Today our cow is ready for pick up: the whole thing, all at once, in lovely little freezer-ready packages… in just one day we spent almost as much money as it takes to feed our family for a month!Last summer it was the same deal, but with produce. We support our local economy, eat only the highest quality food, and shop in season for the best prices. But that means buying and drying, freezing, or canning a year’s worth of strawberries, raspberries, cherries, nectarines, peaches, and finally apples in the brief window they’re available. Same deal with veggies: Want pickles and ketchup with your burger in January at a fraction of the cost? Ferment cucumbers and cook your tomatoes down in August!
If you eat nuts or grains or use alternate flours, great deals are to be had by buying in bulk. If you have to watch out for gluten cross contamination, buying these products in their original package sizes can go a long way toward keeping you safe. But that can mean spending $200 on almonds, or $100 on coconut flour, all at once.
These prices can seem overwhelming! But over the course of a year, we do save money and get higher quality food in the bargain. Unless you’re independently wealthy, though, transitioning to this kind of shopping doesn’t happen overnight. Even if you did try and switch all at once you’d find yourself completely overwhelmed with produce that’s going bad, cabinet doors that won’t close, and an overflowing freezer!
Here’s how to get started with bulk buying without breaking the bank.
Choose One Food
Ideally the food you choose to start with will be something that is:
- a staple – the savings may not be as dramatic as on specialty items, but you can be sure it will get used up at about the same pace you’d normally use it.
- already a family favorite – don’t waste your money on getting anything you’re not sure your family will want to eat!
- easy to preserve or store – if you aren’t sure what to do with quantities of the food you plan to get, you may be in for a lot of work, disappointing results, and wasted money. Try a small batch with whatever food you choose before committing to a purchase. Make sure you account for the extra storage space and time you’ll need to get all that food put up.
- a good value – it should be less expensive than what you would pay in the store, and higher quality too!
- locally available at the time you want to buy it – do a little research about what time of year the foods your family likes are available.
- not too big – if you’ve never bought a cow from a farmer before, get a quarter cow to start with. Get the 25 lb bag of nuts rather than the 50 lb. This will make that first purchase more affordable and help you figure out if this bulk buying thing is really for you.
Affording Your First Bulk Purchase
If you plan to buy foods you normally eat, you will save money in the long run. But that up-front purchase might seem out of reach. If you just don’t have the cash, here are a few strategies for coming up with the money:
- Take it out of the food budget – you might temporarily buy lower quality food, go crazy with coupons, or skip the splurge items on your list.
- Take it out of another budget category – is there anything you can do without for a couple months?
- Take it out of your pay check – whenever you get paid, put a small set amount away before you spend any of it.
- Borrow it – put it on a credit card or borrow from someone else. Then, put the money you would have spent on that item when grocery shopping back toward the debt each month.
When saving for something like this (or paying it back), the key is not to let your savings slip into the general fund. If you do, it will probably get spent on something else. If you typically use cash for purchases, start a savings jar in the kitchen and put your change in there every day, plus the money you are saving. If you normally use a debit card or checks, transfer the cash to a savings account. If you are paying back a loan, set up an automatic payment so that it never gets forgotten.
UPDATE: We now use YNAB (You Need A Budget). It is the best budgeting tool we’ve ever tried, and it has totally changed our approach to the budget. When I wrote this post we had very little money. Borrowing was a part of life for us due to us both going back to school, as we were underemployed and living off student loans. Fortunately, between our improved income and our new, better budgeting skills, we don’t have to do that any more! When we had no choice but to borrow to eat, borrowing for a bulk purchase that would save us loads of money was a better option than borrowing to pay full price at the store!
Track Your Consumption and Savings
While you are saving up for your bulk buy, try to keep track of how much of that item you currently use. This is important information to have later on. One thing that might happen with bulk shopping is that you start using a lot more of the food you bought in bulk than you would have in the past.
For example, in the summer we buy a lot of fruit to freeze and dry. When I shopped in stores, I didn’t buy a lot of dried fruit because it was so expensive. But having lots of dried fruit on hand makes it an easy, accessible snack! If I’m not careful, I’ll eat way more dried fruit than I ever used to eat… which could result in an average grocery bill even though we spent so much less on the fruit in the first place.Even if your reason for buying in bulk was to afford more of the food you love or have access to foods you wouldn’t have otherwise, remember to account for increased consumption when you are figuring out whether your purchase made financial sense. If you don’t have the room in your budget to spare, try storing the food someplace less accessible, and only pulling out the regular amount to eat each week.
Once you make your purchase, don’t forget to track your savings. Eating a steak from your pasture-raised, organic beef tonight? Next time you are in the store, see what that cut would have cost you and compare! It feels good to see those savings!
After you’ve used up your first bulk purchase, think about how it worked for you. Did it really save you money? Did you run out sooner than you would like or end up wasting some of it because it didn’t get used or preserved in time? Do you want to make a bigger purchase next time, or try a different food?
In this series, we’ll give you all the tips you need to ease into farm direct shopping and bulk buying, one step at a time. Here’s some of what’s to come:
- Finding your farmers
- Splitting orders
- Buying Clubs
- Storing the Bounty
- What to do when you run out
- Cost/savings analysis for different foods: Beef
If you’re in the Portland, OR area you can get all your questions answered in person at a Homemade Health Party on Farm Direct Shopping!
What do you buy in bulk? Has it saved you money?
This post is part of Feature Friday Free For All, Friday Food Flicks, Living Well, Freaky Friday, The Ole’ Saturday Homesteading Trading Post, Monday Mania, The Weekend Gourmet, Fat Tuesday, Healthy 2day Wednesdays, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, and Real Food Wednesday, Make Ahead Monday.