Non-Doomsday Prepping 2 – Shopping for Stocking Up
Some years back, I started writing a cookbook because so many younger clients on my fertility website had no idea how to shop, store, and cook affordable food. A lot of families around the world are living on takeout and spending fortunes on food, having to dine at restaurants or hit the grocery store deli every day, and eating incredibly unhealthy diets. When they tried to eat healthy food, they failed because it was expensive and hard to prepare. In addition, it occurred to me that because they were living day by day, meal by meal, they were unprepared for any emergency (such as the coronavirus we’re looking at right now, job loss, or family illness).
So I came up with this concept I called “non-doomsday prepping” which is just the notion of having a wide variety of shelf-stable food on hand so you can cook at home using ingredients that are on sale, while also being somewhat prepared for emergencies as they arise. Prepping doesn’t mean you’re crazy or weird, it’s actually a great way to save money over the course of time, and it doesn’t even have to take up lots of space.
I’ve divided my cookbook up into smaller essays and I’ll share them here for anyone who is interested.
Part 1 is here: Non-Doomsday Prepping Part 1: The Case for Being Prepared
Here we go – shopping! The two shopping strategies that will save you a FORTUNE on groceries and enable you to get prepared for emergencies without breaking the bank.
Buy in bulk and on sale anything your family regularly eats or uses.
ESPECIALLY things that keep for a while. Grocery shopping can be like a treasure hunt, you walk into the store in search of the things that your family likes and that you can afford. Sales are the key to the treasure chest. Products go on sale at certain times of years and not others, or at any time if stores haven’t sold as much of a product as they expected to. If you are so lucky to stumble onto a product you regularly buy at a discounted price, buy extras if possible. As many as you can use within a reasonable amount of time. Find somewhere to stash your hoard – under a bed, in the linen closet – every product you buy for less money than you normally spend, is money saved (provided you don’t celebrate by buying something expensive to celebrate!)
Beyond the initial savings, over the course of time this adds up in terms of gasoline use, the value of time…which can then be used to garden, comparison shop, or prepare foods from scratch saving some serious dough, and also you end up saving money by avoiding the pitfall of going shopping to buy only one or two things and walking out having spent way more money than intended on impulse buys.
This is a journey and not a destination, so don’t ever get so focused on stocking up that you actually spend more than you can afford on it. Even if it’s just one extra item per trip, over time the savings do start adding up and then it will snowball. You’ll be able to buy a little more and a little more extra because you bought extra shampoo or ketchup last month when it was on sale and you can pass it by if it’s too expensive, and now this month you can afford extra rice and mustard that IS on sale. Eventually, you will find you have a cupboard full of a variety of things and when spaghetti sauce is too expensive in August, you won’t need to buy it because you got some half-off back in July.
Do NOT, and I repeat, DO NOT go out and put a bunch of groceries on your credit card! Non-doomsday prepping, when done economically, is a slow process over time and buying groceries on sale by charging them ends up to be far more expensive in the end.
Whenever possible, go shopping every week to hit the sale prices.
Every store puts different products on sale every week. If you are at all able to comparison shop in advance by looking over store circulars every week, do so. Many stores, even out of your neighborhood, are happy to add you to their mailing lists on request. But your focus should be mainly on produce and meat, not the other pages of merchandise listed in the ad – most of which is name brand or junk food (unless it’s something you normally eat a lot of). Something is ALWAYS on sale at any store you go to, even when it’s not advertised, and it’s best not to get your head turned by a “good deal” in a circular because many times that’s not the best use of your money anyway. Go to the store that has the best deals on the fresh produce and meat that you want to buy, not the one with the bargain on microwave popcorn and frozen pizza. And when you’re there, look at what else is on sale. There will always be things you didn’t see in the circular.
Over the course of time, you will learn that advertised sale prices on brand names are not the end-all, be-all. Many (most) times, purchasing store/generic brands at full price instead of name brands on sale will save you more money. Name brands are not always better in quality than store or generic brands and it takes some experimentation to learn when to cut costs and when to indulge.
That having been said, price is not always everything. I have found on some occasions quality matters more to me than price. I am willing to pay a few cents more for a loaf of bread that is made from more than sawdust and water, bread being the staff of life and all that. Be willing to try something new if it’s more affordable but don’t feel like you have to always only buy the absolute cheapest product available if you hate it. Remember, one of our primary goals here is cooking and eating in a way that helps to prevent you from splurging on readymade and junk foods, and eating out. That’s not going to happen if you buy products you despise! It’s false economy to waste money on lousy products no one wants, both in terms of money and space the stuff takes up as it lingers on your shelf!
Again, be aware that some sales are not advertised. While taking only the cash you need to buy your staple products seems to make financial sense on the face of it, it can also shoot you in the foot if you stumble upon a great price on something that you use all the time. Buying in bulk saves you huge money and time in the long run, so always have a plan in place about what to do if you stumble into the deal of the century.
You may even discover that for best savings and your highest combination of preferred, quality foods, you may have to shop at more than one store, even as often as every single week. This is sensible if you live in a city and not far from the stores – and can even be a cheap means of entertainment if you can resist the temptation to buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need. But if you are a country dweller like me or you don’t have a car, you may find it more economical to “pick a winner” every week, or hit whichever store is nearest to other errands you have. That’s ok! Sales come and sales go, it’s not a tragedy to miss one. Don’t ever forget to calculate gas prices, wear and tear on your vehicle, and the value of your time into the equation (just mentally, I mean, no algebra required!). Driving all over town to save a few pennies here and there usually isn’t worth it.
Remember – time NOT spent shopping can be time home cooking cheaper versions of convenience foods from scratch.
Wait a minute, those two things are mutually exclusive!
Yes, in some ways they are. You can’t both shop less and shop more. It’s a balancing act between the “treasure hunt” of sale prices and the loss of time, energy, and gas money plus risks of overspending on impulse buys.
Don’t underestimate those factors. Every time you walk into a store, you are expending money it took to get there (the more shopping trips, the more gas and wear and tear on your vehicle) and giving yourself the potential to spend money on things you don’t need. But the benefits to being able to hit a great sale are ginormous. By being sensible you can avoid the pitfalls of too-frequent shopping trips. Know your prices. Buy only products you like and are familiar with (if you want to gamble on something new, that’s fine, but don’t invest too much into a product without trying it first). Over time you’ll learn when you’re getting a deal and when you should pass something by. Don’t go shopping hungry or when you’re in a big hurry, have a basic list but the ability to deviate from that if you discover a bargain, and be absolutely COMMITTED to the process of shopping to save money in the long run, not to satisfy whims in the short run.
Never forget the big picture when shopping – if you know that one of your local grocery stores consistently has fresher produce and meat, then it only makes sense to shop there most often. Even if another store has a couple of products you absolutely love, plan to shop there only when those things go on sale and buy a lot of them at that time. Don’t waste your time and money on shopping trips at stores you don’t really like overall just to get one or two good products every week.
The most sensible shopping philosophy is to combine the two strategies – buy in bulk and as rarely as possible things that last a long time and that are versatile for many different recipes, then fill in the blanks with the fresh products – meats, dairy, produce – that are on sale in any given week. By doing these two things simultaneously, you will get the most bang for your buck and over time your grocery dollar will begin to stretch farther and farther. Plus, you’ll be prepared for any complications life plans to throw your way.
One more consideration:
The Layer Principle is the concept of having lots of different versions of foods to fill a certain important niche. Example – you might have cooking oil, shortening, lard, coconut oil, margarine, and butter – they’re all cooking fats and can be used as a generic “fat” when needed, but they all have their own individual applications as well. They go on sale at different times so you can spread out an expenditure over the course of time. I’m not saying you need to have all these things on hand constantly, but in a month where butter is sky high in price, you might use vegetable oil in recipes instead, or margarine, or shortening. (Shortening and margarine have fallen out of favor. I don’t like them either, but for those on a very tight budget there may be no option, particularly for longer term emergency storage as natural fats don’t keep as long.)
By layering your purchases and buying only what is on sale rather than limiting yourself to one particular kind of whatever-it-is, you will save money and in the event you run out of your preferred version of whatever-it-is, you’ll still have something left in reserve. The Layer Principle is most important for things like fats where you cannot cook much without them, or starches like pasta, rice, and other grains, but it also works for things like seasoning and condiments too. Out of basil? Use oregano! No mayo for your turkey sandwich? Hey, here’s stone-ground mustard! And you have the added versatility that all these different foods provide.
A few things to consider before we get started:
Couponing is overrated.
The vast majority of the time, you will save more money by buying store/generic brands and shopping sales, than clipping coupons (even with your phone!). Coupons are nearly always for brand name products and their appearance rarely coincides with a planned sale – meaning that the stores may have raised prices in other areas, or at least not lowered them, to compensate for the coupons in circulation. Net result – no savings to you, despite extensive amounts of time and planning. Also, new products heralded by coupons may not even be available in your area, but they get you into the store spending time looking for them, and buying other things in the meantime.
Warehouse stores may or may not be worth it.
Costco and Sam’s Club, like all stores everywhere, have good deals on some things and terrible prices on others. Shop smart at these places and don’t always assume that bigger is better. Buying things in a size you cannot use in a reasonable time is false economy since much of it will likely end up wasted. And since warehouse stores carry a lot of name brands and gourmet items, their prices are not always as good as you can get on store brands and you may end up spending a fortune on relative luxuries only to get home and find you still are lacking several much needed staples like bread or toilet paper, requiring another trip!
More and more stores are carrying things like flour and rice in bulk sizes (or will order it if you ask them to) and it is no longer a necessity to have a warehouse store membership just to buy a 50 lb. bag of rice. Some non-warehouse stores such as Winco Foods even specialize in bulk foods. For some foods that you may not use up that quickly, such as dried beans, it makes more sense for a family in a small home to buy smaller quantities and keep them individually wrapped in their packages, easily stored, and fresh until you’re ready to use them, instead of opening a 50 lb. sack that will take you a decade to eat and is very difficult to store without spilling (trust me on that, I am still finding beans from a bean-related disaster 5 years ago!)
While I don’t have a Sam’s Club where I live, I do have a Costco and I actually ended up letting my membership lapse because of this phenomenon. I’d spend too much on bulk items (and yes, treats too) at the Costco and then realize I still had several things I needed when I got home. I did find the following products to be economical for me at Costco – dairy foods, particularly butter and cheese – although I’ve been told their butter has increased in price dramatically lately, and Kirkland brand batteries. Big savings there, and unlike some store brands, Kirkland products are high quality and their batteries are no exception. I also regularly got 2 packs of lemon juice, 2 packs of chocolate syrup, almonds and walnuts, pickled jalapeno slices, frozen blueberries, 3 lb containers of sour cream and cottage cheese – none of them really what you’d call necessities. The meat was overpriced IMO (while great quality) and the produce was overpriced and NOT great quality (they will take spoiled merchandise back at Costco, no questions asked, but I lived out of town and it was more trouble than it was worth to me.) Considering I had to pay the membership fee just to get in the joint and a fair amount of gas money, not to mention the spiritual cost in stress, because both the store and the parking lot were always horribly crowded, Costco didn’t make a ton of economic sense for me. It may make more sense if you live near the store or if you do a lot of entertaining.
Discount bakery stores MAY be worth it!
Discount bakery stores are a great place to stock up on lower cost breads and other baked goods. Do be sure you’re actually getting a bargain compared to your grocery store, but I have found them to be a money saver for my large family. They are also great for anyone who cannot get to the store that often (living in the country, carless, working, disabled, or those with many small children). If you have the freezer space for several loaves of bread, bagels, and English Muffins, garlic bread, and/or a family that eats a lot of baked goods, they make sense. A smaller family may not reap as many benefits, but given that bread does go bad, if you have the freezer space it’s nice to be able to have bagels, English muffins, and specialty breads on hand whenever you want them.
Discount groceries and dollar stores?
I have not been into the discount grocery and dollar stores much. Some people swear by them, but when it comes to food I plan on storing for a while, I prefer to have undented cans, things that are very far away from their expiration date, and products that have stood the test of time instead of strange knockoff brands no one has ever heard of before. If you love these stores, hit me up in the comments to sing their praises.
Sometimes a source for great bargains especially if you freeze or can your own foods (they will often give you much lower prices if you buy a large quantity), other times no better and possibly worse than a grocery store. Their produce may or may not be fresher than a grocery store depending on when and where they got it and how it was stored. Shopping at produce stands may make more sense for bigger families that could feasibly eat entire boxes of apples and oranges, and people who enjoy canning or freezing foods. For a smaller family that doesn’t preserve foods, it’s probably not worth the extra stop.
Conventionally raised vegetables and fruits are way more affordable than organic, so your family eats more produce than they’d be able to otherwise (healthy!! Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!) Organic produce is often double or triple the price meaning you can only buy a fraction of the produce you otherwise could. And standard produce is proven to be just as nutritious as organic. Some people may judge (and interestingly, very often the exact same people with the money to spend on extras like organic) but the fact is that organic vegetables are also sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers that come from natural sources – and can still be biologically harmful to you. Just because something came from a natural source, doesn’t necessarily make it any safer. Wash your produce well, peel it if possible, and be happy you are giving your family quality food that you can afford.
Growing your own produce
If you have the room for it and enjoy gardening, this can pay. But don’t get carried away and try to grow every type of vegetable you’ve ever heard of (please let my sad experience as an overly ambitious and often failing gardener be your guide). Gourmet vegetables often bring premium prices because it takes an expert to grow them. Even some familiar, everyday vegetables are too challenging for most laymen to grow (celery, broccoli, cauliflower, melons), take years to get going (asparagus) or don’t yield enough to make it worth the effort and space they require (bell peppers, eggplant, lettuce). Others are so cheap at the store that they are not worth the effort and garden space (potatoes, peas, carrots, onion). I have had very good luck with tomatoes, green beans, beets, chard, sweet corn, garlic, mint, parsley, pumpkins, and zucchini. I’ve also grown basil and jalapeno peppers (unlike bell peppers, these can be big yielders, and most people don’t eat tons of them anyway) in pots on my patio successfully, bringing them in at night because the nights where I live and in much of America, are too cold to grow them well, even in summer.
Fruit trees and bushes are a long term investment that can pay big dividends over time, but do require money and effort to purchase and maintain, and years to come to fruition, so they’re not always the moneysaver they seem. Unless you plan on living in your home for many years to come, I don’t think they’re worth the cost and work you put into planting them. Rhubarb is easy to grow and one planting lasts a lifetime so that I highly recommend for anyone who likes it. Grow rhubarb from roots purchased online or at a nursery and not seeds – the quality is much higher and it will start to yield more quickly.
Oh no, we’re out of space!!! I promise we’ll get to the foods in the next edition of Non-Doomsday Prepping!