Living Rural and Eating Healthy on a Tight Budget

Welcome to the October 2012 Natural Living Blog Carnival: Ethical Shopping Choices This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network. This month our members have written posts about how they make purchasing choices.

I’ve always been a frugal shopper and strive to save money on groceries. Even more so the last eight months since I resigned from my full time job to stay home and raise our baby. Money has been a lot tighter and I’ve embraced the challenge of finding ways to live more simply and frugally while still feeding our family healthy, wholesome foods.  I wrote a post in the spring titled “Natural Organic Eating on a Budget” about ways we were saving money on groceries and still able to afford buying natural and organic foods on a small budget. I’ve been doing so much more since then so I’m going to share with you a variety of ways we save money on groceries.
Living in the rural west creates a complicated food situation for us and makes ethical food choices difficult. Due to the climate, we have a very short growing season and there is not much industry here. This means that the majority of the foods we eat that are purchased at the grocery store are trucked in from out of state and sometimes even from out of the country. While we support buying local when we can, a lot of times in the rural west that is just not an option. 
There are a few local natural food store options but they are expensive and we don’t have access to larger natural food chain stores with lower prices unless we drive a minimum of three hours or more. Food prices and the cost of living are high in our area and the incomes are low but we all accept that as part of  the price of living in beautiful western Montana. For us this means that to make ends meet and thrive on our limited income, creative frugal living is a must!
Several years ago I discovered a discount Amish grocery market about 45 minutes from our house up on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Since I grew up in an area with a lot of Amish families, I especially look forward to going to their market and being able to find special treats like Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer and Amish made foods.
The Amish market carries a portion of bulk dry goods, Amish made meats and cheeses and also scratch and dent merchandise (a lot of which is natural and organic). Sometimes the foods are outdated but the majority of the time the boxes are dented or smashed so sold at a lower cost. I am conscious to check expiration dates on items before purchasing and don’t mind a smashed box!
Although I love driving up to the Amish community, the trip is 49 miles one way. It is a gorgeous drive that goes past the National Bison Range and has a spectacular view of the Mission Mountain Range.
Mission Mountain Range St. Ignatius Montana
The view from the parking lot of the Amish market.

As I drove up there last month to stock up, I started thinking about how much time and fuel I was spending on the trip and wondering if it was worth it. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 49 miles one way for a total 98 miles round trip. 
  • I average 45 miles per gallon in my Jetta TDI (Turbo Diesel)
  • Fuel cost was $3.94 per gallon
  • The trip cost me approximately $8.59 in fuel plus an afternoon of my time which is hard to put a price tag on!
Were my savings on bulk and damaged merchandise worth that?
  • 8 bags of organic Puffed Kamut cereal for .99 per bag, cost is $1.99 per bag at the natural food store in town so a total savings of $8.
  • Six boxes of organic cereal $1.99 per box, at the natural food store $4.99 per box. Total savings of $18.
With just the cereal purchases I easily covered my fuel costs and had additional savings on top of that! 
Looking over my Amish market receipt, I estimate that I saved well over $35 by shopping there and buying bulk and damaged boxed goods instead of shopping at the local natural food store. While it is a shopping trip that takes up a whole afternoon, it is well worth the drive and my time and energy spent for the cost savings. Plus buying in bulk means I won’t have to make the trip often, probably just once every few months!
So what else have we been doing to save money on food and personal care items?
  • Buying dried beans instead of canned
  • Making homemade crackers 
  • Baking bread instead of buying from the bakery in town
  • Buying blocks of cheese to shred and freeze in 2 cup quantities to use in recipes
  • Making homemade cream of mushroom soup
  • Making homemade yogurt
  • Making homemade cream cheese
  • Making our own trail mix
  • Salvaging free wormy fruit to make and freeze applesauce
  • Volunteering at the local community garden in exchange for a pile of produce
  • Hunting for our meat (check out the Women in Hunting Series for more on this topic!)
  • Making homemade chapstick 
  • Making and using wool dryer balls instead of buying dryer sheets
  • Trading and bartering for things like produce and natural soaps 
  • Making homemade ice cream 
  • Canning, freezing, and dryingfruits and vegetables 
  • Making sourdough starter and using it for homemade breads, muffins, and snack foods
  • Buying staple dry goods in large bulk quantities
  • Not being shy about stocking up on a sale item! I often get funny looks when I check out with 8 tubes of organic toothpaste or 10 bags of cereal but when an item we use regularly goes on sale I stock up. The funny looks are worth the money it saves me by not having to buy at full price. Plus I only have to buy toothpaste 1-2 times a year!
Other ways we’re going to try to save money on healthy, wholesome food:
  • I just found out about a new local business called Big Sky Family Foods that delivers a box of fresh organic produce to your door every other week for $10-$15 less than the cost of buying it at the local health food store. They also sell bulk dry goods for lower prices and have free home delivery. We’re going to try this one out and compare the cost savings to shopping at the local natural food store and see if it really is worth it!
  • Plant a larger garden next year (hopefully living on more property and off grid by then!) to grow and preserve even more of our food.
  • Start making more homemade personal care items and homemade cleaning products like laundry soap and dish washer soap.
What are ways you save money on groceries while still buying healthy foods for your family? Do you buy in bulk and have any tips to share? Do you live in a rural area and have limited access to affordable healthy foods?

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  1. says

    I think that view alone makes the trip worth it! I love the list of ways to live frugally. I am happy to say I do most of those but would like to make more of my own products as well as stocking up when there is a sale.

  2. says

    You did GOOD on your shopping trip! I think it would’ve been worth it for that view alone :) I also loved all your tips for keeping wholesome foods enjoyable. Gotta admit that link about wormy fruit caught my attention, that’s my next stop lol

  3. says

    We have an Amish market about 25 minutes away from our place here in PA and it’s fabulous! I haven’t gone in awhile, but your post is inspiring… I think I’ll head up there this week! :)

  4. Jeannette McDonald says

    I love reading your blog! The view from the Amish Market is amazing and makes me want to move to Montana. We have been working towards living more simply and self-sufficiently, especially since moving back to PA. I have been making my own laundry detergent for about 4 years now. It works well and is a huge savings. I’ve also been making my own face wash and eye makeup remover for the past few months with great results. I’d be happy to share the recipes if you’re interested!

  5. Anonymous says

    Great post Annie. I have to pick your brain about sourdough one of these days because I keep trying it and have failed over and over again, ending up with big hard bricks of cooked dough that are rather inedible. See you soon! Dawn

  6. says

    Aren’t those turbodiesels just fantastic beasts? Since I got mine, I’ve become a real mile-miser – contrary to what they say, that more fuel efficient cars make you drive more. I’m now regularly picking up orders for 3-4 families; love the idea that I’m keeping 2-3 other cars off the road.

    • says

      Thank you for sharing your post on chapstick! I’ve tried kicking the chapstick habit in the past, I’ve never been able to completely give it up since it is so dry out here in Montana!

  7. says

    I found you through Frugally Sustainable and this was a GREAT post for me right now. I am trying to reduce our food spending as a family and get our budget so that we can afford to live on just my husband’s salary, thus freeing me up to do more freelance work and be home with the kiddos. I almost think I would do better at being on a budget if I lived somewhere that I had to be more conscientious of how much time/energy it takes to get to the store. I grew up in a rural town in central CA and that is how it was. If my mom ran out of something for a recipe, she made things work without that. Me… Yeah, I’m in the suburbs, so I can just run out and get stuff. It is also hard to shop ethically and frugally at the same time, sometimes. I like that you acknowledge that! Thanks for the post (sorry I just rambled!)

    • says

      I’m a rambler too so I love your long rambling story and am so glad you shared :) Your comments totally made my day, knowing that this post has been helpful for you on your frugal living/spending journey! When I lived in town I had the same issue where I could easily run to the store if I needed something but now that we live out of town I find myself doing what your mom did and figuring out what to supplement and make due!

    • says

      Thanks Becky! That’s exciting that you’re starting to make bread and yogurt. It has actually turned into a really fun adventure for me to figure out what else I can make homemade and save us money-plus it always tastes better than store bought!

  8. says

    what a fabulous post!! i really liked the cost breakdown – sometimes a bit of work like this makes things so much clearer and easier. people tend to respond to money… well done :)

    also, love the bartering of items – it really shows the true value of something rather than an assigned “cost”.

    thank you for sharing with us at the Wednesday Fresh Foods Link Up! i look forward to seeing you again this week with more seasonal & fresh/real food blog posts :) xo, kristy

  9. says

    We live where there is an Amish store only about 10 miles away! I’ve never thought about going there for items! I guess we have an untapped resource here. Also, I didn’t know you could make your own chapstick or crackers! Great ideas!
    Sam Herrmann

  10. says

    That picture is wonderful! Reading this post just reminds me of how I long for a rural life again. I lived most of my life in the central PA. countryside but traded it in [somewhat unwillingly] for urban NY and my husband’s job.
    Love the post!

  11. says

    What a great list. I really love the list you comprised of how you save money! We do a lot of those things but there are a few I have been dying to try! I would also love your recipe for homemade chap stick! I wouldn’t even know where to start

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