Local store pride. Did I mention I got this bag for FREE?

Local store pride. Did I mention I got this bag for FREE?

Whenever I’ve mentioned to people that I shop almost exclusively at Whole Foods and my farmer’s markets, I’ve generally been met with one of two reactions: 1) Disbelief; or 2) The assumption that my grocery bill is sky-high, and therefore J. and I must have oodles of money to burn.  When I’ve explained that we don’t spend much more on food than many of our national-chain-shopping, bulk-buying, organic-avoiding neighbors — and that when we do spend more, it’s because we’ve made a conscious choice to prioritize good food over, say, cell phones or fancy clothes – I’ve been met with blank stares.  Nobody believes me.  Except, that is, for Sally of Real Mom Nutrition.  When she and I got to chatting about groceries at the Family Dinner Conference this spring (as you do, obviously; now you know what food bloggers talk about when they get together), Sally immediately said, “There’s a post in there – you should write about how to shop at Whole Foods on a budget!”

I can’t tell you how to spend only $50 a week to feed your family, or any such thing. But it IS possible, nonetheless, to figure out ways to shop at “higher end” stores like Whole Foods without totally massacring your bank account – and I think it’s going to become increasingly important to do so.

That is to say, it doesn’t have to be Whole Foods, strictly, but as our food supply becomes increasingly less trustworthy and predictable, and more and more studies come out proving what many of us have suspected all along – chiefly, that Roundup is NOT okay, and that certain artificial ingredients, supposedly “harmless” food additives, and GMO foods may really be a disaster for our health – I think it will become crucial for families who can do so, to find ways to spend their food dollars at the few places that are making commitments to safer food production.  Whole Foods is one of those places, like it or not (and I know there are many who don’t like it); they’re committing to becoming 100% GMO free in the next year, they’re already totally dye-free, they don’t sell any meats that have been raised with antibiotics or hormones, and their seafood is all MSC certified.  There are very few places to buy food in this country that have done even a fraction of the things Whole Foods has achieved, on the scale on which they’ve achieved them.  And that means that, for now at least, they’re one of the few places I feel I can comfortably spend my food dollars without having to constantly think about where things came from.  (Farmer’s Markets are the other.  Trader Joe’s is a qualified “occasional” supplement.  And that’s pretty much it, at least where I live.)

If you’ve been afraid to set foot in Whole Foods for fear your wallet would actually disintegrate on contact with the store, fear no longer.  This series will show you a few strategies that may not net you safe, high-quality food at Wal-Mart prices, but will certainly help you take a second look at the old “Whole Paycheck” joke.

TONIGHT’S TIPS: Becoming an insider.

1. Subscribe to the store flyer AND social media feeds.

The best thing about social media, in my opinion, is the way it gives you insider information.  By following the Facebook feed for my local store, I not only get to see the sale flyer and the “Whole Deal” guide to coupons and store values – I also get to be one of the first people to know about flash sales and one-day deals.  Just recently I saw a posting on their page for a one-day deal on pastured whole chickens, and was able to email the delivery folks (yes, our Whole Foods has delivery service – I am SO spoiled!) and ask them to add a few of those cost-effective birdies to my order for that day.  By knowing about every opportunity to save money at our store as soon as the news breaks, so to speak, I can really make sure that I’m getting the best deals on the foods we buy regularly.

2. Work the bulk discounts.

And I’m not talking bulk bins, either.  This is a well-kept secret that I bet a number of you have never heard: At most Whole Foods stores, if you know you’ll use quite a bit of a certain product – jarred tomatoes, for example, or a specific cereal your family enjoys – you can get a “case” discount on it if you ask to purchase it in bulk.  Typically the discount is 10% off the total price if you purchase the whole case.  While that may not seem like a huge amount, every bit helps, especially if you can also manage to engineer your case purchase for a day when the item is already on sale, or use coupons to help further lower the cost.

3. Get to know your store personnel.

Whole Foods has impeccable customer service.  It’s part of their brand, it’s part of their success, and it comes in handy.  The more you get to know the people at your local store, the more you may find that you get little extras — which can add up to dollars.  For example, our Whole Foods staffers routinely offer me free samples of new products they think I’ll like (and no — they don’t know I blog), or give me the store-brand price on a more expensive substitution if they’re out of an item I need.  And even if you can’t get that kind of relationship going with your store, their return policy alone is a potential source of savings for you.  Whereas I’ve had to argue with employees at other stores over returning spoiled or damaged products, Whole Foods will take practically ANYTHING back and replace it or refund you — no questions asked.  Once, I had to return milk two weeks in a row, and they were so apologetic that they replaced my spoiled store brand milk with a much pricier high-end organic line.  For free.

But maybe you’re not going to be a ROUTINE Whole Foods shopper, or you’re not super-comfortable with forging relationships with grocery store employees.  That’s okay — come back tomorrow for Part Two of the series, when I’ll be sharing how we save on high-priced items most people are afraid to buy at Whole Foods (meat, anyone?).