Food prices are on the rise again, according to March reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Though flat in 2013, food price inflation has returned to the historical norm with increases in the range of 2.5 to 3.5 percent. While the increases apply across the board, certain items including fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy may see larger and longer lasting price increases given drought conditions in California.
Since those items cover a good portion of the foods you would want to eat, you may need to explore some new ways to save on groceries. One of the best strategies is to use coupons, but in recent years, coupon values have dropped, stores have tightened their coupon policies and coupons may not always be available for the items you want.
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 25 percent of online coupons are for processed snack foods, candies and desserts. Fewer than 1 percent were available for fruits and only 3 percent were available for vegetables.
And of course, not everyone has time to clip coupons.
So how do you use coupons to your advantage?
Couponing expert Stephanie Nelson (aka Coupon Mom) suggests tailoring your coupon use to your shopping style.
If you’re the type who has no time to plan before hitting the grocery store, Nelson says you can save 20 percent on groceries just by picking up the store fliers when you arrive at the store and shopping for the sale items on the front page. Be open to buying the brands on sale and use in-store coupons and a store loyalty card for additional savings.
Spending 30 minutes to plan your grocery shopping can save you 35 percent if you use websites such as Couponmom.com to check for the best deals at your favorite stores. Then use coupons (digital and print) to increase your savings.
The most diligent shoppers can save 50 percent or more on groceries by searching for the best deals at stores in their area and visiting two or more of those stores per week to take advantage of those deals, Nelson says. Once you find the deals, match up the coupons to help you save more.
Other ways to save on the healthy foods you want to eat have less to do with how you shop and more to do with what you buy.
Look for deals and coupons for frozen vegetables and fruits and use them to supplement fresh produce. Try to avoid precut produce items, which will add to your costs. And only buy bulk produce if you are going to use it. You save nothing if it goes bad before you can eat it.
Limit your purchases of organic produce to the dirty dozen – the fruits and vegetables most likely to carry pesticide residue even after washing. (Looking for a list of those items? Go to the Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org/foodnews/.) Also try to shop in season. Produce that is plentiful will cost less and go on sale more often.
For nonproduce food items, try buying store brands, which generally cost less than national brands. And always compare unit prices (found on the shelf tags underneath products) when deciding on package size.
Consider shopping “manager specials,” but be sure the items aren’t too close to their expiration dates.
And don’t forget to sign up for store loyalty programs to get additional savings on a range of items.