Frugal Food: Buying foodstuffs

The Economics of Food

Ever since I read Becke's entry about eating out cheap, I've been thinking about how to eat cheaply at home. Unlike searching out coupons or dining specials, eating cheaply at home requires a different set of strategies. It requires buying savvy, storage capacity, cooking know-how and willingness to be flexible in your habits. I am sure that most of these strategies are old news for most of you, but bare with me. If you have some suggestions, toss them in. I am always looking for new ways to deal with old problems.

Think of your life this way – it’s really all about profit and loss. Profit means having money left over out of your paycheck at the end of the month. Loss means you had to charge your cable bill on the credit card once again. Your food bills can help you make or break your bottom line – since it is really one of those things that we just can’t do without. But it is a controllable cost. Unlike a fixed cost like your car payment or rent, you have the power to use strategies that can change the way you spend what money you have available to you. The more you think of your household finances as a business model, the better you will do in the long run.

Image by timsamoff. Click on the photo to see his original comments.

Knowing a deal when you see one

The first step is learning what the mean prices of your favorite everyday items are. For example: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Go to your favorite store and take a look at the non-sale price.

Did your pulse stop racing yet? That stuff is expensive!

It’s important that you know what an item you regularly use costs at full retail. That is the only way you can know if something is a good deal. You can find organizers for price logs online. Me, I keep them in my head – but that also means when my memory is on the fritz, important details like where I live, where I work and who those strange people in the house are with me get lost. Eventually, I am going to have to start writing crap down!

Refresher Math Course! (This is for my math genius daughter, who can work advanced calculus problems, but probably can’t remember what a mean is.)

A mean price is the average for a range of numbers. You get the average of a set of numbers when you take all the values for an item, add them up and divide by the number
of values.

Chicken Breasts: a Mean

The prices you purchased your chicken breasts at the last five times: $4.50/lb, $3.75/lb, $2.99/lb, $2.49/lb, $1.99/lb

Mean: ($4.50+$3.75+$2.99+$2.49+ $1.99)/5= $3.14/lb

If you have some basic math skills, you should really use this formula . It’s so much quicker and easier.

There are other reasons why you need to know what you average cost is for regularly used items - and we'll cover that in another installment.

So how do we get what we want for less?

Loss Leaders – Every week, grocery stores offer deep, deep discounts on certain items. They are willing to sell these items to you at a thin profit margin to get you into their store to buy the other items you need at regular prices. You – the savvy consumer – can buy up those items and put them in your freezer or pantry.

My most recent buy was Chicken of the Sea tuna at Kroger’s. They had 20 cans for $10. $.50 a can is a fantastic deal, and I hadn’t seen a name brand tuna that cheap in years. I now have 40 cans in my pantry waiting to be added to salads, casseroles and pasta sauces

If you don’t get the Sunday ads for all the various stores nearby, then hop on the internet. Lots of the stores list their ads every week – and sometimes list the next week’s as well, letting you plan which day you will do your shopping to get the best deals.

(Of course, maybe you should be getting the ads in the bag, but maybe you have a lazy shiftless goodfornothing bag delivery guy who simply tosses them all into a dumpster and goes off to smoke crack. Not that I am pointing fingers…FRANK!)

Discount stores – Let’s say you really want to buy something that isn’t on sale this week. Places like Marc’s and Aldi’s offer regular groceries at discounted prices, plus there are specialty shops like The Pepperidge Farms outlet store, the Wonder Bread/ Hostess Outlet stores and Arena Produce where you can pick up items on the cheap. Once again, beware! Just because the store says it offers discounted prices doesn’t mean that you can’t get the same item cheaper as a loss leader or with coupons.

Ethnic Groceries – I love cooking Indian, Mexican and Asian foods. Buying some of the more uncommon items in “regular” grocery stores can set you back a pretty penny. Produce like baby bok choy at Meijer will put you in the poor house if you buy enough for a family of four, but you can get a big bag of this stuff for $2.50 at a grocery store like CAM (Columbus Asian Market). Or stopping into Patel Brothers on Kenny Road, I was able to find really good cauliflower for only $1.75 per head. Olives and feta can be an amazing deal if you start frequenting Middle Eastern markets.

Of course, like any other grocery, you need to shop there on a regular basis to familiarize yourself with the products as well as the prices. Really small shops may not have the turnover that a larger store might have, and the quality of some items can suffer. On the other hand, I found some really good Cracker Jacks from 1964 with prizes they don’t put into them boxes anymore – so sometimes this could be a good thing. Try not to eat the canned chili from 1963 though – it was not a good year.

While I am not an expert on every shop in Columbus, I thought it might help if I listed a few of my favorites.

Coupons – Yes those old stand-bys. You can get them from magazines, newspapers and mailers. Also, for those of you who didn’t know this – you can buy them on Ebay. My friend George turned me onto it. You buy a packet of identical coupons from sellers online – usually for about a buck plus postage. George used his coupons for Tabasco – which he eats on everything even the cans of chili from 1963. Combined with a really great sale price, plus double coupons, he was able to get small bottles of Tabasco for about $.08 each. I think he ended up with 70 bottles. Yes-he is that crazy about hot sauce - and the letter W.

I will confess I rarely use coupons. You know why? Because so many of them are for things that I don’t use (pre-packaged foods or the latest, greatest version of a name brand cereal with a cartoon character on it) or I can get store brands cheaper on sale without a coupon.

However, I know people who use them to great effect. It takes organization and perseverance to make the “coupon queen” thing work well and I have a lot of respect for people who work that system. That being said, I just don’t have the skill set necessary to get that system to work every time I go to the grocery store (IE: I am really incredible disorganized. I would be pulling expired coupons out of bodily creases for weeks afterward.)

Clearance – Perishable items are just that – perishable. Rather than throw out those items, grocery stores will mark it down a percentage of the original cost because something is better than nothing. Recent example: I went to Marc’s to pick up some items when I saw a three pound bag of carrots marked down to $1.00. Upon examination, I discovered that several of the overly long vegetables had snapped in half. They were otherwise undamaged. Considering the regular cost of a bag was $2.50, that is $1.50 I could spend on something else. (Remember that huge power outage? About three days into it, I got some great deals on shrimp and other seafood. And don’t let me tell you how cheap I got ice cream!)

The same holds true for pantry items as well. After the holiday season, Kroger had their 28oz cans of pumpkin 2 for $1.00. I ended up buying four cans. The expiration date was 2010. That means my pies for the next two years are already taken care of.

A few tips for buying clearance items:

· Inspect all your perishable produce carefully A bruised banana might make great bread, but not a bruised eggplant. Some items will develop mold inside their plastic packaging.

· Check the sell by date on the meats and dairy In stores with less than stellar product rotation, I’ve found bad meat and spoiled dairy lurking in the case with past sell by dates on them. Meat should be used or frozen ASAP. Some dairy products like milk have a couple extra days left in them after their sell by date, so you have a little leeway there.

· Check packaging for damage If it looks like the integrity of the container has been compromised, let it be. Better safe than sorry.

· Know your products Whenever you go into Meijer’s, they always have a huge rack of clearance food items. Some are there as part of regular stock rotation, some are there as seasonal clearance and some of them are there because they suck and no one will buy them. No matter how cheap the item is, money spent on something you can’t use is not a bargain. (Personally, I got suckered by a couple cans of Wolfgang Puck soups. He is now known as Wolfgang Sucks in our household because of his crappy canned soups.)

Sweat Equity – Don’t use boneless breasts. Get a whole chicken and bone it out. Make your kids learn to eat dark meat. Or buy bone-in breasts and take the bones out yourself. It isn’t that hard. Use those kitchen skills to save you money by expending a little time. Or better yet, make your kids learn to eat meat off the bone…geesh!

Bulk Purchases – Sam’s Club, Costco - or in our case Restaurant Depot - can save you tons on the items you use frequently. That is if you can use it all up before it goes bad. This is where a purchasing co-op can come in handy.

“A purchasing Co-op? What the hell is that?” you ask. A Purchasing Co-op is a group of people who band together to buy large quantities of items then split them up into manageable parcels. Example: Eric, Moose, Andy, Tate and my family have started shopping at Restaurant Depot for bulk meats. We recently purchased a case of boneless chicken breasts for $.60/lb. A case is 40 pounds. That’s a lot of meat for a family of three or a single guy to buy on their own. However, the seven of us were able to share the costs and storage of the chicken, making it a win-win situation for everyone.

One key to setting up you own private co-op is to make sure you have people who like-minded. If your best friend in the whole world is an organic vegan – then your chances of getting her to buy in on a great meat deal is pretty darn slim. However, if you too are an organic vegan, then you guys can buy a 20 pound bag of tofurkey and split it up – no problems. (If you do manage to locate a deal on 20 pounds of tofurkey, please do not call me. The thought of a tofurkey getting that big scares me!*shudder*)

The other key is to work with people you trust. A person who refuses to pay or to carry their share of the work will kill the whole group.

Shopping in Season - Seems pretty straight forward doesn’t it? In the summer, you can buy all your fresh veggies at the farmer’s market for pretty darn cheap. Now, you are paying $3.00 for a head for “out of season” romaine grown in a local greenhouse. Yes you are buying local – but buying yourself into the poor house. In winter, you see things like cabbage, citrus fruit and greens that are cheap and plentiful. True they may not have been grown local, but when you are strapped for cash – well, I am willing to bend my rules to make sure I eat healthy within my budget. Recently I bought some lemons (a 2 pound bag for $1.50, a standard sale price), and following tips from the internet, I am throwing them in my freezer for later in the year…lemon chess pie…yummmmm

Here is a resource map from Epicurious that outlines what states are producing what products in what months. Use it wisely.

Grow Your Own – This can be done fairly easy, even if you live in an apartment. A single tomato plant in a container purchased for $6.00 will easily produce more than $6.00 worth of produce in a season – as long as you take care of it. If you have a yard, convert one of your flowerbeds into a small kitchen garden. Hell, even a pot of cilantro on the window sill saves you some cash in the long run. If you wonder what a regular garden can net you savings-wise, check out this article over at Kitchen Gardeners International.

Barter – You find someone who has the item you want and work out a trade. One of my co-workers, Justin, hunts deer every year. I would really like to get some venison for stew/chili. He and I are negotiating to see what I can trade him in return for a few pounds of meat. So far – no agreement has been reached. I will let you know what happens.

Of course, buying stuff for cheap is just the beginning. These is so much more to Frugal Food - and we'll talk about that next time...


ColumbusNeon said...

I love Aldi. I got these wicked cool Beer Chips there for $2.99. The south end location has a pretty nice selection of frozen foods for a no frills store. The produce even looks good most of the time and all the years I've been shopping there, nothing's ever made me sick and I am still alive.

Paul F said...

Whew! That was a long article. You get brownie points from me for typing it all in.

My approach is a little different since I'm single. I still cook but I only buy as much as I can use for one meal. And I go out to eat three or so times a week. But I can see where cooking for a family requires a different take.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding post!

Rosie said...

Neon - The frozen shrimp that Aldi's had over Lent - along with their scallops - were really really good quality and ended up being something like $4.00lb for 30-40 count. IQF and the whole sheebang. Plus they carry frozen whole green beans for something like $1.40 a pound - and they are thin like harcourt verte. You can do very well at Aldi's indeed. (And mine carries instant masa as well - tamales!!!!)

Paul - I can see where a busy single person would find this a bit overwhelming - a lot of my sensibilities comes from having been raised by parents who lived through the depression on near starvation diets. A well stocked pantry is a true show of wealth.

CMH - Thanks! Wanna do a podcast about it?