The North Augusta resident manages to keep her family of five’s monthly grocery bill between $400 and $500 by sifting through coupon inserts in the Sunday newspaper and browsing the Internet for the best savings.
“It’s free,” Cooper said. “And if you’re not using it, you’re wasting money.”
And she’s going to need to save if the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food cost prediction for 2013 comes true. The USDA projects an average family of four, which moderately budgets for groceries, can expect to spend between $339 and $452 more this year.
Blame last summer’s drought that ravaged grain yields in the Midwest and diesel gas prices near $4 a gallon for this year’s potential 3 to 4 percent food cost increase.
Monthly grocery costs for the typical family of four are now between $10-$18 higher than last February. Price inflation for beef, pork, poultry and dairy products are expected to be among the highest this year, but fresh produce costs also are forecasted to surge.
A gallon of whole milk, nationally averaged at $3.49 in 2012, could rise to $3.63. A 1-pound bag of red apples previously priced at $1.38 could increase by a nickel, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The food cost inflation is more rapid than in previous years, when grocery costs historically increased less than 3 percent yearly, said Ricky Volpe, an economist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Volpe blamed higher prices on the Midwestern drought, persisting for three years, causing the price of corn per bushel to go up 70 percent. Lower corn production affected the cost of animal feed and in turn, common staples found in markets, he explained.
If drought conditions persist in 2013, prices could continue to escalate.
“We need some significant rainfall,” Volpe said.
Additionally, diesel gas needed to fuel delivery trucks making shipments to grocery stores averaged nationwide at $4.09 a gallon in February, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Diesel prices have remained near $4 a gallon since 2011.
Faced with the reality that high food prices are here to stay, Cooper remains adamant about couponing.
Though she’ll sometimes shop at Sam’s Club for paper towel and toilet paper, she typically sticks to buying groceries at Kroger and Publix. Sam’s Club doesn’t accept coupons.
For nonperishable products, Cooper tries to buy at least a month’s worth.
“Sales go in cycles every six weeks at grocery stores,” she said.
Coupon expert Karen Green advises people to keep coupons in a binder or box. Web sites, including the ones Cooper mentioned, are good for matching coupons with sales at stores.
Shoppers typically tend to save the most on toiletries, dairy items and cereal, said Green, also a columnist for North Augusta Today.
Customers need to be willing to cut out certain products and buy what’s on sale, even if that means switching name brands, Green said.
“It’s easier to save more if you’re not brand loyal,” she said.
To get the best bang for their buck, Green recommends, shoppers should go to stores alone so they’re not tempted to buy more than necessary.
Krystal Pace, of Augusta, is an avid couponer but also heads to discount grocers such as Aldi in Martinez for produce, meat and dairy products.
“Milk is $1 cheaper there,” said Pace, adding that a large bag of grapes can be bought for $2.99, which she would normally pay for a pound at other grocery stores.
Planning meals in advance and using the same meat to make different dishes throughout the week is an easy way to cut down on costs, said local Ameriprise financial planner Will Rogers.
Though more time-consuming, preparing courses from scratch instead of buying packaged meals also saves money, he said.
Consumers who purchase store brands generally save more money, Rogers said.
Buying products in bulk, he said, can be wasteful unless the items are nonperishable.
Rogers also cautions against grocery shopping at discount or dollar stores because the selection is limited and the stop could end up costing more in gas prices by traveling to other stores to finish shopping.
Rogers urges people to make the investment in good health, even if it might cost more at first.
Those who want to grow their own produce as a way to save can do so if they often eat organic or high-dollar goods such as eggplant and sugarsnap peas from grocery stores, said Sandy Johnson, who runs Hexemaus Farms in Waynesboro, Ga.
“You can grow it for pennies a pound,” said Johnson, who started gardening to supplement her son’s vegetarian diet. “It really depends on what you grow.”
Asparagus, for instance, can retail in stores for $5 a pound. Crop seeds generally cost less than $5, while a pack of 10 asparagus roots are about $10. A bag of fertilizer can be as low as $5.
Though it takes at least two years to harvest asparagus, the plant can produce for several years.
Johnson found another way that gardening saves money when her father-in-law was laid off from the post office and had to tighten his budget. Johnson was able to share food she grew with his family.
“To actually save money, it’s really good if you get several families to go in together because then you spread the cost out and it gets a whole lot cheaper,” she said.