What Do You Really Get For FREE?

by Laura on November 8, 2009

in Blog

by Greg Everage

Lately, everyone seems to be asking, “How can I save money on my food purchases?” For us, we also ask, “How can I save money but still keep my food choices healthy?” And, of course, there will always be the question of time – can I figure out how to save money, make healthy food choices and make sure that the time I invest produces the highest out come?

There are many ways to accomplish all the above. This week’s blog illustrates that we are always learning and refining our methods. Sometimes thinking outside of the box can help us come up with different methods to shop and save while keeping an eye toward health. See which one works the best for you.

There are many ways to save money on your food:

The conventional method:

  • Searching for, clipping and using coupons (from newspapers, store flyers, online store coupon sites, searching manufacturers’ sites).
  • Watch the stores for sales, and time expiration dates on certain items like meat, dairy and produce.
  • Shop at the stores that offer competitive prices.
  • Buy in bulk.
  • Keep an eye for the store flyers. These will guide you as to what is on sale in the store and if you can apply additional savings with coupons.
  • Shop the perimeter of the store where you’ll find the ‘whole’ foods such as meat, poultry, fish and produce. Despite what many think, they tend to be more cost effective than the pre-packaged goods in the center of the store
  • Shop certain days of the week.


With that said, Laura and I were amazed when we came across an ABC News story of a woman who feeds her family of six on a very tight budget. She has developed a method of using coupons where she can purchase a basket full of food that costs $260.00, yet pay only one penny after redeeming coupons. It is truly amazing how she can maneuver through the world of coupons to net this final result. After hearing her story, we began to discuss what this woman was truly getting for free.

According to the news piece, Spencer spends a couple of hours every week scanning newspapers, store circulars and the web to find coupons, “Once you stockpile coupons, you’re good to go,” says Spencer. “Then, when I go to the store, I only buy what works out free or close to free, and that’s how I do it for as little as I can.”

On her How to Shop for Free website, she lists the stores that she frequents and suggest other to shop where they can be most effective with their coupons. They include Albertsons, Kmart, Kroger, Publix, Safeway, Target, and Walmart, among others.

At one point during the video, she revealed her success. The pantry, which reached 6 or 7 feet high, was stockpiled with food, probably four items deep. The look on her face showed us she was very proud of her efforts. Upon closer inspection, Spencer’s pantry was filled to the brim with highly processed, boxed foods. Then, as we watched the point in the video where she went shopping Spencer marched right through the produce section to the middle section of the grocery store where her pile of coupons were most effective.  She pulled up to the cashier completing her amazing feet with some meat and fish but no fresh produce to be found.

Yes, she purchased $260.00 of food virtually for free. But what was she truly getting for free? What value could be taken from this heroic undertaking? Spencer’s method of buying only “what works out free or close to free,” tells you one thing – the food she purchased is completely influence by her coupons – not what her family eats, not what is healthiest for you. Basically, the coupons are dictating what she buys to eat for herself and her family. She is not in charge. The big processed foods companies are. The only relationship she has with the food she buys is the coupon. Laura and I feel certain that there are other methods of saving a fair amount of money with out subjecting ourselves to processed foods, or worse yet, having the coupons dictate what we’re eating for the week.

It is common knowledge, that highly processed foods are cheap because they are made in mass.

To make them even more affordable – and desirable to those seeking to cut costs at every turn – coupons further drive their demand. So, the question is, “How can we shop efficiently, smartly and cost effectively if opting for healthy ‘whole’ foods?

Laura and I began to discuss what other methods could be used to help an individual or family keep their grocery bill down and walk away with something healthier and more satisfying than highly processed foods. Because we choose organic over conventional whenever possible, and that we focus on ‘whole’ foods compared to processed convenience foods, we find it a bit more of a challenge when it comes to using coupons. But it can be done; it simply requires a bit more searching.

Laura and I are of the Michael Pollan school of thought: Pay a bit more for quality food and eat less. In the end, this practice has proven to be very cost effective. Over the past year, we have worked hard at honing our meal planning and shopping to make the most of our money. The result is a $50 decrease in the amount of food we purchase, which is mostly at Whole Foods. But, we won’t stop there, we have four growing children, and the knowledge that our food bill will only grow as the children grow, we are dedicated to finding ways to feed our family healthy foods at a reasonable cost.

Earlier I mentioned some conventional ways to save on your food costs. Here are some ideas as to how you can buy or produce fresh, organic food and chip away at your costs. Please keep in mind that Spencer’s success at beating food costs (which is admirable) is not realistic or even practical in our minds. It is unrealistic to think that one can buy all of their food for free and it is food that will keep you healthy.

Or that the time dedicated to processed food coupon clipping could be put to better use through other methods of supplying our family with food that is both cost saving and healthy. So, as we work on refining our shopping to support a healthy lifestyle, understand that it does takes real commitment to setting aside the time to help lower your day-to-day costs.

Creative ideas in lowering your healthy food costs:

1.  Select a Grocery store that supports a healthy way of eating. Get to know the Butcher in the meat department and the folks working in the produce section. These relationships will help you know when things will go on sale, but most importantly it is their knowledge of the product that will educate you as to what is in the product, how it was raised, harvested and how it got to the store. Relationships are critical in your food purchasing – it is the beginning of your relationship you have with the food you eat.

2.  Shop the perimeter of the store instead of the middle portion of the store. The healthier products can be found there, and despite what you may think, ounce for ounce, they can be more cost effective than the pre-packaged goods in the center of the store.

3.  Make a list of your favorite food brands and go directly to the manufacturer web site in search of coupons. To give you a start in this endeavor, we’ve compiled a short list of sites, which can be found at the end of this article.

4.  Talk to the customer service counter about any store flyers. This is another area of the store to talk about produce; dairy, meats or any other product that is on it’s way out and would be a good value. Also to find out what products are on their way into the store.

5.  If you are interested in a new product and have never used it but would like to try it, speak with the customer service counter. A number of stores will let you go home with the product for free, to test it out. This is good business practice for these stores. It helps their customers become familiar with their product and it promotes customer loyalty.

6.  Bring your own shopping bags. Most grocery stores that promote healthier food are all about reducing waist and you will get a 0.5-cent per bag discount at check out. This goes directly to your bottom line.

7.   *** Now, here is where it gets a bit more unconventional but very cost effective and much healthier, start by moving away from the grocery store for your food needs.

a.  Start your own garden. By starting your own garden you are insuring organic, healthy and plenty of fresh produce.

b.  Here are the estimated costs and savings from growing a home garden:

  • A well-maintained food garden can yield an estimated 1/2-pound of produce per square foot of garden area over the course of the growing season.
  • At in-season market prices, this produce is worth $2.00 per pound.
  • The average 600-square-foot food garden can produce an estimated 300 pounds of fresh produce worth $600 and a return of $530 based on an average investment of $70.


8.  Research your local community for Garden Swaps or Garden Trade groups. Most local communities have these and it is a wonderful place to go and trade your Backyard Bounty with other like-minded people. This will give you the opportunity to garner and trade (for free) other fruits, vegetables and seeds that you were not able to grow that season. You will also be able to get to know your community of gardeners and that then opens the door to so many other opportunities in your community.

9.  Shop at your local Farmers Markets. Get to know the Farmers personally so that you can gain a better knowledge about the food you eat. Through this personal relationship you can find out what you can purchase at better prices and you can negotiate with the Farmer on the actual price of the food.

10. Visit local Farms and take tours. Again, get to know your local farmer and what they produce. You can place order directly with the Farmer, a practice that can definitely affect your bottom line. Most importantly you will gain a much better understanding of where your food comes from and how it was raised and harvested.

11. Finally, start making your own – bread, pasta, yogurt, peanut butter, juices, etc.  Laura and I have begun this process starting with bread and we have found it tastes so much better and we know exactly what goes into our fresh homemade bread. Also, using your fresh produce from your garden will open the door to so many other products that you can make at home. This method will not only be the healthiest, but will save you money as well.

So back to the question, “What do you really get for FREE?” In my opinion, very little, in the way of nourishment and health. Good quality food is not free. It must be held to a much greater value than the cheap highly processed foods. Farmers, animals and the process of producing high quality foods, should be respected and admired. Take the time to grow a garden or bake loaves of bread and you will soon realize the effort required. You’ll also experience the connection and pride you have for the food you produce.

The relationship with your food is one that takes some time. Laura and I do not follow all of the practices above. At least not yet. We are taking one step at a time. If we try to accomplish all of this at once, it would be overwhelming. But they are on the list and we are giving ourselves the time and room to grow into a full sustainable and healthy relationship with our food. We will then take our children along with us through the process so when they are adults this all will be second nature.

But one thing I have learned from researching this blog entry, is that by moving away from the grocery store you can truly start and develop your relationship with your food and your understanding of food, thereby giving you much healthier food at a savings. Plus, make some great friends.

You can cut the cost of you food bill and purchase healthy foods and create savings, no matter if you approach it from the conventional way or the more unconventional way. Either way, it will take time, but it all boils down to priorities. What is most important in our lives? That is left to each individual to wrestle with and decide.

Time is not free, neither is quality food.

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