How British Columbians are tackling rising food costs with coupons, apps, bulk buying groups

·4 min read
Food prices climbed 3.9 per cent since last September according to Statistics Canada. A recent study has found that 39.5 per cent of British Columbians are using coupons more often in 2021 than in 2020. (TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock - image credit)
Food prices climbed 3.9 per cent since last September according to Statistics Canada. A recent study has found that 39.5 per cent of British Columbians are using coupons more often in 2021 than in 2020. (TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock - image credit)

For Darrell Ellens and Elaine Morine, grocery shopping can mean purchasing nearly 300 bottles of barbecue sauce or 12 prime rib roasts and steaks in one trip.

The married couple from Abbotsford, B.C., have been extreme couponing for the last 10 years — collecting and using coupons, which typically offer discounts, to save as much money as possible on their shopping.

"We're probably saving $5,000 to $10,000 a year on our groceries," Ellens said.

Ellens and Morine are among the British Columbians changing their shopping habits and looking for deals amid rising food prices.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

According to Statistics Canada, food prices across the country have increased by 3.9 per cent since last September, while inflation has been at its highest rate in almost two decades.

The price of meat has increased by almost 10 per cent, dairy by five per cent and edible fats and oils by 18.5 per cent.

The increases have been attributed to pandemic labour shortages, unfavourable weather patterns — like drought — in the northern hemisphere, and increased oil costs, says Sylvain Charlebois, director at Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

"We actually are expecting those factors to linger into the new year as well," Charlebois said.

Extreme couponing, says Ellens, helps sustain their pantries and appetite for low-cost groceries, which they purchase for themselves and donate to non-profits, friends and family.

Coupons and cashback

Compared to 2020, 39.5 per cent of British Columbians are using paper-based or digital coupons more often this year, and 41.6 per cent are using weekly flyers more, according to a recent study by the Dalhousie University Agri-Food Analytics lab.

Ellens and Morine organize binders of coupons they collect from grocery stores, neighbours and online, like the Facebook group Extreme Couponing Canada.

Baneet Braich/CBC
Baneet Braich/CBC

They also use free apps like Flipp, which takes a user's postal code and sources flyers from nearby stores for price matching — where a retailer prices an item lower to match the same product's price at a rival store — and Checkout 51, which offers discounts on items like groceries and gas, as well as opportunities for users to earn cashback by taking a picture of their receipt.

"When you learn to save on dairy and meat, you learn to save on cellphone bills and any other type of bills," Ellens said. "It's the learning to save that really makes the difference."

Combatting food waste

While not everyone has the capacity to be extreme couponers, there are other ways they are saving on groceries. Research by Charlebois' team has found that 39.5 per cent of British Columbians are buying discounted food products with imminent best before and expiry dates.

Others use food waste-saving apps like Too Good To Go, which features grocery stores, bakeries, cafes, pizza shops and other food businesses that make discounted 'surprise' bags of surplus food for purchase.

Too Good To Go
Too Good To Go

Each bag's value is about a third of its content's original total price, says app manager Sam Kashani.

"That's significant savings for the consumer for a meal that otherwise would have been thrown out," he said.

Bulk buying groups

Private bulk buying groups are another option, where people with similar food preferences split the costs of bulk purchases.

"We can afford to buy the more sustainable organic options, which would be harder to get if we were just buying individually," says Tammara Soma, research director and co-founder of the Food Systems Lab at Simon Fraser University.

Soma says her group of roughly 10 members "basically get close to wholesale price" on their orders.

Sticking to the basics

Murray Baker, a financial literacy expert at Family Services of Greater Vancouver, says simple actions like making a shopping list and sticking to it help save big bucks in the long run.

"You're more likely to stick to it and not buy a lot of things that you didn't intend to out of impulse," he said.

He also suggests buying fruits in season and freezing them to avoid buying imported fruits that are likely to be more expensive because of shipping bottlenecks.

Consumers should ask, "how much of this fresh produce can I use in the next two or three days when buying produce," he said.

"And if I can't use it, can I freeze it?"

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC
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