Image source: adria.richards
When you're staring at organic and conventional products side-by-side in the grocery store and you realize that you still have to pay your mortgage and health bills this month, the choice of what to buy seems easy: go for the conventional.
But not so fast. We all know that organic products are more sustainable and better for the environment than their conventional counterparts, and it's certainly beneficial to eat foods that aren't produced with pesticides or chemicals. If the prices were more comparable, a lot of us would go for the organics every time. But what if you're on a tight budget?
Then rest easy! If you're willing to do a little bit of digging, it's more than possible to save a bundle on natural and organic foods, even to the point that they become cheaper than conventionals. Use these methods and stock up.
1. Join a co-op.
Most co-ops won't charge non-members to shop at their stores, but even if yours doesn't, there are great incentives to becoming part owner. You'll get some profits back, become part of a tight community, have a definite voice in the day-to-day operations of the store, and support your local economy. Oh, yeah-and you'll get great savings. Not all co-op items are a steal, of course, but co-ops often give out special coupon books or run sales just for members that provide significant markdowns.
2. Clip coupons.
Look through those weekly junk bundles you get in the mail every week, and comb the Sunday paper add-ons for grocery-store coupons. Plenty of manufacturers offer coupons for their organic products or general coupons that can be used on organics. You can also find store coupons ($5 off a $25 purchase, for example) that you can use to buy whatever you want at the retailer.
3. Print coupons.
Manufacturers' Web sites and companies such as Mambo Sprouts offer downloadable and printable coupons for a wide variety of natural and organic products. Some are only a few cents off and won't save you too much, but many will knock a dollar or more off the purchase price, which can make those organics look a lot more appealing.
4. Buy in bulk.
This is a classic rule that is never utilized often enough, even though it truly does work. Here's a good guideline: Even if you think you're buying a lot in bulk now, buy more. I don't mean more in terms of quantity (although that could also save you money, especially on nonperishables); I mean more in terms of variety. At co-ops and health-food stores, particularly, there are things sold in bulk that you may have never considered buying out of a container: cinnamon, baking powder, rolled oats, molasses, and cooking oil, for example. In the vast majority of cases, the per-ounce price for a natural or organic bulk item is far cheaper than the packaged price.
5. Buy in season.
You can almost never tell what's in season and local and what's imported from thousands of miles away when you go to the grocery store because everything is grouped together. But Sustainable Table and similar sites aim to change that by letting you plug in your location and season and showing you a list of the freshest stuff available in your area. And when something is fresh and in season, it's usually cheaper than it is at other times of the year. You can save a lot of money on organic, local food by buying it during peak harvest times.
6. Join a CSA.
The prices of CSA shares can seem intimidating ($400+ for one share) until you do the math, break down the weekly costs, and realize that you're purchasing enough vegetables to sustain your family for an entire season for just the cost of a few trips to the grocery store. If it's still too scary to dole out that much at once, try splitting a share with another family or purchasing a half-share instead of a full. Most CSAs grow their fare organically, even if they're not certified by the USDA. Local Harvest will show you a list of CSAs in your area so you can choose what you want.
7. Shop farmers' markets.
Farmers' markets are a cheery relic of old times and a throwback to community values-plus, they offer great food at fantastic prices. If you want the freshest organic and natural produce available in your area, you can find it at your local farmers' market for prices that undercut every store around. To really save, go right before closing, when merchants are more likely to cut deals on items. Markets are also a good place to pick up organic jams, jellies, and baked goods.
8. Grow your own.
You don't have to start a full-fledged garden to save money on organic food. All you need are a few organic seed packets, some good soil, and compost, and you're ready to go. Early spring is the perfect time to think about growing, so start now! Even if you don't have land space to garden, start a few herbs or a tomato plant in pots. Before long, you'll have a bumper crop that will keep you going all summer for just pennies.
9. Cook more.
This might seem like a paradox-cooking more means you have to buy more fresh produce, after all-but it's a lot cheaper than eating out. Depending on how often you go to restaurants or pick up fast food, see if your family can cut those meals to just once a week or even once a month. That way, even if you buy organics that cost a little bit more, you'll still be saving money.
10. Check out sales.
Think organic food never goes on sale? Think again. Many co-ops and health-food markets carry almost exclusively organic items, and they have sales just like big-box stores do. The sales aren't always dramatic markdowns, but they do make natural foods a lot more affordable, so swing by these stores every so often and see what they have to offer. And with that said . . .
11. Shop big-box stores.
Don't shop the big guys exclusively, because they don't always offer the best selection of organic stuff (or even the best price points), but it's not uncommon for them to undercut the competition, so you shouldn't rule them out. Some big-box stores even make deals with local farmers to sell natural, local produce at prices that aren't much more expensive than you'd find at the farmers' market.
12. Comparison shop.
There are a lot of grocery stores in most towns. It's a pain to go shopping at several stores each week, but if you can find the extra time to do it, you could end up saving quite a bit. Keep track of prices for natural foods at different stores as well as price differences at the same stores between organic and non-organic items. Sometimes, even though the organics seem a lot more expensive, they're really not.
13. Make a list.
This point should really be titled, "Make a list, and stick to it." It's amazing how much money you can part with when you don't follow your grocery list and you let impulse shopping be your guide. You might end up with some tasty snacks if you do, but you're more likely to end up with a blown budget and a bagful of things that you don't need.
14. Go vegetarian.
Meat is expensive, so cutting down on your meat-centric meals will save you money. You don't have to take the full-out vegetarian plunge, but if you do, you'll likely save even more, especially if you can convince everyone else for whom you buy food to eat less meat, too. Finally, if you care about sustainability issues, buying less meat is one step you can take to dramatically reduce your carbon footprint.
15. Fresh isn't always best (or cheapest).
Frozen, canned, and dried natural foods often have just as many nutrients as their fresh counterparts, and they're almost always cheaper. If fresh organic strawberries are too expensive to buy by the pint, check out the cost of frozen, and try those instead. During the summer, when fresh organic produce is bountiful and affordable, stock up and freeze some of your supply to use during the rest of the year.