With staples like milk now selling for almost $4 a gallon and the price of eggs at more than $2 per dozen, Americans' household budgets are being squeezed. And some analysts predict food inflation could double this year, lifted by the rising costs of fuel, corn and soybeans. But families can take steps to limit the impact of higher prices.
"Overall, you can control what you spend even in an environment where food prices are escalating fast," said Goutam Challagalla, associate dean and associate professor of marketing at Georgia Institute of Technology. "You can save without sacrificing quality."
First, Challagalla and other experts recommend that consumers make a list of food items the family needs before they go shopping and stick to it. Walking aimlessly up and down the aisles will encourage shoppers to pick up extra items like cookies and other munchies.
It's also a bad idea to go shopping when you're hungry. Consumers tend to be more impulsive, and pick up unnecessary items when they're shopping on an empty stomach.
Here are more tips to keep your food budget in check:
- Buy store brands. The quality of store branded food items has improved dramatically in recent years, and many now compete with major national labels, according to Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports magazine. Some consumers may want to stick with name brand detergents or soaps, for example, but buying store brands for a broad array of products from fruit cups to cereals and pastas can save anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent, Marks said.
- Evaluate unit prices. Buying in bulk is traditionally more economically, but that's not always the case, Marks says. So he and other experts recommend shoppers look at the item's cost per unit, which is found on the shelf sticker next to the item. Marks added that when items go on sale, shoppers should always compare the cost per unit on both the big and small packages to see which is a better deal.
But experts also say shoppers should keep in mind how much their families are going to consume. It's not economical to buy a big bag of fruit if it's going to end up rotting in the refrigerator.
- Compare prices of the same product in different areas of the store. "Where things are placed in a store can make a big difference," says Challagalla. For example, cheese is often cheaper in the dairy aisle than the deli because shoppers have to pay extra for it to be sliced.
- Clip coupons. Shoppers should look through circulars for special deals, but Marks warns them not to assume that all items in a supermarket's weekly flyer are on sale. He noted that manufacturers could have paid to have the item featured.
- Obtain a store card. These loyalty cards allow shoppers to get extra discounts on items without having to clip coupons.
- Consider frozen foods. Frozen peas, fish and other items are cheaper than fresh because they have a longer shelf life.
"Anything that is perishable, shoppers are going to have to pay higher prices because stores have to build it into their (profit) margins," said Challagalla.
- Ignore precut fruit or vegetables or other prepped items. While it's nice to have that pineapple cut up in chunks, that extra convenience costs money.
- Avoid items displayed at the checkout counter. Stores feature single serving pies, cans of soda and other items at the checkout that are often more expensive, but can be tempting to shoppers, particularly hungry ones, Marks said.