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5 tips to fight rising food prices

Grocery stores are raising prices and cutting back on sales. It's time for some extreme couponing tactics.

By MSN Money Partner May 10, 2012 12:15PM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner siteSmartMoney.


Snapping up a year's supply of toilet paper or tuna fish for pennies on the dollar may seem like an only-on-reality-TV stunt. But as food prices rise, experts say regular shoppers may want to emulate those extreme couponers -- to some extent.


Image: Coupon (© Photodisc Green/Getty Images)Food manufacturers and supermarkets were slow to pass on higher prices to customers when the economy was tough, but forecasts for still higher costs forced them to re-assess in recent months, says Jack Plunkett, the chief executive of Plunkett Research.


In March, food prices rose 0.2%, contributing to a 3.3% increase year-over-year, according to the Consumer Price Index. "They don't want to be caught again in a position of having their prices too low," he says.


Those higher prices are reaching customers in a variety of ways. Some chains reduced sale discounts and cut back on promotions that doubled the value of manufacturers' coupons in favor of more stable "everyday low prices," says Teri Gault, the founder of The Grocery Game, which tracks grocery prices. For example, she says Meijer stores in Ohio had $4.39 boxes of Kellogg's cereals on sale for $2 at the end of March. In April, the sale price rose to $2.50, then to $3.19 and then to $3.33.


These skimpier sales mean that, while shoppers buying at full price may pay a little less, there are fewer opportunities for bigger savings, she says. Shoppers' dollars may also be buying less. "Package shrink continues to be a big problem," says Jill Cataldo, the founder of Super-Couponing. On recent trips, she's spotted scaled-back juice containers and boxed granola bars with fewer pieces per pack. (Post continues below.)

Although it may take more effort to nab savings these days, experts say it's possible to use some extreme couponing tactics without clearing out closets or leasing a storage unit. "You don't need to stock up like the crazy people on TV," Cataldo says. Average shoppers can take a more measured approach and still get the same savings:


Clip more coupons. "I know some people hate coupons, but you might as well start clipping," Gault says. Even with store sales wilting, combining them with a manufacturer's coupon is still a shopper's best bet for savings. Check the weekly newspaper inserts and browse online sites for printable deals. More supermarkets are also offering programs that let shoppers virtually load coupons onto their store loyalty card and automatically redeem them at checkout.


Scour the shelves. When manufacturers scale back package sizes, stores often have some of the old and the new versions on shelves simultaneously, says Cataldo. Dig through to grab any left of the older, bigger sizes. Just check the expiration dates first to avoid stocking up on an item that won't last long enough to consume.


Stock up. "In the end, if a consumer wants to save money (ahead of price increases), they need to do large volume shopping," says Plunkett. That could mean buying at a warehouse club, where regular prices are routinely as much as 30% cheaper than the supermarket. (There, however, rising membership fees may also eat into savings.)


Or shoppers might do a smaller version of extreme couponers' stockpiling, picking up a three-month supply of sale items. There's no need to get more than that, Gault says -- items tend to go on sale every 10 to 12 weeks.


Check store policies. Couponers typically go wherever the prices are best, which can mean visiting several different stores each week. At the very least, check which stores in your area still double manufacturers' coupons and which will match competitors' prices, says Cataldo. (Wal-Mart and Target both price match, for example.)

But it's still worth comparing prices if most of your shopping list isn't on sale. "Stores that do double may have slightly higher prices normally," she warns.


Assess sale prices. Fresh items like meats and produce rarely have coupons, so stick to what's on sale that week or is in season, which pushes prices lower, says Cataldo. Her rule of thumb: it's a buy if the discount is better than 50% or the price per pound is less than $2. Again, it's a good idea to stock up a bit if the item is something you can easily freeze, or eat a lot of, she says.


More on SmartMoney and MSN Money:

I have a radical approach.  Remember our parent's victory gardens?  If you have the space, rip up the flowers to plant fruits and vegetables.  If you have a black thumb, you can start by sticking those sprouting potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and onions in instead of tossing them.  When you are ready to use them, dig them up again.  

We cannot afford waste.  Prices have skyrocketed across the board so remember your parents of the Depression and World War II generation and all the "crazy" things they did.  If it was good enough to beat Hitler, it's good enough for us.
May 10, 2012 1:29PM
Great tips - coupons and saving money is more important than ever at the moment. I've tweeted it too.
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