Shopping and Shipping

wpid-img_20140804_151735037.jpg

The closest grocery store in Bethel

The question I get asked the most about living in the Bush is “How do you do your shopping?” Without a major grocery store in our village, and the unreliability of goods at our small local store, I’ve had to get pretty creative in my food shopping.
Despite reading every blog I could find about living in Rural Alaska, I still made some mistakes early on that resulted in some weird dinners. When all you have in your kitchen is fresh salmon, Jello and some canned goods, you certainly aren’t going to starve, but meals can be a little disjointed.

wpid-img_20140805_184950088.jpg

Expensive fruit in our Hub Town, Bethel

Now that I’ve lived here for almost two years, I’ve gotten into a good groove, and explored a lot of options. Some of them were really great, and others not so much. Which methods do I use the most?

1. Amazon Prime
The bulk of my everyday shopping happens on Amazon. Prime has been a lifesaver. We learned early on that if you don’t ship something via priority mail, it can take up to a month to get to you in the village, because it comes in by a hovercraft from Anchorage (no joke!). If you can wait, and plan ahead, you can save by mailing things yourself, but my Prime membership has paid for itself over and over again in shipping costs.
Just a note- two day shipping takes about a week out here, but it is still the fastest option.

2. Walmart.com
Walmart changed its shipping policy to now ship free if you buy more than $50 worth of items. I turned to them after Amazon took my favorite flour brand off of Prime. I was happy a friend told me about this, because it was a lifesaver- you get to pay Walmart prices, and they ship for free. I also bought some stuff for the baby, and a few basics for the kitchen. They shipped separately, but I got all of my orders in the span of a couple weeks, which is pretty good for out here.

3. Walmart Bush Orders
If you are spending some time in Anchorage, and have the ability to get to the Diamond Center Walmart (don’t make the mistake of going to the one near Benson and A street!), they have a really great service for those who live in the Bush. Basically, you fill your cart with everything you want, roll it to the back of the store, and the bush department takes care of the rest!
You can pay by card, or opt for cash on delivery. They charge a 10% fee to package everything for you, and you also pay for shipping. We’ve done this a couple of times, and I’ve been super happy with it. Now with the changes on Walmart.com shipping I might not use this as often, but it’s still a pretty solid option.
There are a few things they won’t ship for you based on USPS regulations, so double check those before you shop or throw those items in your airline luggage, but for the most part you can get anything you need!

4. Flat Rate Shipping- Canned Goods
We travel down to the Lower 48 to visit family twice a year. And during that time, I always make sure to have a big shopping trip for canned goods. I shop at Aldi where I can buy things by the case, and nobody looks at me too funny. My sister always likes to come with me because it amuses her when I debate about whether I want one or two cases of something. I usually spend about $100-$200 on canned goods that will last us until the next time we come home.
Then I pack them all into the flat rate priority boxes from the USPS. Based on weight, I really make out on this deal. Essentially it doubles the price of each can- but when you can pay discount supermarket prices, it is still cheaper than buying canned goods at the village store, or even in Bethel. I print my own shipping labels to save even more, and then schedule a pick up from the post office and I don’t even have to lug the boxes further than the porch- win!

5. Checked Luggage
When we travel on Alaska Airlines we get two free checked bags each as Alaska Residents (Yay Club 49!) so we usually have a tote or two with fresh groceries from the Lower 48 or Anchorage. You can also check a cooler in their frozen section, (we have a great one on wheels) and as long as they are under 50lbs, they travel just like any other luggage.

Not everything I’ve tried has been a great success. Some methods I’ve tried, but don’t really like:
1. Mailbox Groceries/Expediters
We used an expediter once- and I swear never again. It was by far the most expensive option we have tried. My husband bought some things in bulk at Sams Club in Anchorage. They don’t have bush orders the way Walmart does though. He purchased the items, they kept them at the store, and he arranged a pick up with an expediter after he left. Basically you pay someone to pick up your items, package them, and then you pay priority shipping on top of that. If you are really crunched for time, and need something that you can’t get anywhere else, it may be worth it. Expediters will shop for you too, if you aren’t in town. Of course there are extra charges for that as well. But if you need multiple things from multiple stores in Anchorage, it’s like having your own personal shopper!

2. Span Alaska Sales
It’s not that I don’t like Span Alaska; their customer service is amazing, they deliver fast, and they are Alaska owned and operated, but they just tend to be more expensive than other options. I usually check their paper catalog first and then compare prices online. If you want to save time it’s great for a big bulk order- especially since they include shipping in the prices already (except for frozen)- you are just going to end up paying a little more. Since I now am a stay at home mom, I have the time to dedicate to finding the absolute lowest price.

And of course I do still buy things at the local store when they are in stock, and I’m in a bind, or my husband will pick up fruits and veggies when he is at an inservice in Bethel and can hit the real grocery store.
I think about the days of just stopping in to the store quickly to pick something up for dinner after work when we lived in Philly, and I miss it a lot, but I’ve learned to plan ahead, and get a lot more creative and flexible with my cooking, so there are some upsides!

 

If you live in the bush, what is your favorite way to shop? Anything I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments!

Advertisements

Anchorage Adventures- Shopping and Shipping!

We had a bunch of things on our to-do list for our three day stay in the city and shopping for groceries was a big item to check off our list.
We decided to stop for a couple of days in Anchorage before we flew all the way out to Bethel and then subsequently our village. We were fortunate enough to have friends in the city that we could stay with for the weekend, because hotel prices are really high, or shady hostel-like conditions. Arriving at 1:30am we took a cab to our friend’s house and then back to the airport to pick up our rental car in the morning when Avis opened. Anchorage isn’t really a town you can get around on with public transit, we planned on getting a lot of groceries, and had about 80lbs of luggage to hang onto until we could check it on our next flight.

Shopping was more stressful than I had anticipated. I planned on doing a bush order from Walmart- I had heard that you just took your shopping cart to the bush order desk and they added a flat fee of 10% onto the bill plus postage. When we got to the Walmart I headed over to customer service, and found that the guy there didn’t know anything about bush orders and said he didn’t do them. There was a sign with a phone number so I called them and got connected with the bush order department all the way down in Ketchikan (in the south east down past Juneau). After talking with the guy on the phone he told me it was just him in the bush department and I could just tell him what I wanted over the phone and it could be processed. The idea of buying all of our start up groceries without seeing them myself stressed me out even more, so we decided to go to plan B and head to Sam’s Club, buy things in bulk and ship them out ourselves.

Nathan with the Cart from Sam's Club- Yay for bulk shopping!

Nathan with the Cart from Sam’s Club- Yay for bulk shopping!


It turns out that there are multiple Walmarts in Anchorage and we just were at the wrong one for bush orders. The one in the Diamond Plaza does let you shop the way I had heard. In the end it worked out okay though because by shopping at Sam’s Club I could buy in bulk and that saved me money. It also forced me to get a membership. Now I should be able to do bulk bush orders with them over the phone.

Overall we spent about $700 in bulk groceries and personal care toiletries, etc. The hope is that these will last us until Christmas. It isn’t an exact science, and I tried to plan the best I could but it is hard to judge exactly what we will need because I haven’t ever had to cook every meal at home before. Nathan and I fell into bad habits of just going out to eat when I didn’t feel like cooking, or when traveling between jobs. That time is definitely in the past now; I don’t have the excuse of working multiple jobs that’s for sure!

Just to be safe because we are getting close to the limits on the credit cards, we bought some gift cards at Sam’s Club. I could use my store credit card to buy these, so essentially just borrowing cash against a card that I wouldn’t have been able to use anywhere else. This experience has been so much more expensive than I originally thought, and we haven’t had a full paycheck in about three weeks. Nathan gets his signing bonus when we arrive, but it has essentially already been spent. I can budget and make it work, but things are tight.

It was then time to pack all of our purchases into totes again and take them to the post office.

Packing up our Shopping goods in Anchorage.

Packing up our Shopping goods in Anchorage.

The best thing I found out was that there is a post office by the airport (on Postmark Drive) in Anchorage that is open Every. Single. Day. Until like 11pm. That is amazing. We had finally hit on some luck, in the fact that we didn’t have to scramble on Friday night to get packed and arrive during limited Saturday morning hours.

This ended up serving us very well. A word to anyone attempting this move- liquids weigh so much more than you would think. A large bottle of shampoo is about 4.5lbs, and takes up very little space. So you end up packing a lot of weight into a much smaller space then when shipping things like clothing or small kitchen stuff. Of all of the totes we had shipped previously we hadn’t really come too close to the weight limit of 70lbs the USPS set. Even with 27 gallon totes we were underweight, so I thought it was almost impossible to hit the weight limit in the 18 gallon ones. How wrong I was. We had four totes total that we brought to the post office on our first trip, and only one of them was under 70lbs. Our heaviest was 96lbs! The other two were only 1.5lbs overweight, so we left to re-pack and figure it out.
Buying another tote and dividing up the purchases solved our problem. We were also able to send out our winter boots this way. The post office guys laughed at me as I cheered when each tote came in under the 70lb limit on our second attempt. They were really good humored, and asked us all about where we were going and guessed correctly that Nathan was a teacher. All in all we paid about $100 to ship all 5 totes that were around 60-66lbs a piece. So if you have been reading from the beginning you can see how much cheaper it was to ship from Anchorage- this was a big relief this far in the game. The estimated arrival day for our boxes is Wednesday which is great news because that is the day we will arrive in the village after orientation. Of course everything is weather permitting out here, but we will keep our fingers crossed.

Now the only groceries left to buy will be some fresh vegetables/fruits and frozen meat to get us started in Bethel.

Moving Day!

Thank goodness I had a head start on packing, and that my mother insisted on coming down to help pack and drive a car for us. When we moved to our apartment back in November, I really thought that we would be staying in this adorable two bedroom. It was almost perfect, and we had a heck of a time moving all of the books we owned from our previous apartment. This was supposed to be it. So of course I have been accumulating more and more stuff: furniture, small kitchen appliances, craft items, and of course home decorations. Now having to choose what is really important enough to pay to ship all the way to Alaska, and what I could live without was a challenge.

Logically speaking I could have just pared down to things we had before we moved, but I simply couldn’t part with some things- I mean my immersion blender may be new but it has mad cooking certain things so much easier! Into the shipping box it goes!

Speaking of shipping boxes, we mailed a total of 2 uhaul dishsaver boxes, 1 uhaul large cardboard box, 1 poster tube, 1 TV box (the most expensive to send), 6 27gal plastic shipping totes and 5 18gal Rubbermaid roughneck totes. Overall it cost just about a thousand dollars. That is insane. For the basics for two people. I keep hearing about people who think it would be great and inexpensive to UST move up to Alaska and live off the land as a cheap alternative to living in the lower 48. I guess if you are just taking a suitcase then sure its cheaper, but then you have to have a job and all the essentials and a way to avoid dying of exposure. This move is taking a lot of time, money and planning. Thankfully we have a great school district that helps with a signing bonus, and a really great air miles credit card with Alaska Airlines.

All of the rest of our stuff that we haven’t shipped had to be donated, thrown away or packed into a uhaul and put into storage. We are storing everything in my grandmothers barn and my parents house. They will also be taking care of our cars while we are gone. I had hoped that we would be able to pack everything into the truck and drive all the way to central new York (5 hours away) in one day. That turned out to be really optimistic. We did get everything packed (use a hand truck or dolly when moving!) And made it to Clark’s Summit PA. Booking a room via hotwire was the best idea at that point; we were tired and sore from all the moving we had done. After a good nights sleep we were back on the road to CNY!

image

Goodbye empty apartment!!

Packing Part Two- Shipping!

We have begun to ship our belongings to Napaskiak AK where we will be spending at least 9 months of our lives.

2014-06-30 10.26.51

Lots of Stairs!!

I went to the post office myself with the majority of the totes. I had to take them all the way down our stairs from our second story apartment and into my car. Moving in steps I was able to do it. I left the tote full of books for when Nathan was home though- that one was weighing in at 65 pounds on our scale at home, and that was too much for me to carry! Everything just barely fit in my car anyway.

At the post office, everyone was so nice and helpful. People held doors and chatted with me. People seem really shocked whenever I tell them that we are moving to Alaska- like it is a different country, and they can’t imagine ever doing it. What is really crazy though is that I ran into a man who was shipping his stuff and moving himself and his family back to Bangladesh! We wished each other luck, and he was off to the airport. And I thought the shipping costs were going to be high for my packages- at least I don’t have to worry about customs and international charges! I was a little annoyed that I had to lift all of the totes high up onto the counter ( about 4 1/2 feet!) to get onto the scale. I thought that they might have a larger lower scale like the airport, but no dice. It was funny to see them try to balance the totes on the little scale without bumping into their computers or other items.

Thankfully, our scale at home was pretty accurate so I had a good idea estimating the cost on the USPS website. They make it easy enough to put in the measurements and weight, and then give you a cost estimate. All of our boxes were too large to pay for postage at home (you can save money that way) and had to be verified by a postal worker. If you are planning to move to rural Alaska, be prepared- a 45lb tote costs about $80 to ship from the east coast. And we had five totes to send in our first batch. Hopefully we will only have about three more to send, but it is not a cheap thing to do. This is why most school districts offer a signing bonus or some form of reimbursement. However, the reimbursement is only really meant to cover the costs of ONE person moving, and in this case it is the two of us, so we obviously have more stuff despite donating and sorting and paring down everything. I couldn’t imagine doing this with a whole family!

Next on our list was to send ourselves some canned goods. The school district instructed us that it is cheaper to send yourself flat rate boxes full of canned food than buying it at our sites. In a flat rate box, “if it fits- it ships!” so they are ideal for shipping compact but heavy items. A can of soup can cost $5 at the local co-op in Napaskiak, so we went to Aldi (a really great discount grocery store) and got a whole bunch of cans:

wpid-img_20140709_172442_647.jpg

It felt like we were stocking up for some sort of catastrophe! I found myself apologizing to the cashier for the sheer amount of cans, but I’m sure they see a lot of people coming through and getting things in bulk because of the really low prices.

We tend to buy a lot of our staples there anyway, so I know that they have consistently low prices, even when you factor in shipping costs. We used the Click and Ship option on the USPS website to save on postage for the flat rate boxes, and I was even able to schedule a pickup so that we just had to pile them down by the mailbox in our lobby!

wpid-img_20140709_190736_787.jpg

In the end, this method has just about doubled the cost of each item, as we have spent just a little more on shipping than we did on the actual groceries, but because of the low prices here we will have still saved money in the long run.

Now we just have to keep packing everything that we will be putting into storage. The only things left to send to Napaskiak will be the kitchen and bathroom things that we will be using right up until we leave. Thankfully we are going to be visiting friends and family for about two weeks before we leave, so our boxes will have time to arrive before (or sometime close) to us. The school advised sending things 3-4 weeks ahead of time, but the post office gave us arrival dates of only 2 weeks away. We have tracking on all of our stuff, so we shall see!

Packing Part One

We are at about a three weeks away from moving out of our apartment before the big move! A week ago the front door only opened part way and there were boxes and luggage and Rubbermaid totes piled up everywhere. Thankfully our realtor had to give notice before any showings so that we can straighten up and make the space presentable.

After gleaning as much information as I could about packing from blogs and the information the school district sent us, I felt confident to begin the process of dividing up all our belongings. It feels strange to be having conversations about what furniture to get rid of, when just about a month ago I had been scouring thrift shops and the internet for specific pieces that would complete certain rooms. I never did find a hutch I liked for all my yarn… it’s probably for the best though.

I have packed up most of our winter clothes in space saver vacuum bags and put them into totes. At first we bought the wrong kind; I wanted to be thrifty so we went with cheap ones. We were promptly told that they would shatter and break during the trip to Alaska, so I returned those and bit the bullet buying the more expensive, but much more durable Rubbermaid Roughneck totes. I’m quickly learning that there is no cheap way to move all of your possessions 4,000 miles. I can only be thankful that it is just the two of us! Here is what I started out with:

(Wrong) Totes, Ziplock Space Saver Bags, Fabric Softener Sheets

(Wrong) Totes, Ziplock Space Saver Bags, Fabric Softener Sheets

Remember that these totes are not the ones I ended up actually using. I then washed and laid out all of our winter clothes, blankets, sheets, coats, and other items that I knew for sure we wouldn’t be wearing until it started to get cold. Our totes can take up to 4 weeks to get to our new apartment, so I didn’t want to ship anything I might want. I left out a few sweatshirts for myself, because I will want them when flying, and I tend to get cold.

 

Here is a look at all of our clothes and sheets, etc that I planned on fitting into two 27 gallon totes:

Our Winter Clothing laid out- BEFORE Space Bags

Our Winter Clothing laid out- BEFORE Space Bags

…and then I packed everything into the space bags layering fabric softener sheets inside to help stop anything from smelling of plastic or anything else. The clothes condensed down to this:

AFTER Space Bags- It cut the volume in nearly a third!

AFTER Space Bags- It cut the volume in nearly a third!

It was an amazing transformation! I was so excited to see all of the space I had saved. We had to undo a couple of the larger bags and reshape them before vacuuming the air out so that they would fit in the tote, but it was so worth it in the end. When they have no air in them, they are anything but malleable, so it took a couple tries, but between my husband and I, we figured out how to guide the shape as we vacuumed out the air.

Uhaul Dishsaver Kit. Box, and inserts.

Uhaul Dishsaver Kit. Box, and inserts.

Dishes being protected in their sleeves.

Dishes being protected in their sleeves.

I also decided to err on the side of safety with our dishes. I’m only packing half of them anyway. We received service for 8 for our wedding, but really I don’t plan on entertaining much in Alaska. And since I will be hand-washing (my kingdom for a dishwasher!) the fewer dishes, the better.

I also used dish towels as packing support instead of more disposable options like packing peanuts. I didn’t want to use any sort of non disposable or non useful packing materials, but in the end I caved just for the Uhaul dish kit. We will see if it was worth it when they arrive in Napaskiak. I keep hearing warnings that all of our boxes need to be really packed well because the journey is really rough on them and people will just throw our stuff around. I hope that isn’t true, but I am going to take all the precautions I can in the meantime. In the end, it is just stuff, and can always be replaced.

After everything was in the totes, we were told that to secure the tops, we should drill holes and put in zip ties so that the lids would stay in place. Thankfully, the 27 gallon totes look like they are all set for shipping, because they already have holes along the lid and top of the tote, so we didn’t have to drill any! I used some really cool colored zip ties I found at Lowes and marked the color on my running inventory packing list so that I will quickly know what tote contains what when we are unpacking. I love lists, and would recommend it to anyone moving a great distance, especially if you have to ship your stuff. There is no way that a month from now I am going to remember what box I packed the can opener in. I also lettered and/or numbered each box/tote. Overkill maybe, but I have the time to be organized!

The growing stack of boxes in the dining room!

The growing stack of boxes in the dining room!

Address labels were applied (Everything is being shipped out to the school specifically- we will get a PO box of our own after we arrive) and I piled the totes near the dining room table. It was a little too early in the game to actually ship anything just yet, but it is always good to get a head start!