Getting Food at the Cheapest Possible Price Without Inviting Food Poisoning

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I promised awhile back to explain to you all how to get your groceries at the cheapest possible price. This will probably be the craziest-sounding, most exhaustively researched post in the history of this blog, and I realize some of you will frown on the idea of going to such lengths just to save a little money. But the drop in grocery bills is too huge not to share (we’re down about 75% from last year).

So, here goes. Following an example from “The Tightwad Gazette,” I started a price book. A price book is a book you use when grocery shopping to record the ingredients you frequently purchase (one per page), and its price per ounce at local grocery stores. I’m sure in the not-too-distant future it will be possible to take a picture of the item or scan its barcode with your phone and pull up a list of prices at nearby stores, but until then… I kept a list of the items on my shopping list. Not surprisingly, everything is cheapest at Costco. That creates two small problems: 1) Costco doesn’t carry everything, and 2) where do you store two gallons of olive oil?

The first problem is solved simply—FoodsCo (FoodMaxx/Kroger’s) carries many things, including usable quantities of fresh produce, at Costco prices. The first time I shopped there, I got a full cart of groceries for $60. The parking lot is a little off-putting (bring handi-wipes), but the values are well worth it, and the people are super-friendly. The few items I can’t find at Costco or FoodsCo are usually available at Lucky, which is the next cheapest and often has things on special for lower than Costco prices. It pays to scan the circulars for Safeway and Lucky online once a week to check for produce or meat specials (this is how you find the fifty-cent-a-pound pears). Specialty items can be gotten at Rainbow Co-Op or Safeway. Now that I virtually never shop at Safeway, when I do go for something I’m shocked by the prices. Oatmeal at Costco costs a tenth of what Safeway charges. A trip to Safeway for dinner that night costs about a fourth of our average non-Safeway grocery bill for the month.

Problem number 2 is really a matter of how much you enjoy the concept of a pantry. I, personally, love the idea of an entire closet full of delicious food that virtually never perishes. Honestly, what could be more comforting? Most everyone has a closet full of junk, a cupboard housing pots and pans you never use, or an awkward space that could be used for storage. I moved all my vitamins to the bathroom and put lazy susans in my corner cupboards to get more storage, then I stocked up on the canned goods we use and oatmeal. It really wasn’t hard to fit an extra bottle of olive oil, or six extra cans of tomatoes. I passed on the 25 lb. bag of sugar, and it turns out that’s fine since it periodically goes on sale at the grocery store for the Costco price. By only buying things I know I will use, and then using them, finding space for Costco purchases hasn’t been a problem.

So far, so good. However, meat & vegetables are hard to get through in bulk. It helps to use the Debbie Meyer Green Bags (available at Bed, Bath, and Beyond) and to store all your produce properly. You can also organize your freezer better to get more in, but sooner or later, you come to the line in the sand. There is no turning back from an incredible sale on fifty pounds of frozen meat (or in my case, free turkeys). You can purchase an extra freezer for less than $500, and over the course of a year, it will almost certainly pay for itself in what you save on meat. It allows you to keep just about everything you eat nearly indefinitely. You can freeze shredded cheese, nuts, egg whites, cream—anything with a reasonably high fat content. You can pour leftover liquids (juice, tomato paste, chiles, soft cheeses, pesto, etc.) into ice cube trays, then store the cubes in freezer bags. You can save batches of soup, casseroles, fresh bread—just about anything that might go bad in your fridge can be saved in the freezer. Additionally, it allows you to cook in large batches and freeze half, cutting your cooking time in half. You can track down your most expensive food purchases, like pasta sauce, and make and freeze your own when the vegetables are in season. Or increase the quality of your eating by always having things like homemade toaster waffles and pancakes on hand. The freezer makes life so much easier (and better!). Now I can aim to go to the grocery store once, maybe twice a month. I only have to cook a couple days a week, and we eat better than we ever did before.

If you want to go whole hog, you can can your own fruits and vegetables. Unless you get a fabulous deal on produce and the thing you’re making is really expensive, it’s probably not worth it. However, for things like making your own Pad Thai sauce or your best Mango Chutney, you can save yourself quite a bit, so I thought I’d mention it. All it takes is a pressure cooker and some jars (which Wal-Mart carries at the best price year-round). There are ample government and university websites covering the various food safety measures that must be taken, but none of it is that difficult. You just need a timer.

So now that it’s all out there, before you go calling me crazy, take a look at the USDA's cost to feed families at different levels of spending. Many who work at meal planning and bulk shopping come in well under their thriftiest plan (I think I manage for about half that). Adopt some or all of these strategies as they suit your needs. The difference between the most liberal plan for a two-person family and the thriftiest is about $4200 a year--and they're not including eating out. There are a lot worse things you could do for an after-tax $5000 per year.

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I did call you crazy. Many times. To your face. Then I got horribly ill and was almost passing out and you saved me by bringing me food and juice from your massive food stores and now I never get to make fun of your pantry/freezer again.

Plus, I can attest that since embarking on this project you've become a really healthy AND delicious cook. I don't know if that's due to your thriftiness or what, but you're clearly doing something right.

I am enjoying watching our cost of living drop like a rock. Adam's savings account is swelling (we used to spend almost $200 a week eating out and going out). Maybe we will go to Europe again. Maybe we will start buying bonds and utility stocks that will give us extra income. It's totally amazing to me that our lifestyle has improved AND we have more money. I really didn't think there could be that much difference in the price of groceries. They seemed like a commodity to me and the only difference would be in brand. But there really are whole magnitudes of cost difference, and when you multiply that by something you do on as a regular basis as eating, the savings can be incredible. It's like a free lunch. It's better. It's like getting paid to have a free lunch.

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