Sunday, October 26, 2008

Spend less on better food

I had a dream the other night that I was floating down an aisle at Whole Foods.

Love was there, along with Lola, who was walking along on her hind legs next to us like a two-year old. I remember I looked like a brunette Olivia Newton John circa Xanadu, wearing a delicate white dress that lazily danced with the indoor, yes indoor, breeze, and I remember being happy. No, it wasn't because I was the lead character in Xanadu (I'm obsessed with musicals, no matter how cheesy), nor was it because at one point I got to chat with ex-Mexican president Vincente Fox in the freezer section and Aretha Franklin in the produce aisle.

I remember being happy because I got to throw whatever I wanted into our cart without even glancing twice at the price. And that includes fancy wines and exotic cheeses, two of my favorite things. I woke up mid-float, as I was placing a giant wheel of Jarlsberg Swiss in our cart, to the sound of what I thought was Lola eating our cat Money Penny (false alarm! they were just fighting.)

After I broke up the scuffle, I got back into bed with a bevy of questions. Why did buying any food I wanted -- non-generic at that! -- light the fires of my satisfaction? Why were Vincente and Aretha in my dream? And most important, why was I a floating character from Xanadu? It dawned on me as I nodded back off to dreamland that I might never know the answers to the latter two questions, but the former was obvious.

As humans we have basic needs -- air, water, shelter, clothing (optional, kidding!) and food. Now I can and do skimp on lots of things in my life in the interest of saving money. I don't care about owning some no-name music player over an expensive one, or buying generic aspirin to get rid of a headache. But even though I'm guilty of being a miser, I hate skimping on good, quality food just to save a pittance. I like my wheels of cheese from Switzerland and not Wisconsin,thankyouverymuch.

I could easily go to Whole Foods right now and buy whatever I wanted in cash, but that nagging saver in me always coaxes me into a cheaper alternative, usually Trader Joe's. No offense to Trader Joe's, I love their seasonal pumpkin butter (among other things), but the overpriced pumpkin pie at Whole Food's is simply divine.

But we're budgeters, and budgeters shop accordingly, with or without the Queen of Soul. The more I dwell on it, the more I see no reason why us savers can't also feast like kings at the table of name-brand excess, so I've devised some ways to spend less on groceries as a whole and (hopefully) get better food to boot:

Spice up your life.
Whenever I prepare a meal, the key ingredients I use are spices and seasonings -- I like a palatable kick to my food. The best way to inject a little chutzpah in your chow is with herbs and spices, but if you've ever stood in front of the spice rack at Safeway and surveyed your options by price, they quickly dwindle down to the cheapest: salt and pepper. Yawn. If you're like me and like sprinkling some excitement in your life -- er, food -- then why not check out a local ethnic food store? Asian, Indian and Persian grocery stores all carry loads of different spices that I've found are actually more pungent and tasty than what's carrier at their American counterparts. And some spices, such as saffron, aren't even carried at regular supermarkets. Tack on the fact that many foods cost significantly less when they come sans spices and sauces, and you'll quickly find that adding your own zest can't be financially beat.

A study by Columbia University found (in dollars/ounce) the following price disparities between McCormick's spices and ethnic food brands (respectively):
  • Nutmeg. $3.54 versus $0.50.
  • Cumin. $2.79 versus $0.25.
  • Cardamom. $5.99 versus $1.
  • Cinnamon. $2.13 versus $0.25.
  • Chili Powder. $1.75 versus $0.31
It adds up my lovelies, so be savvy when you sprinkle!

Develop meals around sale items. Okay, so maybe you want your McCormick's and refuse to compromise. That's fine, then only buy McCormick's when it goes on sale or is discounted with some sort of club card. The same goes with everything else you end up shoveling down your gullet. Browse online at the grocery store's website and look for the best food deals. (Don't forget to browse the paper ads, too. You know, those junk mail inserts you throw away as soon as you take them out of your mailbox?) Map out what meals you are going to eat by planning ahead and buying the products on sale that week. The best thing about this method is that you don't have toforgo brand-name foods because they, like their generic little sisters, also go on sale quite frequently. You just need to be on the lookout for when they do.

Once you've written down about a week's worth of meals made up of fabulously discounted, quality food, you'll be armed and dangerous with a realistic grocery list to use once you're traipsing around with your cart. Sticking to your conscious, thought-out list will dissuade you from all the extraneous purchases you might have dumped in your basket otherwise. The end result? You'll have quality "meal food" (real food, aka not all snacks), which you won't have to fret over price-wise because of your pre-shopping research. A glut of impulse buys are never fun once you get up to the register and wonder why your total is so high. Hey, if we can spend hours looking for the best deal on a trench coat, then by God we can apply that same zeal to a can of tomato sauce!

Coupons. Before you click "back" on your browser at the site of this word, hear me out. To many of us the word "coupon" has a negative stigma associated with it ... usually it conjures up an image of an elderly woman on a balmy Sunday afternoon, clipping coupons on her lanai in Dade County, Florida. Scratch that. If speed dating, reality TV and Crocs can be dubbed "cool" by the populace, than so, too, can coupons. If you're spending the time even perusing websites (like moi's ) for tips on how to save money, than you have the time to clip/print coupons. Combine them with the aforementioned deals you find online when you craft your cuisine list and head to market. This can save you between 20% to 50% on your next shopping trip!

Nix the bottled water.
When I was a grad student in Boston I did not own a car. A true California girl through and through, the prospect of having to lug groceries home on the subway versus my car (which was at my parent's house) was heartbreaking, but I learned to deal. What I never learned to deal with was carrying gallon jugs of water -- two at a time -- up the slick and snowy street like some medieval punishment for being thirsty. I like to think I'm not high maintenance, so yes, I had tried my apartment's tap water multiple times before this hilarity on ice ensued, but it always tasted coppery -- like someone had plunked a few pennies in my glass. Gross, and probably not healthy. In my metal-tasting-induced haze I failed to see the long-term cost benefits of filtering my water, and instead took the easy way out and hit the bottle.

Think about it: A basic PuR faucet-mountable filter costs $37 and filters 100 gallons of water. Filters cost about $26 to replace (cheaper in bulk). Twenty-six dollars sounds expensive, till you realize you that in the long run you'd only be paying $0.26 per gallon with this PuR method, versus $1.25+ per gallon of Crystal Geyser and other brands. Bring on the filtered water!

Buy in bulk. "Duh," you say. But I'm not just talking Costco here, people. You can get marvelous deals on organic goodies such as chocolate chips, nuts, raisins, oatmeal and trail mix by foraging for them in bulk bins versus packages. I read an example recently that said a Safeway canister of Sun-Maid seedless raisins with a net weight of 24 ounces is $4.99 (equal to $3.33 per pound). You can actually get raisins cheaper at Whole Foods, where raisins -- organic, to boot -- are $2.99 per pound in the bulk-bin section. Remember to look past the price tag when shopping for food, and instead focus on the unit prices (i.e., the price per ounce, price per pound, etc.). This will give you a more accurate view of how much items actually cost.

Farm it yourself, kind of. Farmer's markets are excellent places to cheaply snag many staples of a well-rounded diet, such as fish, fruits, vegetables and breads. (Sadly, those vital Oreos will have to be bought elsewhere). Farmer's markets are cheap because the produce comes direct from the farmer, so there are no middle-man transportation costs, including store-clerk salaries, long-distance trucking costs, refrigeration costs and big-store utility bills. The cost of all those extra measures is built into an item's final price in a grocery store, where freshness is also usually lacking. Farmer's markets ensure cheaper, higher-quality fruits and veggies.

If farmer's markets aren't your bag, you could always sign up with CSA, or community-supported agriculture, which is becoming quite the hip thing to do these days. What happens is you subscribe to a farm on a weekly or monthly basis, and they give you a full box of fresh produce once a week (usually $25 per box). Although most don't deliver, there are general pick-up sites you can visit. This process not only gives you the freshest, highest-quality food direct from the farm (so it's cheaper), but it also saves you time that you'd otherwise spend thumping melons at Safeway and standing in line to be rung up. For more information and to find a CSA near you, visit Meat can also be pretty pricey, but not when you're buying through CSA! For a list of organic, grass-fed meat ranchers, visit


Budget Mama said...

Another great post. Isn't Whole Foods grand! I was just there this morning to buy DS his gluten free Van's waffles. I loved your dream-lol the Queen of Soul and Vincente!

I never thought about going to the specific ethnic grocery stores for spices, great idea!!!

I made the switch to filter water years ago, it works so much better and so much cheaper.

Great tips!

Anonymous said...

Well, my "farmer's market" has fairly local veggies...well, at least they're grown on the east coast, but quite foreign fruit (mangos from Brazil). Their location is fixed but tented in an alley in Hell's Kitchen (NYC), and the staff are terrific. I guess that's why they're able to sell cauliflower at $1.50 a head instead of $3.99 like the supermarket a block away.

I used to love my tap water until 6 weeks ago, when they replaced the rooftop tank. It's made of wood and looks downright medieval, but the problem is that my water now smells and tastes like a fresh-cut tree. There's a good chance I'll be resurrecting my Brita pitcher in the next few days, since I just saw the filters on sale.

I love using coupons - a newfound charity-hobby, at that - but I cook from near-scratch, and you rarely get coupons for those ingredients. But there's nothing like getting my $5 shampoo for $2!

The Frugalist said...

Some really nice tips. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

GREAT tips! I love to buy spices from the bulk bins also. There's no need to get an entire container of something when I may only use it a few times a year. It keeps the cost down and helps keep my spice jars at their freshest!

I also like to write to companies and compliment them on the products I buy and request to be added to their mailing list. Many times they'll send coupons (sometimes even for free products) in the mail that you can't find anywhere else.

Crystal said...

Thanks for reading, guys! I'm glad you liked my tips. :)

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