Economist offers ways to combat rising food costs

Jeanette A. Tucker  |  5/19/2008 7:32:55 PM

News You Can Use Distributed 05/20/08

Increases in fuel and transportation prices continue to hit consumers hard at both the gas pump and at the grocery store. Over the last 12 months, the food and beverages index advanced 5.2 percent led by a 6.3 percent rise in prices for food at home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.

Overall, prices in the South rose 4.2 percent over the last 12 months. The labor statistics bureau says this increase is largely attributed to higher costs for housing, transportation and food and beverages. Over the year, transportation costs increased 7.8 percent, primarily as a result of a 22.7-percent advance in motor fuel prices.

Eliminating unnecessary trips, carpooling, using public transportation, riding bikes and walking can reduce transportation costs, but how can families reduce food costs?

Consumers can take a number of steps to spend smarter, reduce the number of trips to the grocery store and spend less money on food, according to LSU AgCenter family economist Dr. Jeanette Tucker. Reducing spending may take some imagination, self-discipline and time to develop money-saving shopping habits.

Tucker recommends these strategies to reduce food costs:

– Plan meals and shop with a list – then stick to it. Creating a shopping list will help you plan for your needs in advance, take advantage of sale prices and avoid impulse purchases. Keep a running grocery list. Anytime basic items are used up or almost gone, add them to the list.

– Shop alone, after a meal. If you go shopping when you are hungry, everything looks good, and you are likely to buy more than planned. If others accompany you, especially children, you are shopping for more than one appetite and the temptation to overspend is increased. If you must take children, prepare a special shopping list of items they can actually pick up and put in the basket.

– Check store ads. Look for sale prices on items you regularly purchase. Compare prices among several stores that are convenient to you, but don’t waste expensive gasoline driving across town to save a few cents on food purchases. Pay special attention to the days of the week that sale prices are in effect, and shop on those days. Plan menus based on sales or less expensive food products.

– Spend cash. Nothing makes an impression on your mind like taking cash out of your wallet. Paying with cash forces you to think ahead. Visit the bank or ATM and withdraw your budgeted food dollars before going to the store. Force yourself to keep your purchases within budget. Many people who use credit cards rarely realize how much they spend until the statement arrives. If you pay with checks or a debit card, get in the habit of recording the transaction and calculating your balance. If you are not accustomed to doing this, it can be a real eye-opener to realize the portion of your take-home pay that you are devoting to food.

– Coupons can add up. Watch for coupons in the mail, in store flyers, in the newspaper and online. Carefully plan purchases; noting on your list the items you have a coupon for. Shop at stores that double coupons – and on the specified “double coupon day” if applicable. Look for items that have coupons included on the package. Look for rebate offers also. Shop at a quiet time so you can compare prices.

– Compare unit price. Unit prices – per ounce or per pound – are posted on the shelves for most grocery items. Try a different brand that has a lower cost per unit – you may like it better than the item you regularly buy. However, limit your purchases to one or two packages, in case you are disappointed with the quality. Note that larger packages may or may not necessarily be the best buy; check the unit price label and do the math. For, example a 50-cent coupon, doubled, may make the smallest size package the most economical. Store brands are usually less expensive than name brands; compare unit pricing to confirm.

– Use “planned-overs.” Make wise use of your time and money by developing a plan for leftovers. Double your favorite casserole recipe and freeze one for later; convert leftovers to sandwiches or a “blue-plate special” that can be reheated in the microwave at work for tomorrow’s lunch; add a favorite sauce or seasoning to change the flavor of planned-over meats and vegetables; or use planed-overs to form the basis for your favorite soup or pasta dish. Plan for variety, so that your meal is just as interesting the second day as the first. Consider buying favorite meat items in quantity when they are on sale and freezing them for later use.

– Shop the perimeter of the store. Most food stores situate the basics – produce, meat, dairy and breads – around the walls. More heavily processed foods are typically found on the aisles. Processed foods typically cost more and may have a higher profit margin. When you do need to shop the shelves, look beyond eye level. Manufacturers pay for this prime space. Look high and low for comparable items.

– Be cautious about adding nonfood items to the grocery cart. Health and beauty aids, paper and plastics, cleaning supplies, film and other nonfood items have high profit margins. You can usually save money by purchasing these items at discount, dollar or drug stores.

– Don’t be tempted by “end caps” – the big stacks at the end of each aisle. The same product by another manufacturer may be found elsewhere at a better price.

– Fight check-out temptation. Candy, gum and magazines at the cash register tempt your impulses. If you really need these high-profit items, you can probably find them less expensively in another part of the store.

– Check the checker. Note the prices as you select items and make certain the same price appears on the scanner as you check out. Many times a sale price is listed in the store but not reflected at the checkout. Check the register tape after leaving the store. Unintentional mistakes are often discovered, especially with large orders.

– Finally, get in, get out, save money. The less time spent in the store, the less money spent. Don’t succumb to the tempting sights around every corner and the smells from the store bakery or deli. Buy only what is on your list and save money.

For related family economics and shopping tips, click on the Family and Home link on the LSU AgCenter homepage at For local information and educational programs, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office.


On the Internet: LSU AgCenter:
Contact: Jeanette Tucker (225) 578-5398 or Editor: Mark Claesgens (225) 578-2939 or

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