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Shopping on a Tight Budget: An Owner Shares Her Story

by Brendon Smith, Communications Director

For years we’ve written about our Access Discount and Access Payment Plan programs, and in the last two years we’ve written plenty about Double Dollars. Occasionally we’ll write about our sales programs, or how to save money at the Co-op. But we rarely, if ever, write about these things from the perspective of an Owner who uses these programs. Gigi Godwin, a long-time Co-op Owner who served on the Access Discount Committee and uses the discount herself, agreed to be interviewed for this article in July.


Brendon: Did I mention why your name came up for this article?

Gigi: Was it because I was on the Access Discount review committee?


Brendon: That was part of it. Kirsten [Moore, the Co-op Services Director] said “There’s a person on the committee who makes her dollar stretch so far, you wouldn’t believe it. She is a careful shopper, she maps it all out, it’s just amazing.” I said, “It would be great to talk with her, because that information would be a valuable resource for other Owners.”

Gigi: It does take a lot of planning. I make time during the week. I really shop two different ways: sometimes if I’m done with the gym, I just want to grab something and go home. My other shopping experience is to stroll up and down the aisles, and write down things, making a list, and planning my meals. I found myself doing that so much more with Double Dollars. When I wrote my essay to get on the Access Discount Committee, I said I was over the moon when the [Co-op’s Double Dollars] program got implemented, because it made me plan even more big grocery shopping on Tuesdays. And then I would get my maximum $20 in vouchers. I got a lot more fruits and vegetables. I’m a vegetables person, but I really was laughing about the fruits end of it. It felt so wonderful to be able to treat myself with a pint of raspberries. And you know how the prices fluctuate for those. I was amazed last year, using those vouchers, one week it would be $5.99 a pint, it went up to $7.99 one week, then it went back down. Being able to have the vouchers as money really helped to broaden my diet, eat healthier and also to plan those meals. Eat seasonally. Like, okay, what is the Co-op inundated with, what’s on sale. I’m really loving the ripe avocados. I’m constantly buying the avocados. Because you know: it’s a waiting game. It’s nice to have it right when you know you can probably eat it the next day. I Iove that.


Brendon: And there’s a good selection of various stages of ripeness. You don’t have to get a very unripe one and wait. Unripe, unripe, it’s too ripe.

Gigi: The window is small. People laugh at me, but I buy one banana at a time because I can’t stand over-ripe bananas. That window is small, too. Gotta get it just right.


Brendon: How far in advance do you plan when you plan your shopping?

Gigi: It starts at the beginning of the month. I probably should not wait until I get the Reader, but I pull out the middle pages with the sales and carry it with me as a reminder in case I do forget what I’ve seen. Like “Let’s see… Annie’s salad dressing. Boy, some of these flavors are $2.50. An incredible deal.” Plus you’ve got the Access Discount on top of that. So it really does start at the beginning of the month. It’s a lot of looking around, paying attention to what I see in the store. I’m one of those Sunday-type cooks. Maybe twice a year I have lunch somewhere but otherwise I always bring my own. I rarely go out to dinner. I like cooking, so Sunday is one of those times I can make a big batch of pasta salad, or rice and beans. Sometimes it’s nice to—not to get frugal-y, but with the Access Discount I’ve been exploring maybe once a week treating myself to fish that I could poach it with vegetables. So that’s another nice thing: the Discount also allows me to eat things I probably would normally say “Oh, I can’t afford it.” And now I can. I can afford a nice fish fillet.


Brendon: Let’s talk about the Access Discount a bit.

Gigi: It should be noted that applying for Access is very easy. I remember being nervous the first time. It made me nervous enough to apply for FoodShare and I don’t regret it one bit, it’s really helping me. And then going to the Co-op and applying [for the Access Discount], I didn’t feel less than, you know what I mean?


Brendon: I do, and I’m happy to hear that.

Gigi: It was like kind of an emotional thing, like “Well, I need help, and I really need to eat healthy.” Especially to work on health issues. It’s important. And it’s so easy. As you know, we worked on expanding the list of qualifiers. Your customer service; I’m telling you, I’ve had such good experiences up there. Everyone’s been very nice. When you apply, it’s painless. Not invasive, you know, you don’t feel like you have to prove something. And getting that free shopping bag— I can always use a shopping bag. And that voucher for the free class? I can remember telling the committee I’ve always wanted to take a class and I just didn’t have enough cash to do it. And now, it was just like: wow. I remember turning in my voucher; I took a spring cleanse workshop, which was great, I really enjoyed it. So that’s a really nice perk. It’s just such a great program. It helps you feel even more a part of the Co-op community.


Brendon: You have a unique perspective, being on the committee and using the program. You’re part of the reason why it’s so painless and easy. So thank you!

Gigi: Oh, gee! Yeah, being part of that committee was one of the best experiences ever for me. I was so proud… I remember that first meeting: I think there was a blizzard out. It was a great meeting, being introduced to everyone and then starting to brainstorm right away, and then once it was over it was even more icy and snowing, and I was like “If I could skip right now, I would.” But I might slip and fall. I felt so good. I wished there were more meetings, three seemed to go by so fast.


Brendon: You don’t often hear that about meetings.

Gigi: It was fantastic.


Brendon: How long have you been shopping at the Co-op?

Gigi: Oh man. [Laughs.] I’ve been in Madison since 1986, and I shopped at the Co-op when it was in the Social Justice Center... A long time!


Brendon: How did you first hear about the Co-op?

Gigi: When I first heard about the Co-op, when you were in the old location, I think it was just from the company I was keeping. A lot of healthy people, and artists, and people who just wanted to buy in bulk. Which is another way to save!


Brendon: We should talk about that too! What’s your process with buying in bulk?

Gigi: I was really glad the bulk bins are labeled so well, to help me make choices. I have been trying to stay away from wheat and soy products, just to help with some health issues. So everything’s labeled really well, and I like how the Co-op has a lot of brochures on how to buy bulk, cooking tips for various mixes and stuff, so that’s very handy. The great thing about bulk is—I mentioned all of my pasta? That’s pre-packaged stuff; it’s so much nicer to buy in bulk because you’re not overdoing it, you just buy what you need. Instead of buying a bunch of pre-packaged stuff; “Oops, this expired two years ago!” And the spices, that’s incredible. That’s such a money-saver. Instead of buying a whole jar when you just need a couple of pinches for a certain recipe you want to try. And nuts: nuts are very expensive. But if you just get a little package of them, put them in a little bag, it’s way affordable.


Brendon: Do you ever ask for half a head of cabbage or half of a cauliflower?

Gigi: I just started. I finally got around to asking [former staff member] Astoria when I saw someone breaking off a piece of celery. [Gasps in pretend outrage.] “No, Gigi, it’s fine. Anything that sells by weight, you can do that.” I felt kind of guilty at first, but was told it was fine. So yes. And I have asked for half a head of cabbage. Even though there’s a compost pile out back of where I live, I’d rather not have stuff go to waste or go bad in my fridge.


Brendon: If you only need half a head of cabbage...

Gigi: Yeah! And it’s nice that Produce has salad mix in bulk, and spinach in bulk. Especially with the humid temps, it can go bad really fast. Mushrooms in bulk.

It’s so funny you mention when I first started shopping there, because I’m still thinking about the old location, and it felt radical, you know? Late ‘80s, early ‘90s, it felt so cool to be at a place where it just was so different [from other stores]. The Co-op had to evolve and keep evolving—it has to.


Brendon: You talked about this a bit, but you have your plan and then you come into the store. What changes that plan, if anything?

Gigi: What derails it? Well, something being out of stock. Only one purchase of spring onions and then they were gone. I was like “I love these, they’re so delicious!” And then they were gone. So that can derail something. I can’t really think of anything. Just changing my mind on a whim. “Well, I’m sick of beans and rice. I’ll have some frozen dinners; I’m going to take a break from cooking.” But even that, spending money on pre-packaged stuff, I feel better about it knowing I got an extra boost helping me do it. And that’s really something to watch out for, for sales. Like keeping an eye on Saffron Road and Amy’s frozen meals. They’re delicious, well-made, but the prices creep up. And that’s how it is with pre-packaged and frozen meals, so that’s a really good way to stretch your dollar is to watch for when those go on sale and buying those in bulk, so to speak, so you’ve got them on hand for those nights when you really just… Maybe there’s a Sunday when I’m worn out and just don’t want to cook.


Brendon: Do you do any canning or other food preservation?

Gigi: [Laughs.] When there’s an abundance of produce, when it’s zucchini/eggplant/summer squash season, I love cooking enough to freeze, especially ratatouille. I love that. My own frozen food, homemade… Oh, canning was a big failure. I suck at it.


Brendon: Okay, we’ll just skip over that.

Gigi: I donated my canning materials to someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Luckily no one got sick!


Brendon: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think other Owners should know about?

Gigi: Can I share an epiphany I had about shopping with the Access Discount?


Brendon: Please!

Gigi: What I’ve really noticed is that for me it has broadened my shopping experience with non-grocery items. Because of this discount, I have been able to afford gifts for people, I buy—instead of going to Walgreens, I buy my greeting cards at the Co-op. It’s been great. I’d be curious to know how that helps with sales at the Co-op for non-grocery items, because over the years you do a fantastic job with what you stock, so I’m able to get Hanukkah and Christmas presents for people, candles, earrings, bracelets, journals, just little things… Kitchen items. So that’s my go-to. I now consider the Co-op my one-stop. I do! And it fits in with my lifestyle. I’m a non-driver, and I’ve been living on the eastside for a long, long, long time. So it’s my go-to, not just for health and wellness and good food, but now it’s just expanded my whole experience, and I’m able to afford nicer things because of that discount. And it got me looking at the Co-op in a different way. I would just ignore all of that stuff around me in the past. And now it’s like, “This is new! Look at this display! All these handmade bracelets supporting these women in these countries.” So I’m spending more money, but I’m able to, because I’m on a tight budget. Even just like personal care stuff. I wasn’t even paying attention to it, but it really does make it more cost-effective. And I’d rather get those even paper goods at the Co-op than Walgreens. Beauty products, too. I wasn’t aware the Access Discount applies. Like mascara that isn’t made with a bunch of toxic materials, or tested on animals. So there are a lot of things to pay attention to, and it really expanded my shopping experience, I was seeing things in a different way.


Brendon: I guess I had mainly been thinking about it from the food angle, but there’s no reason to.

Gigi: I’d rather support artisans and nonprofits for a lot of those goods, and also have unique gifts for people. Even Valentine’s [Day]; I’ve treated people at work with candy and chocolates, because it’s right there! I can leave little treats for people. So, again, one-stop shopping. If we get the word out what we can use the Access Discount for, it’s really important! It’s not just health and wellness, it’s not just produce and organic foods; you can get things for your kitchen, magnets, bamboo underwear… I don’t remember if you get a discount on the beer and wine.


Brendon: The Access Discount does apply to beer and wine. It applies to everything except for gift cards and newspapers.

Gigi: Regarding being a savvy shopper with the Access Discount, I have an example here of something really cool. On a Wellness Wednesday, I purchased Herb Pharm healthy liver drops. Original price was $13.99, then I got $1.40 off because of Wellness Wednesday, then I got $1.26 off because of the Access Discount, and then I had a $1.50 coupon because of the [National Co-op Grocers Discover] coupon book. So $13.99 got whittled down to $9.83. Pretty cool. It’s a lot of planning, but it’s worth it.


Brendon: What’s your planning process? How do you do it?

Gigi: It’s kind of hard to make it always work on Wellness Wednesday. I’m always disappointed when things don’t run out at the same time. [Laughs.] Because that’s when I want to stock up, because of getting not only my Access Discount but also the Wellness Wednesday discount. When I’m not just in a grab-and-go mood, I’m at the Co-op a lot, and I do wander the aisles, and I’m kind of a gamer girl, so I’m like “This discount is going to expire on this date,” and sometimes in Health & Wellness, the sale will expire before an actual Wellness Wednesday. So I really do try to keep track of sales. I’m always looking at the coupon books. I really like the fact that the Co-op has the coupons next to the product, because I tend to be forgetful. I’ll cut a whole bunch out and then stick them in my pocket. Oh, it’s in a different pair of pants or something, so that’s really nice. I really pay attention. And to the weekly specials, too. I go online and look, or look on my phone, or glance at the flyer right when I get in the store and see what’s what. It’s a good way to keep track of grocery items on sale.


Brendon: Do you get the weekly flyer emailed to you?

Gigi: No, I should!


Brendon: I can—

Gigi: You can hook me up?


Brendon: I can hook you up. [Owners can also go to to sign up to get the flyer emailed to them each Monday morning.]

Gigi: That would be even more proactive to stay on top of things.


Brendon: Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and experience with other Owners! In closing, can you share your five favorite Co-op items?

Gigi: They are:

1.Ripe Hass avocados—no waiting!

2.Cheese niblets. A great way to go beyond colby and cheddar. Cave-aged Chandoka, niblet anyone?

3.Gazela Vinho Verde. A fun, fizzy, and refreshing wine that’s under $10.

4.Self-serve olive bar. Peppadew peppers, Greek pitted olive mix with chilies, and Cipollini onions in Balsamic vinegar, oh my!

5.Bulk roasted cashews, especially the curry and Cajun flavors. So savory!


Access Discount

Owners who have a financial need can apply for the Access Discount Program. With the Access Discount Program, you can shop with a 10% discount to buy food and other products at the Co-op.

Access Payment Plan

If you’re not yet a Co-op Owner and qualify for the Access Discount, you can take up to 14 years to pay off your equity.

Owner Rewards

Weekly sales for Willy Street Co-op Owners only. All of our produce sales are in this program!

Co-op Deals

Sales that run for two or three weeks at a time, open to all customers (not just Willy Street Co-op Owners).

Discover Coupon Book

National Co-op Grocers prints a coupon booklet every other month, and three times a year the Co-op mails it out to Owners. We also put coupon tearpads by the products themselves.

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