatically reduce expenditures. It should come as no surprise it makes the list here. Without further ado, here are the (perhaps surprising) techniques that have made the biggest impact on my grocery bill:
ONE – GROW, FORAGE, GLEAN
Some of this takes skill but even the most inexperienced person can grow a few herbs in a pot, pick wild raspberries/crab apples/dandelion greens and get free zucchini from a neighbour. Start small and work towards making these types of foods a larger and larger portion of your diet.
TWO – BUY DIRECT
One of my favourite farmers takes the saying “Farmers Feed Cities” and turns it on its head: “Farmers Need Cities” (George Wright as quoted in Edible Ottawa, Issue 8, Jan/Feb 2016). Establishing a direct relationship with a farmer increases your food safety, your appreciation of the product and your connection to your community. For the farmer, it gives him/her a direct customer base. Your organic, farm fresh eggs will cost you less than they would at the grocery/health food store but the farmer will get paid more than by selling to a middle man.
THREE – BARTER
This is connected with #2. If you can, make trades that get you free food in exchange for something you don’t need. Maybe some of your extra food. In my case, I trade my driveway (Tuesdays 3-7 pm from late June to early October) for free organic farm veggies. The farm needs a central pick-up location for its CSA customers and I am it.
FOUR – MAKE YOUR OWN
There is a long list of prepared items that are extremely cheap and quick to make at home. You should definitely make your own: salad dressing, mustard, ketchup, yogurt, hummus, soup. You should also strongly consider making your own: bread (especially if you have a bread machine), cookies, crackers. If you are buying your lunch a few times a week, stop it. Also avoid buying Lean Cuisine entrees, frozen pizzas, chicken fingers, etc. If you can, take a weekend to make and freeze a bunch of similar convenience items. An occasional rotisserie chicken or package of pierogies is an important sanity saver but if you are using convenience foods on a regular basis, you have a great opportunity to save significant amounts of money.
FIVE – SHOP WITH A BIN
Some grocery stores sell bins for their customers to shop with and take home. Take ONE of these to the grocery store with you. When the bin is full, your shopping is done. Seriously. We know that grocery stores will use coupons and sales to get you to buy things now that you either wouldn’t buy or more likely, would buy at a later date. Your mind gets tricked into thinking this is a one time deal and you better get it now or you will pay more later. The bin allows you to fall for one or two of these scams but no more. You need the space in your bin for the stuff you actually went there to get. How can one bin feed a large family? Because you are only using the grocery store to buy things that you can’t get elsewhere.
SIX – SHOP LIKE AN OLD FRENCH WOMAN
One of my favourite authors, M.F.K. Fisher writes about living in France long ago when she was a newlywed. She and her husband had a place with room and board and she talks a lot about how thrifty her landlady was and how she could always get the best prices at the markets. If you are committed to saving grocery money, you have a bit of homework to do. Visit 4-8 different food stores in the next two weeks and move out of your established shopping patterns. Walk through the whole store and look closely. Pick stores that are spread around but that are close to places your normally frequent. Also try to pick a variety of stores: large grocery chain, small independent, health food store, farmer’s market, etc.
What you are looking for is loopholes. Here are mine. My local indie coffee shop freezes the gorgeous sourdough bread it doesn’t sell on the first day. The frozen bread goes for 1/2 price. The small, independent grocer across the street sells chicken soup bones for $1.50 and the ends of prosciutto/salami etc that are too small to cut on the electric slicer for 70% off. I ask about the bread if I happen to be meeting a friend for coffee. The soup bones are on my way to yoga so I pop in to grab some. My produce store used to allow me to go in the back and fill a banana box (those huge produce boxes) with various items they had too much of for $8-$12. That one box was enough fruit and veg to feed our family of seven for the week. Sadly, they recently stopped that. However, the fish monger in that store still regularly sells “fish trim” that actually includes whole fillets. I bought 2 kg/4.5 lbs of atlantic salmon for $12. Aside from a bit of scrap, it was all fillets.
Pay particular attention to the reduced racks. At the Superstore near my place, they take the most putrid, decomposing items, throw them in a bag and affix a 30% off sticker. I wouldn’t eat that stuff if they paid me $30 to do so. But there are other stores that place expensive items that seem 100% fresh on those racks and sell them for $1-$2. Bingo.
I am NOT asking you to drive all over town looking for cheap stuff. I’m asking you to do that for one or two weeks to establish the sweet spots. Then try to work those places into your routine. If your daughter is at ballet, go to the store across the street and get the goods while you’re waiting. Most people have never been taught to be savvy shoppers and it is a skill that takes time to acquire. Forget about sales and coupons and start slow. You’ll be surprised by how much you save.
SEVEN – COOK LIKE AN OLD FRENCH WOMAN
Again, back to M.F.K. Fisher – her landlady could take any item and turn it into a delectable, divine dish. This, more than anything, takes time, skill and mentoring. If this is new to you, be patient and allow yourself time to gain the skills. Buy a cheaper cut of meat, take it home and read up on how to cook it properly. Do not just substitute it into your normal recipe or you will be chewing for a long, long time. Better yet, ask a skilled person what to do with it. Same thing with cheap vegetables you have never eaten/cooked. New immigrants often have delicious ways of cooking cheap groceries and they love to share family recipes.
FINAL NOTE – COSTCO
Notice that nowhere do I mention Costco. Costco is in the business of making ginormous amounts of money for Costco. Produce at Costco is no cheaper and often more expensive than in a regular grocery store. The price of milk at the Quebec Costco is higher than if I just walked to my local market shop and bought it there. Costco is great if you want to buy vast quantities of packaged foods. We don’t want that, we want to see the world.
Today’s Quote of the Day comes from the brilliant M.F.K. Fisher:
It was there [Dijon], I now understand, that I started to grow up, to study, to make love, to eat and drink, to be me and not what I was expected to be. It was there that I learned it is blessed to receive, as well as that every human being, no matter how base, is worthy of my respect and even my envy because he knows something that I may never be old or wise or kind or tender enough to know.