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Grocery Shoppers Cut Back, Clip Coupons

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Jane Black
Washington Post Food Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008; 12:00 PM

Washington Post food writer Jane Black was online Thursday, May 1 at noon ET to discuss how D.C. shoppers are trimming their grocery bills as food prices rise, and to collect your suggestions.

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The transcript follows.


Bethesda, Md.: I buy some organic foods, which are expensive, so sometimes I check out OrganicMania.com, a blog run by a local mum who lives around the corner from me. She has good tips on when it makes sense to buy organic and how to save money.

Jane Black: OrganicMania's Lynn Miller is terrific. (I spoke to her for this story but it didn't make it in.) She helps find sales and will link to manufacturers coupons online that are not in the Sunday circular. If you like organic, it's a good Web site to check out.


Woodbridge, Va.: For years, I hated bringing lunch and would buy it every day. Now, I've worked out a routine where I not only bring lunch at least twice a week, but I'm eating more salads at the same time. I also try, as much as possible, not to eat lunch out on the weekends. Having healthy snacks in the car helps me from having French fries. Saving money and calories go hand in hand.

Jane Black: Bringing lunch can save a lot of money (as can having snacks and water in the car). Good tips. Do you really think healthier food is cheaper though? Sometimes, it's the other way around.


Reston, Va.: I don't feel sorry for the upper-middle-class people interviewed for this article -- how about people who actually are poor or having a hard time meeting ends in the first place? What are they doing to deal with these rises in costs?

Jane Black: You don't have to feel sorry for them. The point is simply that the food prices are affecting people at all income levels, whereas the price rises we've seen in America in recent years haven't affected everyone.

Lower-income families are really struggling (and we did talk to some of them in the story too). They are doing the same things that higher-income families are doing: cutting back on eating out, driving less, using coupons and probably most important, wasting less food.


Herndon, Va.: Hi. I've never used coupons but feel I must now. I get The Washington Post, and it's filled with coupons. What stores in the D.C. area accept those coupons? Thank you.

Jane Black: Ah ha! Maybe this is a boost for newspapers. :)

It depends what coupons you're using. Most of the coupons come from the manufacturers so any store that has the product will accept them. Some stores double coupons but I'm not sure how prevalent that is these days.

Here's a link to About.com that lists stores by state that double coupons.


Boston: Given that the last big food problem was the obesity epidemic, shouldn't Americans just eat less, and thus offset the increase in food costs?

Jane Black: It's an interesting proposition. The obesity epidemic is complicated and driven by portion sizes but also the types of foods we eat -- lots of meat, foods that are high in fat and processed sugars versus rather than fresh fruits and vegetables and small amounts of meat.

Certainly, if people cut back portion sizes they'd save money and calories but I think it would be wrong to say that rising food prices are the answer to the health challenges faced in America.


Store Brands, Leftovers, Spices: Shop at a store with a quality store brand line. I actually prefer our grocery store's brand of cottage cheese and coffee creamer over every other type. Always eat all leftovers. The only exception is a new recipe that is just awful -- we all have had one (I am thinking of this terrible "easy" lasagna from 2004). Otherwise, eat every morsel of the leftovers.

Spices make everything better -- buy high quality spices and use them on everything. For example, leftover French bread (unseasoned) can become cinnamon and sugar bread. No matter how much money you make, always think like a poor college grad. I still love Hamburger Helper, and I can afford to never eat it again.

Jane Black: These are great tips. I think one of the ways that people will save money is to learn to cook better and waste less. As I said in the story, the stats show that Americans waste 14 percent of all food purchases. Can you think of anything else that we would be that lax about?


Washington: How is it that the Consumer Price Index only is showing inflation of 3.5 percent? Everyone I know is talking about soaring prices, and cutting back on meat, eggs, milk and restaurant meals. This seems worse than the '70s to me, yet the official rate of inflation is so low, and the Federal Reserve keeps lowering interest rates, which in turn stokes more inflation. Is the Fed living in the same country that the rest of us are?

Jane Black: I can't speak for the Fed -- they are trying to keep the entire economy in balance, not only food prices.

But you are correct that the actual CPI hasn't risen that high. The economists I spoke to explained it this way: The CPI basket of goods includes all the things we eat -- a very varied diet of meat, eggs, dairy, grains, fats etc. When you look at the particulars, you see that eggs, dairy and poultry have risen fastest but they make up just 17 percent of purchases. Other items are down or flat. So we notice big spikes on things but as a whole the entire basket of goods we buy isn't up as much.


Herndon, Va.: Good point about not wasting food. There is the time you'll burn the meat, or what have you, but if you can manage to pre-portion your food and freeze it, you can save a lot of time and money. Also, learning to skin and bone your own chicken is a no-brainer, and can save lots of money, as well as learning how to cut up a raw chicken.

Jane Black: Good point. I wonder how many people these days know how to do that.


New Jersey: I have a question for you and the readers -- under what circumstances are families prepared to tap an un- or under-utilized resource to help them cope -- their children? Vast amounts of money can be saved by learning to cook. I make my own tomato sauce, salad dressing, chicken stock, muffins, etc. -- but I'm single with no kids, so I have time. What I observe is killing families is that the children have to be driven somewhere most days of the week. At what point will families consider limiting a children's activities to, say, one day or night per week, and giving the children some chores instead, such as making cornbread? Has anyone done this yet?

Jane Black: Good question. I think what you are saying is that kids used to be asked to pitch in more than they are now. Moms and dads out there -- do you think that's true? Do you ask the kids to help out? Now more than ever?


Bowling Green, Ohio: Interesting -- very few folks talk about going to the wide range of farmers markets in the region, or using Community Supported Agriculture as a way of cutting their food bills. The food is fresher, there is a wide variety, and the prices are often lower than what you can get at a grocery store. Years ago I as a single parent I couldn't afford prepackaged, processed foods, and found fresh local food was much cheaper. Have we been spoiled?

Jane Black: Some people definitely are turning to farmers markets and local foods. What's interesting is that until recently they were seen as more expensive and elitist rather than more economic. I haven't done price comparisons between my farmers market (in Dupont Circle, D.C.) and every market around town but my sense is it's still a bit more expensive. That will definitely change as things come into season, of course. And farm shares do help keep costs down. I joined one this summer and hope to get all the produce I need for $250 for six months.


Takoma Park, Md.: Almost all of us need to control the portions we eat anyway, for health reasons. Planning 30 percent smaller portions automatically trims a grocery bill by 30 percent, no substitutions needed. I know buying smaller amounts of food has unpleasant connotations historically, but given how overstuffed most of us are, nowadays it's a win-win strategy.

Jane Black: So are you doing it? How's it working out? I'd love to know.


Vickers Switch, Va.: Just a comment: clipping coupons may save money if you are already in the habit of feeding your family lots of frozen dinners, boxed dinners, snack food, ice cream treats, mixes, etc. Rarely (never!) do you see a coupon for fresh fruit or vegetables, fresh fish or dairy products (except cheese). Is this really the best use of your food money? Surely it's better to closely track the in-store specials every week.

Jane Black: Yes, for fresh foods, you're better off watching the sales or using a club card. I used to be suspicious of club cards (for privacy reasons) but you really do get a better deal using them.


Chevy Chase, Md.: I thought it was somewhat irresponsible, as part of a series where the articles have focused on true starvation, to devote an entire article to rich people having to clip coupons.

Jane Black: As I told another reader, it wasn't about rich people. There were definitely middle- and low-income families represented in the story. The point was to show how this is affecting everyone, and for the first time in years. And to look at how people are coping in different ways.


West Lafayette, Ind.: In your recent article you mentioned that Americans spend 9.9 percent of their budget on food. If that includes the amount of money spend going out to restaurants, that's a really misleading statistic on how much it actually costs to eat in America.

Jane Black: That number is how much they spend total on food, in and out of the home. The breakdown is $551.1 billion on food at home, or 5.8 percent, and $396.1 billion, or 4.2 percent on food out of the home. (It's 9.9 because of rounding.) There are USDA numbers.

I don't think it's misrepresentative. That's the total people spend to eat. And they can adjust that any way they like to reduce spending.


Lakeland, Fla.: Is there something I should not be buying that could help people around the world be able to eat (rice, bread, etc.)?

Jane Black: Good question. But as far as I know, probably not. If you wanted to cut back on something, you could cut back on rice as we import more of it than wheat or corn, which we grow.


Arlington, Va.: It seems like the organic food market has experienced the same trend as the housing market -- the prices of products sold at Whole Foods market and similar stores started out very high and only have climbed higher. Do you think that people are now finally starting to question the $200-$300 weekly shopping bills at organic food stores? Also, isn't there now enough competition to put downward pressure on prices for organic goods -- despite the increase in the cost of some staples, such as milk and eggs?

Jane Black: I think people are definitely starting to question their bills but as I wrote in the piece they aren't cutting back on organic -- yet. The market is still growing at about 25 percent.

As for downward pressures on organic, I'm afraid not. What's causing the spike in prices is the increased price of feed (for meat and dairy), oil (for transport), and scarcity as some farmers switch to corn for ethanol. Organic products are victims of a lot of the same trends as conventional foods. (Though, obviously, they use no fertilizer which are oil based products.) To cut costs, as one reader suggested, you might look at local, organic products. Otherwise, I think the price increases will continue there too.


New Jersey: Cooking from scratch saves tons of money, but it takes time. It takes a decision that one is going to allocate time away from another activity and into cooking. I know that I saved most of my house down payment when I was renting by preparing meals from scratch and carrying my lunch. I figured out the difference between my $30 a week spent on food and her $55-$60. She's still renting, but it takes time. Split pea soup with cornbread, salad and homemade cookies -- cheap, delicious and filling. Also, people ought to try to entertain at home rather than going out. Young people could try a cocktail party at home for fun, each trying to fix something different.

Jane Black: So true. The time is the tradeoff, which is easy for people like me who love to cook. Another place I save money is making my own coffee in the morning. Even at McDonalds, it's almost $6 bucks a week, $24 a month...


Vienna, Va.: Get a chest freezer and buy in bulk! The savings can be enormous. If there is a really good sale on something your family eats often, stock up. (How I miss that Pepperidge Farm Thrift Store.)

Jane Black: I guess you have to add on the extra electricity to run it, but otherwise you're right. As long as you don't keep it and then throw it away.


Centreville, Va.: As a diabetic, I concentrate on fresh veggies, dairy and chicken and fish. I am also trying to watch the salt. I do not buy processed food, packaged dinners, frozen dinner etc. I laugh because I only go down certain isles in the grocery store. ... One small savings: I bought a salad spinner, and buy various lettuce, and other veggies, and I make enough salad for a few nights to add with fish, chicken and for lunches. I save tons of money and eat healthy.

Jane Black: All good ideas. I tend to eat salads at home and bring sandwiches. Somehow the salads don't end up tasting as good when I eat them at my desk!


Coupon Crisis: Are manufacturers really going to stop with the paper coupons? They say people find it inconvenient to do the clipping. That's my favorite part of Sunday ... and it's much more difficult to download them online! (The people who need them the most have limited online access.)

Jane Black: I haven't heard of this but it wouldn't surprise me -- it would be far cheaper to put them on a site rather than printing and distributing them. Anyone else know about this?


New York: Are there any coupon Web sites where you don't have to sign in or register?

Jane Black: I don't know the answer to this. Chatters? But I will use the opportunity to mention a site that makes it easier to find online coupons. Check out this Web site. You can search for deals by ZIP code. In my neighborhood today, there are 844 deals at stores from CVS to Whole Foods.


CSA: $250 for a six-month farm share? That's less than half the price I paid for mine last summer. And keep in mind, quantities will vary depending on the weather -- we had a very sparse year last year because of the drought, so you may end up getting less than you expect. Which is part of the CSA deal, of course, but if you're doing it to pinch pennies, something to keep in mind.

Jane Black: Ah well, I'm one person splitting a half share of vegetables, fruits and eggs. (I should have specified.) But a good point: You lock in the price but don't know what bounty it will bring in.


Vienna, Va.: Another freezer tip: I buy large quantities of meat at a very favorable price, and divide it up into meal-sized portions. Sometimes I don't take the time to trim off fat and gristle, sometimes I do, and even add a marinade to the zip-lock bag. Lately I've found the Reynolds Handi-Vac to be very helpful because it prevents freezer burn but the bags are resealable, unlike the seal-a-meal type. Finally, I strongly urge people interested in living frugally to read the Tightwad Gazette books (the library has them). I'd give the author's name but I can't spell it.

Jane Black: The author's name is Amy Dacyczyn.


St. Louis: I had been a long-time shopper of my local farmers market, but within the past year I started noticing the prices were equal or sometimes higher then at the grocery store, and it was considered the cheaper one because it was open year round. It became not worth it to drive the 20 miles to get only a few items. There are a couple closer to me, but they are even more expensive. I've started going to Aldi to get my produce and other staples. I go just before closing to avoid crowds, as they tend to only have one checkout lane open.

Jane Black: Yes, at farmers markets you pay for more than just the food: quality, the way it was produced and to support rural communities. Americans have been trained to shop on price -- something that, as a food writer, I haven't always agreed with. There are other costs, they just aren't transparent. That said, right now I can understand why people are seeking out the very cheapest to stay in budget.


CSAs: I don't think CSAs are cheaper. My year share is about $1,000. I do like local foods, but I consider it a form of charity -- to keep local farming in Virginia and fight the urban sprawl.

Jane Black: Too bad there's no tax deduction.


In-store coupons: The Giant often has a machine with coupons on the shelves by the item. I take the coupon (well, three or four really) and use them weeks later (normally when the item is on sale).

Jane Black: Another savvy tip. You know, a lot of saving money is about being organized.


New Jersey: My grocery bill was jaw-droppingly high a few months back. Then I realized (thanks to a few coworkers) that by going to the local farmers market I could shave $40-$60 off my grocery bill! Next step? A few of us are joining a warehouse/discount club together.

Jane Black: Sharing a membership really does make sense, especially for singles or couples who want the deals but can't deal with the quantities.


Arlington, Va.: Bowling Green and other outlying areas have drastically different pricing at farmers markets than metro shoppers. Our farmers markets have great produce, but they are at least twice as expensive as the supermarket.

Jane Black: Where have you seen the cheapest prices at farmers markets? We just got another question about that. Anyone got ideas on locations or specific producers?


Olney, Md.: There are many ways to live smaller to accommodate the higher food prices. I wonder how many of the coupon-cutting families still pay a monthly cable bill for television. That easily can run more than $100 a month. Prepaid cell phones are much cheaper than the phones with plans, and one does not have to make all those cell phone calls (and if one does, they don't need to be so long).

Jane Black: This is an excellent point. While our story focused on making tradeoffs within food, there are all kinds of ways to make ends meet. Cutting back on the TV bill, cell phones, driving, vacations, opening the windows instead of turning on the air conditioning (well, maybe in Washington in August that's too much to ask of some people).


Fort Washington, Md.: Our families cost cutting measures include using dried milk for cooking; making one quart of dried milk and mixing it with regular milk (one quart dried milk and three quarts of regular milk); sharing a ride to the grocery store; going to the library to check out magazines, books and DVDs; making bread and pancakes from flour rather than mixes; weighing meat portions and eating a "real" serving of four ounces, not eight or ten or 16 ounces; eating what is in our house -- e.g. can of beets, tuna, crushed pineapple; finding all those half-empty bottles of lotion, shampoo, etc., and using them up; no longer overfeeding our pets to help them lose the weight and eliminate those pet snacks; having a yard sale and selling the stuff we don't need or use; having timed showers for family members; taking light bulbs out of lamps to minimize wasting electricity; drinking regular tap water and no longer buying expensive juice drinks for the kids; planting tomatoes and grow easy herbs like basil; reducing usage of plastic bags and reusing containers.

Jane Black: You guys are good.


Fairfax, Va.: Ms. Black, what are your thoughts on the recent move to use food crops in ethanol production? Given an increasing world population, burning food instead of oil seems to me to be an idea that was not very well thought through. Do you believe that using food crops for energy production is making the food crisis (if there is one) worse? Also, how much of the 35 percent rise in the price of eggs being trumpeted by The Post do you believe is attributable to the price of diesel fuel and delivery costs?

Jane Black: I've been holding off on this one because there's no simple answer and I'm not sure I have the answer myself. Certainly, the mandates for ethanol production have shifted farmers priorities and they are driving up food and feed costs. And the rising price of oil is driving up retail prices.

What I can say, safely, is that we certainly need to have a serious debate about whether ethanol as the solution to our dependence on foreign oil. It may have a role to play but it doesn't seem to be the savior that many promised.


Freezing Meat: How long can meat be frozen for, before it goes bad? Earlier this week, I cooked a lamb-chop that had been in the freezer, very well-wrapped and very frozen, for a few months, and it was spoiled, much to my surprise. (By the way, how can I get the smell of the spoiled meat out of my apartment? Air-spray and open windows haven't done it...)

Jane Black: That's surprising! Meat can be stored in the freezer for six months I think. As for the apartment, maybe a little bleach?


Arlington, Va.: If you don't have the space to store items bought in bulk, try splitting the cost with friends and neighbors on foods and products you all use anyway. It takes a bit of organization, but everyone gets the price savings and you don't end up having to keep a 40-roll package of toilet paper in the middle of the living room.

Jane Black: Hear hear!


New Jersey: Another tip: The wonderful Web site organizedhome.com had great tips on organizing and saving on food. The discussion forums were discontinued, unfortunately, as they were very inspiring, but the articles -- e.g. how to set up a "price book" -- remain.

Jane Black: Here's a link to how to make a price book.


Lucky: I admit, we are blessed. Sure, we've felt the high prices, but it has pretty much been life as usual for us (me, husband, cats). We notice the money spent, but it hasn't negatively impacted us financially. I have to wonder though, are we Americans finally seeing the true costs of our consumed goods? Could it be that government subsidies previously kept us unaware of the actual cost of gas, food, etc.? Maybe a better question is, what would happen to costs if government programs weren't there to shield us from true costs? Do you know if CSA farmers get subsidies or assistance like the corn and wheat farmers we read about? We joined a CSA for the first time and I'm curious.

Jane Black: Exactly. The costs just weren't transparent. I am not aware of small farmers getting subsidies, though there may be some small ones. It's certainly not of the scale that the big industrial ones do.


Minnesota: Doesn't any discussion of this nature begin and end with our dependence on foreign oil? They (petroleum producing Middle East countries) got us by the you-know-what, and now we're paying for it, literally. Given the current price of gasoline -- and diesel in particular -- the cost of everything we consume, from bread to Tylenol to camera batteries, is going to skyrocket.

Basically anything that must be transported from anywhere to anywhere is going to triple or quadruple in price by 2010. And now they're predicting $10-a-gallon gas in the next three years. We have two kids and good jobs (still, knock on wood), drive small cars, etc., but this is killing us financially. I'm truly fearful of my family's well-being over the next five or 10 years. At what point do we start calling this a depression?

Jane Black: It's a big part of it, for sure. I think we're a way off from a depression in this country. But we do need to look to big solutions, not patches or green-washed policies, i.e. things that sound good but accomplish little.


Jane Black: Hey everyone, thanks for joining me today. There have been lots of good comments and really great tips from readers on how to manage the budget in the current environment.

All the best!


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