Psychology says that having experiences creates better memories than owning things. Although spending money on possessions creates a temporary mood boost, spending money on experiences provides greater satisfaction. (“Ahh, I’ll never forget that time I bought the latest cell phone,” said nobody ever when looking back fondly on their life.)
This is something we often know intuitively, and I think Co-op shoppers and quality food enthusiasts understand an important intersection between those two types of satisfaction. Like many people, I do find myself seeking that instant-gratification pick-me-up of buying something new—“retail therapy,” so to speak. But it isn’t a long-term strategy for happiness. Grocery shopping, perhaps unexpectedly, strikes a balance. I love grocery shopping, and I realize that’s because it combines the fleeting satisfaction of a new purchase with a long-term experiential memory. Groceries turn into meals, and meals create some of our best and purest experiential memories. Sure, all of us will eat some meals in a rush, and plenty of meals alone, and those things are fine too. But for many people, there’s a desire to turn a meal into an event when possible: going on picnics, hosting holiday meals, bringing a special dish to a potluck, baking a birthday cake. And this is why grocery shopping offers a unique, well-rounded balance of life-fulfillment. As my budget allows, if there’s anything that I’m willing to invest money into and feel good about it, it’s food.
That being said, there are obviously times in everyone’s life when budgeting is a top concern, short- or long-term. This doesn’t have to mean giving up high-quality food and supporting local growers and producers. In the following sections, I’ll outline some creative—and often very simple—ways to shop thriftily at Willy Street Co-op and stretch your dollars.
Become an Owner
If you aren’t already an Owner, this is the quickest way to begin saving money by becoming eligible for Owner-only sales. You can get started with an Individual Ownership equity payment for the first year of just $10, or $15 for a Household Ownership. Additionally, eligible Owners (who are enrolled in one ormore of several public or private assistance programs, or meet a maximum income amount) can qualify for a 10% Access Discount on all purchases. Eligible owners also qualify for a reduced equity payment for $4/year for an Individual, or $7/year for a Household. For more information about eligibility, please see www.willystreet.coop/ownership or ask at the Customer Service desk.
IDEALS aren’t sale prices: they’re regular, low prices on staple products, with an eye towards offering a savings as compared to similar products of other brands. Look for these signs throughout the stores.
Co-op Deals are bi-weekly sales that are coordinated through the National Co-op Grocers organization. This means that you may see the exact same sales at other co-ops around the country. We are able to offer these sale prices because when combined with a large number of other co-ops, we have the buying power to get better deals on certain products, and reflect those savings in the shelf price. Look for Co-op Deals prices on special sale tags.
We honor all manufacturers’ coupons. If there’s a coupon for an item that’s already on sale, you get both! I’ve gotten many a great deal by combining coupons and sales.
Owner Rewards are special sales available to Willy Street Co-op Owners. This is one of the perks of becoming an Owner. Look for Owner Rewards prices reflected on sales tags on the shelf.
If you ride a bicycle, consider participating in the Bicycle Benefits program. This is a city-wide program that many local businesses participate in. For $5, you can buy a sticker for your helmet, and showing your sticker at participating businesses offers a discount, unique to each business. Stickers are available at many venues, including Willy Street Co-op, where you can buy one from cashiers. The Co-op currently offers 5% off your purchases made on Monday-Friday with your Bicycle Benefits sticker (some restrictions apply). This promotion is subject to change throughout the year.
Employment at the Co-op
Of course, this won’t be a realistic life change for everybody, but if you (or your housemate or live-in partner) are interested in employment at Willy Street Co-op, one of our benefits is an employee discount of 20% off throughout the stores for anyone who is scheduled at least 10 hours perweek. For eligible employees who have a Household membership, one member of their household also receives the 20% staff discount. You can submit an application for employment online at jobs.willystreet.coop. If you don’t have internet access, you can apply on a computer available for customer use in the stores.
Wellness Wednesday is a very popular promotion occurring on the first Wednesday of every month. On Wellness Wednesday, the entire Wellness aisle is 10% off, including products that are on sale and have coupons! This can stack in tremendous ways. If you can plan ahead for your wellness needs and buy on Wellness Wednesday, you can save considerably.
Meat Sale Thursday happens every Thursday, when a different meat staple is offered for a sale price. If you’re curious what item will be on sale on a given Thursday, check the Willy Street Co-op Facebook page on Tuesday. Both Wellness Wednesday and Meat Sale Thursday are Owner benefits.
During Earth Week (in April), you can get 10% off organic bulk products (except coffee). Since many bulk items last a long time in storage, this is also a great opportunity to stock up on staple items.
- Buy in bulk—which sometimes means the opposite. The word “bulk” can imply “large quantity,” evoking gargantuan packages of toilet paper from warehouse stores. While that sort of shopping can also save money, buying from the bulk department at the Co-op doesn’t actually need to mean buying a lot of something. The secret advantage of the bulk department is in being able to fine-tune the quantity you’re buying. When shopping for a recipe, I’ve easily spent under $1 on the amount of an ingredient I’ve needed. A garnish of toasted sesame seeds, a small baggie of a rarely used spice, or a half-cup of nuts can be a lot more affordable than the same item in a full-sized package that will go bad in your cupboard before you can use all of it. The only minimum purchase of a bulk item is the amount that will register on the scale up front when you check out.
- If you do need a large quantity of an item, the Co-op also offers case discounts for Owners. You can pre-order a case of something for 10% off (does not combine with other discounts). Certain sub-departments do not offer case discounts, but many do, so please ask!
- Bring your own bag for 10¢ off. Do you buy three bags of groceries per week? If you don’t already bring your own bags, doing so would save you over $15/year, which is to say: the amount of the equity payment for your household membership.
- Buy produce in season. Produce prices can fluctuate considerably based on availability. If a vegetable you normally like to buy costs twice as much as expected, consider trying something else.
- Reducing food waste is a great money-saver. Ask for produce to be cut in half—such as heads of cabbage—if you don’t think you’ll use the whole thing. Keep track of what’s in your fridge and pantry so you can eat leftovers (and repurpose remaining ingredients) before they go bad. Turn stale bread into croutons or bread pudding, and make banana bread out of brown bananas. (You can freeze overripe bananas if you aren’t ready to bake right away.) Fruit can also go into smoothies. If your half-eaten avocado has started to turn brown, just scrape off the brown layer and eat the green that’s underneath. Remember that cut fruit will spoil more quickly than whole fruit. Some types of fruit last longer than others; keep a balance so that everything doesn’t go bad at once. Apples will last a lot longer than berries, for example. Buy bananas at different stages of ripeness when possible, so that they will ripen with adequate time for you to eat them. For some tips on maximizing freshness of vegetables, check out this online resource: www.pennilessparenting.com/2010/01/keeping-vegetables-fresh.html
- If an item has a “sell-by” date, this is thedate after which a store won’t sell it to you, to ensure maximum freshness for everything on the shelves. But that doesn’t mean the product necessarily turns bad the moment the date arrives. After the sell-by date, use your eyes, nose, and common sense to figure out if something is still fresh. Milk is often drinkable for up to seven days after the sell-by date, though this varies depending on how long it was held at various temperatures during transportation. Your nose will be the best judge of dairy freshness. Don’t risk sickness—if in doubt, throw it out, but if the sell-by date has only recently passed, consider the possibility that it’s still edible. Additionally, check out the website stilltasty.com for a general reference regarding how long foods remain edible after being opened.
- If you can arrange your schedule to shop multiple times a week, consider buying produce in smaller quantities more frequently. With less time for it to go bad or for your plans to change last-minute, you may have less waste than if you buy all your produce for the week at one time.
- If you eat meat, use a slow cooker to help tenderize less pricey cuts of meat.
- Don’t shop while hungry! If possible, shop alone so you can focus on getting only the items on your list and take your time comparing prices.
- To ensure that you stick to your budget, consider bringing only cash instead ofa credit card to the store. Plan your shopping trip ahead of time. This will prevent you from making impulse purchases, unless you end up saving more money than anticipated on necessities, in which case you can (optionally) make an impulse purchase or two guilt-free. (www.pennilessparenting.com/2010/02/avoiding-impulse-buys.html)
- Consider prepping your own salad greens and vegetables. Prepared vegetables can be a great time-saver, as well as helpful for those with disabilities that prevent them from doing kitchen prep. However, if you are on a budget and able to chop produce yourself, doing so can save you considerable amounts of money.
- If you use liquid hand soap, try using a foaming soap dispenser. You can put any regular liquid hand soap into a foaming dispenser after watering it down (the soap needs to be thinner to be processed by the foaming device). This will stretch your soap dollars while letting you continue using your favorite soaps. If you don’t already have a foaming soap dispenser, you can choose from two brands of foaming hand soap at Willy Street Co-op, available in the Wellness aisle. After using what comes in the dispenser, refill it using any soap you want (including bulk soap)—just remember to dilute it with water.
Plan ahead, but remain flexible!
If you plan out your meals for the week before shopping, and check your pantry and refrigerator before you leave home to see what you already have and what you can make with it, you can streamline your shopping by buying only the things you need. I know I’ve accidentally bought duplicates of things I already had that were buried in the refrigerator or cupboard. And, once you’re in the store, if you don’t have a shopping list, it can be easy to impulse purchase things that sound good in the moment but might not make it into your belly before they go bad. The counterpoint to this is that it’s a good idea to think outside the box when you see what’s actually available at the store. Maybe there’s a Flash Sale going on while you’re there for a product similar to what you were going to buy, and you can adjust course. Maybe the green peppers are a lot cheaper than the red ones. Become familiar with substitutions you can make in your recipes so that you can maximize cost-effectiveness by being flexible when you’re actually looking at the shelves. Allrecipes.com published a list of common ingredient substitutions that you may find helpful: dish.allrecipes.com/common-ingredient-substitutions/. This can also be useful to look at before you write your shopping list, in case there’s something you have on hand that you can use instead of buying a new ingredient.
When it comes to packaged items, being flexible about brand can make a huge difference, too. I’ve noticed that when I’m looking for a particular type of item—say, tortilla chips or chocolate bars—there’s often one brand that’s on sale.
There are some general long-term lifestyle strategies you can use to reduce your grocery bills. If you have a yard, or can get a community garden plot, the Co-op sells seeds and seedlings—consider growing some of your own food. And if you don’t have the space or time for traditional gardening, there are some surprisingly easy ways to grow food. Many vegetables can be regrown in small quantities from scraps. You can plant a single bunch of scallions (which are inexpensive to begin with) in a small pot and the tops will keep growing. All you need for this is a bit of decent weather and a balcony or door stoop. Trim green tops off whenever you want to cook with them, and keep watering periodically! You can even just pop the scallions in a jar of water on your windowsill instead of planting them, though reportedly, they don’t regrow for as long this way, eventually becoming slimy (try changing the water frequently to minimize this). Nevertheless, the jar of water method is a nearly zero-effort way to keep scallions spruced up for at least a few days longer.
Preserving food at home is also a great strategy to minimize waste. Look for books and online resources about canning and freezing food. You can buy mason jars and other food containers at Willy Street Co-op.
If you’re looking for even more ways to save, ask your friendly Co-op staff member. For help saving in a particular category, try checking with a staff member in that specific department. There are many Co-op employees who have worked in their area for a long time and likely have some clever tips to offer, or can help you brainstorm.