Saturday, October 3, 2015

Frugal food thoughts

According to Mint, we've spent a lot on groceries recently.  Back in the beginning of September, the program sent me this dire warning:

Now, this $760 (or $437, if you want our "usually") monthly grocery bill is for a household of four hungry people, who almost never eat at restaurants.  And we're not particularly bird-like eaters, either:  when our family cooks potatoes, we cook five pounds at a time, and there's seldom any leftovers hanging around the next morning.  Ah, the joys of teenage-boy appetites!

Mint misses some of our expenses, so the number above is artificially low.  (It doesn't include school-purchased lunches, and it doesn't capture anything I purchase with cash or check, which probably averages out to an additional $100-150 per month).   Still, I think our grocery expenses are low enough to count as "frugal".  Certainly we're down there with what the USDA would call a "thrifty plan".

But although the number of dollars my family spends is one way to measure frugality (the easiest way to measure, and also the most obvious), it's not actually my own personal way of thinking about frugal food shopping.  I've been thinking about this a bunch, lately, in fact.

I've seen four main approaches to frugalling the food budget.
  1. Coupons.  This is the most visible way of pinching food dollars, but I've always avoided it.  I started avoiding it because it was a suck on my own time and energy, but increasingly the reason has become more communitarian:  coupons are a suck on the time and energy of the entire system, because it requires that someone is there to create, promote, process, redeem, monitor, etc. coupons.  Relying on coupons as a regular strategy strikes me as one of those things that looks like it would bring food costs down, but long term drives them up by adding bureaucracy and inefficiency into the works.
  2. Using the efficiencies of the system.  Several of my favorite frugality bloggers love Costco; some even groove to Walmart.  I don't (not that I'm arguing with my favorite bloggers, mind you).   There are a lot of ways that the efficiencies of the system map onto the frugalities I care about, but there are also ways that it doesn't:  here, I'm thinking about how these stores use more packaging than I do, and care less about building up local community than I do. 
  3. Using the inefficiencies of the system.  My husband has become a big fan of this approach; he has taken to dropping into our local salvage store and buying whatever meat is just about to expire, now down to half or 25% of its original price. It's sort of a modern-day, corporate version of gleaning.  As a result, the boys are all reveling in lots more sausages, pork chops, hot dogs, etc than whatever they'd get from me.   (Yuck)
  4. Focus on the food; move out of the system.  Back in mid-August, I spent $60 at a local farmer's market on 44 lbs of peaches ($44), 52 ears of corn ($10), and 18 bell peppers ($6).  The food was in season, locally grown, and went straight from the farmer's wagon into my own buckets and bins.   Later, I spent another $260 at our local Amish market on about 150 pounds of dry goods (flour, oats, nuts, etc.)  The food is now safely put up, and it ought last me through the winter, stored in my own glass jars and (for the flour and oats) old cat liter buckets.  All the packaging and trash I have to show for those big expenditures is a small pile of compostable/recyclable paper bags, a smaller pile of clear plastic bags (sigh), plus one receipt that I think is hilarious in its non-specificity (every item I bought is listed as "grocery").
    $259.33 worth of "grocery", next to the entire amount of packaging from the food.
    I like that my purchases bring me closer to the people who grow my food.  I like that I'm not spending money on advertising campaigns, newspaper inserts, package design, excessive packaging, air conditioning, shopping carts, cross-continental transportation, giant asphalt parking lots, and other things that come with "normal" store-bought foods.   It might not be the most frugal way to buy food measured in dollars alone, but it feels increasingly right to me.


  1. Interesting view on coupons. So true. I've been wondering about what's easiest on the system as a form of payment. Do vendors prefer us to use cash, checks, debit cards, or credit cards (assuming we're spending the same amount either way and that they do intend on paying their taxes).

    I think I mostly use #4 for food, but mostly by doing more of my own processing of food--cook from recipes, grate my own cheese, etc.

    For other things, I really like using inefficiencies of the system. Specifically, things are cheaper when demand is low but, due to inefficiencies, supply is still high. For example, it's easier to get free parking when it's not a weekend night (or, downtown, when it's not a work day). It's cheaper to see movies at matinees (they have just as many seats as on Friday nights even though they don't use them). Plane tickets are cheaper some times than others.

    And of course, using efficiencies of the system is good for electronics (waiting until they get cheaper) and buying popular cars (and appliances) (parts are cheaper and easier to get and more mechanics know how to deal with your car and it's easier to find online resources about your car).

    1. The "how vendors prefer us to pay" question really varies from vendor to vendor. A lot of the places I shop (yard sales, Amish markets) don't take credit cards at all. But cash has its difficulties, even for vendors who are all cash -- I get a lot of "thank you's" for paying in small bills or even in piles of quarters and dimes, because keeping enough change on hand is an administrative challenge.

      And hurrah for being adept at making the most of the inefficiencies of the system! I don't see movies or pay for parking or buy electronics, but I do love scrounging at the edge of what other people don't any longer want. That's where about 95% of my clothes come from!

    2. Right, used things! They are the best!

  2. I guess with food we're mostly doing #4 (along with keeping down waste). Our culinary life is pretty well determined by the CSA we're doing. ($22/week provides a lot of fruit and veggies.)

    1. Yes, the CSA is really life-directing, isn't it? In both good and also sometimes a little overwhelming ways. I'm so glad my neighbor clued me into signing up for it a few years ago.

  3. I love this way of looking at food acquisition options. I also am an utter non-couponer although mostly for selfish reasons...I generally don't want/need what things there are coupons for, I do most of my shopping at non-coupon places like Aldi and salvage stores and don't want to add more stops to my rotation and ultimately I don't want to spend my life energy on snipping little bits of paper.

    The inefficencies of the system is my preferred method I realize....this is actually the first time I've had words to wrap around it. I always think of it as gleaning....everything from always checking clearance racks to shopping salvage stores to keeping my ear to the ground at church and online for free/cheap "unwanted" food and other items. Incidentally, I now live outside of the US and on a trip back to the States earlier this year, I made a few strategic stops at thrift stores to search for things I needed. I was stunned at how every single one was stuffed to the gills with...stuff! I wasn't even going to retail establishments and yet every inch of store space at every store was full of the outcasts/excess of American life/consumerism. Made me feel that my gleaning was just as much public service as it was a matter of caring for my own family!