A year and a half ago, as I was just beginning to shift my grocery spending toward local and organic products, I attended an intro to couponing class at my church. The teacher began by displaying many of the products she's gotten for free or almost free using coupons: boxed dinners, canned foods, LOTS of personal care products.
As the class continued, experienced couponers in the audience began tossing out comments and suggstions:
"My price limit for cereal is $0.50 a box."
"I haven't paid for toothpaste in years. You can always get that for free."
"You have to be willing to drive to lots of stores. You can't just go to one store and expect to save money."
At the end of the meeting, I asked the teacher (a friend of mine) how much she thinks she saves using coupons. She replied that she typically spends $300 to $350 a month to feed her family of four. Leaving the meeting, I asked another couponing friend, who reported that she spends around $250. My stomach felt sick. Anyone who follows my personal blog knows that I spend between $600 and $700 a month to feed my family of five all organic or locally produced products (including personal care products).
Since that class, I've had the same experience many many times where I've wriggled uncomfortably in my seat while my friends discuss how much money they've saved using coupons or shopping sales. I've listened to my friends swap tips for saving money on their grocery bills, and I've heard the speech over and over about how food is a great place to cut back and save when times are tough.
For a long time, those conversations made me feel ridiculous. I've been looking for ways to add more money to my grocery budget. I pay twice as much as most people for toothpaste, and I never get it for free. I'm trying to drive to fewer grocery stores, not more. I rarely ever find coupons for the products I want.
I've often wondered how I can compete with the message of the coupon shoppers: "If you shop the way I do, your grocery bill will go down by $150 a month" when if you shop the way I do, your grocery bill will go up by $150 a month.
But lately, I've been looking at it like this:
- If you shop the way I do, you will avoid eating potentially harmful pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.
- If you shop the way I do, you will help keep chemical pesticides and fertilizers out of our water supply
- If you shop the way I do, your food will taste better because it wasn't shipped from far away or grown out of season.
- If you shop the way I do, you'll support small local farmers and help diversify the food supply.
- If you shop the way I do, your family will eat lots of fresh produce, meat, and dairy, rather than processed, highly-packaged food.
- If you shop the way I do, you'll produce less trash.
A few weeks ago, I asked how you decide between packaging and price. When I was preparing to write that post, my husband and I discussed the package-wrapped-but-cheaper pasta from Trader Joes, and I said, "If I know I can save money, shouldn't I do it? Shouldn't I pick the Trader Joes pasta? Shouldn't I buy the organic milk and eggs from Whole Foods instead of the more expensive local milk and eggs? It would be nice to have that extra money!"
And my husband said something that I think is infinitely wise: "If we are in a situation where we need the money, then we'll make some changes. But right now we're doing fine."
It's probably true that many people need to save a lot of money on their grocery bills. But it's also true that many of us don't. Many of us could cut back in other ways without cutting back on food, and I think that if we can support local and sustainable food production, we should.
What do you think?