Image: Close-up of a person using a calculator in a supermarket © George Doyle, Stockbyte, Getty Images

Related topics: savings, budgeting, spending, food, Donna Freedman

Worried about your grocery bill? You should be. Food prices hovered near record levels in May, the U.N. reported, rising faster than they have in three decades.

That's the bad news. The good news: Food is the area of your budget with the most wiggle room. You probably can't negotiate your rent or your car payment, but you can slash grocery costs with just a little planning and careful shopping.

You're not doomed to live on ramen, either. To prove it, my editor proposed a 14-day grocery experiment with a budget of $53.86 per week: the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) benefit of $33.34 per person per week plus $20.52 for the 9.8% of net income that the average American spends on food; in this case, the income is 130% of the federal poverty line, the level that qualifies a person for SNAP. (Want tips on eating well when money's tight? Read Liz Weston's column.)

Almost $54 a week sounded like a lot to me. And it was: In two weeks I spent just $48.39 from the imaginary food-stamp budget, plus about $7.91 of my own money (i.e., food I already had).

That works out to $56.30 total, or $28.15 per week -- about 52% of what I was allowed to spend. Since I didn't use up all the ingredients I bought, the money technically went even further.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But here's how it shook down for me.

Rule No. 1: Make menus based on sales

Sounds elementary, I know. But many people just grab whatever looks good.

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

Be sure to scan every page of the store ads, because the best prices aren't necessarily up front. One supermarket circular had a coupon for 10 pounds of potatoes for $1.50 on Page 5; as soon as I saw it, I knew I'd be eating spuds.

If you're superorganized, you can read your food ad in advance through sites like A Full Cup, and then buy coupons.

Here's what I bought and took from my cupboards and freezer:

  • Produce: several pounds of "reduced for quick sale" apples, 2 pounds of carrots, two oranges, one onion, nine bananas, 10 pounds of potatoes, five 12-ounce bags of plain frozen vegetables. (I provided dried plums and apricots.)
  • Canned goods: tomato sauce, salsa, two cans of tomato soup, two cans of diced tomatoes, one can of tomato paste, two 5-ounce cans of chunk light tuna. (I provided canned fruit, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.)
  • Protein: Package of 10 chicken thighs, 2 pounds ground beef, one dozen eggs, one 8-ounce package of cream cheese. (I provided 2 cups dried pinto beans, peanut butter, 1 ounce jack cheese, ham and a "reduced for quick sale" steak.)
  • Miscellaneous: Multigrain bread, oil, sugar, pretzel sticks, 4 ounces Greek yogurt (for starter to make my own), one Butterfinger bar, 2 cups bulk cornmeal, 1½ gallons milk and cookies. (I provided: Wheat Thins, bagels, tricolor pasta, flour tortillas, tea bags, oatmeal, Sweet'N Low, various store-brand spices, M&Ms, dried coconut, vanilla, butter, rhubarb and pickles.)

Note the absence of fresh greens (expensive and sporadic during this experiment) and fancy-schmancy ingredients. I eat the kind of food my mama fed me -- plain home cooking on a tight budget. Like her, I make food stretch; for example, that package of 10 chicken thighs became two chicken dinners, a stir-fry, a batch of chili, two chicken salad sandwiches and, finally, a pot of soup.

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Rule No. 2: Shop strategically

One-stop shopping is easiest but, cherry-picking the deals at multiple stores could save you a bundle. I visited five nearby stores. Not everyone has that many choices, or that much time. Do what works for you and what makes sense -- don't drive 10 miles out of your way to save a dollar.

Think outside the supermarket, too. The Sweet'N Low for my iced tea cost nothing thanks to ink-cartridge trades at Staples. I hit sales and used coupons to get bagels at Target and cream cheese, eggs, pretzels, sugar and clearance taquitos at Walgreens. (Yes, Walgreens sells frozen foods. Taquitos aren't the healthiest thing in the world but, a 38-cent serving now and then won't kill me.)

I've even bought pasta, canned goods and other items at estate sales, where everything -- including the contents of the kitchen cupboards -- must go.