Michael Beck - The Penny Hoarder

Are your grocery bills getting too high, and coupons getting a bit too scarce?

If you’ve already tried these 22 ways to lower your food bill, and you don’t want to get too extreme and start dumpster diving, then what’s a person to do?

Look around you! There’s plenty of food right under your feet, and it’s all free.

I’m talking about foraging: Gathering wild food that grows nearby, maybe even in your backyard.

You can save hundreds of dollars each month just by taking a walk in the woods. Foraging is gaining popularity, and you don’t have to be a sandal-wearing tree hugger to get into the game.

How I Started Foraging

I’ve been foraging for most of my life -- I just didn’t know it.

When I was a little kid, my grandfather would take my brothers and me into the woods and teach us all about the wild things we could eat.

My brothers and I thought foraging was simply something you did when you got hungry playing in the woods all day. I never thought about it as a way to supplement my daily groceries.

But one day my wife and I were out for a stroll through our neighborhood. One of our neighbors was busily raking up nuts from the tree in his front yard and throwing them into a trash can.

When we asked what kind of nuts they were, he explained the English walnuts were edible, but he had so many that he was sick of them and just wanted them gone! We gathered up as many as we could.

After the English walnut revelation, my wife and I began to notice other discarded or unwanted fruits and edibles all around our neighborhood. We found an apple tree, whose owner was sick of apples. We found raspberries along a walking trail, and much more!

Some foods were literally right next door!

My wife and I enjoyed homemade applesauce, fresh fruit, walnut breads and delicious salad greens, all compliments of our neighbors.

How Foraging Helps Us Save Money

We managed to save a couple hundred dollars off our grocery bill that summer -- while barely trying.

This got my wife and me excited about the possibility of finding our groceries, instead of buying them.

During peak months, foraging helps me cut my grocery bills by about a third. I usually spend $400 on food every two weeks, but at the height of the summer, I’ll only spend $250 or so. That means I save about $300 a month.

Foraging is a seasonal activity, especially in a northern climate like ours, in Ohio -- so you have to eat seasonally. (In some warmer climates, you can find wild things to eat year-round.)

Plus, it’s also a cool way to eat foods I wouldn’t be able to find in a grocery store, like pawpaw, or that wouldn’t fit in my normal food budget.

For example, a pound of black walnuts costs around $14 -- a bit pricy for my grocery budget. But there’s a black walnut tree in a park near where I work, and no one but me seems to know they’re edible.

It’s not uncommon for me to be able to gather a bushel (about 40 pounds) or more of apples off one tree. Apples usually go for around $2 a pound, so I can save $80 right off the bat.

If I make some of those apples into applesauce, I’ll increase my savings, and if I can the fruit or applesauce in jars, I can enjoy it year-round.

A pint of blackberries can go for as much as $6. You can easily get a pint a week from a wild blackberry bush.

Some of the other options I find around my home are ramps, persimmons, elderberries, wild mushrooms, black cherries, acorns, cat tail, hickory nuts, pawpaw, grapes, pears, apricots and maple trees.

I find these both wild and in the yards of people who don’t want to bother with the fruit anymore.

From these, I make salads, breads, pies, jellies and jams, dried fruit strips, puddings -- or just eat them raw. The possibilities are limited only by your creativity!

I’ve found two great benefits about eating foraged foods: I save a lot of money, and I lose a lot of weight during the summertime.

How to Know What’s Edible

How much money you can save really depends on how familiar you are with your surroundings -- and obviously, you don’t want to eat anything you aren’t sure is safe and edible.

The more foods you can positively identify, the more options you have available.

I try to become familiar with one new edible plant species every few months. It’s like expanding my own personal grocery store, one item at a time.

Don’t worry if you don’t know much about foraging -- there’s lots of help out there to get you started.

Falling Fruit

One of my favorite resources is fallingfruit.org.

The site compiles data from volunteers all over the globe and loads it into a detailed, interactive map, so you can easily find your nearest apple tree or vines of wild grapes.

I was surprised to find two apple trees on the map within a quarter-mile of my house. There were even reviews of the apples from people who had already picked some!

This site is also helped me discover I’m a big fan of mulberries.

Peterson’s “Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants”

This book is a good starting resource for foragers.

It has plant descriptions, pictures, advice on where to find them and simple ways to enjoy them. The author also includes warnings for plants you want to avoid.

Foraging Groups

If you don’t want to go it alone, there’s an entire community out there dedicated to the art of finding your dinner.

People from all walks of life get together and share their love and knowledge of foraging.

For example, The Wild Foodies of Philly like to get together and discover wild edibles around the Philadelphia area.

It usually costs nothing but your time to meet up with one of these groups. A quick internet search of most cities will reveal the foraging foodies in your area.

If one-on-one help is more your style, take advantage of a regional class. For $50, Pascal Baudar will take you out into the California wilderness and teach you what’s edible, what you need to avoid and what can be used as medicine.

You can probably find people willing to explain foraging one-on-one through a local foraging group.   

Will You Try Foraging?

My advice is to start simple, looking for fruits and vegetables you easily recognize from your supermarket.

Then, if you want to branch out, get someone to help expand your knowledge of your natural edible surroundings.

And always remember: If you’re unsure, don’t eat it.

Finally, when you learn about the wild edibles nature provides, pass your knowledge on to others.

I’ve started taking my four-year-old son with me when I go foraging, using the time to teach him about the wild, much like my grandfather did with me.

My son loves our walks in the woods, and he enjoys the best classroom setting nature can provide. When my other two children get a little older, I’ll definitely take them out with me, too.

At the very worst, we enjoy a walk in the woods. At best, we come home with dinner!

So now that you know there’s food out there for the taking, there’s no reason you should pay for fruits and vegetables you can find near your home… for free!

Your Turn: Have you ever tried foraging to save money on groceries?

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. Adding these links helps us keep the lights on in The Penny Hoarder HQ, which makes it a lot easier to play shuffleboard after a long day of deal-seeking!

Michael Beck is a penny-pinching novice forager from Cleveland, Ohio. He is a father of three picky children who will eat nothing he puts on their plate, no matter where it came from.

You probably think saving money has to be boring, hard work.

I say, let’s play a game instead! And if you’re good at it, this game can help you save a lot of money.

About 13 years ago, my wife and I bought our first home -- and were immediately dead broke. Every last cent we had went into the house. Money was a sensitive issue, and we ended up fighting about it almost every day.

That is, until we decided to play a game.

One day, we decided to go out to eat at a fast food restaurant, but realized we only had $10. Instead of trying to find more money, we decided to see if we could both eat lunch for less than that.

Turns out, eating at a fast food restaurant for less than $10 and leaving full is pretty darn easy.

Let the Games Begin!

The next weekend, we decided $10 was too easy. So we went down to $8, then $7, then $6.

Pretty soon, my wife and I were enjoying restaurant meals for less than $4. I think our best was around $3.75, and required several coupons and a discount.

Our dining out budget went from an average of $25 for a meal each weekend to well under $5 -- a yearly savings of over $780, and we still ate our fill!

Stepping Up Our Game

We realized we were onto something, and the game spread to other areas of our lives.

We took a look at our expenses, and realized we were spending a lot on gas. So we each filled up our tanks and challenged each other to see who could make a tank of gas last the longest.

Instead of driving everywhere, we’d bike or walk -- if we could. Also, instead of making multiple trips to the store or other places, we’d wait and combine errands into one big trip.

Turns out, we were able to cut down on our gas consumption by half, saving us a combined $100 a week. Plus, we had the added benefit of all the extra exercise from biking and walking everywhere.

I lost the first gas challenge, but we managed to save about $5,200 in a year!

Taking It to 0

Now it was time to set our sights on our entertainment budget, which was around $200 per month when we began.

We wanted to increase the challenge -- we were becoming experts at this game. So we picked an entertainment budget of $0. Nothing. Nada. Zip. And we decided to do this for a month.

It turns out there’s lots of free stuff to do. We began using our local library to its full potential -- checking out books, movies and music. We also checked out all the programs it offered, like lectures and interest groups.

We also decided to explore our local stores, and did some window shopping. Usually, we’d just drive by all the little stores and shops. During the “no-spend entertainment month,” we took the time to walk through each store and found some interesting things.

We also used our public facilities to their fullest potential, visiting the many parks, trails and free museums. There was even a summer festival in town -- completely free.

Turns out, spending nothing for a month of entertainment, especially in the summertime, is also pretty darn easy -- it saved us roughly $2,000! Cha-ching!

The Big Game

Our final challenge was our utility bill.

This was a lengthy game, but an infectious one. It began slowly, turning off a light here and there, but it grew into a monster.

We began turning off lights even if we left the room for less than a minute. We hand-washed dishes. We hung clothes out on a line instead of using the dryer and we read books or went outside instead of watching TV.

When the warmer summer months came around, we held off turning on the air conditioner as long as we could by opening windows. Why turn on the air conditioning if the house only gets hot enough to use it for a few hours each day?

All of our energy reduction efforts added up and we cut our bill well below half. It went from around $300 to $150 or less -- an annual average savings of $1,800!

The Budget Game’s Lasting Effects

We felt good about what we were doing for the environment, too. The game is over, but we still hang our clothes out on the line, and it has to get pretty hot for before we turn on the air conditioner.

Playing these games can add up to quite a bit of savings -- we saved almost $10,000!

And it’s fun. The higher the savings goal, the more challenging the game.

Creativity is key. Just remember, have fun and make a game of it!

Your Turn: Have you created any games to help you save money? Let us know in the comments!

Michael Beck is a retired Army officer who currently works in Cleveland, Ohio. He enjoys being frugal, playing with his kids and making the most of what’s free in the world.