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How to Start Your Own Produce Co-op

After reading the post and comments about Bountiful Baskets, Deja wrote and asked if she could share how they set up their own produce co-op very similar to Bountiful Baskets. Her article is packed with great information if you’re looking for a way to save money on produce. -Crystal

Guest post by Deja Armstrong

Several years ago, a friend of mine came up with the realization that we were spending lots of money buying fresh produce for our families. We live in Texas and don’t have Aldi.

My friend decided to see if we could save money by buying fruits and veggies by the case and splitting them among several families. Our co-op was born out of this idea and it’s been 3 ½ years of great savings.

Here’s how you can start your own co-op:

1. Contact the Produce Manager (in person) at your favorite grocery store.

Tell him or her that you know 15 to 20 families who are are interested in regularly purchasing about $300 to $450 of produce each week. Say that you’d like to work with him or her to come up with a volume discount for making a consistent large purchase.

Like the rest of us, Produce Managers are responsible for their productivity and sales, so knowing that they can boost their weekly numbers by several hundred dollars should be appealing to them.

Now, you can’t go in and ask for a unilateral 20% discount, but you can try to get a good deal for you and your friends. Generally, my store gives me a 15-20% discount on my entire purchase. Sometimes, though, the savings are much more.

2. Come up with a cost per family to participate and spread the word.

In our co-op, we have “Shares.” Single Shares are $15 and Double Shares are $28. I give a Double Share a discount because they often are easier to sort. I tell people that a veggie-loving family of four to six will eat through a double share in less than a week. Smaller families or those trying out our co-op opt for the Single Shares.

Once you have your cost, then you start telling everyone you know about what you’re trying to do and get their commitment to try it. For our group, we do not place an order with less than 18 shares. In my experience, my Produce Manager is more generous with the discounts when I’m spending over $350.

The last time I calculated, a $15 Single Share at market value was about $23. (I checked the price of produce at the store I bought my cases and Walmart.) That savings is bigger with a Double Share. In that instance, you’re getting about $46 worth of produce for $28.

3. Find out what fruits and veggies your friends like and loathe.

People won’t order each week if you buy strange things. At first, we got cauliflower every week and quickly found out that people didn’t like it that much. Now I get it every few months. If you’re a spreadsheet person, make one. I just write it down in my notebook.

We tend to get the basics. Each week I order romaine, loose carrots, bananas and apples. These generally are well below market value prices, so I always get them.

Then, we add items like broccoli crowns, green beans, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, corn, tomatoes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, asparagus, avocados, celery, oranges, pears, peaches, nectarines, kiwi, mangoes, strawberries and grapes — “normal” foods. While I may like artichokes, I don’t assume everyone else does, so I try to stick with mainstream fruits and veggies.

I also buy seasonal fruit and vegetables because the prices are even lower.

4. Research case quantities and weights.

Ask your Produce Manager how many items or pounds are in cases of the things you are considering. For me, romaine comes in cases of 18, carrots are 25-pound bags, strawberries in flats of eight and apples are in 40-pound cases. These are important things to know, so that you know how many cases you’ll need to purchase in order to meet the needs of your group.

5. Prepare an order based on how much money you have.

When I’m ready to place my order I have written down how many Single and Double Shares I have and how much money I have to spend. I come up with the list of items I’d like to buy and write down the pre-arranged prices for certain items and my “hopeful” prices.

I call my Produce Manager and we work through my list. Sometimes we negotiate. Other times I’m told “This is the best price I can give you.” I take it or leave it, based on what I have to spend. I try to buy five to six different fruits and five to six different vegetables.

I also keep track of each week’s order, so I don’t order the same items consecutively. I keep all my co-op information in a notebook. You can come up with a spreadsheet or print out a chart if you’d like. Notebook paper works for me.

What does a Produce Day look like?

On Produce Day, I go to the grocery store and pick up my produce. My husband takes the back seat out of our minivan so I can get it all in there. I meet up with the manager and we go over the order. It usually is sitting in the cooler on a cart for me. Once we double-check everything, I go to the check out to pay while a member of the produce department loads my van.

We unload and begin to sort into laundry baskets. (Each co-op member is responsible to have two laundry baskets marked with their name to use for their co-op purchases. They pick up their full basket each week and drop off their empty basket from the previous week.) We determine how many items go in each basket based on how many shares we have. Many items have the actual case count printed on the end of the case, or the Produce Manager has told me how many items are in the case.

Often, I end up with leftovers after evenly dividing everything. If I have 18 Single Shares and six Double Shares, and nine apples, the Double Shares get the first six, and the rest go into an “extra basket.” The extra basket gets the random carrots or whatever that doesn’t evenly divide. It’s first come, first served for people to take whatever they want from the extra basket. Also, my cantaloupe or asparagus-loathing folks can put theirs in the basket, and take a handful of whatever they want to make up for it.

I have a 30-minute window for people to pick up their baskets. When they come, they bring their empty basket and sit it on my front porch, and then pick up their full basket. Often, they will also pay for the next week, so they only make one trip to my house.

My total time investment is about two to four hours each week. The bulk of that is on produce pick-up day. It might take a bit more time upfront getting things organized, but once it’s running, your time investment is much less.

What do I get out of running this co-op?

First, I take a free Single Share of produce for every 10 Shares sold. I do purchase Shares to help us meet our 18-Share minimum, if necessary. However, usually two to four hours of work gets me $40-$50 in free produce for my family. Since I do all the work, folks in my co-op don’t mind me taking free produce.

When calculating how many shares I have, I add my shares to the total, but don’t add the money. So I’m buying 30 shares of produce, with 28 shares of money.

The co-op also gives my children a chance to practice their math skills while sorting. And it gives them a excellent opportunity to serve others by lugging cases of produce into the dining room, sorting hundreds of apples, opening the doors, playing with littles while mom visits and carrying baskets out to vehicles. While we know many people in our co-op, there are many others who have joined by word-of-mouth. That has given us a tremendous opportunity to minster to others.

Deja Armstrong has been married for 16 years and is a homeschooling mom to 5. She spends about $400 per month on groceries. She’s values family and is about to launch a Titus 2 blog for women in her church.

Photo credits: ValsPhotos; Colin; tifotter

28 “Extreme” Measures We Took to Stay Out of Debt

After reading Frugal Granola’s post on the extreme measures they took to get out of debt, I thought it would be fun to think of a few “extreme” measures our family took to stay out of debt. Now, for many of you, probably none of these things are very extreme, but compared to the average American, they are pretty counter-cultural.

The 28 items listed below each saved us at least $100 per year — if not much more! And it’s because of being willing to make sacrifices like this that, by the grace of God, we stayed out of debt while Jesse was in law school and lived on around $12,000 per year.

As our income has increased, we’ve relaxed a bit on how extreme we are (I think there’s plenty of room for occasional “splurging” if you’re out of debt and living below your means!), but we still do many of these things.

1. We lived on a very strict zero-based budget.

2. We were almost 100% cash-only.

3. We lived in a small apartment.

4. We didn’t go out to eat, except a few times per year — and then it was usually a fast food restaurant where we’d use coupons and eat for less than $7!

5. We cooked from scratch.

6. We had one car – an older, used car.

7. We readily accepted hand-me-downs.

8. We shopped at thrift stores.

9. We got books and DVDs at the library.

10. We stayed home alot.

11. We didn’t pay for a cell phone.

12. I cut my own hair.

13. We used cloth diapers.

14. We used coupons to get the majority of our food and household items for pennies on the dollar — feeding our small family all 21 meals per week for $30-$35 each week.

15. We played the Drugstore Game.

16. We bartered — from car repair work to clothes, we weren’t ashamed to ask if an individual would be willing to barter with us.

17. We negotiated discounts on necessary purchases and regular bills.

18).We used a birth center, instead of a hospital to have our first baby thus significantly lowering our out-of-pocket costs.

19. We reused and made-do as much as we could.

20. We pretty much didn’t buy anything for our baby for the first entire year.

21. We stopped worrying about what other people think.

22. We worked really, really hard — constantly looking for more ways to pinch pennies and creative ways to bring in a little extra money.

23. We only ate meat a few times per week — and only then as a “condiment”.

24. We didn’t pay for internet — we got a free AOL three-month trial and when we called to cancel, they kept voluntarily extending our subscription!

25. We kept our home pared down to the basics and sold anything we didn’t use.

26. We didn’t use a babysitter. Since we weren’t living close to family, the first time we left our daughter was when she was over two and a half years old!

27. We didn’t exchange Christmas or birthday gifts of any sort until about four years into our marriage.

28. We prayed a lot. And God was always and has always been faithful!

What about you? What “extreme” things do you do or have you done in order to get out of debt and/or stay out of debt?

Being Frugal in a High Cost of Living Area

Guest Post by Kelly from My Friend Kelly.

I’ve always found amusement in the personal finance conundrum regarding low versus high cost of living areas (COLA). Hence, “If you’re in a high COLA, move to a lower COLA to pay less on a house, taxes, groceries, etc.” And the contradicting advice, “If you need more income move to a high COLA to find more jobs. Sure you’ll pay more for gas, daycare and insurance but you’ll be making more!”

As a California resident and now home owner, I’ve found there are ways to thrive financially in an expensive region without a sixfigure salary. Here are eight:

1. Ignore the National Averages, they’ll just depress you.

Yes, gas is higher in California than probably 46 other states. The first time this occurred to me was when a friend visited from South Carolina and kept taking pictures of our gas stations. And when gas prices were nearly $5 a gallon, all the news seemed to cover was how cheap it was everywhere else.

So while it may be cheaper to gas up in Nebraska, comparing the two regions is an exercise in frustration. Instead, focus on what you can control, finding the best deal in your city. This doesn’t mean you need a 75-page price book for every item available at Wal-Mart, just focus on the few things you’ll buy over and over again. Use the internet and price-matching sites to get the best idea of merchants that consistently offer the best deal.

You can do this with gas stations, hotels, oil changes, restaurants, pretty much any product or service where you want to cut costs. This chart shows the average cost for living and housing in all 50 states and if you’d like to see how your expenses measure up regionally check out this site.

2. Work. Really, really hard.

It’s very tempting for me to leave this out of the discussion but for the last year and a half I’ve worked 2 or more jobs simultaneously. At times, that means 80-hour work weeks and 2 days off each month. If it is feasible to pick up a second job, even short term, you will likely find more opportunities in a high COLA. It is not unusual for professionals to have more than one job and as long as you don’t violate company policy, and performance standards are met, employers should understand as well.

High COLA economies typically have more job opportunities because commuters spend more time away from home and tend to rely more on convenience shopping and services. Business and industrial areas have hotels and a variety of restaurants that are supported by business traffic.

3. Hard work goes beyond reporting for duty at a workplace.

If your utility rates are high you’ll want to make your home more energy efficient and monitor your usage. If you are willing to do the work you will enjoy lower costs even in an expensive area. My home is a half-plex and the reduced square footage and shared wall help keep my costs low.

Many of my friends have young children and have made the choice to forgo a career short- or long-term. These moms and dads work very hard themselves. They’re often utilizing “free” time to seek out the best values for their family, helping relatives and friends as needed and focusing an incredible amount of time on raising amazing kids. If you consider the cost of such services if provided elsewhere, you can quickly see how a parent’s hard work for their family will bring about significant savings as well as non-monetary benefits.

4. Control major costs.

Living in a high COLA doesn’t mean giving in to sky-high expenses without thinking. Sometimes when everyone else resigns to paying a premium, smart shopping can reveal lower cost options. Housing, for example, is almost universally more expensive in high cost of living areas and can make a major dent in the most frugal budget.

The cost of my first home was nearly half the median housing cost for my state. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a mansion and I don’t work in real estate. There are disadvantages to owning a half-plex, but the smaller mortgage is not one of them. When the standard encourages excess, look for reasonable prices and modesty. This might mean a 6-year-old car that was traded in for a new model but has plenty of miles left or a house without all the amenities we’ve come to expect.

When you’re considering your monthly budget don’t just look at where you can save with coupons. Take your top three expenses — usually housing, transportation and healthcare — and examine your options. If you trim even just 5% off major costs the impact will be significant.

5. Embrace your locale.

California is a cornucopia of agriculture. So much is produced here that locals can and should take advantage of it. There are fruit stands in many counties and the grocery stores carry local fresh produce nearly year round. Take some time to identify what your state or county produces in abundance.

In New York City, its affordable entertainment — there are restaurants, live theater and museums for every budget. On Hawaii, it’s fresh air, beautiful beaches and affordable swim accessories. Resident discounts are sometimes available and allow locals to take advantage of parks, recreation, and attractions during the slower off-season.

Check out your city website for festivals, tours, local interests and major industries. Enjoy the perks your community has to offer whether its hiking, music festivals, golf courses, boating, gardening or earning side income from the tourist trade.

6. Know What’s Cheaper

Public transportation is more readily available in densely-populated areas and more employers are increasingly likely to subsidize costs. Zipcars, trains, extensive bus route and bike trails enable thousands to get around without buying, licensing, insuring and fueling a car. Find out the options in your own area and even if you cannot forgo a car, substitute for other transportation when it is feasible.

Communities with a local university system or community college provide opportunities for low cost continuing education not to mention bring apprentices into your community. Beauty schools often give great haircuts at a reduced price so students can practice. My local community college allowed residents to drop off broken appliances for students to practice repairs. This saved a trip to the dump and provided hands-on experience. And $30 in tuition paid for a summer semester of pool access where students can swim laps for college credit.

Campuses also have a thriving used book market, lots of free boxes the week after the semester starts and a variety of clubs and facilities which may be open to non-students.  In my current town the university runs a mobile vaccination clinic staffed with vet students that travels each weekend providing low cost shots and medication under the direction of an experienced veterinarian.

High COLA economies also have an abundance of choice, whether it’s four car dealerships on one block or a page of Mexican restaurants in one zip code. This competition drives down prices. This is a little harder in a rural area when the only shop in town knows you’ll have to drive an hour to gain any significant savings.

It may not be worth your time to find the cheapest taco for date night once a month but if you’re hosting a party or buying a car, the savings could be substantial. Get several quotes for infrequent expenses like landscaping, professional cleaners, painters or large purchases like cars, appliances and computers.

My friend, Andrea, for example, recently purchased a newer car and “basically pitted 2 dealerships against each other and it worked!” She reports the car was “$3500 less than MSRP and $1000 below invoice.” For more tips check out this highly recommended site to successfully negotiate bank fees, salaries, cable costs and credit card interest rates.

7. Adjust Inflated Expectations

Cost of living is most easily described as the monetary cost of basic necessities: food, shelter, clothing. The measurement also tracks the consumer price index which includes non-essentials.  It may be more expensive to get a massage, see a movie and eat out in my city but that doesn’t mean I’m obligated to frequent those businesses.

It may be more expensive to go to the movies in your town but you can compensate by going less frequently, finding coupons, seeing movies when you visit another town, or substituting with rented movies at home.

When it comes to durable goods the internet is the great equalizer on price. Before the popularization of sites such as eBay and Amazon you were limited to the prices set by local merchants.  Now we can search to compare apples to apples and given a few days shipping time have the lowest price available. Whether that’s finding the best price on toilet paper or trucks, the internet is in many ways the best marketplace.

8. Try Something New

There will be times, no matter how hard you try or how much you save otherwise, that you cannot cut your basic living expenses. We cannot negotiate with utility providers or get lower insurance rates without risking essential coverage. You may read tips on this site and lament the fact your major grocery chain isn’t featured very often or you don’t have a local CVS.

In those times it will help to get creative and try something new.  It may result in a new grocery shopping experiment, giving up paper, or downsizing your home.  Living in a high cost of living area can be challenging and it can be rewarding. But don’t be afraid try something new.

Kelly is a 25 year old single homeowner living in Northern California. Despite a high cost of living and tough job market, Kelly has created a cozy home without acquiring debt. Now just $3,000 away from eliminating student loans (the last of consumer debt), Kelly just took her first trip abroad, decorates from the thrift store, and enjoys teaching financial awareness. Kelly blogs at My Friend Kelly.

photo credit: meironke; Ed Yourdon

Ask the Readers: Extending the life of fresh produce?

Today’s question comes from Shannon:

I love fresh produce. I especially love getting it on sale. However, I can’t stock up for a month because it will go bad. How can I extend the life of my fresh produce? -Shannon

I’ve found that certain fruits–such as apples and citrus fruits–can keep in the refrigerator for up to 3-6 weeks. So when I find a good deal on a quality batch, I’ll often buy enough to last for the next two to four weeks.

Other fruits and vegetables don’t fare so well, but I often freeze those I’m able to buy them on a great sale. Chopped onions and green peppers freeze well and can be used in soups, stews, and casseroles once thawed. You can see my method for freezing tomatoes here.

Bananas and berries are exceptional when frozen and used in smoothies. I also often use frozen bananas in Banana Bread or muffins.

How do you extend the life of your fresh produce? Tell us about it in the comments.

Have a question you’d like me to pose for our weekly Ask the Readers feature? Email it to me and I’ll be glad to consider doing so.

Ask the Readers: How do you save on pet care?


Emily emailed in the following question:

I’m writing because there is an area of our budget I haven’t been able to trim: pet care! Our dog was our first “baby” and we got him when we were both employed. Since that time, I got laid off from my job in sales and chose to stay home with our two small children.

While we’ve adjusted our food budget, as well as most other areas of our finances, I’ve yet to adjust our dog food. We raised the dog on Iams, which is good food but quite pricey. We’re hesitant to switch, as dogs normally don’t fare well during the switch. And some cheaper dog foods are just JUNK!

I’d love suggestions on where to find high-value coupons or how to cut our spending on dog food. Thanks so much – Emily

While we don’t have any dogs–yet!–I do know that My Pet Savings is a great blog to follow if you have pets of any kind. You’ll find lots of ideas, coupons, freebies and more for pets there.

Aside from that, I’m pretty clueless when it comes to saving money on pets. But I have no doubt that my readers are a wealth of wisdom when it comes to this subject.

So chime in with your great ideas on saving money on pet food and how to trim the budget when it comes to pet care without sacrificing quality.

Have a question you’d like me to pose for our weekly Ask the Readers feature? Email it to me and I’ll be glad to consider doing so.

Save Up to $20 Per Year By Switching Fonts

Rochelle from Scripture Adventures sent me the link to this fascinating article today. Maybe you all know this, but I certainly didn’t:

MILWAUKEE – Here’s a way you might save $20 this year: Change the font in the documents you print.

Because different fonts require different amounts of ink to print, you could be buying new printer cartridges less often if you wrote in, say, Century Gothic rather than Arial. Schools and businesses could save thousands of dollars with font changes.

Data on the subject from Printer.com, a Dutch company that evaluates printer attributes, persuaded the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to make a switch. Diane Blohowiak, coordinator of information-technology user support, has asked faculty and staff to use Century Gothic for all printed documents. The school also plans to change its e-mail system so it uses Century Gothic.

“The feedback we’ve gotten so far has been positive,” she said. “Century Gothic is very readable.”

The school of 6,500 students spends about $100,000 per year on ink and toner cartridges. Although students and staff can change the default font to something more ink-intensive, Blohowiak said the university expects to save $5,000 to $10,000 per year with the font switch.

When Printer.com tested popular fonts for their ink-friendly ways, Century Gothic and Times New Roman topped the list. Calibri, Verdana, Arial and Sans Serif were next, followed by Trebuchet, Tahoma and Franklin Gothic Medium. Century Gothic uses about 30 percent less ink than Arial.

The amount of ink a font drains is mainly driven by the thickness of its lines. A font with “narrow” or “light” in its name is usually better than its “bold” or “black” counterpart, said Thom Brown, an ink researcher at Hewlett-Packard Co., the world’s top maker of printers.

Also, serif fonts — those with short horizontal lines at the top and bottom of characters — tend to use thinner lines and thus less ink than a “sans serif” counterpart.

Read the full article.

photo by Renway2007