Save Enough on Meat to Buy a Chest Freezer

by Carrie Kirby on 29 September 2009 28 comments

I've been thinking a lot this year about where my family's meat comes from and how to fit more natural and less cruelly raised meat into our $80-a-week grocery budget. I knew a bulk beef purchase could solve these problems, but I was reluctant about investing in a bulk freezer and spending hundreds of dollars on meat upfront.

Then by chance I was connected with a farmer who I absolutely loved, who genuinely cares for the cattle he raises and doesn't use hormones or prophylactic antibiotics, who grazes them and also gives them pesticide-free corn he grows himself. We took the plunge, bought the freezer and now we've got a year's worth of meat in our basement.

We paid $422 for half a side of beef and $350 for the chest freezer (on sale at Sears). It seemed like a lot to pay up front, but once I crunched the numbers, I realized that I saved enough on the meat to pay for the freezer!

Here's how the math worked for us:

The half side of beef was 158 pounds hanging weight. That translates to about 134 pounds of meat, according to the University of Minnesota Extension. So we paid about $3.15 a pound, and that includes delivery and the "cutting fee."

Before this, I was paying about $6 a pound for hormone-free, antibiotic-free ground beef. Yes, I would occasionally get some at a lower sale price at Super Target, but I preferred to buy directly from the farmer so I could make sure that cattle were being allowed to graze instead of living on a crowded feed lot. At my farmer's market that meant $6 a pound.

So assuming my entire "quarter cow" was ground beef, I'd have saved $2.85 a pound, or a total of $381. In reality, of course, my freezer now holds several T-bones and porterhouse steaks as well as roasts and plenty of sirloin in addition to ground beef.

But that $381 savings paid for my freezer. It doesn't pay for the electricity to run the Energy Star freezer, however. I'm not really sure what that will cost and won't know until I get my first power bill since turning it on. I'm hopeful, though, that the additional savings when you figure in the many cuts of meat I got will far outweigh the electricity costs.

Since I have an $80 a week limit on buying food for my family, I'm putting aside money each week until that $422 is accounted for. If I save $20 a week it will be "paid for" in 20 weeks. Since I have a large stockpile of nonperishable groceries in the house and of course don't have to buy meat at all, I'm hopeful that I can put aside more than $20 a week and pay the money back to my savings account within a couple of months.

Besides the cost savings, the big advantage of making a bulk meat purchase is not having to worry about what meat to buy week after week. The decision is made, and it's a decision I feel great about.

There are disadvantages to a bulk purchase like this as well, of course: The monthly electricity cost, the risk of losing the investment in a power outage or equipment breakdown, and the risk of the meat losing its quality before it all gets consumed. (The USDA advises that most cuts can be frozen "4 to 12 months" without losing quality, but ground beef only 3 months. So I guess we better eat up that ground beef first.) Then there's the fact that we had to buy over 100 pounds of meat (we split the side with my parents) which translates to more than two pounds a wee, more than we would have normally eaten.

But the advantages far outweigh those disadvantages for me. I think a lot of others would also benefit from doing this! In fact, I'm now looking into splitting a pig with my parents to feed that freezer even more.

If you, too, are ready to take the plunge and put a side of beef (or a half side) in your basement, here are some resources:

Eat Wild's State by State Directory of farms that sell pastured meat

How to Buy a Side of Beef from Get Rich Slowly

Cowpooling: Share a Side from Mark's Daily Apple

Side Buying Q&A from Rivercrest Farm

 

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Guest's picture
JustAGuy

Hello Carrie,

Great post! I liked your analysis on costs etc. I would like to have a deepfreze, but the wife and I are still renting so no room for now. I would like to hear you follow up on this. Did you find it easy to make use of all that meat? how much electricity do you think the deep freeze uses? What else do you use your deepfreeze for?

Great Job!

Guest's picture
A

Great post! And I, too, would like to hear more about how it goes.

Guest's picture

I've been thinking of doing this. My question is how big of a chest freezer do you need to fit in a quarter of a cow? I've been pricing freezers, but I'm not sure what size I need. Thanks!

Guest's picture
Jennifer W

We did the exact same thing last fall, the new freezer and got a quarter cow from a farmer in Wisconsin. It was about 3 hours drive to go get the meat, which was actually a nice day trip and even with last year's gas prices only added about $15. We are just now on the last of the roasts from October last year, and just picked up the meat for this year so the freezer is full. We have used the ground beef, roast, steaks, all year long and I have to say the quality of the local grass-fed beef is amazing, and we did not have any drop-off in quality as the year went on. (despite what the USDA says about freezing) The way they are packed there is no freezer burn issues. The savings more than paid for the freezer and it truly is great to know where the meat you eat comes from and buying in bulk really cuts down the cost considerably. Sure, ground beef in a 20 lb thing at Costco is probably cheaper per pound, but who knows where it came from, what microbes lie within and what hormones and chemicals those cows ingested.

Guest's picture

Carrie, would you mind also posting a typical meal plan and grocery list that you use? How many people are you cooking for and how old are they?

I just haven't been able to spend only $80 a week since I was a newlywed over twenty years ago. I have tried everything I know to cut back such as coupons, store brands, bulk items and I still can't get it down. I would really love to hear more on this.

As for the deep freeze, it is well worth the money. Ours finally died a couple of years ago and due to other economical issues, we just don't have enough to fork up the cost to begin with. In fact, my oven just died and the money I planned to use for a deep freeze was poured into a new range, which is being delivered tomorrow.

Anyway, I can't stress enough that meat in bulk with a deep freeze is an essential money saver. For small families a smaller deep freezer works wonders too.

Guest's picture
cindy

Hi, great post. I've been wanting to do this but wasn't sure if I would really save any money,or just spend it all on electricity and buying more than I really need. Thanks for the info.
I also would be interested in your typical menu.I'm feeding 2 hungry men,assorted girlfriends and a grandchild so sure could use some money saving recipies!!

Guest's picture
Guest

buy a power generator in case of a power outage...

Guest's picture
Diasdiem

Unless you're expecting to be in a disaster area, with long-term power outages, you don't need to take such a precaution. You should be okay if you avoid opening the freezer as much as possible. This isn't as much of an issue with chest freezers as upright freezers, as the cold air doesn't spill out like it does with uprights, so it stays colder longer. Also, if you have any available freezer space, take some empty milk jugs or other containers and fill them with water and freeze them. Not only will this help keep your freezer cold in even of a power failure, it will also save power, as a full freezer runs more efficiently.

Guest's picture

My uncle still raises cattle. He normally sells them but this year my dad and him split one for meat.

The meat is excellent. I am not sure how large the freezer is but it is one we have had for a long time.

It is excellent way to reduce cost and improve your overall quality of meat. I would suggest everyone look into it.

Just be prepared for the variety of meat you can get. It won't all be steaks :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Nice to see someone else doing that. Got my 5.5 cu.ft deep freezer yr and a half ago. Friend keeps me supplied with her family's too much deer meat but I also stock up on local meat producer's stuff by getting bulk. This food buying style is getting to be the norm in Iowa where I live. Buy direct bulk meat from producers to cut out the Swift/Tyson humongous meat processors and grocery store middlemen.
Per pound cost for using a local meat locker processor using decent wage workers is comparable to normal grocery meats and like the article, you are directly supporting a family farm, small town business and if you want organic and free range, fairly humane treated food then it's perfect.

Guest's picture
Guest

I got mine for only $150 Frigidaire at a furniture-appliance warehouse sale. Ave costs $150-$300. If you are single or even a family tons of meat and other items can fit and it takes up less kitchen or basement space and can be used for a tabletop as you should be in/out more than once a day-week to transfer things to your regular freezer-frig.

Guest's picture
Guest

"..can be used for a tabletop as you should be in/out more than once a day-week to transfer things to your regular freezer-frig."

as you SHOULD NOT be in-out of your freezer more than one a day or week.

Carrie Kirby's picture

Thanks for all the support!

@ magnoliasouth: As a matter of fact, I post what we eat on our $80 budget each week on my blog and just put up the latest week here: http://su.pr/1OETbt. There are four eaters in our family (the newborn is still breastfed) but the 2-year-old seems to subsist on nothing but granola bars, cheese sticks and cheerios, and not even much of those. Because my kids are little and my husband is pretty flexible, I'm able to buy pretty much whatever fits my budget.

To those who wanted to know how big the freezer is, it's a huge one but the 1/4 does not fill it up. My husband bought the big one (he says) because it was the only decently priced Energy Star unit at Sears.  

And yeah, Guest, I have already begun to appreciate having a nice, new countertop in my basement right next to the laundry area. I used it to sort out clothes for donation just this week and since we don't need to open it very often, that wasn't a problem.

Guest's picture

Thanks so much! I can't believe I didn't catch your blog. Color me embarrassed.

My biggest problem are all the adults or near-adults in this house right now. I've got four that are over seventeen, plus myself and my husband. Two are boys, so that probably doesn't help. ;) Growing young men are eating us out of house and home.

Enjoy your new freezer! We loved ours until it finally died.

Oh and if a generator is over the limit for you (they're more than the freezer usually), one thing that will help, but not solve a power outage completely is to save as many 2-liter bottles as you can fill them 3/4 full of water, and put them in the freezer. It'll take up space and keep it colder for longer. You can even use a few in the refrigerator if need be.

Guest's picture
daney

You'll find the ground is fine even longer than 3 mo.

We buy all our beef locally, this way.

Well done with "half a side" - for those who wonder why she said it like that, it's not a "quarter" because she shared cuts from both hind and front ends of the side - a quarter would be either hind or front. We have split a side with my SIL's family and have split a whole between my MIL, SIL and our family -

Our post-butcher price ends up much lower and our beeves have been much larger... but maybe that's a regional thing (or breed thing), don't know where you live. We are in Iowa. I think my last beef purchase was 1.95/lb, including processing. I am sure our cow got SOME antibiotics, but it was in a small, grazed herd of about 30 head.

The other advantage is that the local butcher has no incentive to stretch the ground by adding the fatty bits - we purchased the whole weight. We have ground beef that *almost* doesn't need to be drained.

We bought 1/2 a hog this year, as well. Nice to have all that bacon and hamsteak on hand.

Guest's picture
Peter

More than 2 pounds of beef a week?!?! Unless you've got a huge family, you're eating A LOT of red meat.

Aside from the health issues with eating that much beef, you would save more by eating more grains, vegetables and pastas.

Cut your beef consumption in half and you'd save money, not need to buy and operate the freezer and probably be healthier.

Guest's picture
Diasdiem

I am a lazy bachelor. I work all day and I don't like to spend too much of the few hours I have between the end of the work day and bed time cooking when I could be having fun. I own a small 7 cubic foot chest freezer that fits nicely in my apartment, and I only really cook about once a month. I fix several different dishes, portion it out, and freeze it. For the rest of the month after work I just grab something out of the freezer, set in on the counter to thaw a while while I go do something else or until I'm actually hungry, then pop it in the microwave. I've found a lot of side-dishes like rice and pasta freeze pretty well, so you can have a full meal with little effort. This saves a lot of money, because I'm less likely to buy takeout for dinner.

It also saves money because I can buy in bulk when prices are low and store what I don't use. I used to be limited by the small freezer space in my apartment's refrigerator. It also insures that the leftovers that come with cooking for one person don't go to waste. Baked goods also do very well in the freezer. Every time I bought bread I used to lose half the loaf because I didn't eat enough sandwiches during the week. Now I keep it in the freezer, peel off two pieces when I make my lunch each morning, and by the time noon comes around it's as soft and fluffy as you'd like.

Guest's picture
mommydeedee

While I like the idea of this sort of bulk buying, and have a small freezer myself, I have yet to come round to doing this kind of thing, as it seems it would wipe out my meat budget on one type (beef) of meat for a long time.

Do you eat chicken, pork or fish?

Are you working other meats into your $80 a week equation, and if so, how?

Guest's picture
kooler

Definitely go with the chest freezer, not the frostfree upright model and keep in mind they're not designed to freeze large quantities so don't overload with non-frozen foods... Even the large 20-30 cu ft models only have a 1/3HP compressor that moves 1100-1300 btu/hr which isn't alot... Defrost the inside freezer walls of ice buildup regularly by emptying and blowing a fan or hairdryer inside; no sharp instruments... Another tip to realize is most models expel their heat thru the outside walls of the freezer so butting a unit against a wall, or wall heater, next to other appliances, or in a hot laundry room can hamper the heat transfer and cause longer compressor run-time... Just a good tip or two from "kooler", a freezer guy... cheers

Guest's picture
Rachel S

This could be completely untrue, and I would hate to endanger anyone's health if it's wrong, but my take has always been that if you thaw a raw cut of meat, cook it thoroughly and then freeze the dish, you can start "counting" again. So if your family eats less meat and you find yourself with frozen raw meat that is reaching the end of its freezer life, you could do a big batch of cooking and refreeze.

But again, I need someone to confirm that this is a safe option.

Guest's picture
Peter

I think you are right in the sense that it's not going to make you sick, but it might not produce the best results.

When frozen items reach the end of their recommended frozen life span, it's not because they are suddenly going to become harmful and make you sick, it's because the taste, flavor and condition of the food is deteriorating. So you won't get sick, but it won't taste good either.

So, taking food that is already marginal in quality, cooking it, freezing it for some more time and then eating it is going to produce a meal that you probably won't enjoy after all that effort.

If you can't eat that much meat in a reasonable amount of time, buy less. Buying more than you can deal with just because it's a "good deal" usually isn't a good deal in the long run. You'd be better off buying less at a slightly higher price and using it up in a shorter period of time.

Guest's picture
Guest

We used to have a chest freezer and buy meat in bulk. Then we discovered: we were wasting money. Buying a side of beef or half a hog is fine if you're feeding a family. For a working couple, it makes no sense. Considering the cost of running the freezer (yes, we had an Energy Star) and the cost of buying the meat and processing, we were better off using the grocery store and meat market. We don't eat beef heart, beef tongue, beef liver, spare ribs (waste of time and energy and way too much gristle), chitlins, pig hocks, etc. Don't even ask me about power outages, freezer burn and cleaning a freezer!

Guest's picture
Jennifer Lissette

In September, my husband and I purchased a split quarter of beef from a rancher in the area (Bay Area, CA). I couldn't be happier with the decision. We had originally purchased a chest freezer to help store the breast milk that I plan to donate, which is another story entirely. Anyway, I had been reading about the benefits of grass-fed beef and located a rancher whose prices and practices resonated with me.

It was such a great decision. The beef is higher quality than anything I could have found at the supermarket. Combined with the use of my bread machine, a well-stocked pantry and a weekly delivery from our local CSA, I haven't had to go to the grocery store in three weeks. Which is great, because a 4 month old baby and a grocery store is not an ideal mix!

Guest's picture
Courtney Ostaff

I bought a slightly used upright commercial freezer for my CSA veggies that were going bad. It was $400, which I consider well-spent. It's about the floor-space of a regular upright freezer, but I don't know exactly how much it holds.

I bought 1 butchered pig last November from my certified organic CSA for $279, and 1/4 beef (about 135lbs) in February from a local farmer for about $2.65/lb. We got chops, and ground meat, and steaks, and ham and the best bacon I have ever had. This is delicious beef, pasture-fed with local, organic grain supplementation in the winter. No antibiotics, no funky hormones, nothing that I would worry about feeding my family.

We've also purchased 18 certified organic chickens from my CSA this summer for $2.65/lb, butchered, whole. We have only eaten two chickens to date, both delicious.

The freezer held all that, plus 2 shelves of processed veggies and assorted other stuff.

It has fed us (my husband, my 2yr-old daughter, my mother, and I) until now (the end of September). My husband would eat red meat at every meal if I would let him, so it's not surprising that we would go through that much meat.

We haven't had trouble with freezer burn, and anything that looks iffy I throw in stew. We eat funky bits, but really didn't get any from our processor. I have to confess I drew the line at the enormous beef liver, which I intend to grind at home and make up into dog food.

We have had a couple of power outages, but the commercial freezer never let it get above 30F, even when the power was out in July for nearly 24 hrs.

We don't buy other meat (which is great, because my husband has been laid off since the end of May), except for twice this summer, rainbow trout from the farmer's market.

Our electricity usage has not noticeably gone up, although the rates have gone up.

I make soup out of odds and ends at least once a week, and if I have extra soup, I freeze it for later. This way, people can take it for lunch and reheat it, or we can eat leftovers long later. ;)

Guest's picture
Kris

Added this great article to my Saturday Links post here:

http://frugalmomskitchen.blogspot.com/2009/10/saturday-links-tips-and-tr...

Thanks!

Guest's picture
Mia

Good on you for taking the plunge and investing in a chest freezer, sounds it paid off for you both ethically and financially ;) I am on a quest to reduce the amount of meat I cook when making meals for my family. I'm very happy to eat a lot less meat and more veggies, but my brothers are not. I would make some entirely vegetarian meals if I thought I could do so without any loud complaints.

Guest's picture
Kathy

We just got some beef from a family member who had it processed at a meat market. It doesn't taste like grocery store meat. As a matter of fact, everything tastes the same. The steakes, roasts, hamburgers all tastes the same ~ dry and wierd tasting. I've had to cook it all mixed in soup or something. Why?

Guest's picture
Guest

Unless you actually weighed the cuts you brought home, it's unlikely that a hanging weight of 158 pounds yielded 134 pounds of meat. That would be an 85% yield, which is higher than any that I've heard of. As the University of Minnesota Extension notes, the actual yield will vary depending on the amount of fat and how the beef is trimmed and boned. Also, if you take home bone-in cuts of meat (like T-bone steaks or ribs,) then the yield will seem higher but it won't all be meat.

My experience has been that you should expect a yield of 65% or 70%, so that a hanging weight of 158 pounds will provide about 105 pounds of meat. If this was in fact the yield on your half side then the price was closer to $4 per pound, and your savings was around $200.

I think this is a great way to save money - I buy a hind quarter from a local farmer each spring - but people shouldn't have unrealistic expectations about the net cost and savings.