Have you walked out of the grocery store lately and taken a puzzled look at your receipt, wondering whether maybe the total has been slowly creeping up while you weren't paying attention?
Some slightly befuddled shoppers on the Fool's Budgeting discussion board recently tossed around this question. They were prompted by a post from StackyMcRacky, who had been trying to trim the monthly grocery bill, but to no avail.
They're not imagining things. The Consumer Price Index statistics tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor show that the price of food and beverages has been going up as the cost of other goods, like transportation and energy, has been falling. As of their statistics ending in November, food and beverage prices have climbed 2.3% over the past 12 months.
Prices were mostly stable for the first half of the year. The price hikes started to take off in mid-summer, and the trend has been continuing into the fall. Even though an overall 2.3% price increase might seem modest, your checkbook has absorbed it during the second half of the year. That's probably why we're suddenly noticing the difference.
Combine that with the fact that we've undoubtedly increased our food budgets in November and December for feasts to celebrate the holidays and for baked goods to share with family and friends, and we're definitely spending more at the local grocer.
If you've already pared your grocery budget to the bone, then you may just have to accept that there's not much you can do when the prices of milk, citrus, and meat start to rise. But if you still have some fat to trim from your shopping list, you can absorb price hikes with a little economizing.
- Buying generics. This recommendation is an oldie, but a goodie. Generic or store-brand goods can be the same or better quality as brand names. Give them a chance. If you hate them, you can always switch back.
- Clipping good, old-fashioned coupons for anything brand-name that you regularly buy.
- Looking for the lowest price per ounce (or other unit of weight or volume) to get an apples-to-apples comparison of two products of different size. A more expensive, larger item might actually be the better value. This is not a good strategy if you only need a little bit of something and you fear you may not figure out a way to use up the rest. In that case, buy the smallest item that will do the job.
- Visiting a new grocery store. Especially if you tend to buy the same things every week, do a little experimentation. Buy the list at one store, then try to buy the identical list at another store the next week. You may be surprised by the difference.
- Doing some diagnostics. Hang onto your grocery receipts for a few weeks or a month. Then, on some rainy afternoon, sit down and look at what you bought. How many impulse purchases could you have done without? How many things did you buy that you already had in the house? It's often easier to see these patterns when you're not in the grocery store, rushed for time, with a cranky baby in your shopping cart.
- Buying your produce in season. It will taste better, and it will be cheaper. If you like to cook, search out unusual in-season produce and try some new dishes. I discovered kumquats and celery root this way, while trying to ferret out good late-fall and early-winter produce.
- Watching your waste. If you're regularly dumping leftovers and limp produce out of the refrigerator, you're tossing valuable dollars away. Either cook smaller portions, freeze your leftovers, or buy stuff you like. Purchasing broccoli if you really don't care for it and letting it go moldy in the crisper will not make you any healthier.
- Buying your household goods, like detergent, someplace else. Your local grocery store might not be the best or cheapest place for goods other than food.
- Investing in a good, all-purpose cookbook. Learning to cook some basic dishes will help you cut your purchases of prepared food, which can cost much more than the basics. You'll probably like your cooking better.
I've barely scratched the surface here, but this will get you started. If you're a committed grocery-store price sleuth, send me your ideas for trimming the food budget, and I'll follow up with more advice for trimming food costs.
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Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple loves to cook and eat her vegetables, and she welcomes your feedback.