I love this question! I get asked this quite often. Here is a list I created to help answer it:
Ten Steps To Save Money On Organic Food
Step One: Analyze Your Budget
Take a month and track everything you spend money on - I mean EVERYTHING down to the soda from the vending machine to the bottled water at the gas station. At the end of the month, take a look at your expenditures and categorize them into the following areas: bills, groceries, gas, entertainment, other food, and miscellaneous.
Doing this is eye-opening for the average American. If you are anything like I was when I did this last year, you will notice that you spend way more than you thought you did on random food outside of the home (my biggest expenses were drinks from the vending machine at work and tea at the local coffee shop).
Take an honest look at your budget and ask yourself, "Is eating organic food really important to me?" If it is, then ask yourself what you are willing to do without in order to afford the added expense. Our family does without cable and expensive cell phone plans. We haven't gone out to eat at a restaurant in almost two years and we do not go on expensive vacations. These are things that we do in order to eat the way we do. Our health is just a huge priority for us.
Step Two: Prioritize
Now that you have squeezed some extra room into your budget for organic foods, you need to decide what is most important for you.
For many people it is produce - most people try to avoid the Dirty Dozen (peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes) and only buy them when they are organic. This is because these foods tend to have the highest levels of contamination from pesticides.
The Clean Fifteen (onion, avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, mango, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, papaya, watermelon, broccoli, tomato, and sweet potato) have the lowest levels of contamination, so you can get away with not buying organic.
Here is a full list of contamination levels of common fruits and veggies.
Other people prefer to spend their limited budget on pastured meat or eggs, or dairy products that do not contain antibiotics or hormones. You have to decide what is most important for you and focus on trying to find the best deals on those foods.
Our family tries to avoid the dirty dozen and will only eat pastured meat and eggs. We prefer raw milk, but when I run out and have to buy at the grocery store, I refuse to spend $5 on a carton of ultra-pasteurized, organic milk. I prefer to buy the non-organic milk that says it is free of hormones and antibiotics, and isn't ultra-pasteurized. It costs half as much and tastes much better to me.
Step Three: Try To Grow Your Own
Obviously, not everyone lives on a farm and is able to raise their own animals or milk their own cows, but we can take the foods that are most expensive in the store or that we like to eat the most and try to cut costs by growing them ourselves.
I posted last year about a family who lives in the middle of Los Angeles and created their own urban homestead. If they are able to love almost entirely off of 1/4 acre in the middle of the city, just imagine what some of us could do who have even more land!
If you live in a neighborhood that has strict laws about growing gardens or having animals, you may want to look into edible landscaping. You could remove all of your decorative flowerbeds and instead plant fresh herbs, edible flowers, fruit trees, berry bushes, etc. in place of them. You could also plant vegetables in pots and place them on your back deck or near a window inside of your home.
Some neighborhoods will even allow you to have backyard chickens as pets, so long as you don't have any roosters (they are a bit too loud).
The more you grow yourself, the more money you save.
Step Four: Stop Buying Processed Foods
Processed organic foods are a joke. Do we really need organic brownies? Organic cookies? Organic frozen burritos? Just because they say "organic" it doesn't make them healthy.
I will admit that if given a choice between a regular frozen burrito or an organic one, I would probably choose the organic one because I can usually pronounce all of the ingredients. But when you buy processed foods you are paying for convenience.
If you are going to buy processed organics, you can find some coupons here.
These organic processed foods cost nearly twice as much, sometimes more, than their non-organic equivalents. For example, there are some very popular brands of organic salad dressings that you can buy at major grocery chains for around $5 per bottle. Their non-organic equivalents are less than half that. But even the non-organic brand is too expensive when you consider how little it would cost to make it yourself, which brings me to...
Step Five: Start making food from scratch
I used to be obsessed with Amy's brand organic soups until one day I realized that for the amount of money I spent on one $4 can of lentil soup I could buy enough bulk lentils to make soup for our entire family.
Now I pretty much make everything from scratch - soups, noodles, burritos, breads - you name it. It saves so much money - of course, you have to factor in the amount of time spent cooking and decide whether or not it is worth the money saved.
But this goes hand-in-hand with step two - what are your priorities? Take a look at how you spend your free time and see if there are ways you could squeeze out an extra half an hour a day to make some homemade crackers or to juice your own apples. You'd be amazed at how much free time you have in a day - you just have to decide how you want to spend it.
You could also ask for some labor-saving appliances as gifts on your next holiday. A bread-maker will do everything for you - mix, knead, bake - and it will only take you five minutes to throw your fresh, organic ingredients into it each morning. Other items like juicers, dehydrators, canning supplies, food processors, gardening tools, etc. will help you save time.
Step Six: Start going directly to the source
The closest Whole Foods or Trader Joe's to where I live is almost an hour away. Not only would I spend a fortune in gas driving there to shop every week, but the food there is ridiculously overpriced.
But my other option where I live (in the middle of nowhere) is a small health food store that also has very high prices. I used to go to that store to buy my meat and then one day I noticed that the name on the package was local. Why not just drive to the farm and save some money?
So that's what I started doing. We now get our raw milk, eggs, meat and a majority of our produce from farmers in our area. There are so many benefits to doing this - you save money, you get to see the health of the animals, you get to learn about how the farm operates and whether or not it truly is organic, you get to keep your money in your community, etc.
Many people feel lost and don't know where to start looking for local sources of organic foods. Here is what I suggest - first, start going to your local farmer's market. If you're not sure when and where it is, contact your city (township, village, etc.) officials and ask who you need to speak with. The person in charge of the farmer's market may even be able to give you the names of some of the vendors to start your search.
Next, ask around at your local health food store (or other places that healthy people seem to be). Ask the owners where they get their meat, eggs, or milk from. My local store even has bulletin boards with information available about local sources for many foods.
You can also get involved in community supported agriculture and find a co-op near you. This way you can get cheap, fresh, organic produce practically delivered to your front door every week.
Finally, start attending your local chapter meetings of the Weston A. Price foundation. This organization has so much information to give to you and many times they hold mini-farmer's markets at the meetings so you can purchase organic foods at a good price. This is an excellent source for raw milk products.
Step Seven: Buy In-Season
I posted about the benefits of eating in-season produce last year. If I need to buy a food that is out of season and I have a choice between frozen and fresh, I generally buy frozen, because I know it was probably picked when it was riper (and it costs much less).
There is a reason why those organic mangoes cost so much in Ohio in the middle of February - they don't grow anywhere near here in this climate. When you buy out of season not only are you sacrificing the nutrient content of your produce, but you are basically paying extra to have the food shipped to the store. Instead, start purchasing only the foods that are in-season (do a google search to find out which seasonal foods grow near you).
Buy as much produce as you can when it is in season and then learn how to preserve it for the winter months, which brings me to...
Step Eight: Learn how to preserve your food
When something is on sale, buy a bunch and either can it, freeze it, or dehydrate it. This will cut down on your winter grocery bills and is also the only way you can guarantee that the produce you are eating in the winter was picked fresh and is local.
Frozen fruits don't taste very good once they are thawed if you are going to eat them plain, but they are wonderful in smoothies, desserts, and as purees/sauces.
We like to use a dehydrator to dry out all of our fresh herbs and save them for later use. You can also make your own homemade fruit leather with the dehydrator.
Step Nine: Buy in bulk
It's always cheaper when you buy more. At my farmer's market, many vendors offer deals when you buy in bulk (buy your apples by the bushel and they cost less than by the pound, etc.).
I have found that buying my meat in "bulk" makes it much cheaper. We purchase a half-beef every 9 months or so and we have calculated that it works out to be around $18/week for our pastured, all organic-meat (2 adults/2 children eating beef 3 times per week). That is comparable to what we would spend on non-organic beef in the grocery store if we bought on a weekly basis.
There are also farms out there, like this one, that offer organic foods in bulk at very reasonable prices. I used to order from this company, with a group of people, and get all of my dry goods for very cheap. We did it in a group because there are minimum amounts required for delivery. Once a month our group would place orders and one of the group members would pick up our orders and be responsible for separating them out. It was work for the person in charge, but it saved a lot of money.
Step Ten: Eat less/Waste less
According to this source, Americans throw out an average of 1400 calories per person every single day. Think about how many times you let that bag of lettuce go bad before you toss it, or let the milk spoil before anyone drinks it. If you factor the amount of money you spend on food that gets thrown away every month, I bet you could put a small dent in your organic grocery bill.
Instead of throwing things away, learn to preserve your produce before it gets a chance to go bad. If you buy more apples than you plan on using in a week, try making some applesauce with the rest. If your milk is spoiled, learn to make cheeses and other dairy products from it. If you make too much food and have leftovers, instead of letting them sit in the fridge for a few days and go bad, try freezing them for later use.
Learn to use everything so that you don't have to waste it. For example, when you buy a large broiler chicken, don't discard the carcass and drippings after you cut away the meat. The drippings can be frozen and used for gravies at a later date. Place the carcass in a crock pot or oven with some water and make your own homemade broth that can be used for a soup. I've seen organic, free-range chicken broth for $4 in the grocery store. Why would you pay that when you could get it for free from one dinner's worth of "waste"?
So there you have it. If you learn to do these things, you can significantly reduce your organic grocery bill. I'm not going to lie, eating organic for cheap is A LOT more work, but remember, buying processed foods is expensive because it is convenient. I have found that once I moved into an organic "mindset" I started taking pleasure in the work - the preserving, the cooking, and now the gardening. What used to be a chore has now become a hobby in which I can even involve my children.
It is also important to remember that every little bit counts. It would be nearly impossible to eliminate every single but of exposure to pesticides and toxins in your environment. We all try to do the best we can. Find what foods are most important for you and start with those. Eventually you will find ways to cut back your bills so you can afford other foods.
When my family started eating this way we were spending over a thousand dollars EACH MONTH on our grocery bills. I am happy to say that I now spend an average of $600 per month (we eat every meal at home) on a family of four on a diet that is almost completely organic and the extra work has become such a part of my routine that I don't feel like I am missing out on anything by putting forth the extra energy.
Good luck on your organic adventure!