By Andrew Housser
If you spend any time in the grocery store, you know that the price of everything -- from fresh fruit and vegetables, to cereal, to milk -- has gone up over the last several years. Unfortunately, this year's drought conditions will only push costs higher. It is estimated that food prices will go up 5 percent in 2013. That adds up to an annual increase of more than $600 for a family of four. Grocery bills are a big weekly household expense, so it's important to shop smartly. Follow these tips to keep your spending low while filling your grocery cart.
1. Budget. When you do your monthly budgeting, decide how much you can afford to spend on groceries each week. Keep a running tally as you shop so you'll be less tempted to throw items into your cart that aren't on your list. (Think of it this way: splurging on one $5 item every week adds up to an extra annual cost of $260.)
2. Leave credit cards at home. Paying with cash (or a debit card) helps ensure you stay within your budget. And, if you use a credit card and cannot pay off the balance in full each month, you run the risk of paying up to 15 percent interest on a $4 box of cereal.
3. Shop with a plan. You are more apt to impulse shop if you head to the store without a list. Plus, when you make out a list, you can inventory what's already in your pantry and freezer so you don't purchase items you already have on hand.
4. Plan menus around what's on sale. Check out the weekly sale ads and plan your daily menus around the weekly sale offerings, to the degree possible.
5. Splurge on the Sunday newspaper. About 75 percent of grocery coupons are tucked into the Sunday newspaper ads. It may be worth it to you and your family to buy a couple of copies to stock up on coupons.
6. Capitalize on store savings. Take advantage of double coupons, special in-store coupons and savings you can get using a shopper loyalty card.
7. Pay attention to unit pricing. Ounce-for-ounce, bigger packages often provide the most value for your dollar -- but not always. Look beyond the price per box. Check the unit pricing displayed on tags on store shelves. Mid-size packages sometimes will be the best purchases.
8. Leave the kids at home. Sometimes, a child's good behavior at the store makes you want to reward him or her with a box of cookies or other treat. Other parents might be tempted to buy the box of cookies to silence a child who is acting up. Whatever the reason, parents easily can spend more money in stores when kids tag along. When possible, plan a child-free shopping trip.
10. Stock up. If you see a great markdown on an item you eat frequently, and which will keep -- such as chicken -- buy several packages and freeze them for later use. Freeze in individual or small-portion sizes for even more convenient use.
11. Think outside the brand. Store brands are often less expensive and still of good quality. Some stores offer money-back guarantees, so you can get a refund if you are not satisfied with an item.
12. Buy in season. You'll save up to 15 percent by buying fruits and vegetables that are in season.
13. Make your own beverages. Pre-made juices, lemonades and even sodas cost more because of their plastic containers. Buy powdered mixes and make your own at home. You can also use a seltzer maker to make your own cola and seltzer water.
14. Do more at home. The convenience of bagged lettuce, pre-cut fruit and veggies, and shredded cheese comes with a higher cost. It only takes a few extra minutes to rinse lettuce and tear it by hand or to shred a block of cheese. Skip the more expensive, single-serving packages, too. Buy the bigger size and dole out smaller portions into sandwich bags or smaller, to-go containers.
15. Go vegetarian. Because meat is a high-dollar item, going meat-free more often -- even one day a week -- will save you money. Plus, it can be good for your health.
Putting these smart shopping strategies into practice now can help make each grocery shopping trip more productive, and take out some of the sting at the checkout.
Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.