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Monday, July 4, 2011

Shopping at the Farmer's Market

Growing up in the American Midwest, one of my fond childhood memories is going with my mom on a trip to the open air market. Seeing all the ethnic vendors at their stalls, each extolling the virtues of the products they're selling, and seeing the vast array of products available for sale... Its an experience that can't be beaten. For someone who thrives on sensory input, for someone in love with all the colors and smells and sounds you can find in such a market... Wow, words can't even begin to describe the experience.

For the purpose of this post, I'm going to refer to all these markets as outdoor markets. These include farmers markets where you buy directly from the farmer, and open air markets where they sell all sorts of things, usually food but also many other things. Open air markets were around long before supermarkets, corner groceries, or much else. They're still found in the US, especially in the summer, and in more exotic locations, they're open year round, sometimes in the most interesting places (like along a train track)! Check out this site I found with pictures and links to descriptions of colorful markets around the world.  

Outdoor markets are a very frugal alternative to supermarket for buying all sorts of things. Supermarkets have a high overhead; they have to pay the warehouse managers, shelf stockers, cashiers, cleaners, sales managers, and much else. They also tend to buy from middlemen instead of directly from the farmers, which raises their prices so they can make a profit on top of the profit that the middlemen already made. 
Outdoor markets, however, tend to be no frills affairs. Without the wide open aisles and fancy labels, many workers, and often without even a middleman, the prices are able to be kept to a minimum. Best of all, all the competition in one area tends to bring down the prices everywhere in obvious price wars. 

Today I was in the city and went to the open air market, something I don't often get a chance to do because of its distance from my home. Based on my past experiences at the open air market, I wanted to share some of the best (in my opinion) money saving tips so that when you shop at your local farmer's market or open air market, you too can get the most bang for your buck.

Saving Money at the Farmers Market

Come armed with prices
One of the most important ways to save money at the farmers market is by making sure you're aware of how much things usually cost in other places. So many people I know go to the outdoor market for all their grocery needs, assuming that they'll be able to get the best prices for everything there. I, on the other hand, used to think that buying veggies and meat at the market was a good idea, but I've discovered that when my local grocery store has their frequent sales, I'm able to get food for a fraction of the price charged at the market. 
For example, I know that I can frequently get most of my vegetables for 12 cents a pound when I shop on the sale day at my local grocery. So even though 40 cents a pound for cucumbers and tomatoes sold at the market sounds decent, its not as cheap as the 12 cents a pound I can usually pay. Also, I often buy whole chickens for $1.15 per pound on sale at my local supermarket; buying the same thing at the market for $2.10 would therefore not be a good deal.
On the other hand, I know that other than melon, citrus fruit, and apples, even the in season fruits at the cheap grocery don't get any lower than $1.30 a pound, and for some fruit, no lower than $1.85 a lb. Therefore, when I saw these fruit being sold at the market for 65-90 cents a pound, I knew that it was worthwhile to buy it there.
When you have no clue how much things usually cost and just assume that everything there will be cheap, you're deluding yourself and will probably spend more money than necessary. If, however, you come armed with knowledge, you can make sure that your trip to the market is as frugal as possible.

Check out all the prices in all the stalls first
Last week I was in the farmers market and saw fresh apricots being sold for $1.05 a pound. My local grocery store never sells them for lower than $1.30, so I jumped at the opportunity and bought 2 pounds. 20 feet further into the market, I see yet another vendor selling apricots for only 79 cents a pound. You betcha I was annoyed at myself for paying the higher price, and wanting to gt the most for my money, and in awe at the amazing price, I bought yet another 2 pounds of apricots (and telling myself that at least that way, the average price I was paying for all those apricots was even lower). What do you know- another 10 feet in and I see apricots being sold for 65 cents a pound.
I definitely was kicking myself for this! I absolutely should have checked out all the prices, and not just been complacent to pay a low price- the frugal way is to pay as low as possible, not just "lower than you would otherwise".
Today in the market, I learned my lesson. Before buying anything, I walked throughout the whole entire market, looking at prices and making mental notes. For example, when I saw grapes I paid attention to their price; when I saw another vendor selling grapes at a lower price, I remembered that number instead. I did that with all the fruit. Once I finished my supermarket tour, I was armed with the knowledge of the lowest price for each type of fruit in the market. On my way back, I didn't need to remember which vendor had the best prices; I just tried to find a vendor with a price as low as the one in my head. If your head isn't good with numbers, write these prices down on a paper. Today, I bought grapes, plums, nectarines, apricots, and apples, and I am positive that I got them for the best possible price.

Set a budget and stick to it.
One of my biggest issues with going to the market is that there are such enticing aromas, sights, and tastes. I salivate at all the wonderful goodness available in the market that I can't buy at my local grocery. Specialty cheeses, exotic fruits and vegetables grown by local and faraway farmers, parts of animals you never see being sold in the grocery store (and didn't even know existed), artisan breads and pastries, ethnic stalls selling spice mixes, legumes, and finished products, and the largest arrays of colorful fruits and veggies are all available to buy, tempting you to empty out your wallet and buy a lot of everything! 
Before you come to the market, decide how much money you're willing to spend, and bring that much cash with you, helping you stick to your budget. Until I started doing that, I always ended up a lot poorer after going to the market, even though I ended up with a lot of food! Its really hard to keep track of just how much you're spending when its just a dollar here, two dollars there, and its not all rung up at the end like in the grocery store.
Another thing you may want to do is budget different amounts for different things- perhaps a set amount for your usual produce, a set amount for specialty produce or treats (this time my treat was a few fresh leechie nuts), a set amount for cheeses, a set amount for meat/fish, and a set amount for prepared goodies. You may reach the end of your cash stash and realize you didn't pick up certain things that you needed,  like these don't usually allow returns, leaving you with a problem. By compartmentalizing your budget, you're less likely to blow all the money on fruit, leaving nothing for meat, for example.

Don't be afraid to haggle. 
Part of the fun of going to the market is the knowledge that prices aren't set in stone. Prices are relative, and if you try your hand at haggling, you may get prices that are significantly lower than what is written. The simplest way to do this really is to walk away after the vendor shows you his wares and say "Sorry, you're asking too much for this". In many cases, the vendor will offer you a lower price to entice you to buy from him. Another simple way of haggling is to (honestly, because lying isn't right) say "I saw the same exact product at a different stall for a lower price, price x." Many times vendors will sell you their product at that price, hoping to keep the sale for himself. This saves you the trip to the other vendor, even if it doesn't save you so much money.

Go at the end of the day
Most vendors pride themselves as having fresh, fresh foods. They bring in a new supply every day, and at the end of the working day, will pretty much do whatever it takes to sell every last bit that they have. Towards evening (or whenever it is that the market closes), you'll often see prices marked down dramatically, prices like you've never seen before. If you have the option, try to take advantage of these amazing sales to pay the least money for the most food. Just note that your selection will be much more limited towards the end of the day, as many products will have been sold out already.

Combine trips. 
Farmers and open air markets often are a bit of a drive away from where people live. With rising gas and transportation costs, you may end up spending more money on transportation than you saved by shopping there.  Try to go to the market only when you have reason to be in the area anyhow. Today, for example, I had a funeral to go to near the market, which is why I made the trip. If I don't have anything to do in the area, I won't generally spend a lot of money to travel in to save a couple of bucks. Now though that we're eating more produce and more fruit because of being gluten free, I may end up making the trip more often, because the amount of money I save by buying fruit at the market increases the more fruit we end up eating, making the expenditure of the trip worthwhile.
Alternatively, carpool with a friend and split the cost of the gas, to save you transportation costs. Another option is to go only once in a while, buy a lot, and preserve the food to last between trips.

Buy only as much as you can use. 
Spoiled uneaten food doesn't save anyone money. Don't overbuy just because the prices look good if that means the food will end up in the trash. Buy only as much as you think your family will eat. Or, as mentioned above, buy with the intention of preserving. Freeze, dehydrate, can, ferment or make into jam to make the food last longer without worry of spoilage.

Don't be afraid to ask for a sample
If you see a food that looks tempting, but you're not sure whether or not you'll actually enjoy it, ask the vendor for a sample. Usually vendors will be happy to oblige, and in fact, there are many vendors that hand out samples without your even asking to prove to you just how delicious their wares are. ("Taste this melon, it is as sweet as honey" is the refrain I hear the most in the market.) By tasting the food first, you won't end up wasting money on something you won't even eat.

One last tip that, while not money saving per se, will make your shopping experience at the market much more pleasant:
Bring a wagon or cart
There aren't usually shopping carts available at farmers markets (ok, I've never ever ever seen one in any outdoor market I've ever been at) and carrying all the products you buy can be quite heavy and difficult on your hands/arms. Bringing along an empty stroller or a collapsible shopping cart or even a simple red wagon to carry your purchases will make your arms thank you and will allow you to take full advantage of all the deals you find.

I absolutely love going to the market; its an experience like none other.
One word of warning- open air markets can be very overwhelming for someone who gets sensory overloads easily. (My husband is one of those. He can't be in the market for more than 5 minutes without getting agitated and itching to leave.) If you or one of your kids are bothered by loud noises, by hustle and bustle, or by too many visual stimulants at once, going to an outdoor market is not for you.

Do you shop at farmers markets, open air markets, ethnic markets, or anything of the sort?
What do you like best about this type of shopping? What do you like least? Do you find that shopping at an outdoor market is a money saver or a money trap for you? What are your tips and tricks to save money at the outdoor market?

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