A carton of eggs cost $1.45 two years ago. Expect to pay $2.18 today. A gallon of whole milk? It averaged $3.20 in 2006 but costs $3.87 now and isn't likely to drop anytime soon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
Food prices are rising at the fastest rate since 1990 because of a 17-year high in inflation attributed to soaring transportation costs and the high prices of wheat and corn. Worldwide, food prices have sparked riots and protests. Closer to home, the situation isn't quite as grim, but most shoppers will have problems staying on budget if they don't start shopping strategically, said Betty English, a cooperative extension agent for the University of Georgia.
"It's a challenge to change a behavior, but it can be done," Ms. English said.
Here are a few tips to get you started. The sooner the better, too. Although food prices rose 4 percent in 2007, the USDA says 2008 could be worse. Expect prices to rise as much as 4.5 percent this year.
Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
PREPARE A SHOPPING LIST
This is the best way to save money, according to Ms. English. Follow these steps:
- Set your budget. Most families spend about 10 percent of their disposable personal income on food, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service. If you shop once a week, divide your monthly budget by four to find out how much to spend on each trip.
- Plan your meals. "If you cook three times a day to save money, that's 21 meals to plan," Ms. English said. Check what food you have already and plan to use it. Check ads and store fliers for weekly specials. Plan to use leftovers, and include meatless meals to stretch your dollars.
- Make the list. Jot all the items down, listing in order of the aisles at the store where you most frequently shop. Look for coupons to match your list before stepping foot in the grocery store.
CLIP SUNDAY NEWSPAPER COUPONS
Coupons can save you $15 to $20 per trip, Ms. English said. Just because an item is in a sale bin or advertised in a circular doesn't mean it's a good buy, however. "A mere mention of a product in a circular can boost sales by as much as 500 percent, even without a price reduction," Consumer Reports magazine found.
To stay on budget, leave the kids at home, or take age-appropriate toys and books to the store.
NEVER SHOP HUNGRY
"We've all heard this one before," Ms. English said, "but a lot of people don't follow it."
A small snack can help control impulse buys.
Follow low prices, even if it means shopping at one store for staples and another for fresh foods, according to the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Just don't make too many special trips. Pick economical grocery stores close to home and limit shopping trips to just twice a month to save the most money.
COUNT THE COSTS
Carry a pocket calculator in the store to tally your grocery bill as you shop, and compare it to the register total.
KNOW HOW TO READ UNIT PRICES
The unit prices marked on shelves divide the total cost of an item into the number of ounces in the package. "It's the only way to determine the true value of what you're buying," Ms. English said.
When you find a great deal on rice, beans, oatmeal, cornmeal, flour or peanut butter, buy enough to stock up. When money is tight, you'll still have staples to prepare nutritious meals.
BUY STORE BRANDS
Less money was spent on advertising and fancy packaging, so the cost is lower. Read the ingredient lists, too. "Sometimes they'll substitute ingredients, and you're not getting the same product you wanted," Ms. English said.
LOOK TO THE BOTTOM SHELVES
"Shoppers will find low-profit items, such as sugar and shortening, as well as store brands and less sweet cereals, on the top and bottom shelves -- not in the middle or eye level, which is prime selling space," Consumer Reports says.
SHOP IN SEASON
Shop in a "U" shape around the edges of the grocery store. "What you find in the middle is the convenience foods, the expensive stuff," Ms. English said. Out-of-season foods are best bought canned or frozen.
"Americans think they need a lot more meat than they really do," Ms. English said. Try beans and rice, eggs or other legumes. When you do buy meat, buy less-expensive cuts and cook with moist heat.
DISCOUNT SHOPPING CLUBS
Join only when you're certain you'll quickly recoup the $40 or $50 membership fees. Resist the urge to buy more than you need. "It's a waste if you bring home more than you can use before it goes bad," Ms. English said.
GROW YOUR OWN
Even if a garden isn't practical, planting herbs is inexpensive and can be used to add flavor to food.
Brown-bag lunches, experiment with leftovers and learn to cook from scratch. "It's always cheaper," Ms. English said, "to use what you have than buy something new."
Here are some recipes to save you some money.
Make a meal-on-the-go with this smoothie recipe. To save money, use frozen fruit when fresh is out of season.
1 cup calcium-fortified orange juice
1/2 cup blueberries
1/2 cup strawberries
1 cup yogurt
2 to 3 ice cubes
Cut banana in half. Fill blender with juice. Add fruits, yogurt and ice, and blend on high until smooth.
1 pound dry navy beans
3/4 cup celery, chopped
3/4 cup carrots, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 meaty ham bone
1/2 cup ketchup
pepper to taste
Wash and sort beans. Cover beans with water in large saucepan. Let stand overnight. Drain beans, then add about 11/2 quarts fresh water and remaining ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 1 hour. Add additional water if needed.
SKILLET CORN BREAD
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon oil
Combine cornmeal, sugar and baking soda. Add egg and buttermilk, mixing well. Grease a 9-inch iron skillet with oil. Heat in a 400-degree oven for 3 minutes or until very hot. Pour batter into hot skillet, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown.
Source: The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension