Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Buying smart on a budget

There’s an unfortunate misconception that eating whole foods will burn a hole in your wallet. And it’s easy to see why.

Dollar for dollar and calorie for calorie, the foods on the perimeter of the grocery store (fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains and dairy) generally cost more than the heavily processed foods on the inner aisles of the store (canned foods, snack foods and pre-prepared meals).

But eating well doesn’t have to blow your budget. As a very budget-conscious person myself, the added expense during the first few uneducated months of our transition to humanely raised meats and whole foods just about gave me a panic attack. Thankfully, I kept at it and learned that I needed less of a budget modification and more of a behavior modification to keep costs in line.  

Today, we spend about $100 per week on food for the two of us. This includes three meals per day everyday, humanely raised meats from our farmer or Whole Foods, lots of fresh fruits and veggies, and many organic products. Here are some of the ways I stay on budget each week:

1. Eat less meat.

Because we have chosen to purchase our meat from humane sources that do not receive government subsidies to keep costs low, our meat can range anywhere from $5 to $20 per pound. So, simply eating less of it saves us a ton of money. All breakfasts at our house are meatless, with nuts or yogurt used instead to get our a.m. protein. Dinners, which also double as our lunches the next day, are meatless 2 to 4 times per week. Check out ideas for eating meatless on this blog or visit or for more ideas.

2. Use coupons.

I save anywhere from $3-$12 per week just by clipping a few coupons. I search primarily on Mambo Sprouts, CouponMom, Whole Foods and, and some brand websites, like Brown Cow Farm. Learn each store’s coupon policies – many, like Publix, allow doubling of coupons 50 cents or less, and accept competitors’ coupons. And, although many people don’t like that their grocery store tracks them with their club cards, I love it! Thanks to being tracked on all of my purchases, Kroger sends me a packet of coupons every month that consist mostly of savings on cage-free eggs, organic milk, organic cereal, fresh fish and sometimes even fresh fruits and veggies.

3. Know where to shop for which items.

For those with young children, shopping at several stores is a near impossibility, so this one isn’t for you. For the rest of us, it’s one of the best ways to get the best deals on quality food. Whole Foods is my go-to for meats my farmer doesn’t offer, but it’s also one of my top places for yogurt and organic cereals as they allow shoppers to stack coupons (use a Whole Foods coupon and a manufacturers coupon on one item). Just last week I used this method to buy my favorite Nature’s Path Organic Cereal, regularly $4 each, for 65 cents per box! Trader Joes is another go-to for their great deals on pantry staples like coconut milk and the best (and most wholesome) fat-free refried beans you’ll ever have, both at just 99 cents a pop. And, for those of us fortunate enough to have one, Aldi (parent company of Trader Joes) is my go-to for loading up on bulk produce for pennies on the dollar. Regardless of where you shop, spend just one month comparing prices at a few stores to see which ones consistently offer the lowest price for key items and stick to buying only those items at each store.

4. Shop like a European.

Unlike Americans, Europeans have tiny kitchens and no pantries. So, stocking up on every possible food item to last through a nuclear war is simply not in the cards. Though one of the hardest behavioral changes for me to make, I stay on budget by sticking to buying just the items we will eat that week. Sure, if there’s an insane deal on something we eat all the time (like my 65 cent cereal noted above), I’ll grab more than a week’s share. But by sticking to one week at a time, I avoid making impulse purchases, reduce our food waste, and eliminate the opportunity for us to consume too many calories each week. Embracing a bare pantry can be tough in our “always stuffed” society, but your full wallet at the end of the week will thank you.   

Your turn to share: What are some of your best tips for eating whole/all natural without breaking the bank?  
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  1. Great tips, Christina! I scan the weekly ads each week and draft a menu plan based on the sale items. For example, if bell peppers and avocados are on sale, I'll use them in multiple meals (sandwiches, salads and burritos) that week. I buy fewer items this way, which means I save money and waste less produce.

    I also like because of their easy and affordable vegan/vegetarian recipes. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  2. Jessica, I do that too! Buying for the sales is a big one I didn't mention here. Oh, and thanks for recommending I'm excited to try several of the recipes!

  3. Your Brother and I couldn't feed this family on one income without Aldi! We've known about them for years and nowadays we buy 75% of our groceries there! I never knew about the Trader Joes connection though! Interesting! I wonder why they aren't around in some places where TJ's is!!! Aldi can't be beat with children around...the products are mostly made by the exact same manufacturer, just under private label, so they are "better than generic". I especially like the small box store appeal, alot less impulse shopping! They are carrying more and more organic things these days too.

    1. Michelle - Aldi is definitely one of our best weapons too! I was so skeptical at first when I would get the ads and they would say 69 cents for strawberries. I figured they had to be mutant fruit! But I stopped by one time and realized it was the exact same stuff I was buying at Kroger or Publix. We only buy produce there, but we eat so much fruit and vegetables that it saves us hundreds.