By Lars Peterson
After "cooking more meals at home," most frugal living enthusiasts suggest "buying in bulk" to cut food costs. And it's true, those big jugs of ketchup and giant packages of ground beef from Costco really can trim your food budget, especially if you plan meals and have organized storage.
For even more savings, though, you have to look beyond the discount retailers and go straight to the source. Because we're talking large quantities of stuff, you'll need some significant storage space. And, most likely, someone to share it all with.
1. Buy a Whole Steer or a Pig
Folks in rural parts of the country have been buying whole steers and pigs for decades. Buyers pay for the animal and its feed while farmers raise it, as well as the cost to dress and package the meat. A whole pig may result in over 200 pounds of chops, roasts, bellies, bones and more at $2.50 to $5 a pound. A whole steer, processed and packaged, weighs in around 225 pounds of fresh, local beef at $5 to $6 per pound. Most growers offer partial steers and hogs ("sides" and "quarters") if you don't need that much. You'll just need a large freezer. Check out LocalHarvest.org or a Community Supported Agriculture program to find ranchers near you.
2. Buy a Share of the Harvest
Speaking of CSAs, many local farmers sell shares of their harvests, which consumers in the community can enjoy. This is often a basket or bin of various fruits and vegetables delivered throughout the growing season, although many farms offer more choice and variety. And you'll likely save a good sum. One study in the Review of Agricultural Economics compared the cost of CSA organic produce to store-bought organics and found that CSA produce cost 60 to 150 percent less than retail produce.
3. Buy a Giant Tank of Gas
While this is an option for farmers and ranchers who have the space -- and the need -- for a ready supply of gasoline or diesel, most consumers can't actually buy 500 gallons of gas. Your neighbors won't appreciate the giant tank in your backyard, and the local tax officials will insist you pay up if you plan to drive on the local roads.
However, if you live in or near St. Cloud, Minnesota, you can lock-in a low price by purchasing prepaid gasoline from First Fuel Banks. There is no minimum or maximum to the amount you can buy. If you don't live in St. Cloud, MyGallons sells prepaid gasoline, too, which you can claim at any gas station, anywhere, with a MyGallons debit card or by reimbursement. With MyGallons you can also profit from rising gasoline prices, although that plan might backfire if prices fall (as they did recently).
4. Buy Building Supplies
Many local big-box hardware and building supply chain stores offer discounts if your purchase crosses a certain threshold (it's $2,500 at Home Depot, for example). If you've got a big job coming, ask the Home Depot Pro Desk for a list of bulk supply items -- nails, screws, insulation, floor tile, etc. -- which can be significantly cheaper.
5. Buy Lots of Travel
For real savings, book way ahead, if you can. But if you're a frequent West Coast traveler, Surf Airlines offers unlimited airfare for $1,750 a month (after a one-time $1,000 membership fee), which results in savings in as little as three trips for routes like Carlsbad, California, to Santa Barbara, California. For the rest of us, Amtrak Multi-Ride tickets let you take several tips in a certain period. Ten Multi-Ride tickets between Carlsbad and Santa Barbara, for example, cost $247. Ten individually purchased tickets on the same two-hour route would cost $380.
6. Buy Solar Power
Several home rooftop solar system providers offer bulk discounts, which can trim 20 to 30 percent off the cost of an individually purchased system. Neighbors can form a group or co-op, and when enough households are signed up, the provider begins the installations. The World Wildlife Fund's Solar Community Initiative takes this concept and applies it to employers, allowing them to offer their employees cheap solar power as a job benefit. Workers who participate can enjoy flat-rate electricity savings of up to 50 percent.
7. Buy a Bunch of Almost Anything Else
Alibaba, the business-to-business online marketplace, is not limited to businesses. If you're willing to deal with global shipping and import rules, you can get a lot of practically anything for cheaper than you'd pay retail. For example, a Bloomberg reporter experimented by paying $2,500 for 280 pairs of pants from a factory in Pakistan last year. Shipping cost another $2,000. Add in handling and the cost per pant was about $18.
For less bulky purchases, visit Alibaba Group's consumer-storage friendly marketplace, AliExpress.