Already facing surging home heating and gasoline prices, hard-hit consumers now must confront steadily higher costs at food stores, where prices have increased by more than 5 percent since last year.
But there are ways to stretch your food budget. Supermarkets and warehouse stores compete fiercely for customers by offering a variety of sale prices, coupons, and rewards programs.
You should try to take advantage of all of them. Doing so may even reduce your cost at the gasoline pump because some food outlets reward you for shopping at their stores with significant discounts at affiliated stations.
Here’s what you should know as food costs continue to rise:
Q. How has inflation impacted the price of food?
A. Food is one of the main drivers of inflation, though not nearly as much as energy costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cost of food is 5.4 percent higher than a year ago, while the price of all commodities except food and energy is up 4.6 percent. (The cost of energy, including gasoline, is up a staggering 30 percent compared to last year.)
Q. What foods are hardest hit by inflation?
A. The cost of beef nationally is up 20.1 percent compared to last year, the BLS says. And the cost of pork has increased 14.1 percent, its largest 12-month increase in 30 years. Double-digit inflation has also hit eggs (11.6 percent), fresh fish (11), and fresh and frozen chicken parts (10.2 percent). Other hefty increases, in percentages: baby food (7.9), fats and oils (7.6), crackers (7.5), apples (6.7), canned vegetables (6.6), roasted coffee (5.6), and household paper products (6.5).
Q. How do I take advantage of sale prices?
A. Supermarkets have long published weekly paper circulars, which list sales and can usually be found at the front of the store. (They may also arrive in the mail.) I recently became a convert to using supermarket apps, which allow me to prepare for shopping by clicking and swiping on my phone.
One of the nice things I found about using an app is that you can review items on sale in advance and assemble a shopping list on your phone by clicking on the items you want. After swiping your rewards card at the checkout the discounts are deducted automatically.
Q. Does it make sense to shop at only one food outlet?
A. Probably not. Your goal should be to find sales on everything you want. Buying something at the regular store price should be viewed as the exception. It takes focus and discipline to scout out the best deals among various food outlets, but it definitely saves money.
I have apps for three supermarkets and one warehouse store. I can toggle back and forth among the stores looking for sale prices and other deals.
Some supermarkets require you to have a no-fee membership account to get the sale price and additional coupon savings. Make sure you know the rules where you shop.
Q. What about coupons?
A. Coupons offer deep discounts, and usually can be combined with sale prices for substantial savings. Two of the supermarkets and the one warehouse store where I shop allow me to see all available coupons on my app. That really simplifies the process. When I click on a coupon, I’m done. I get credit for my coupon at checkout when my member card is scanned. No scissors required.
Q. What about reward points?
A. If your supermarket has a rewards program, and you’re not using it, you are leaving money on the table. The rules vary from one supermarket to another, but basically you get points for every expenditure you make, typically one point for every dollar. You can redeem your points the next time you shop at that supermarket (usually $1 off for every 100 points) or for discounted gas at a participating gas station.
You may also get personalized offers to increase your points by purchasing certain items.
Q. How much is the gasoline discount?
A. Typically, you get 10 cents off per gallon for every 100 points, which means using your points for gas discounts actually puts more money in your pocket than using them at the supermarket.
With Stop and Shop GO Rewards, for instance, you can redeem points up to a maximum of $1.50 off per gallon up to 20 gallons, which can be a significant savings when the average price of gas in Massachusetts is now about $3.40.
The warehouse store where I am an annual fee-paying member does it differently. It gives me 5 cents off a gallon every time I fill up without regard for how much I spend at the store.
Q. How much savings do you get at a warehouse store?
A. A good amount, based on my limited experience. But you have to buy items in large quantities in most cases, and that can be impracticable for smaller-sized households. If you have adequate storage space at home, it may make sense for at least some items, such as paper products, laundry detergent, and baby diapers.
Q. What else should I know?
A. Get familiar with those orange-colored unit pricing tags on supermarket shelves. They allow you to compare the cost of various brands even when they come in different quantities (store brands are usually the cheapest). They also come in handy if you want to compare costs at different outlets.
Q. Anything else?
A. Yes, pay attention as your items are being scanned at checkout. You may be able to spot a mistake. I recently pointed out to a cashier that my apples were scanned as Fuji when they were actually honey crisp. It was important because the honey crisps were on sale and I had a coupon for them. The difference in the price for a half-dozen apples was $1.44.
Every little bit helps.