Thursday, December 30, 2010

Budget Bubble Busting and Penny Pinching

I'm linking up with Pennywise Platter, take a ride at the carnival!

Sourdough Boule and Black Bean Soup
I got a lot cheeks to pinch so I got to pinch pennies if I'm gonna feed them real food. I'm always on the look-out for tips. I see so many real food blogs discuss saving money on nutrient dense foods, which are expensive. These are usually good ideas but I find that they don't work well for me. I am not living in a fantasy world with unlimited funds or access to the best farms and only a toddler or two to feed with no need for sleep or recreation. We live on a single, moderate income in the suburbs with a small army of five boys and a giant six and a half foot tall hubby to feed. And oh, yeah, five girls, too. And I also like to eat. Plus I have developed that nasty habit of sleeping. I'm addicted. I couldn't quit if I wanted to. I "use" any chance I get...which is seldom. Sigh...

Often the ideas come from small families with a couple of small children. I don't care how ravenous your three year old is, my 17 year old runner could eat your three year's weight in meat every week. Heck, he could eat his OWN weight in meat every week. When I see what they list as being a twice a month shopping trip I know it would feed my family for 4 days.

Here is my bubble bursting for real food shopping for small armies:

Bubble Bursting: Home Canning
Okay, I do this, but it is more about quality than frugality. The home canned jellies, jams, and compotes are awesome. The tomatoes aren't any better than Muir Glen organic. I don't think it's me, my mom's aren't either. But the cost of buying fruits and veggies and lids and the hours it takes aren't competitive with the cost of buying them at Costco. I will only can items I grow with the exception of tomatoes. The pop in your mouth of a perfectly ripe tomato makes saving them to can a waste. I would totally rather eat these fresh and I can't stop hubby anyway.

My World: Canning in Part, Buying in Part, Drying in Part
I can things we grow, like grapes and plums. But for the most I buy canned chiles (because we eat way more than we can grow) and canned tomatoes (because we eat the ones we grow immediately). But I also dry the hottest chiles for ground chile powder, or crush them for red pepper flakes. I am planning on drying more onions because I received an actual dehydrater for Christmas. I have an oven with a very low warm setting and a convection fan which worked...until now! I'm cranking it up this afternoon!

As for tomatoes, organic canned is 98 cents a can. I can't grow tomatoes (with the price of water here in high and dry Colorado) for that. The big companies can do it for less than me. Remember economies of scale? I wish I could buy them from farmers and can them, but I have a budget. And hungry boys. I go through at least a dozen cans a month. A full gross of canned tomatoes a year is just too much work. Remember I would rather catch 40 winks? Not that I'll get the chance, but just that I would rather.

Bubble Bursting: CSAs and Farmer's Markets
I like them, really I do, I just cannot afford them. You are not saving any money here, at least I am not, despite all the good they do. Every summer, though, I go out and buy a few things. But just a few. I KNOW the farmer deserves a decent and fair wage. A friend's sister ran an organic farm until the costs of materials and labor lead them to sell this past Thanksgiving. I keep a list of the unit price all food items in our area so I can compare items and know when a sale price is a tease. In my experience, all the farmer's markets are more expensive than the sale prices at the health food store. Especially CSAs! I want to join one so bad but the idea of spending $1600 in a single summer to get enough shares to get the 450# of produce we eat a summer gives my financial planner husband chest pains. In a perfect world I would join up and shell out whatever it costs but this isn't a perfect world. We can't support farmers if we can't support ourselves.

My World: Buy Health Food Store Loss Leaders, Costco Staples
When you buy 150# of produce a month, you learn a few tricks. I buy the heavily advertised produce sale items and almost only those. They are designed to lure you into the store with a low price and up-sell you when you get there. Don't give! I load up on 99 cents a pound broccoli, apples, pears or whatever. We eat what's on sale. Costco's regular price on organic carrots and onions is great, about $1/#. I budget $50 a week for this and try to get 30-40# or so. The other budget reality: EAT what you buy! You aren't saving money if you throw it out!

Bubble Busting: Farm Fresh Pastured Meat, Eggs
I have not read ANY good recommendations here. I have looked at the CSA and farmer's prices and can't justify it. It wouldn't matter how well we eat if we lost our house. I am pretty sure the homeless eat worse than we do now. I buy about 125# a month of meat and we eat it all and still have it only for the main meal and are vegetarian every Friday. The exception to my store-bought routine would be the turkey and eggs I buy from a family at church. They have an unreal price on them! Here I just got lucky. Fabuloso eggs and turki-est turkey I have ever had, if that makes sense.

My World: Costco Case Price
I buy organic meat by the case at Costco. If you talk to the meat department you can get a case of meat and a discount on even the Costco price. I can get a case of 10 organic chickens for $1.74/#. I did get conventional pork loin by the case at $2.02/#, last time. Every pay day I am there buying a case of one kind of meat or another. The prices fluctuate a lot so if it dips 15% below the lowest price of last three months, I buy two. Yes, I keep track. I keep a list on my phone. Mama Says also has a great pen/index card old school method.

Word to the wise: when Costco started carrying organic chicken, we switched and loved the flavor. They stock it makes is amazing! I made some conventional thighs left in my freezer and my husband noticed. He told me the chicken tasted bland and less chicken-y. I noticed the stock wasn't jiggly and instead was thin. The next batch made from whole organic chickens was noticeably better. Get whole chickens, get organic and don't look back!

When the cold weather dips and the "B" family's chickens aren't laying, I buy eggs from Costco. The cage free eggs are 19 cents a piece, making them cheap protein. We go through two to three dozen a week. Seriously. There are TWELVE of us after all.

Bubble Bursting: Farm Fresh Dairy
One such family with a blogging mom said she buys two gallons every other week. Wow. That would be affordable. I buy 26 gallons a month for drinking, cooking and yogurt. And I still buy butter. I can't spend $208 dollars a month on milk, it is more than 25% of my whole budget of $900!

My World: Buy Local, Pasteurized , Nonhomogenized Milk
It turns out a family run dairy in Northern Colorado delivers (not certified yet) organic,  pasteurized but nonhomogenized milk to Whole Foods. It is something of a trek but doable once a week. It is just under $5/gl making my monthly milk budget just $130. This is affordable and we are switching.  It's the best we can do.

My half-and-half for my coffee and tea still comes from Sprouts and is ultra-pasteurized but I am considering switching that, too. I must have an addictive personality; caffeine is another vice and don't get me started on my dark chocolate habit! My butter is Costco conventional. I have considered organic, but it is $3.50/# compared to $1.87/# for conventional. Since butter makes up such a small part of our diet, I'll put my husband's cash where it counts and right now that is meat, milk, and produce.

I spend about $300 a month on meat, which is 30% of my budget. Milk, butter and cream is $160 a month. I budget $200 on produce. Dried fruits I don't process myself, like cranberries and currents, go under the produce budget. But I can dry grapes (we have concord vines), apples, pears and cherries. I buy 100# of white wheat grain every 3 months, and 25# of pastry grain twice a year. This averages $25 a month. I buy 15# of brown rice every other month and 8# of a brown and wild blend at the same rate at an average of $16 per month. I also buy 5qt can of olive oil and one large jar of coconut oil every other month at an average of $25 a month. Which leaves $174 for dried beans and peas, honey, maple syrup, steel cut oats, nuts, couscous, pasta, popcorn and baking supplies like yeast, baking soda and powder. This mixed bag also covers herbs which we don't grow and dry and spices. Hopefully the garlic and lavender will do better next year so I will have to buy less. The chives and sage grow like crazy! I am thinking as more kids enter the "eat like hibernation is coming" stage I will need to increase my budget $100 (mostly for meat and milk) and a little wiggle room couldn't hurt.

Not accounting for differences in appetite, size, and age we eat an average of $75 per person, per month. This means it is equivalent to $300 a month for a family of four, well under the USDA thrifty food plan. About $120 less. This means my family of twelve eats real food on a real budget of $30 a day or $2.50 per person, per day. That's 87 cents per person, per meal. Even if that includes the baby were still doing well. Not bad. Not bad at all.


  1. I enjoyed this post! Good information, and you made me laugh, too :)

    Our Costco stopped carrying organic chickens... I wonder if they could order them in for me? I think I'll ask :)

  2. I love the details in your budget. Man oh man what an inspiration. I have a budget of $200 for a family of 4, which I go over every month. I am motivated to keep a list of current prices so can accurately compare prices

  3. I think that requesting organic chickens at Costco is a good idea, but they don't do special orders. I wonder if you could try a special case order at a local health food store? I used to order a full case of Annie's pasta and got a 10% discount before they sold it at Costco. It is a special treat for the kids.

    And a price list is invaluable! Then you know excactly what you are paying. Sometimes my perceptions of prices are way off base and this keeps me on track. But a budget of $200 sounds pretty hard to keep. I'm impressed! When you get there, let me know how. I would love to see it!

  4. GREAT post! Thank you so much! We still spend way too much on groceries, but I'm working hard on streamlining it and keeping it focused on mostly whole foods. I still need to get a lot of "tools" to help, but first on my list is something to grind wheat so I can order wheat berries from Azure. Here in Alaska, food prices are really high, so it's a bit of a struggle for me to "get real" with what I spend.

  5. You have some great tips!

    As for the caffine habit...try making kombucha. I never did drink coffee or tea, but kombucha is a great alternative to them. It helps one lose weight and is really good for you. I had arthritis symptoms that went away after I had been drinking kombucha for a while. It also turned my graying hairs back to brown. REALLY! I have about ten stubborn ones, but the rest are brown again. :D

    Also, try going to the farmers market at closing time. The farmers are often willing to sell you produce at a remarkable discount. Much of what's left over will not make it to the next market, so they are very generous on prices. I get TONS of food in this manner.I blogged about the first time it happened:

  6. That's brilliant! I will definitely try that one. It will also give me a way to support farmers, which is important. I have been thinking of trying kombucha. I was on a specific diet for three months while I was healing after the birth of my last baby and now I am eating normally again. I know people who really like it. I came from a family of tea drinkers and I married a Finn - they drink coffee in amazing amounts!I drink more coffee than I should and way more than I ever thought I would.

  7. Wonderful! Thank you!

    We don't even have access to Costco, Whole Foods, farmers, etc. Not only do we not live in a city that has those stores, but we live in a non-agricultural desert. I wonder how prickly pear tastes.

    Thanks for noting this blog on the Grocery Shrink list. I like to get info from real people who try to sleep. Ahhh, sleep. I remember sleep...or was it just a dream?

  8. I love this information! But now I'd love to know what your daily meals look like. I really prefer to buy whole foods, but then my family gets really fussy looking in the refrigerator and pantry because to them it appears that there is nothing to eat. They love those prepared foods that I hate to give them. When I got in the kitchen and prepared three meals every day, it was easier for them to be content with more whole foods, but I'm struggling with some health issues at the moment and am not doing all of the meal prep. I think I'm going to post this to Angela's email list too, but I'd love to see thoughts about how to make it look like we have "food" without buying all of the prepared things.

  9. I truly enjoyed this post and appreciate your forthright attitude! I will be back to glean from your wisdom again, thanks!

  10. Anonymous1/27/2011

    Also...check out and see if there is a drop point in your area. We started doing this a couple of months ago and it's fabulous. You get about 50.00 worth of produce for 15.00. Do check it out!

    Sarah M.

  11. That sounds fabulous! I will check it out tonight after the kids are in bed!

  12. Do you guys eat nuts in quantity or fish oh and cheese? Cause I think those are areas I have trouble being economical. Also, you only eat 3 dozen eggs a week? We eat four and we're half your size!

    I was curious whether you have cost compared buying a half beef or something in order to get the better quality meat, I haven't looked into it yet because I don't have freezer space, but I was wondering if anybody has done the legwork of looking at those costs in case circumstances change. :)

    Is it too personal to ask, how you decided to prioritize your food budget in the scheme of your overall budget and where you feel it's important to give. Like if you really felt convicted that you had to have something in your diet (like fish roe as a random example) which would raise costs would you make that a priority?

  13. I'm curious what you think about BPA in the cans? Certainly a reason to limit can usage -- but is it enough to change your mind about the cost saving? Just wondering.

  14. I had been buying the organic tomatoes (Eden brand) under the false perception that they were indeed BPA free. I was pretty upset to find out that they weren't. We work so hard to avoid BPA and I was pretty frustrated to find out about it's presence even in the top organic brands. Yep. It has honestly changed my mind.

    Nuts are very pricey and I buy them in bulk at Costco. On average at Sprouts almonds run about $5/# but at Costco last time they were $4/#. I limit the kiddos.

    Eggs are a newcomer to our diet as Jack used to be allergic and we had to be very careful but he is getting better so others can eat them. As he improves, we will rely on them more and more.

  15. I forgot to address the issue of fish! We eat wild salmon, whole, only about once every six weeks when the price drops to the same as farmed ($8.99/#). I buy canned wild salmon from Costco for $1.80 per each 6 ounce can. I make croquettes with it or use it in salad and in sandwiches. The price of wild salmon is worth it but with ten kids the price puts it outside of my regular budget. I do fish oil chewies from Costco and cod liver oil capsules (from Sprouts) to introduce more important fatty acids and vitamins A and D.

    We use some flax oil but since it is bitter is best hidden in things with strong flavors and which are not heated as the oils are fragile. Spicey salad dressings is an example. I buy whole flax seed but since it cannot be digested in it's whole state, I grind it immediately before using. I use a small coffee grinder with a dishwasher safe interal cup. Putting it in small amounts in bread or oats I can usually diguise the flavor. I have tried putting it in pancakes or granola and no one is pleased. Another thing I have found is that the flavor of flax DOES NOT complement maple syrup. The kids AND my husband complained, bitterly, about the bread made with flax and maple. The love maple syrup and thought I had ruined their well-loved maple-oat-wheat bread.

  16. The thing that is a disappointment to me in the whole trying to eat locally deal is that farmers wont sell me cases of anything for a discount. Last fall I was hoping to get a case of apples to put up and nobody would sell me one. They make so much selling them in small amounts that it's not worth it to try to accommodate somebody who needs more. It's a big bummer. I understand they need to make a living but we need to eat! There are a few big families that I'm friends with that lament these circumstances, it would be nice to be more supportive of local farmers.

  17. I've had the same trouble and I know what it is like. I have to buy at Costco and Sprouts when there is a good deal because the dollar dictates it. Wish I could support local farmers more!

  18. I truly LOVED your information as I too am a Catholic homeschooling mom! However, I only have a four year old and a toddler, so I was wondering if you could help me scale down your budget of $900 a month for our family of four. We love WAPF too, and I wish I would just solely cook from their cookbook that I have. I think I get too tempted with other recipes, but I do cook most meals trying to avoid the microwave and cold cereal when I can. The hardest part for me is to eliminate chocolate and sugar... It is such a weakness of mine. Thank you for your help! Have a blessed day! :)

  19. I have been thinking about your ideas and I think that sounds like a great series. While I love the "Nourishing Traditions" book as a reference, I have not liked the recipes so much. The baked goods are heavy and most everything has too much salt. We need to chat, even by email so that we can figure out a great series together!

  20. Leigh, drop by and comment and I will NOT puplish your email address but instead use it to contact you! Thanks!

  21. Love this post! You are inspiring with your low budget for all of you! Are you able to keep chickens in your neighborhood? As you rely on eggs more, that might be an easy way to cut costs, too. I think my "home-grown" eggs are about $0.12 a piece.

  22. You know, we are NOT allowed to have chickens! But two other couples in my neighborhood are going in with us to petition the city. We could really use them. Until then, a family from church, who live in the country, sell us awesome eggs.

  23. This was a fantastic post! Thank you so much for outlining everything so thoroughly.

  24. Thanks, Whopper! By the way, I stopped over and visited your blogs, and congratulations on the new little one! What a blessing, I am sure you and your family and enjoying getting to know each other.

  25. :giggle: I have fuzzy math, thanks for adding up the number of people under the egg category! And I so laughed at this line: "eat like hibernation is coming" ... I've only got me, Hubby, 18yo sonny boy and 20yo princess, but then all the friends show up and honestly, I think there is no food in THEIR homes! But I don't mind, it's good food most of the time and great memories in the making (most of the time!) Excellent post and Go Costco! :)

  26. Yeah, the Costco meat department guys know me by name now. When I walk in and one of them is walking around the store they come talk to me!

    I had a friend who was one of nine growing up and his mother had many other children around the table every night of the week. It was such a blessing! I really think it was so good for those kids who didn't have a stable home life.

  27. Wow. I popped over here from Kelly the Kitchen Kop's site and am SO impressed! No matter how big or small one's family is, there are great suggestions here. I do can, but it's kind of a "zen mode" mental break thing, plus I love making relishes, jams and other assorted fun things, not just straight veg (though I do that, too; we live in a part of the country where it is VERY difficult to find some things that don't have all of the weird additives in them). They also make fine Christmas gifts; my family, at least, loves and appreciates home-made goodies.

    I like the case of meat idea. Granted, it's just the two of us, but we also feed our pets a great deal of raw food (healthier pets!), and I'll bet a neighbor or two would be happy to go in on the deal with us. I drive about an hour each way for my pastured eggs and milk every two weeks, but the improvement in my health and the taste is well worth it. (I also only go through 2-2.5 gallons a month...oh, dear, I'm pretty sure I just felt you wince as you read that!)

  28. Jen, I read your comment aloud to my oldest daughter and when I got to the milk part her jaw dropped. She can't imagine less than two dozen gallons a month!

    Once, right after the baby a friend went with my husband to buy milk. When they got there, my husband grabbed a big cart. Friend thought that was weird, so he mentioned that they were getting just milk, right? Ben said yes, then picked up six gallons. Then it dawned on him, yeah, TEN kids!

  29. This was so helpful! Thank you so much!

  30. Conservamom, I am glad it was helpful to you! It is so nice to "meet" a fellow mom in the trenches.

  31. Thank you for this realistic information. I sometimes get a little aggravated with the high prices on things like produce here in Colorado when I read blogs written in places where things are so cheap! We are a small family and I still find it a struggle to balance real food and a slim budget.

  32. Colorado IS surprisingly high! I have a friend who moved to Kansas recently and I cannot believe the difference in what she pays for food. I have another post on eating WAPF while shopping at Costco. Right now you can find the link in my sidebar.

  33. Michago12/22/2011

    I just found out about Nourishing Traditions way of eating and the WAPF, and have been researching like a madwomen. It's the first way of eating that makes sense! I love your blog. Love that you are Mexican like me and I always knew my abuelita got it right with the lard and the weird teas as medicine. I love your sense of humor. I am overwhelmed trying to change our family's diet with ONE baby and watching two others inside our home. I cannot imagine 10, my hat off to you. God bless you and your family.

  34. Anonymous5/23/2012

    I didn't know I could ask for a case price at Costco. Now we don't have Costco, but we have a BJ's and, the BJ's carries LOADS of organic products. I will have to look into case pricing. Thanks for that real world, large family tip. I've been looking for real ideas for a large family for a year now... I keep running into the same trouble you were, plans for families of 4, or people who have the time to buy copious amounts of produce and can it... frankly, I don't have that kind of time, and with a fatigue issue, I snooze as much as possible too, which is not very often.
    Thanks for real tips from a real family. Glad I stumbled on this blog... I'll be back for more for sure.

    Mrs. Mom of 6

    1. I am hoping you stop by more! It is a whole different world when you have a large family. You can't think in the same ways!

  35. Anonymous8/24/2012

    Melissa, just perusing your old articles. Love your openness and honesty. I think I will need to employ your budget saving measures here if we continue to have more children. Only 3 young ones so far, but another could be on the way. On another topic entirely, you homeschool, correct? With our 3 under age 5, I really WANT to homeschool, but some days, I think "what sane person would do that??" :) There is bickering, and tormenting, and whining. Not that having more kids alleviates these problems, but they DO become more cooperative and 'useful' at some point, don't they? What would you say to an older mom of a growing family regarding homeschooling? Thanks for your time! -Nicole


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