Co-op buying is for more than just food

The Beginner's Guide to Co-op Buying

by Lee Doppelt

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Internationally acclaimed personal finance expert, Suze Orman, preaches, as the cornerstone of her philosophy, that "a big part of financial freedom is having your heart and mind free from worry about the what-ifs of life." How liberating that truly is! Who wouldn't want to shed money woes from their list of stressors? Indeed, you're already frugal. You've creatively devised techniques for stretching dollars by using coupons, freebies, two-for-ones, and so much more. You wear sweaters in the house while you keep the thermostat set lower, you've sold the second car, purchased your wardrobe at the resale shop, and found treasures beside neighborhood dumpsters. Good for you. You are well on your way to fiscal nirvana.

But, have you discovered co-ops? You may have assumed that co-ops were exclusively for buying affordable organic food, but think again. Most of the non-food items and even services that your family consumes, such as electricity or clothing or day care, can be purchased through co-op buying. And, if you haven't located a co-op in your community that meets your specific need, there's no reason why you can't be the person to organize a co-op of any kind you desire!

Cooperative buying is an idea that has endured the test of time.

Co-ops are essentially buying clubs owned and operated by their members for the use and benefit of the members. Members have control because the middle-man is typically eliminated. If you were a child of the sixties, you may believe that the concept of cooperatives, or co-ops, belongs to your generation. Think again. Take a giant step back to get a more accurate perspective on the history of buying.

Bartering was the precursor to buying. Then, coins and currency were created. In France and Britain during the early 1800s, people banded together for the power of purchasing. By 1810, folks in the United States were buying dairy products, especially cheese, cooperatively. The concept of co-ops revved up again around 1933, as a reaction to the desperation of the Depression.

In 1962, the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives was established in Madison, Wisconsin. Most of the adults living today have their first recollection of co-ops from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, as places where hippies banded together to gain access to healthy, organic foods. During this time period, the concept of co-ops spread far beyond Madison and grew broader than only on college campuses.

Food co-ops are simply one kind of co-op.

When you think of co-ops, the first thing that comes to mind is most likely food co-ops. But think bigger, because many of the items you already purchase could be bought cooperatively, typically for a better price. Your credit union is really a cooperative, as it is member owned and operated. In many rural areas, electricity and other utilities are purchased cooperatively. Many parents have organized cooperative pre-schools as a means to have quality, affordable early education for their little ones. In some communities, you'll find clothing co-ops. Clearly, the sky's the limit when it comes to starting and managing a co-op.

Organizing a co-op is similar to starting a small business.

A co-op is not unlike a not-for-profit small business. If you have ever been part of a business partnership, you know that owners need to be like-minded with their goals for the endeavor to assure its success. It's desirable that the owners have different skills, talents, or areas of expertise, as long as they can work well together.

As with any business, a mission statement needs to be clear and specific. Membership requirements and purpose need to be stated. Co-op members should be expected to give time, money, or some combination of both. Scope of the product line also must be determined and you'll need to find reliable sources of good quality items. You'll also need to find a location for your co-op with ample room for shopping and nearby parking. With a co-op, you'll also need to elect officers and decide how often and when you will have regular planning meetings.

Imagine how much simpler life could be if
you were debt free.
Now take the first step to getting there.

The Center for Cooperatives is still located in Madison. Its stated purpose is to "foster critical thinking and understanding about cooperatives." It offers a plethora of resources, including regular workshops for organizing and maintaining co-ops. Learn more about the Center from its website at

Organizing a co-op as a way to purchase goods directly from a source, producer, or manufacturer to assure quality and lower prices deserves some serious contemplation. Visit co-ops in your area and learn what it involves to become part of a co-op. You may be ready to seek out friends, neighbors, and others who want to have access to better goods and begin your own buying co-op.

Reviewed April 2017

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