Thursday, April 14, 2011

$100 Dollars a Week: What Extreme Couponing taught a Locavore

The treasures in my pantry are the backbone of our meals each week. Rancho Gordo beans, Fini vinegar, Found and Foraged dry mushrooms make gourmet meals and sure it all sounds luxurious, but I have to confess that I cheated on my so called $100-a-week budget. And it wasn't from frugal burnout--the odd term coined for feeling deprived from not spending money. (It's so American.)

It all started a few weeks ago when I ground the last of our coffee beans and said, "There's a $13 purchase to add to the shopping list." Tom flipped a blueberry pancake and said, "While your at it, add maple syrup to the list." I could see the contents of my farmers' market bag shrinking to just a few items the next week. So I checked the pantry and was shocked to discover we needed miso, raisins, salsa, tomato paste, baking powder, and well, you get the picture. Where jars and bags once lined the shelf, I could see the back of the bare cupboard.

I went $20 over my food budget that week. Dejected by my budgeting failure, I bought a carton of coconut sorbet, thawed some berries from my freezer and mulled over reality. Seven dollars a day per person is easy when you have a full pantry, but it takes careful planning to keep that pantry full.

I mulled over options. At the recent Vege Fest in Seattle, I snapped this photo, not because I was captured by the beauty of processed vegetarian foods but because these non organic, processed items might not ever be found in my pantry.

Okay, I'm a food snob and I don't appreciate the industrial food system. I like organic or sustainably-grown whole grains, beans and vegetables, preferably local. A neighbor who moved a few years ago offered me anything in her refrigerator. I couldn't find anything I wanted, not even the Western Family balsamic vinegar or the unopened cartons of Dannon yogurt. What's a local food snob on a budget supposed to do? Redeem coupons? Is that really an option for me?

Coupons were invented in 1895 when CW Post created a once-cent coupon for Grape Nuts cereal. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, coupons gained popularity and in 1957 the Neilson Coupon Clearing House became the first company devoted to coupon redemption. By 1965, 50 percent of Americans redeemed coupons and by 2007 that number had jumped to 77 percent of Americans trading coupons for brand name products.

The Chinook Book (a local coupon book) is filled with coupons for "organic" processed foods. I paged through a copy at the store, mentally adding up the coupons I could save but I'd have to fork over $15 for the book. The coupons I liked can to just over $20 in savings for groceries, but that meant if I buy the book, I'd have $85 left to spend on actual food. Another twenty dollars should be earmarked for replenishing pantry staples, so that leaves $65 or about $4.60 per person a day for meals. I'd end up using more pantry items for meals. Do the math and I'm still eating more food than I'm buying. Someday I'll be down to the crumbs.

My head was spinning with food choices and numbers when I caught an episode of Extreme Couponing. The more I watched, the more fascinated yet repulsed I became. Obsessive grocery shopaholics expounded about their "walls of toothpaste," "45 cans of ravioli," and "enough chips to feed 800 people." "Fifty packages of hot dogs", "35 bottles of Malox" and over "$20,000 worth of grocery merchandise" tucked in the basement was too much of a freak show for Tom, so I left him to the soccer game and quietly went in another room to see what I could learn from the coupon gurus.

10 Lessons I Gleaned from Extreme Couponers

1. Practice diligence and dedication. Couponers live and shop their values; do the math and figure out how much you need and then brainstorm creative ways to make your budget work. Don't give up.

2. Learn prices for all foods in your refrigerator and pantry. Make a list of more expensive items. Do you really need the gourmet horseradish mustard? Can you settle for less with some things? Seasonal produce prices shift the most. Weigh produce so you get a feel for what fresh foods cost. Also when you purchase peas in pods consider that half of the price you pay goes for the pod that feeds the compost pile.

3. Know when to shop. Know the best the time of year to shop for each produce item. For example you can find a lot lower prices for cauliflower in the middle of summer than you find in the spring months when cauliflower has been overwintered and is scarce. Recently I found local organic cauliflower for $3.75 a pound; that means a large cauliflower might cost around $7.00. Purchase foods in the middle of the season. At the beginning and end of seasons produce prices rise.

4. Spend time creating a detailed shopping list. Write weekly menus to generate this most of this list. Include up to $20 worth of pantry essentials. I know I've mentioned making a list before, but be sure to include prices and round up your figures so you won't be surprised when you check out.

5. Stockpile staples. On Extreme Couponing, the stockpiles resemble mini mart meccas, but a locavore can stockpile staples in summer and fall by canning, dehydrating and freezing produce.

6. Look for daily specials and the clearance aisle. Even at farmers' markets and farm stores where foods tend to be more expensive, you can find deals. Some farmers like Mair Farm and Billy's Gardens, at the U District market, offer seconds, and last time I visited Nash's Farm store I found a discount rack where I scored tiny red peppers for 50 cents each.

7. Have a contingency plan. Be open for unexpected finds when you shop at the market. If you don't find green beans, consider sugar snap peas. Allow for flexibility when hunting good produce finds.

8. Enlist friends. I was shocked to see couponers calling friends to come and help them when a store wouldn't accept all their coupons as one purchase. While this money grubbing concept doesn't exactly jive with a locavore's values, you can still consider splitting things with friends. For example I find a giant cauliflower at Rent's Due Ranch for $5 each, I wouldn't hesitate to ask my friend Patty if she wants to split it. And some farmers offer a 2 for $5 price for greens. If you only bought one bunch it would cost $3.00. It's only a 50 cent difference but those add up when you shop at the market.

9. Count your change carefully and make sure you have all your purchases when you leave. Anyone can make a mistake, and remember to put your purchase in your bag before leaving. It sounds silly, but almost every season I leave something behind somewhere. Once I left a container of salsa, another time I split a purchase with a friend and forgot to get my half when we parted ways after the market.

10. Leave something for the next shopper. This is not a notion extreme couponers ever appeared to entertain, but as I watched these greedy shoppers clear products off shelves, I was appalled by the massive selfishness in our society. Who seriously needs 9 cartloads of groceries? I once arrived at the farmers' market early, and one vendor had about 30 luscious apricots. Another vendor stopped by before the market opened and said, "I'll take them all." Sometimes lessons are learned by observing bad behavior.

One thing I didn't see on the show was cartloads of produce. These treasures are more costly and can rarely be redeemed with coupons. A locavore on a budget should consider making wish lists for family and friends. That way they won't give you toasters you'll never use or t-shirts you'll never wear.

The one last thing extreme couponing taught me was to be more mindful of my purchases. I wouldn't trade my whole foods pantry for all the grocery store coupons in Seattle. The idea of mindful shopping reminds me of a quote from Steve Phillips of Madison Farm on Bainbridge Island.

"You can always tell what people value when you look inside their pantry."


Mallory said...

I watched that show too and was baffled by the desire to have ANY of those processed, chemical-laden foods, let alone an extreme excess!

For a brief moment I bemoaned the fact that there are no coupons for the things I buy as I make everything from scratch--but then I took a bite of my curried lentil soup (adapted from your amazing book) and pesto grilled cheese (homemade bread and pesto, working on making the cheese myself!) and remembered that savoring nourishing, local, healthy food was worth so much more than coupons could ever save me!

I love your suggestions for ways to save when buying whole, natural foods--maybe you should create an "Extreme Farmer's Marketing" show :)

ddzeller said...

I actually looked through the Sunday paper to see if there was any coupon I could use. No luck, coupons weren't deisgned for people like us. Who can live on taquitos and frozen White Castle burgers? Extreme Farmers' Marketing--a very cool idea.