By Cameron Huddleston, Kiplinger Personal Finance
The Kiplinger Agriculture Letter expects food prices across the board to increase 2.5 percent in 2015. However, there are ways to keep the cost of groceries under control. Follow these steps to keep your food bills under control:
1. Stock up during sales. It’s always a good money-saving strategy to stock up when nonperishable items and food that can be frozen go on sale. This strategy can pay off even more if prices on items you regularly buy are expected to rise.
Check your favorite supermarket’s web site for its weekly ad, or grab its circular as you enter to find out what’s on sale. Even if you’re not out of the items that are on sale, go ahead and buy them at the lower price to hedge against price hikes if you have room to store them.
2. Buy the store brand. You can save a lot by buying the house brand, so reconsider your loyalty to name brands. During a recent shopping trip, I noticed that many brand-name packages of bacon were selling for about $6. But the comparable store brand had a retail price of $4, and was on sale at the time for $3.50. That’s a $2.50 savings over the brand-name bacon.
3. Become a coupon maven. Some people take couponing to extremes, but don’t worry: You don’t have to devote your entire weekend to clipping coupons so you can save at the supermarket. Many stores make it easy to find coupons on their sites and will load them directly to your loyalty card (which you should get if you don’t already have one). Or download the store’s app for savings on the go. Many supermarket apps offer exclusive discounts in addition to manufacturers’ coupons.
4. Look for alternatives. Oranges aren’t the only source of vitamin C. Foods such as kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts also are rich in vitamin C and other vitamins found in fresh fruits.
If you’re a meat eater, you might not want to settle for a lower-priced vegetarian alternative such as beans or tofu. However, you can beat the rising cost of beef, pork and poultry by avoiding pricier cuts such as steaks, pork tenderloin and skinless chicken breasts. Instead, opt for ground beef, ground pork and whole chickens, the latter of which can cost several dollars less per pound than chicken breasts.
5. Take advantage of holiday discounts. Chocolate lovers can score big savings if they wait until after Easter, Halloween and Christmas to stock up on deeply discounted treats. When frozen turkeys go on sale in November, buy more than just the one you need for your Thanksgiving meal. If you buy turkey rather than chicken, just think of all the leftovers you’ll have.
6. Don’t be afraid to haggle. Ask a store manager for discounts on items near their “sell by” date. The expiration date you see on a product is the manufacturer’s estimate for freshness, not the drop-dead date by which the product must be sold.
Other than infant formula, there’s no requirement that products must be sold by the expiration date, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, some shoppers are reluctant to purchase goods near expiration dates, offering leverage to bargain hunters. A Harvard researcher who co-authored a study about food labeling said that, generally speaking, shoppers can add 5-7 days to the expiration date.
7. Shop around. If you do your grocery shopping at a store that’s already pricier than others, consider switching to a lower-priced grocer for most of your everyday needs, but work in trips to other retailers with the best prices on specific items.
For example, although Whole Foods has good deals on a few items, such as organic milk, Trader Joe’s sells many comparable goods for less. You can often save a lot by buying meat and poultry in bulk at a warehouse club rather than in small quantities at the supermarket.
8. Buy local. You might find better prices at the local farmers market than at the supermarket, where food is shipped in from distant states (and countries) that might have crop shortages due to weather conditions.