Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Tough Times Series: Gouged by Groceries



It's nearly $4 a gallon and most families can't live without it. It's not gas. It's milk, and it's not the only thing at the supermarket with an upwardly mobile price tag. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) reports that dairy prices rose more than 7% in 2007, and aggregate food prices were up about 4%. Experts predict more of the same for 2008. With nearly 13% of average American family budgets dedicated to groceries, most shoppers already know that they're paying a lot more to bring home the bacon, the butter, and just about everything else.

While you can't control the prices, thrifty consumers can employ some smart strategies to cut grocery bills.

Plan

First take stock of what you have. Peek into the pantry and eyeball the reserves in the freezer. Peruse grocery store circulars for sale items, and look for produce that is in season locally—experts note that it's cheaper than fruits and vegetables that have been shipped.

Then plan your menus for the week. Exhaust what you already have on hand, especially perishables. Schedule quick-prep meals for nights when kids have soccer practice and scale back volume when dad is working late. If you don't plan, you'll be tempted to grab take-out on busy days and you'll overbuy for other times, says Professor Nancy Granovsky, a family economics specialist at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Having extra food isn't necessarily a problem if you're willing to use leftovers for lunches or freeze them for future dinners. But a lot of families balk at the second round of salmon or day-old kabobs.

You shouldn't. Dr. Elizabeth Kiss, an extension specialist in family resource management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., says throwing food away or letting it spoil in the refrigerator squanders resources. "That is money you've invested and you're not getting your return on your investment."

Consider switching to store brands.

One way around the resistance is to freeze half of meals before they're cooked to create your own convenience foods, says Easter Tucker, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Education Service in Little Rock. This works well with casseroles, enchiladas, meatloaf, and more.

Also, you can plan for meals in succession to cut down on prep time. For example, on Sunday have grilled tuna and vegetables, grilling extra tuna and chopping extra veggies. On Monday make a stir fry with chicken and your already-chopped peppers and onions. On Tuesday add your grilled tuna to a Niçoise salad.

Live by the list

The shopping list is key to saving money if you write down only what you need and refuse to deviate. Before adding every ingredient from every recipe to your list, Tucker suggests considering possible substitutions. For example, if a chowder calls for a cup of buttermilk, you could make your own with lemon juice or vinegar and regular milk.

Ready, set, shop

This part you already know: Don't shop when you're hungry or tired. The lure of convenience or comfort foods will be too great and your resistance too low. Also, shop alone. Two people in the store translates into twice as much temptation. Add children and the odds of overspending increase exponentially.

When you must shop with the kids, make sure they understand the rules: no adding things to the cart and no begging. Keep younger children engaged by having them help find items on the shelf. If you want to indulge them a little, allow kids to take turns choosing one treat to share each week.

Avoid convenience foods. When you buy partially or fully prepared items, experts point out, you pay for labor and packaging along with the food. So core your own pineapple, peel and cut your own carrots, and roast your own chicken. When Joyce Cavanagh, an associate professor and extension family economics specialist at Texas A&M University, wants pork, she buys an entire tenderloin. She slices it into chops and freezes it all. "I'm not paying the butcher to do that for me."

Use coupons only for things you would buy anyway.

Nix the frozen dinners, but don't avoid the freezer aisles altogether. Tucker notes that frozen produce often is less expensive than fresh, but it's just as nutritious and has no waste. Just be wary of gimmicky microwavable bags or sauces and seasoning packets. Then the cost goes up, the nutritional value goes down, or both.

Know prices

Experts recommend using coupons only for things you would buy anyway. So if you're going to get Smuckers jam no matter what, watch the circulars for coupons and use them when the jam is on sale. Ask a store manager if the supermarket offers double or triple coupon days, and shop at those times.

Apply for a store discount card to take advantage of promotional pricing. Also, learn your store's two-for-one sales policies. Some places give you each box of strawberries at half price instead of a first at full price and a second free, says Gail Hanula, coordinator of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. In other words, you may not have to buy two items to get the sale price on one.

Check unit prices, often calculated in cost per ounce or per pound. It's a common assumption that larger packages offer better savings, but Cavanagh says that isn't always the case. Some stores include unit costs on price tags. If the store doesn't do the math for you, carry a calculator and compute the costs yourself.

For savings every time you shop, consider switching to store brands. Brand-name products cost more largely due to marketing costs, not quality. You probably won't notice a difference, for instance, in many canned foods, Cavanagh says, or in items used to prepare something else, such as the tomatoes, noodles, or cheese for a casserole.

Growing your own produce is one of the best ways to cut costs.

If family members protest, try a blind taste test, suggests Professor Nancy Porter, a family resource management extension specialist at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. Buy the store brand peanut butter and see if your husband or kids can distinguish it from the Skippy you currently use. If they can, stick with the Skippy. "The blind taste test really works. It drives the point home that maybe, yes, you can tell the difference—or maybe you can't," Porter says. Use any leftovers for peanut butter cookies to avoid waste.

Buy in bulk

You can save by bulk buying but first make sure you have storage room and that food items won't spoil before you can use them. Also, don't assume that something is cheaper just because it's at a warehouse store. You still need to compare unit costs. In this era of pricey gasoline, even slightly more expensive products might end up being a bargain at your regular supermarket if a trip to a second store requires a long drive, Cavanagh notes.

Keep track of receipts

Keep track of what you buy, what you spend, and where you spend it for one month, Tucker says. Ideally, enter all items and prices into a spreadsheet so you can make true comparisons—be sure to note whether you paid regular price or if something was on sale. You'll quickly realize which supermarket has great prices on produce and which grocery store corners the market on dairy. Shop at one this week and the other next time.

Grow your own

It's not an instant money-saver since it takes time to plant and harvest. However, growing your own produce is one of the best ways to cut costs, Cavanagh says. Can or freeze what you don't eat, and you'll stretch your savings into the winter.
Keep track of what you buy, what you spend, and where you spend it for one month.

Drink more water

Soft drinks, juices, and alcohol are costly. You don't have to cut them out altogether, but save them for the weekend and replace them with water Monday through Friday. If you have quality drinking water, choose tap over bottled.

Other ideas

  • Use recipes with few ingredients.

  • Watch portion size. Hanula recommends visiting MyPyramid.gov for more information about what and how much you should be eating. "That 12 oz. steak is enough for two days, not one," she notes.

  • Avoid convenience stores and gas stations with general stores. Why? A can of sweetened condensed milk is $3.99 at one Wisconsin convenience store. At a regular grocery store, it's about $1.09.

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