As rising fuel costs and demand drove up food prices last year, consumers throughout the country felt the pinch at the grocery store. Although predictions for 2012 aren't as dramatic, the Department of Agriculture anticipates that grocery store prices will rise another 3 to 4 percent.
Looking for ways to rein in your grocery budget? U.S. News asked three savings experts for tips.
1. Create a list--and stick to it. Impulse buys add up quickly, especially at warehouse clubs, so shopping with a list helps prevent last-minute splurges. "Prepare for your shopping by looking at your weekly flyer for coupons and sales, then adjust your shopping list accordingly," suggests Jon Lal, founder of the frugal living and money saving website BeFrugal.com. If there's a sale on ground beef and salsa, make tacos or chili for dinner that week.
Planning meals and shopping trips in advance also reduces the number of shopping trips per week, saving time and money. "The average person is going to the grocery store two to three times a week, so if you limit it to once a week, you could cut your grocery bill," says Annette Economides, who co-authored America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money with her husband Steve. The Economides feed their family of five on just one grocery trip and one produce run, totaling about $375 each month.
2. Stock up during sales. Buying according to the store's sale cycle means rarely paying full price. Teri Gault, CEO and founder of grocery savings website TheGroceryGame.com, says buying several of one item when it's on sale is a more powerful strategy than clipping coupons. "When you see oatmeal is on sale, buy two or three cartons because it may not go on sale for another 12 weeks," she says. "I call it investing."
Often, you can combine store coupons or manufacturers' coupons with sales to boost your savings. "If you hold a coupon until the right time, you can really stack the deals," Gault explains. "It's not the coupon that's giving you the deal, it's the sale mostly, because the coupon might give you an extra 50 cents off."
However, a little common sense should prevail when buying in bulk. Ask yourself: "Do I have the freezer or shelf space? How perishable is this item?" suggests Lal. When buying perishable items, Gault suggests looking for the date that's furthest out to maximize the item's lifespan. "If you look at the yogurt in the front and it has a week left, you reach into the back and find yogurt that's good for five weeks," she adds.
3. Buy produce by the unit instead of the pound. The Economides aren't big on coupons, but they pay close attention to weight. "Each state has a division of weights and measures, and they require that a pound bag of carrots weigh at least one pound," says Annette Economides. "We found that most of them were about 20 percent more per bag, but we were still paying the advertised price per pound versus loose carrots." The same goes for bags of potatoes, apples, oranges, and other similar items.
4. Store items carefully. Spoiled food means wasted money, so the Economides eat produce in order of its perishability. Immediately after a produce run, they'll focus on items like grapes or strawberries that have a shorter life span, then move onto to pears and broccoli the following week. Items like oranges or lettuce can last nearly a month with the right storage. "We've learned to store veggies carefully," she explains. "We put a paper towel in the Ziploc bag with washed lettuce [to absorb moisture]." Once they run out of fresh produce, they'll eat pickles or frozen veggies until the next produce trip. The family stores vacuum-packed meats in their deep freezer (another of their frugal strategies) for a year or longer.
5. Think beyond the grocery store. Nowadays, big-box stores, drug stores, online retailers, and even gas stations offer sales on food items. According to Lal, buying nonperishable food online is a particularly attractive option when you combine online coupon codes with free shipping offers and cash back. "Most people don't tally up their total when they shop in a store, but shopping online keeps you true to your list and you can see your total as you go," he says, adding that the convenience of ordering online could save time.
If you're buying fancier food for a party, Gault suggests hitting off-price retailers like Ross or T.J. Maxx, which often carry gourmet chocolate or balsamic vinegar. "The labels don't always look so great, which is why they're so cheap," she says, "but I've found the contents to be really good." Arrange in a nice bowl or platter and no one will be the wiser.
Prices at all of these grocery-store alternatives aren't always the best deal, though, so it pays to run the numbers before hitting the checkout line (or button). Experts also caution against buying food at dollar stores, because some offer smaller sizes to compensate for the lower price, and freshness can be an issue.
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