If you haven't noticed rising prices at the supermarket lately, you haven't been paying close attention to your spending. Food prices are soaring.
Over the past year, prices for some basic grocery staples are rising faster than at any time over the past decade, according to July figures of the Consumer Price Index. Across America, frozen orange juice prices are up 31 percent over a year earlier; eggs and whole wheat bread up 24 percent; milk up 21 percent; sticks of margarine up 17 percent; coffee and chicken breasts up 12 percent; ground chuck up 11 percent; and soft-drink colas up 10 percent.
The increases far exceed general consumer inflation, which rose 2.4 percent over the same period.
The reasons for higher food prices are varied, from poor weather to gasoline costs to labor shortages to high corn prices driven by demand for ethanol. Corn is used not only directly in food and beverage products such as corn syrup for soft drinks, but it also feeds livestock.
A U.S. family of four spends an average of more than $8,600 a year on food, according to the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey. So paying closer attention to food shopping can save big money.
In fact, it is a primary component of being financially FIT, an acronym for food, insurance and telecommunications. Those are the three areas of repeat spending that consumers can cut with the least sacrifice.
Below are some of the best tips for saving on food at the supermarket:
Stockpiling. Shift your thinking from buying what you need to buying what's on sale and stockpile nonperishable food. The first step is to keep a price book, a list of prices for items you regularly buy. That way, you know when a food item is truly on sale.
The danger is in overbuying.
"There can be a tendency to do too much of that and end up with 100 boxes of macaroni you never use," said Kimberly Danger, founder of the frugality Web site Mommysavers.com and family-savings expert for Coupons.com. "There has to be that balance between smart buying and overbuying."
In general, most food items go on sale about every 12 weeks, so you need only a three-month supply at any given time.
Fliers. Get the weekly grocery fliers and check out sales featured on the front cover in particular. Those often are loss leaders, meaning the store is offering such a good price it loses money on the item. You can get your weekly fliers at the store, online at the store's Web site or at www.mygrocerydeals.com.
Unit prices. Examine price per pound or price per serving to compare costs accurately. If necessary, use a calculator to determine unit prices.
Couponing 101. Basic coupon-clipping advice is to clip only the newspaper coupons you know you will use. Alternatively, don't clip any coupons right away. Instead, mark the date on the Sunday newspaper coupon circulars and set them aside.
Before you go to the supermarket, go to www.couponmom.com and search its free newspaper coupon online database for items you will use. It will tell you the date and name of the circular to find the coupon. You can clip it then, only when you know you will use it.
Ideally, you want to match a coupon to a store sale for the biggest savings.
Couponing 201. Use two coupons for "buy one, get one free" sales. You are purchasing two items and are allowed to use two coupons. If you have flexibility and primarily use newspaper coupons, shop Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. Those days give you a chance to match a store sale, which starts midweek, with a corresponding coupon that comes Sunday.
Be sure to read past the picture on coupons. Savings might apply to other varieties and sizes than the one shown. A coupon has the biggest percentage impact when you use it on the smallest possible size. For $5 a month, the Web site the Grocery Game, at www.grocerygame.com, will figure out for you the ideal time to match a coupon with a store sale.
Printable coupons. Online coupons that you print on your computer printer are generally worth more than newspaper coupons. Try the sites Coupons.com, SmartSource.com, Boodle.com, CoolSavings.com and Eversave.com. Cashiers are more likely to accept online coupons if you print in color and bring the entire printed pages.
Store brands. Store brands today are superior to the generics of years ago and are much cheaper than name brands. In fact, many store brands are made by the manufacturers of name brands. But you might be able to match a coupon with a sale and get the name brand for less than the store brand, Danger said.
Nonsupermarket. If you have time to shop multiple stores, consider buying toiletries and milk at a drugstore or warehouse club, and snacks and canned foods at a dollar store. You'll often find lower prices, although that will vary. A local bakery outlet can have great prices on bread, cookies and boxed stuffing, Danger said.
Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.