Other than helping my mom bake, I hated to cook when I was younger. I used to joke that I didn’t cook; I reheated. Processed foods and premade entrées from the store were just fine. When I got older and my husband and I gardened, I really liked the taste of the fresh vegetables and the fact that they came from my back yard instead of another country. I learned one or two recipes and ate a lot of raw food and still ate pre-packaged meals. Then as I matured and our garden grew bigger, I discovered that I really did like cooking and what’s more, I had a real knack for it. Breads, desserts, different ethnic cuisines, soups, and even soufflés – I loved them all. We were all surprised and my mother wanted to know who I was and what I had done with her daughter.
Nowadays, I actually stay away from pre-packaged foods because I don’t like the chemicals, high salt content, and inevitable added sugar. They are also really expensive. I want to eat well – eating real food – but because I am on Social Security disability, where the average pay isn’t even as much as minimum wage, I also need to eat cheaply. So I learned how and where to shop.
I am sharing the way we do things to save money and what we like to eat, and while some of them won’t work for you, I sincerely hope that some do.
Where to Shop
The first thing I realized is that most grocery stores are simply too expensive for us to buy the majority of our food from them. I had to find other places and other ways to feed my family.
Of course, my favorite place to look for tasty treats is my garden. It’s the cheapest, healthiest, and most flavorful source of them all. The cost of seeds is pretty small, and almost non-existent if you save your own seeds. Seedlings or plants from a nursery don’t cost all that much, either. Gardening is something I enjoy. It’s soothing and really satisfying. Yanking out weeds by the roots and seeing them die is the best. I also need a lot of help to do it because I’m unable to do much.
The big cost of having a garden is the physical toll. It can be a lot of work, especially if you’re not sure what you’re doing or have no one to help you. That’s why container gardens are popular. There’s no digging, no weeding, and many things will grow in medium to large containers. It is also a beautiful addition on a porch or patio. Another way of gardening without digging or weeding is called straw bale gardening. This is where you plant your plants directly into a rectangular bale of straw and they grow from there. For more information on container and straw bale gardening see: container gardening vegetables, this nutrition article, and this one.
If those styles of gardening are still too physically taxing try joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group. You buy a subscription from a farmer or group of farmers and receive a weekly or biweekly box of the produce or other goods. There are also many churches and some other communities who have gardens and share the bounty with parishioners, participants, or other people for free.
Gardening is my favorite but we can’t produce everything we eat. So the club stores like Costco and Sam’s can be helpful, especially if you shop carefully. Buying in bulk is great if you know you are definitely going to use all of the product before it goes bad (if it has an expiration date). You also need to be sure you’ve got the room to store bulk items. For example, we use a lot of coconut milk for curries and smoothies, etc., – okay, okay, I mean pina coladas – so buying six quarts of it at one time is a good bargain for us. But 12 cans of Lima beans? Not so much.
I normally don’t like to go shopping, but I have to be careful in these huge ‘discount’ stores. I don’t quite understand it, but any time I enter Sam’s Club an “Ooh, look!” haze comes over me. I walk around in some kind of hypnotic stupor under those bright lights looking at all the shiny things and my hands somehow just start grabbing stuff without my permission. “This is a good deal, I have to get it!” is a refrain in my brain way too often in that big concrete warehouse. Even though I don’t really have a use for 200 packets of mayo, or a chess game for the dog, and shouldn’t eat a large plastic barrel of bright orange cheesy puffs, there they are in the cart.
So we set a budget, make a shopping list, and only get what’s on that list. As hard as it is, we don’t “just look around.” Because that’s dangerous to our wallets. I’m finally free from the hypnosis. Take that, Sam’s Club.
Other places I like are some grocery store chains, such as Aldi or Food 4 Less (part of the Kroger company), that sell at cheaper prices than most grocery store chains. They are usually much smaller stores selection-wise and square footage-wise but we like shopping at these because of their really good prices. The stores carry the basics of supplies that line up with most people’s meal preferences so they have a decent selection of food for us. One thing I’ve noted is that most of the discount stores save money by not hiring baggers so you have to bag or box up your purchases yourself. We also bring our reusable shopping bags and boxes because while the stores have them, you have to buy the bags. If you are unable to bag up your groceries yourself, and/or are unable carry them to your car by yourself, ask the cashier to find someone to help you. They should be happy to.
Salvage Grocery Stores
Now, we live in a really rural area and can only get to Sam’s Club and Aldi every so often. Which is why I’m truly grateful to have a locally owned salvage grocery store that also offers some things like flour, grains, corn, herbs, shampoo, dish soap, etc., in bulk up to 50 pound sacks. Every so often they will also have regular items such as canned diced tomatoes, pasta, canned fruits, and cheese available by the case. The prices are about half of normal retail (sometimes less) and they’re usually brand name items. When local fruits or vegetables are in season they offer bulk discounted purchases such as a bushel of apples or 50 pounds of potatoes. The stores are still a godsend around here and very popular.
I’m aware, though, that while salvage grocery stores are a great choice to shop effectively I always need to check the expiration dates on the food. Sometimes the goods are past it, and sometimes way, way past it. I also look out for dented cans. The United States Department of Agriculture states that small dents are probably safe but that dents large enough for your finger to lie in or dents on the top and side of the sealing seam are to be discarded.
Health Food Store
Another place close to me is a great health food that also offers bulk sales. We like using bulk foods for its cheapness and the larger quantities. Having a surplus of shelf-sustainable food like pasta and canned goods has really made the difference during lean months or when some emergency happened and we needed to spend money to fix the problem.
The final way we prefer to shop instead of a typical grocery store is online. Amazon can be less expensive than stores and offer some foods on a subscription basis, meaning that Amazon will send you the produce every so often automatically. The really nice thing about shopping online is that the goods are delivered right to your door. The biggest drawback would be the limited selection, although more and more is being offered all the time.
Other Ways to Save Money
Of course, even though you find less expensive stores to buy your food, if there are ways to get groceries even cheaper, why not take advantage? And if none of these options above are available to you, you can still save money. Using coupons is the most popular way. Coupons are still printed in newspapers and flyers (also called shoppers) some stores give you when you enter them. There are also electronic coupons that companies offer on their websites, and many websites that deal solely with finding coupons.
The final way I shop cheaply sounds compulsive, but I think it’s smart: I carry a small notebook with me when we go to our grocery stores and note the prices of items at each store. That way I know for sure at a glance where to go and which store is too expensive for my budget.
It has taken me a couple of years to organize my methods to a good routine that fits us. When you live on a limited income like I do, saving money in every way I can is imperative. Hopefully this article has given you some help or some ideas that you can use. Eat well while eating frugally.