8 ways to keep rising food prices from eating into your budget

By Features Consumer Reports

If the prices in the outer aisles of the supermarket—those that tend to contain fresh meats and produce—seem to be going up, you're right.

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While inflation has been rising at an annual rate of just 2.1 percent, according to the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index, a number of food items are eating into your budget much more. Fruit prices, particularly citrus fruits, now cost an average of 22.5 percent more than a year ago. Egg prices are up 10 percent. You're also spending more bacon on well, bacon. The fatty, salty meat costs 14 percent more now than it did one year ago. Pork chops are up as well, by 12.7 percent.

See how your supermarket stacks up in our Supermarket Buying Guide.

While the price increases can be hard to swallow, there are ways to cut down on how much you spend. Our in-house shopping expert, Tod Marks, suggests the following steps:

Join a warehouse club. For day-in, day out savings, club stores can't be beat. You get low-everyday prices, and there's no waiting for a sale. 

Cherry pick hot weekly specials. Many of the items prominently featured in flyers are dangled as loss leaders to lure you to the store. They're often sold at or below price, so stock up and save. The featured items tend to be staples such as cereal, juice, foils, wraps, yogurt, and so on. If the store is out of stock, be sure to get a rain check.

Buy bagged, not loose. Loose lemons, apples and pears as well as potatoes, tomatoes and onions tend to be pricier than those packed in pints, pound boxes, and 5-pound bags. When we shopped for Idaho baking potatoes recently, for example, they were priced $1.29 per pound loose vs. $2.99 for a 5-pound sack.

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Try store brands. Consumer Reports frequently tests retailers' own brand products and they usually at least as good as the national names. That's not to say they're identical in flavor. Store brands might have a different profile, but the good ones are fresh-tasting and flavorful. They typically come with a money-back satisfaction guarantee, so there's little risk. Savings at the grocery store average around 25 percent, but often the discounts are much deeper.

Join a loyalty program. More and more, stores are reserving their best deals for their best customers, and to take advantage of the bargains, you'll probably need to sign up for a preferred-shopper card.

Use coupons. Sounds obvious, but coupons are a great way to save, and more manufacturers are allowing customers to download them directly from supermarket websites through mobile apps linked to their card memberships. Many stores double, even triple coupons with face values of less than $1.

Check the unit price. That's the price per ounce, quart, pound, or 100 sheets, and it's displayed on a shelf tag with a bar code beneath most products. That's the only way to learn which size product is cheapest, though there are cases where they don't allow for accurate comparisons. Hint: Bigger isn't always less expensive.  Sometimes store will try to trick you.

Switch stores. If you're dissatisfied with your store, try another. Walmart is the nation's biggest grocer, but was the lowest rated of any chain. Stores like Costco, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and others have a large national presence. Check our Ratings to see which high-scoring chains might be in your area.

Fortunately, not all food items are rising. Despite the recent price increases at Starbucks, of the 50 or so food items that comprise the food portion of the CPI basket, coffee was one of the few items to have fallen in price, about 4 percent versus summer 2013.

—Chris Horymski

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