Priced Out Of The Market? Cut Sky-high Grocery Bills With These 10 Can't-miss Type

Posted: May 01, 2008

Steak, chicken, eggs and lettuce. Lots of lettuce.

If you've been to the grocery store lately, you've noticed that while you're buying the same foods, your bill is steadily climbing. Where you once spent $100, you're now shelling out $140 or even $160.

The supermarket price explosion is still a subject of debate among economists, but many point to a confluence of events over the past two years - some call it a perfect storm.

Corn-based products have skyrocketed because corn prices are up, as farmers cash in on increased demand for the product used to make the pricey alternative fuel ethanol.

American farmland continues to be plowed under for development; as a result, the country's produce is grown on just 80 percent of the land it was grown on 30 years ago. Meanwhile, by 2050, America will have to grow twice as much to feed a larger population, exacerbating the land squeeze.

Americans are demanding healthier foods, so companies aren't able to use the same inexpensive, processed ingredients.

If all this weren't enough to send grocery bills through the roof, recent food scares - tainted meats and E. coli-laden greens, as well as reports of sick animals being used to produce dairy and meat products - have forced factories and processing plants to adopt more stringent, costlier food-safety practices.

The bad news is that, unlike in a typical recession when prices eventually correct themselves, these factors show no signs of abating soon, experts say.

The typical American is paying anywhere from 20 to 50 percent more on grocery bills just this year - and it's going to get worse.

"Unlike past recessions where commodity prices increase, then decrease, we're not going to see prices go down," predicted Phil Lempert, food-trends editor for the "Today" show on NBC and editor of the Supermarket Guru Web site, supermarketguru.com.

"Anything dealing with an animal, milk, corn or meat, you'll see increasing," he told the Daily News recently.

But there is some good news, too. There are ways to tame your out-of-control food bills.

We asked Lempert for practical, money-saving tips that typical shoppers can use every time they head to the grocery store. Here are the grocery-shopping rules Lempert lives by.

1. Make a shopping list and stick to it.

But not the typical, "everything including the kitchen sink" kind of list. Make a smart list. A spreadsheet.

"Create the ultimate shopping list," said Lempert. "Take receipts from the past month, list all the groceries you regularly buy by name on a spreadsheet."

About 85 percent of the products consumers buy in a month are repeat purchase of favorite items, Lempert explained. We overspend by replenishing that supply before we need to.

"So once you create this template, you use it before you leave the house," he said. "Go through the fridge, the cupboards and look at what you have, then cross off the week's list what you don't need."

You'll cut grocery bills by 15 to 25 percent simply by not buying more peanut butter or grape jelly when you already have two unopened jars at home.

2. Control your impulses.

Up to 40 percent of the food we put in the shopping cart is an impulse buy. Fragrant chocolate chip cookies from the bakery department. Plump, little fresh figs that would go so well with a wedge of brie. Allow yourself just three impulse buys per shopping trip. You could save up to 40 percent on your bill.

3. Use coupons.

Don't think you're above clipping coupons from the newspaper. It's only a dollar here or 50 cents there, but coupons add up. Some manufacturers offer mail-in rebates or other attractive deals of up to $2 or $5 per coupon.

Put your kids in charge of coupon cutting and gathering, since it teaches valuable lessons about money, said Lempert. "Give them a percentage of what you save as their allowance."

4. Sign up for frequent-shopper cards.

"You will end up giving up brand loyalty," warned Lempert, "because you'll be going for whatever is on sale. But you'll save money."

And, chances are, nobody will notice you switched from Heinz to Hunt's ketchup one week.

5. Buy the generic brand.

Most stores offer a 100-percent, money-back guarantee on their products, Lempert said. "And most of today's store brands are of the same quality or exceed the quality of name brands."

What's more, buying store brands can save you 15 to 25 percent a week in grocery bills.

6. Avoid overbuying, especially at discount stores.

"People have a problem with warehouse clubs," said Lempert. "They buy big sizes and end up wasting products. Unless you have a family of 20, don't do this. It's not about how much you stock up, but about how much you actually use."

7. Be smart about where you buy products in the store.

Bargain-shop from section to section within the same supermarket, Lempert said. "If you are a cheese consumer, you want to look in three places for the cheapest prices: the deli, the cheese table and the dairy case."

Deli departments often jack up the price per pound when compared to prepackaged cheeses and cold cuts. And don't forget those off-brand labels.

"A six-month-old cheddar cheese from New York State is the same regardless of brand, because it is held to the same standards of production," said Lempert.

8. Buy produce in season or from local growers.

But if you must have blueberries in February, head to the frozen food case. Frozen and canned fruits and veggies are picked and processed at the height of flavor. They're inexpensive and can taste as good as fresh, in-season versions.

9. Make it from scratch.

Instead of spending $5 for a tiny container of hummus or salsa, buy some canned tomatoes or chickpeas and make it yourself.

10. Meat in the middle.

When it comes to meat, everyone has their preferred cut, so prepare yourself for a downgrade. If you must have the best, buy red meat without bones, which count toward the total weight of the product. You'll get more meat per pound.

"And avoid marinated meats!" Lempert advised. Those pre-marinated pork loins and turkey loins are more expensive per pound. Marinate it yourself at home. *

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