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Blog: My Little Farm in Town

Living a rich country life in a small Midwestern town.

Showing 6 posts in the Budget and Finance category for this blog.
Bulk Food: Buying Citrus--'Tis the Season
Friday, January 21, 2011

Citrus is in season and a good buy. In line with our New Year’s resolution to use money we would have spent eating out to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, we skipped a snack at Panera after our family time (another New Year’s Resolution!) visit to the art museum and visited a local fruit market instead!

The fruit market samples most of its fruit, so it is always easy to cave in to purchasing some out- of-season delicacy. The best tasting and cheapest fruit are usually the ones that are in season.

One section of the store is lined with stacked boxes of fruit. (The boxes contain approximately a bushel of fruit and weigh about 30 pounds each.)  At this time of year, this area holds mostly citrus: several types of eating oranges and grapefruit; juicing oranges, and tangerines. The boxes varied in price by size of fruit with the smaller sizes being cheaper with higher counts of fruit per box.  We ended up purchasing a box each of grapefruit and oranges. I went for a higher count with the grapefruit because I like to eat an entire fruit at one sitting and smaller fruits are better for that. I bought the medium grade of orange because I felt they were in better shape and there was only a couple dollars difference in price.

When buying bulk fruit, be sure to open the box that you want and check out the condition of the fruit and how it is packed. If the fruit is too bruised, it won’t store well and will rot before you can eat it—a waste of good fruit and good money! Ask to sample the fruit, if they won’t let you, buy your fruit somewhere else, or ask them if you can return the box if the fruit isn’t good. (Some grocery stores will let you do this.)

I store the fruit in our cool pantry (55°F) or in a cooler corner of the basement, and it keeps very well until we are ready to eat it. Be sure the temperature of your storage place doesn't drop below freezing. Frozen citrus is only good for the compost pile!

At this time of year in Wisconsin, the weather alternates between dreary gray and cold and bright blue and REALLY cold. Those boxes of citrus brighten the days until warmer weather. (I’d settle for temps in the high 20s F!) Begonia


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Good Cheap Food: Shopping at Surplus Grocery Stores
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Food prices have increased and continue to climb. I have lowered our food bills in various ways: barter, coupons, rebates, no-waste scratch cooking, gardening, canning, drying, freezing, end cap and loss leader shopping, distribution warehouse bulk buying, co-oping, and buying directly from the local producer.

My biggest savings, however, have come from shopping at surplus grocery stores (aka Bent and Dents). Surplus grocery stores purchase their stock from distributors that buy back slightly damaged and past or near date items from regular grocery and chain stores. These distributors also purchase closeouts and overruns. They sell to surplus grocers by the pallet, case, or by the truck load in mixed banana boxes (“mixed banana boxed grocery loads”), depending on the item. I did a short search on “Surplus Groceries,” and here are some of the more interesting sites if you want to learn more:  , , and .

Some surplus groceries are modern and well lit, while others are sheds with a wood stove in one corner and only the light that comes in the windows. The Bent and Dent I patronize the most fits the latter description. It is in the country –as these places so often are in my area—and is run by a large Amish family.  I LOVE this place, but I’ve learned over the years that not everything is priced cheaper than I can get it at a regular grocery store, some things are not worth buying at all, and other things are worth a the gamble for the price. Here are some tips for shopping surplus groceries:

  • Always check the condition of the packaging. In the excitement of finding food for such a good price (in sometimes dim lighting), you may overlook the state of the box or can. If it is a cereal or grain, you need to be sure that there are no gaps or breaks in the bag or box. This is especially important for such items as flour, rice, pasta, bread crumbs, and cereals. Watch for tape covering a hole. Even a small hole can cause staleness or contamination.
  • Always check the expiration dates. This is not always easy. Sometimes these codes are indicated by a series of seemingly random numbers and letters. Usually you will be able to see month, day, and year clearly. Other times, month and day will be reversed, and the year will be two digits. When in doubt, don’t buy the item if you are uncomfortable with not knowing the date. (By the way, it is also a good idea to check expiration dates in regular grocery stores. They don’t always keep up with their stock or follow up on how employees are stocking the shelves.)
  • Keep up on the current price of groceries. Surplus groceries carry an incredible assortment of brands and sizes, and pricing can be a challenge. Sometimes if the surplus grocer doesn’t value or is not familiar with a product, they will price low. If it is an item they value or are familiar with, they will price higher.  I often will see items that are a better deal on sale or as a loss leader (or even at normal mark up!) in a regular store.   If you’re are a scratch cook, you will want to know the cheapest price per pound for such staples as rice, beans, flour, sugars, pastas, or cereals. Sometimes I can find a better price by the pound in a bulk food store or a store that deals in volume sales like Aldi, Sam’s Club, or a large grocery store.
  • Beware of loading up on luxury items and junk food. You can easily cancel out your savings by buying too many of these items.  It is very easy to indulge a sweet tooth or support a chip habit at surplus groceries. Do you really need that cheap case of candy bars and fifteen 50-cent bags of Doritos? Man does not live on bread alone, but you can buy a lot of items with actual food value for the money you squander on treats.
  • Don’t buy if you aren’t sure.  Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is always the rule in salvage grocery buying! I generally don’t buy items that are too far past date. How far past date you are comfortable buying is an individual decision.  A can of tomatoes I would buy past date—but not a bottle of creamy salad dressing.


What you buy is up to you, but here are some of the things I don’t buy surplus:


  •   I don’t buy items that are high in fat that can easily go rancid—like tortillas, taco shells, salad dressings, chips, peanut butter, etc.
  • I don’t buy anything with broken seals, torn inner packaging, or pieces of tape covering holes (or teas with boxes that have broken cellophane, unless the tea bags are individually foil or plastic wrapped).  
  • I don’t buy any powders or mixes that have started to solidify. (Drink mixes will do this and brown sugar that is too old.)
  • I don’t buy anything that has melted, is discolored, or has sun-faded packaging.
  • I don’t buy cans or containers that are rusty or too dented, especially around the rims.
  • I don’t buy frozen or perishable items.


My best buys are usually condiments (salsa, ketchup, mayonnaise, vinegars, mustards), tea, coffee, tuna, breakfast cereals, baking chips and chocolate, chewing gum, olive oil, and canned vegetables, fruit, and beans. Sometimes there will be a lot of an item and it will be priced extra low. That is when I buy cake mixes, some types of candy, crackers, and soup as treats. I like to pay 50% or less of the regular store price and way less than regular store price on items that are past their expiration date.

A few final tips:

  • I will at times make exceptions to my “no tape” rule. Sometimes labels fall off and are taped back on; or you can see that someone got overzealous with a box cutter and a cereal or cake mix box is taped shut again, but the inner packaging is intact (Shake the box. If the stuff inside sounds like it is rattling against cardboard, don’t buy it.)
  • Sometimes there will be dried product on the outside of a bottle. This doesn’t always indicate a leak. Sometimes one bottle will break in a case and the grocer can’t sell the whole case.
  • I always rinse, wipe, or wash the tops of all bottles and cans before opening.


 I hope I’ve helped some of you cut your grocery expenses a bit. It is one of the strategies that keeps me on My Little Farm in Town and not commuting to a cubicle somewhere in order to pay the grocery bill! Take Care, Begonia.



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Getting the Most for Your Food Dollar Locally
Monday, June 14, 2010

I live in a small town. It is a 25-minute drive to the nearest town with large grocery stores and specialty shopping. The drive costs me about  $6 in gas and wear and tear on the vehicle. I’m also a busy person, and that extra 50 minutes has a price tag of it’s own.  As a result, I do a lot of my day-to-day food shopping right here in town.

Many small town businesses are eager to keep local money local.  The ”buy local” movement is strong in my area. I support it as much as possible because I want to be able to live in a freestanding town without having to travel long distances for basic needs. I don’t want to be living in a bedroom community or a suburb where most of us are strangers.

On the other hand, I don’t support unsustainable businesses or shoddy merchandise simply because it is local.  I think it is reasonable to want a fair exchange of merchandise for money.  Here are the ways that I operate within this ethic locally in my food buying:

·         The farmer’s market. I buy from them if they have a superior product or one that I can’t or won’t grow myself. Most of the folks who sell at our local farmer’s market cater to a niche market of people who place the greatest value on organics, locally grown products, and atmosphere.

·         Honor-system sales. Local gardeners will put a cart or wagon at the end of their driveway with a locked money box and sell their extra produce for wonderful prices. They have all they need and are making a little extra money on the overflow. It is a win-win situation for both parties. I buy a lot of the fresh food this way. It is a great local system.  There was a glut of squash and pumpkins last year. I bought giant butternut and banana squash for $1 a piece. I still have one butternut squash in my cool pantry waiting to be eaten.  I bought a year’s supply of green peppers for 25 cents each and froze them.  We will finish them at about the time this year’s pepper start to ripen.

·         Meat and vegetables purchased directly from the farm. Another win-win situation. The farmer gets more money for their product because they don’t have to package it (much), ship it (much), or share the profits with anyone else. I get a superior product for a fair price (usually less than at the supermarket). Truck farms with roadside stands, beef that a local farmer brings to a local locker plant, and honey from a local apiary (bring your own gallon jar) are examples of the types of food I buy.

·         The local grocery store. We have an independently owned grocery store in our town. They get a lot of their food from a large distribution warehouse that doesn’t get their food locally. Oh well, at least the store owners are locals! I shop mainly the weekly sale items and loss leaders. I use coupons to bring the local price down to what it would be if I had been shopping in a larger store or town. I also keep an eye out for discounted, near-date merchandise, which also makes the local store’s prices more competitive or cheaper than that of the bigger city grocery stores.

Have I missed anything? Growing your own food for the cost of the seeds and your time, gathering wild food, and bartering (I barter eggs for fresh goat cheese) for fresh foods is probably the most local eating you can do! Take care and happy bargain hunting. Begonia

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Save Big Bucks--Cut Your Own Hair!
Thursday, May 13, 2010

It all started when his dad came home with the hair clipper.

When my husband was a child in the 1950s, it was common for moms or dads to cut their boys’ hair with one of these contraptions.  My husband had a home mown crew cut from the tender age of 8 through junior high school. His dad finally let him grow his hair out when he entered high school, commenting scornfully, “You look like a Beatle!”(Strangely enough, his father never wore a crew cut. He claimed he had too high a forehead!)

I’ll bet every family has a haircut catastrophe story of a distracted or inexperienced parent (or sibling) leaving the guard off and cutting a bald furrow down the center of some poor guy’s head! In our house, it happened one harried Sunday morning to one of my brothers—but I digress!

 When I married my husband 20 years ago, he still was having his hair cut by a professional every four or five weeks to the tune of $20 per visit. That’s roughly $200 a year! That was until our son came home with a heavy-duty, used hair clipper he bought for $10 from his barber. He wanted to use it to trim his beard,  but his dad asked him to try it out by giving him a haircut first! Our boy only did the job once. (He said he was too nervous to do it again!) So my husband cut his own hair with it the next time.  It was a nice, short crew cut and it looked good on him (still does!). My son moved out shortly after that and took his hair clippers with him.

Late one Saturday that summer, I stopped at a moving sale and noticed a long narrow box on a table made out a door and a couple of sawhorses. I always dig in or open boxes at sales, so I naturally opened this one. Nested inside it was a gleaming, mint-condition hair clipper! I squinted at the price, which looked like 25 cents to me and brought it to the woman running the sale along with a pile of other stuff.  She was doubtful about the price of the clipper, but it was someone else’s item that they didn’t want to see again, it was nearly the end of the sale, and she didn’t plan to take anything back into the house.  She said something like, “OK. You can have it for 25 cents.” It was many years ago, but some golden memories never fade!

To make a long story short, I brought the clippers home, and we have been saving money on haircuts ever since. What could you do with an extra $200 this year? Begonia


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Economical Alternatives to Throwaways
Thursday, April 08, 2010

At one time my family used a lot of paper plates and towels.  Talk about literally throwing away money! Paper towels were being used to wipe counters and paper plates routinely replaced real dishes and dish washing.  If you are serious about saving money, paying down debt, or just being more responsible about what you send to the landfill, there comes a time when you need to wash some dishes and do a little extra laundry.

This household economy didn’t grow out of environmental self-righteousness or plain old cheapness. It grew out of just not having money! I had to pick between food and stuff.  

Here are some of the easy and simple things I did that saved our family money in the area of disposables:

·         Switched from disposable to real dishes and silverware

·         Switched from paper towels to rags and newspaper (for cleaning glass and mirrors)

·         Switched from paper to cloth napkins

You may be thinking that this is all a “no brainer,” and maybe it is to most of you, but not everyone knows the difference between what is a need and what is a want anymore. We have become such a throwaway society from the cradle that a lot of us don’t know there is another way.

Do I ever use paper towels? Yes, for draining fried food (I still don’t feel good about using newspaper for that!) but not for cleaning the counter or floor! Do I ever use paper plates and plastic silverware? Yes, but only when I get the stuff free or at a garage sale (and my sisters insist that we not wash any dishes that day).

 I hope this has helped you save some money that could be put to better use. Begonia


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Cloth Napkins
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I love garage sales that nickel and dime me, but even a dime is paying too much for paper napkins because it was a dime you could have spent on something more durablelike cloth napkins.

I learned about cloth napkins from a friend of mine who grew up in a country where there were no paper napkins. This friend was very frugal and brought up to eat neatly and make that napkin last for one week! She encouraged me to try using cloth napkins and would point them out at garage sales. I had always thought of them as special occasion items that had to be ironed and fussed over, but she used them every day and it didn’t seem to be wearing her out.

 I switched to cloth when we had three kids at home and were using so many paper napkins a week that we might as well have been wiping our mouths with dollar bills! Good cotton or linen napkins can be bought at garage sales and thrift stores for anywhere from 10 cents to 50 cents each. (I don’t like to pay more.) If you are handy with a sewing machine, you can make your own from scrap fabric or old tablecloths  for even less!

I figure that I wash the equivalent of one queen size sheet in napkins each week. (I don’t demand that one napkin be used for a week!) This requires a little water, a tad bit of soap, and my time to move them from washer to dryer (or out on the line) and fold them. 

Do I sometimes use paper napkins? Sure—when I can get them for free! Begonia


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