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Drought-proof your food bills

The lack of rain will affect prices on everything from beef to breakfast cereal. Here's how to minimize the impact on your wallet.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 1, 2012 4:51PM

Image: Grocery shopping (© Randy Faris/Corbis)Extreme U.S. drought conditions are likely to translate to bigger grocery bills through next year. A recent post on MSN Money Smart Spending noted that even just a corn-crop failure would mean "higher prices for everything from cereal to soda pop."

It isn't just corn, though. Wheat and soybeans are looking dismal, fruits and vegetables are wilting, and the meat and dairy industries face heat-related issues.

The bad news: Your food budget is going to take a hit. The good news? A few simple steps can noticeably reduce the impact.

A close look at your eating habits, some carefully planned shopping trips, a bit of creative storage and maybe some strategic coupon usage will make all the difference in the world says Erin Huffstetler, a frugality expert for

Her recent post "Drought-proof your grocery budget" calls for stockpiling. It does not call for hoarding or for panic.

"It's just a problem this one season. If people stocked even a little more than they would normally buy, it might be enough," Huffstetler says.

What this means to you

Among the items likely to be affected by the drought are milk, butter, beef, pork, chicken, canned meats, pasta, soy milk, cheese, breakfast cereal, powdered milk, gluten-free products (those based on corn), crackers, sweetened condensed milk, meat-based broths, salsa, cornmeal, pet food, vitamins, cooking oil, and frozen, canned or dried fruits and vegetables.

Even dried beans, the go-to protein for many frugalists (and vegetarians), are likely to be pricier in the near future. For a complete list, see  another Huffstetler post, "What to stockpile due to the drought." (Post continues after video.)

Understand: No one is predicting a famine or suggesting you dig a bunker and stock it with Spam and ramen. The idea is to look at what you eat most often, watch for good deals and buy extra items -- what Stephanie Nelson, aka The Coupon Mom, calls "strategic shopping."

If you eat a lot of meat, be on the lookout for a temporary price drop. The high cost of feeding and watering large animals will likely cause farmers to send their animals to market earlier than usual, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent Food Price Outlook.


When you see good prices, buy as much as your freezer can hold. Use a lot of canned meats or chicken or beef broth? Watch for deals on those products, too. Meat prices are expected to increase as much as 4.5%.

Storing the goods

Watch for deals on canned, dried and frozen foods, too, Nelson advises. Many of the products currently on supermarket shelves are from the 2011 harvest, which is cheaper than the 2012 one will be.

Don't have much storage space? Focus on the foods you eat most often. If your household goes through a couple of pounds of pasta per month, stocking up might save you only a dollar or two. But how many boxes of cereal do you buy each week?

"It's easy with sales and coupons to get rock-bottom deals (on cereal)," Nelson says. Thus stocking up on breakfast food versus elbow macaroni might be a smarter use of available space. She also notes that as cereal prices rise there may be fewer sales.

Incidentally, you'd be surprised how much you can store in even a one-bedroom apartment. (Ask me how I know.) For tips, see "Survive a disaster -- in your condo."

Tips from the pros

If you've been planning to invest in a freezer anyway, this might be a good time to do it. Remember that flour and cornmeal can be frozen to extend their shelf lives. Stock up on butter for holiday baking or everyday use. At a supermarket near me this week, butter is three pounds for $5.

Milk can be frozen, too. To learn how, see "An easy way to save on milk."

A few more suggestions: 

  • Whole chickens are cheaper than cut-up ones. Individually frozen chicken breasts are cheaper than fresh. Serve 3 to 4 ounces of meat versus giant slabs.
  • Look at overall spending and "adjust your budget (for) the increase in food prices," suggests a blogger named Karen at Saving the Family Money. Think ahead. For example, does your family eat a lot of popcorn, the world’s most frugal snack? Stock up. If you make candy for Christmas gifts, better buy the corn syrup now.
  • Be "brand-flexible," Nelson says -- it might mean a better deal on the same food type (Del Monte versus Hunt's, for example).
  • Or ignore name brands altogether. "Shop the generics and find the store-brand items you like," suggests coupon blogger Tiffany Ivanovsky of MyLitter. (Want an even better deal on the no-name stuff? See "5 ways to get cheaper generics.")
  • Look for a restaurant supply store in your area. Last week at Cash & Carry I paid just $2.89 for a 5-pound bag of lentils -- and no warehouse fees either.

Again: Don't panic. Just plan ahead. You'll be glad you did.

More on MSN Money:

Aug 2, 2012 12:53PM

next year I plan on planting a small veggie garden.  I have immediate neighbors who already have a garden, I hope to organize and informal neighborhood group to trade with for veggies I don't have.

Aug 8, 2012 10:36AM
It's more than drought conditions.  Here in Texas, consistent 100+ degree temperatures make growing vegetables in my garden a near impossibility.  My watermelon plant expired, squash plants grew but quickly wilted.  Only one hardy leafy vegetable has survived -- barely.   Maybe I'll just stock up on beans and rice then hunker down and watch everything else get costly.  Tofu has been one of the cheapest high protein foods around (if bought in an Asian market) but now even that is threatened it seems.
Aug 16, 2012 5:11PM
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.