If you’ve been suffering from sticker shock at the grocery store lately, you’re not alone. Right now, my local grocery store is charging $3.50 for a loaf of whole-wheat bread and $4.80 for a gallon of whole milk. Prices like these can turn a simple shopping trip into a painful ordeal.
Like inflation in general, the rising cost of food is due largely to the supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These problems caused shortages of meat and dairy products in 2021. And in 2022, the war in Ukraine made matters worse, triggering global shortages of grain.
These problems have sent prices soaring, putting a serious strain on Americans’ grocery budgets. And with pandemic financial aid drying up, we’re left to our own devices to deal with it.
How to Deal With Rising Food Prices
Fortunately, the best strategies for coping with food price increases aren’t that complicated. They’re pretty much the same ones you’d use to save money on groceries at any time. You just need to kick these techniques into high gear to get through the current price crunch.
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1. Don’t Forget Meal Planning
In a period of rising food costs, meal planning is more crucial than ever. That’s because even with prices rising across the board, some foods are cheaper than others. You can keep your grocery budget under control by planning meals around these lower-cost ingredients.
Start your meal planning by checking what you already have in your fridge and pantry. The more food you can use from your current supplies, the less you have to buy. Plus, planning meals around the food in your fridge ensures you use it before it goes bad.
But as you’re planning, think about how you can use all the ingredients you buy. If you only need half a package of buns to feed your family sloppy joes, maybe you can have burgers or BLTs later in the week.
The next place to look for meal ideas is the weekly sale fliers from local supermarkets. If you see a good deal on one ingredient, check your cookbooks or the web for recipes. Focus on the ones that call for other cheap ingredients to keep costs down.
2. Stick to Your Grocery List
If you plan your meals, you can come up with a grocery list filled with mostly low-cost items. However, that list does you no good if you don’t stick to it. If you let your eye wander over the store shelves as you shop, you could end up with a cartful of pricey impulse buys.
To avoid this problem, stay laser-focused on your list as you shop. As you check off each item, move straight on to the next. Don’t even walk down an aisle if nothing on your list is there. The fewer items you see, the less temptation you face.
If you find it difficult to stick to a list at the store, see if your store offers free curbside pickup. That lets you shop from home and avoid temptation. It also makes it easy to consult the store’s sale flyer right on the website and compare prices without feeling rushed. You can even shop at multiple stores and then make one trip in the car to pick up your order at each one.
3. Compare Prices
Habits can be powerful. If you’ve always bought the same detergent or ice cream brand, it’s easy to reach for it automatically. But if you want to minimize your grocery bill, it’s worth taking the time to check the shelf for cheaper alternatives.
Comparing prices can be tricky. A $3.99 box of cereal might not be a better deal than a $4.99 box if the second box is bigger, but that isn’t always obvious at a glance. That’s why food manufacturers often cover up price increases by making packages smaller.
To compare prices accurately, you need to look at the unit price. That’s the cost divided by the weight or volume of the package. If your store doesn’t list unit prices on the shelf, you can calculate them with your phone. Just divide the price by the units (such as quantity or ounces).
4. Keep a Price Book
It’s useful to compare prices, not just between brands but also between stores. The same jar of peanut butter that costs $5 at one store could be $3 at another. To get the best prices, you may need to switch grocery stores or even shop at different stores for different products.
Make a grocery price book to keep track of which store has the best price on each product you buy. It can be an actual notebook with a page for each thing you purchase or an online document or app.
In your price book, list the bottom price available for each food you regularly buy at each store where you shop. (Use the unit price to make comparisons easier.) Then you can see at a glance which store is best for a given item and what brand is cheapest at each store.
If you already have a price book, ensure it’s up to date. With food costs rising as fast as they are, the price that was accurate last month may already be incorrect. So each time you visit a grocery store, check its prices on your favorite items and update their entries in the book.
5. Shop Discount Stores
One of the best ways to reduce your grocery bill is to shop at a discount grocery store such as Aldi or Dollar General. These stores offer a limited selection but charge lower prices on almost everything they sell.
The lower prices at these stores don’t mean lower quality. Lidl, my favorite discount store, offers a wide selection of organic foods, fair-trade coffee, the extra-pulpy orange juice my husband likes, and an excellent dark chocolate. And they all cost less than similar products at more mainstream supermarkets.
Also, because discount stores pride themselves on low prices, they’re not as quick to raise prices as bigger supermarkets. Throughout most of last year, the items we bought at Lidl stayed the same price even as costs rose elsewhere. And even when the store finally raised its prices, they stayed well below the competition.
You can also find significant savings on many food items at warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club. If you have a membership to one of these stores, it pays to use it.
However, it’s not necessarily worth getting one just for the grocery savings. Do the math to figure out whether a warehouse club membership makes sense for your family. Also, most warehouse clubs allow members to bring at least one guest. While they don’t all give guests purchasing privileges, you can go as someone’s guest to get an idea of what types of products and deals they might have for you.
6. Use Coupons
You don’t need to be an extreme couponer to save money with coupons.
Instead of spending hours collecting them all, just glance through each week’s newspaper and clip only the coupons for products you use.
You can also search for printable and digital coupons online. Check out coupon apps and databases like Coupons.com and Southern Savers. Also, check the supermarket’s website, where some markets post coupons for store brands as well as name brands. You may need to create an account on the website or have a loyalty card to view them.
Stow any paper coupons in an envelope until grocery shopping day. After making your grocery list, flip through your stash and pull out the coupons for goods you plan to buy.
If you make your grocery list on paper, you can clip your paper coupons to it to ensure you’ll have them handy at the checkout. If not, tuck them into your wallet so you’ll see them before you pay the bill. Just don’t forget the digital coupons saved on your phone.
But note a coupon doesn’t always offer the best deal. Sometimes, buying a name brand with a coupon costs more than buying the store brand. So even when you have a coupon, compare prices at the store before buying.
7. Use Rebate Apps
Cash-back apps like Ibotta and Fetch Rewards aren’t quite the same as coupon apps. Coupons help you keep down the price of food at the checkout. But with rebate apps, you get money back afterward in the form of cash or gift cards.
The good news is you can use both on the same shopping trip. Present your coupons at the register to reduce the bill upfront. Then, when you get home, photograph the receipt to claim your cash-back rewards for later.
8. Use a Store Loyalty Card
Many grocery stores offer special discounts just for loyalty program members. Claiming these discounts is even easier than clipping coupons or using a rebate app. All you have to do is scan your store card or app at the checkout.
Joining a loyalty program doesn’t mean you have to be loyal to one store. Naturally, retailers hope the discounts they offer will encourage you to do all your shopping at their store, but it’s not required.
Thus, it makes sense to join the loyalty program at every grocery store where you shop. Even if you only shop at a store occasionally, it can’t hurt to sign up. With food prices as high as they are, you can’t afford to miss out on any opportunity to save.
Don’t worry if you don’t have room in your wallet for all your loyalty cards. Most stores can access your account if you give your phone number at the register. Also, many stores have smartphone apps you can use instead.
9. Buy Store Brands
Many Americans who were loyal to certain brands during the relative economic stability of the 2010s are changing their habits now. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2022 Consumer Pulse Survey, as prices rise, more shoppers are switching to cheaper brands, including store brands.
Store brands, also called private-label or house brands, are almost always cheaper than name brands. And in many cases, their quality is just as good. In fact, some store brands are literally the same product as a name brand in a different package.
For instance, Eater revealed in 2017 that some Trader Joe’s house brands were actually name brands like Wonderful Pistachios and Naked Juice smoothies. And some companies that make products for Kirkland, Costco’s house brand, actually advertise the fact. Kirkland aluminum foil says Reynolds right on the package, and some Kirkland coffees are labeled “by Starbucks.”
For any product you use regularly, it’s worth at least trying the store brand to see if you and your family find it acceptable. It doesn’t cost much to try it, and if you like it, you do, you can save a bundle.
Furthermore, if you don’t like the house brand at one store, you can always try another. When I tried the store-brand almond milk at Aldi, I didn’t like its flavor, but I’m perfectly happy with store-brand almond milk from either Shop-Rite or Lidl.
10. Buy in Bulk
Lots of items are cheaper when you buy in bulk. Buying four 18-ounce boxes of raisin bran typically costs more than buying one 72-ounce box because you’re paying for extra packaging. And the milk to go with it probably costs less by the gallon than the quart.
Better still, some stores sell products like spices, grains, and nuts in bulk bins. You bring your own containers and buy as much or as little as you need. Bulk-bin spices are a particularly good deal. The cost per ounce is usually a fraction of what you’d pay buying a jar.
There are a few problems with bulk buying. First, sometimes the bigger package isn’t a better deal — especially when you have a coupon that’s good for any size. That’s why it always makes sense to check the unit price before deciding which package to buy.
Second, buying in bulk is no bargain if your food goes bad before you can use it up. For products with a limited shelf life, such as olive oil, it’s better to avoid bulk buying. Buy only as much as you and your family can use within the product’s lifespan.
The final problem is finding the storage space for your bulk bargains. To get around this problem, look for unused space in your home where you could set up an overflow pantry. For instance, my husband and I have a shelf in our laundry room where we keep all our oversize packages from Costco.
It could also be worth investing in a stand-alone freezer to store bulk purchases. You don’t need one for shelf-stable products, but it’s useful for storing bulk packages of meat, cheese, grains, and nuts.
11. Stock Up on Sale Items
The prices splashed all over sales flyers aren’t always great deals. In fact, sometimes, they’re not sale prices at all. The store simply prints its regular price in big, bold type to make it look like a bargain. So it pays to have an idea of what things really cost.
When you see a sale price advertised, compare it to the regular prices in your price book. If it beats the lowest cost listed there — and the product is nonperishable or freezable — it’s time to stock up.
Gradually, your pantry and freezer will fill up with sale-priced food. After that, you can do some “shopping” in your kitchen instead of paying full price at the store.
12. Shop Clearance
Many grocery stores have a clearance section. That’s where you can find foods the store wants to sell in a hurry, such as:
- Day-old bread
- Fresh produce that’s bruised or wilting
- Slightly dented cans
- Short-dated meats and dairy products
- Any item the store couldn’t sell at full price
You can find some remarkable bargains in the clearance section. For instance, when my husband and I go to Lidl, our first stop is the marked-down produce near the checkout. Once, we found a whole box full of lemons for less than $0.30 per pound.
At other stores, high-end goods often end up in the clearance section as they near their expiration dates. A colleague of mine has found 16-ounce bags of Wonderful Pistachios for $4, a four-pack of a fancy Christmas beer marked down from $16 to $5, and exotic snacks such as Brussels sprout puffs in the clearance bin at Kroger.
If your store has a clearance section, make a point of checking it whenever you visit. You may not find anything, but if you do, it’s sure to be a bargain.
13. Skip Prepared Foods
Nowadays, it’s possible to buy a wide variety of foods at the store that are practically ready to eat. Frozen dinners require only reheating in the oven or microwave. You can dump prewashed salad greens straight into a bowl. And you can eat precut fruit right out of the package.
But this convenience comes at a cost. My local supermarket sells bagged, prewashed salad greens for $5 per pound. A head of lettuce costs just $2, or $2.65 per pound. When you buy the bag, you’re paying nearly double the price to have someone else wash and tear the greens for you.
You can do a similar calculation every time you consider buying prepared food. How much does it cost compared to a whole-food equivalent? How much work would it take to prepare it yourself? And how much is it worth to you to avoid that work?
In some cases, prepared foods aren’t more expensive. For instance, the $5 rotisserie chicken at Costco is a loss-leader, selling for less than it costs the store to buy. If prepared food is cheaper than the home-cooked version, don’t hesitate to buy it.
14. Substitute for Pricey Ingredients
Look at the receipt from your last grocery shopping trip, and you’ll probably see that just a few purchases accounted for a big share of the cost. Often, you can cut your bill significantly by replacing these expensive items with cheaper substitutes.
You can make substitutions for multiple high-cost foods, including:
- Beef. This is one of the priciest foods at the store. You can save by relying more on lower-cost protein sources. Chicken, though pricier than usual, is still cheaper than beef right now, and beans are much cheaper.
- Butter. For spreading on your toast, vegetable oil spreads are cheaper than real butter. Look for healthier spreads that don’t contain trans fats. For baking and cooking, you can often substitute oil or lard for butter.
- Cream. Many recipes that call for cream, such as soups, work just as well with canned evaporated milk. Thickening whole milk with cornstarch can also work.
- Fresh Produce. Frozen or canned vegetables and fruits can be just as healthy as fresh, and the price per pound is often much less. That’s particularly true for out-of-season produce, which costs more to buy fresh.
- Milk. Low-fat or nonfat milk usually costs less than whole milk and is healthier too. Powdered milk can be even cheaper, and the taste probably isn’t as bad as you think. If you let it chill overnight before drinking, it tastes nearly identical to fresh milk.
- Olive Oil. Save high-priced olive oil for dishes in which the flavor really matters. For cooking, choose the cheaper vegetable or canola oil.
- Wine. For adding savory flavor to a dish, try canned broth instead of wine. Chicken or veggie stock can substitute for white wine and beef stock for red.
15. Go Meatless
One ingredient that tends to be pricey is meat — especially right now. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, prices rose more for meats than for all other foods in 2020. The USDA predicts that meat, fish, and poultry prices will rise by another 7% to 8% in 2022.
You can save money by eating meatless meals regularly. That doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian. Cheap plant-based meals like rice and beans, stir-fry, pasta primavera, veggie pizza, or omelets make a nice change of pace for meat-eaters. And they’re healthy too.
If you’re not prepared to go meatless, try going meat-light. Reduce the amount of meat in your recipes, using just a little for flavor. For instance, in dishes like chili and spaghetti sauce, use less ground beef and make up the volume with extra veggies.
16. Buy Local, Seasonal Produce
Another food that’s risen sharply in price this year is fresh produce. The supply chain for these products is snarled in several areas. There are shortages of labor to plant, pick, and transport produce; shortages of shipping materials; and delays at ports.
You can get around some of these problems by choosing locally grown produce. When you buy from your local farmers market, you’re not paying extra for inflated shipping costs. Plus, the food is fresher and tastier because it hasn’t traveled hundreds of miles to reach you.
If you can’t find local produce, at least choose fruit and vegetables that are in season. They typically travel much shorter distances to get to you than out-of-season produce. For example, in December, strawberries may have traveled halfway around the world. The shorter travel distances add up to fresher food and lower prices.
17. Use Up Leftovers
Since the pandemic started, many Americans say they’re eating leftovers more than they used to, according to a 2021 Bosch Home Appliances-OnePoll survey. Eating out is riskier than it used to be, and higher grocery prices make it more important than ever not to waste food.
But many people find it challenging to figure out how to use leftovers. Fortunately, there are many ways to incorporate leftovers into your weekly meal planning. For instance, you can:
- Lunch on Leftovers. If you typically pack a lunch for work or school, use dinner leftovers for your meal instead of a sandwich or salad. If you prepare a six-serving dish for a family of four, you can save two portions for packed lunches the next day.
- Make Freezer Meals. Cook a double-size portion of a dish like soup, casserole, or lasagna. Eat half of it for dinner and freeze the other half. The frozen portion can make a series of lunches or a quick reheat-and-eat dinner for a busy evening.
- Make Veggies Do Double Duty. If you’re planning a veggie-based meal, such as stir-fry, make it early in the week. Then you can use the leftover vegetables throughout the week in soups, omelets, quiche, or pasta.
- Have a Leftovers Buffet. If you have an assortment of leftovers in the fridge, serve them as a buffet. Let family members take turns loading up their plates with whatever they choose.
- Save the Scraps. Even little odds and ends can still be useful. You can save veggie scraps and meat bones for soup stock and turn fruit scraps into smoothies. Cut slightly stale bread into cubes for stuffing or toss the cubes with oil and salt and bake them to make croutons.
18. Don’t Grocery Shop Hungry
Grocery shopping when you’re hungry is an easy way to end up with a cart full of impulse buys. Worse, a lot of those unplanned purchases are likely to be snack foods, which are both costly and unhealthy.
Plan your shopping trip after a meal so you can shop with your brain and not your stomach. If your schedule is flexible, shop after breakfast. You’ll be less tired than you are at the end of a workday, and the store will be less crowded.
19. Check the Bill
The labor shortage in some areas has left grocery stores short-staffed. A lot of checkout clerks are rushing to get through more customers than ever. That makes them more prone to errors like scanning the same item twice, entering the wrong number on a keypad, or neglecting to scan a coupon you’ve presented. They’re honest mistakes, but they still cost you money.
To avoid this problem, double-check the checker’s work. Watch as they scan each item, and if the price that comes up on the screen isn’t the price you saw on the shelf, ask why. Also, make sure they scan all the coupons you’ve provided as well as your store card.
If you forget to do this while you’re going through the checkout, take a look at your receipt before leaving the store. If there’s a price on it that doesn’t look right, head to customer service, where you can point out the error and ask them to correct it.
20. Pick Your Own
As a kid, I always loved going with my family to the nearby pick-your-own apple orchard. Scampering through the trees filling a bucket with my favorite apples was great fun.
I didn’t realize at the time it was also a great deal for my folks. Because we did the picking ourselves, the orchard charged us less for each pound of apples than the price at its farm store down the road.
I’ve since learned that pick-your-own farms aren’t just for apples. You can find a variety of fresh produce, including costly crops like asparagus and blackberries, often at significantly reduced prices. And it’s a fun outing for the family too.
One caveat: Picking your own isn’t always a good value. Some farms charge more for produce you pick yourself than you’d pay at a farmers market or a local supermarket. So check the prices ahead to ensure it’s worth the trip.
21. Grow Your Own
An even better way to save on produce is to plant a vegetable garden.
If you live in a rural area, you probably have plenty of room to grow almost any crop that can survive in your region. According to some estimates, you can grow all your own vegetables with as little as 200 square feet of garden space per person. If you have more space, you can grow staple foods such as potatoes, grains, beans, and legumes alongside ingredients that would be pricier at the grocery store.
But for country dwellers, growing your own food isn’t just a way to save on your grocery bill. It also saves you the cost of gas — which is also really high right now — for driving to and from the store. If the nearest supermarket is 45 minutes away, it’s cheaper to “shop” in your garden.
If you’re a suburbanite, you probably can’t grow all your produce in your backyard. However, the crops you can manage to grow yourself are likely to cost a lot less than store-bought produce.
To maximize the value of your vegetable garden, concentrate on crops that yield typically costly produce. Instead of carrots and cabbages, which are cheap at the store, grow arugula, snow peas, or fresh herbs. Perennial crops, such as rhubarb and asparagus, are a particularly good value. Plant them once, and you can continue harvesting them yearly.
Even if you’re a city dweller with no yard at all, you may be able to grow some of your food in containers. For instance, a small, sunlit balcony can accommodate one or two tomato or pepper plants. And a sunny window is enough space for a pot or two of fresh herbs.
The USDA predicts that grocery prices will rise by 7% to 8% in 2022, but that’s only an estimate. It’s hard to say how high food prices will be in the coming year. It depends on multiple factors, including the Ukraine war, the pandemic, and the changing climate’s effect on crop yields.
Fortunately, these money-saving measures will remain helpful no matter what happens to grocery prices. If they remain high, these strategies will help you manage the cost. And if they fall, you can continue using them to eat healthy on a budget.
The extra money you’re no longer spending on food can pad your emergency fund, retirement account, or your kids’ college savings. Having that extra money set aside will prepare you for the next difficult period, whenever it happens.