One effect the Great Recession has had on the United States is that being frugal has become fashionable again—which is just fine in my book. As part of my usual perusal of various frugality and personal finance resources, I have explored some familiar and less familiar ways of saving money on groceries in an effort to answer the question of whether or not a the elusive free lunch exists.
The Method: Extreme Couponing
- Time commitment: Pretty high, at least at first. In order to get the sort of extreme deals we all hear about on TV and online, you have to learn the coupon policies at various retailers, figure out sale cycles, sign up for circulars or newspapers, and actually clip coupons (in most cases).
- Savings potential: High—it’s not hard to find stories about people who get toiletries for free and giant tubs of pasta sauce for less than ten cents.
- Other considerations: If you have food allergies or an otherwise limited diet (e.g. if you’re vegetarian, vegan, on a low-sodium diet, etc.), coupons are often less useful, as the best deals tend to be on non-specialized foods.
- Free lunch? Maybe not. But free toilet paper, toothpaste and shampoo seem like a definite possibility.
The Method: Dumpster Diving
- Time commitment: Variable. Divers have to find dumpsters with viable food products, scout out times of day when “diving” is unlikely to disturb anyone, and possibly deal with objections from the owners of the establishments connected to the dumpsters.
- Savings potential: Very high—after all, what you pull out of the dumpster is completely free.
- Other considerations: The obvious ones jump to mind here: overall unpleasantness of looking for food among garbage, the potential to find spoiled goods, the moral dilemma many face when considering dumpster diving. In a country that wastes an estimated 40 percent of its food supply, some argue that it’s silly not to dumpster dive; however, the other side contends that those who can afford food should pay. Plus, all the same pickiness considerations listed above apply here.
- Free lunch? Possibly. But it may not be well-balanced or especially fresh.
The Method: Foraging
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew about this technique long before Sunday circulars came out with glossy sales from week to week. But can modern-day, city-dwelling humans get enough calories from wild foods alone?
- Time commitment: High. Foragers need to spend serious time studying plants in their area and then actually go out to look for the food. Plus, preparation is important, as some wild foods taste unfamiliar to our palates and must be cooked just so.
- Savings potential: Extremely high. This stuff is just growing and nobody’s asking for payment.
- Other considerations: On the plus side, foraging can be a fun outdoor activity that can double as exercise. On the minus, less-than-careful foragers risk eating poisonous foods and seriously injuring or killing themselves. See time commitment.
- Free lunch? Possibly. But you’ll have to spend some time gathering it and some more time cooking it.
The Method: Gardening
- Time commitment: Variable. Depends on the season and type of crops.
- Savings potential: Moderate. New gardens in particular take a little money to get started, but, if done right, most can let growers break even or go into the black.
- Other considerations: Again, the outdoor time can provide amusement and exercise. Plus, gardens can introduce new (healthy) flavors to your plate.
- Free lunch? Nope. But probably a delicious one.