It's not that the Hilts are spectacularly gluttonous; they go shopping for staples only once a year. John, a tractor repairman from rural Delavan, figures they save $400 a year by eliminating unnecessary seven-mile trips to the store and reducing the bite of inflation. "The price of groceries never goes down," he says. "When we want something for supper, we just go down in the basement and get it. With six children, we can't afford to eat at McDonald's."
The Hilts' gargantuan grocery runs began after they were married in 1972, bringing with them four sons from previous marriages. When John got a raise and a $200 tax refund, they went wild at a three-for-$1 canned goods sale at Kroger in Peoria. They've been buying at refund time ever since, shopping in between only for perishables.
Before their first spree at Vogel's, Hilt had warned manager J.C. Heflin—but not sufficiently. "After we filled seven carts, he got worried," says John. "By the time we reached the checkout with 21 carts, he'd already called our banker." This year Heflin threw in two 20-pound turkeys as a token of his appreciation. "I wish I had someone like them every week," he sighed. (Vogel's needed them. Not long after Judy and John's last spree, the market went out of business.)
After each binge the Hilts cart home their haul in a pickup and a station wagon and stay up till midnight putting it away. Apart from coffee, the biggest buys are peas and corn. Judy grows other vegetables herself in the backyard, and was delighted this year to discover how much she could save using coupons: $53 without even trying. "But what I enjoy most," she says, "is watching the expressions of other shoppers. They can't believe we eat that much. It takes us a year, but we do."
The last time Judy and John Hilt went shopping at Vogel's market in Pekin, Ill. there were two TV crews waiting for them. As the couple rolled their grocery carts down the aisles, other shoppers stopped to stare. "It made me nervous," Judy recalls. "By the time we reached the checkout counter, a crowd had gathered. Right before the cashier punched the total, they grew so silent I could hear my heart beating." When the register finally stopped beeping, the reason for such attention was obvious. The total bill was $1,654.81.