Grocery store prices in the Washington area rose only moderately in August after seven consecutive months of sharp monthly increases, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

But wary shoppers, faced with food costs that have increased 14 percent in the past year, said they were seeking new ways to cut back on grocery spending.

"Everything costs too much. You can't afford to buy the (groceries). It's just ridiculous," said Earlene Gaines, 23, of 1745 T St. SE, who was shopping yesterday at the Anacostia Safeway, 14th Street and Good Hope Road SE.

Looking down at the few items in her basket, Gaines said she had to watch her pennies because she has been out of work for six months.

According to the government report yesterday, food store prices here last month rose 0.2 percent from July. Although the statistics indicated some relief from soaring grocery bills after average monthly increases of 1.6 percent for the first seven months of 1978 here. Washington area price increases continued to exceed national averages.

In all U. S. cities, grocery store prices declined by 0.1 percent during August and stood at a level about 11 percent above prices during the same month in 1977. But Washington area prices continued to increase last month and were about 14 percent higher than a year ago.

Labor Department officials said "significant" price increases here last month for a few items - eggs, oranges, fish, seafood and most frozen foods - failed to offset price reductions for most fresh vegetables, cola drinks, fresh chickens, beef, veal, coffee, pork and white bread.

Spokesman for Safeway Stores Inc. and Giant Food Inc., the area's two major grocery chains, have cited higher wages for labor and transportation costs from major agricultural states as factors that have made prices increase more rapidly in metropolitan Washington.

In Northern Virginia, for example, the cost of an average market basket of groceries jumped 14.6 percent in the most recent 12 months compared with increases of 9.9 percent in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach region and 9.7 percent in the Richmond area.

For Phillip Haskins, 46, of 308 Kentucky Ave. SE, who was shopping yesterday at the Safeway at 14th and D Streets SE, food prices are going only one way - up.

To economize, he and his wife are taking lunches to work instead of buying midday meals, Haskins said in front of his cart, which had two lunch meat varieties.

"I can fix my lunch at night and I don't have to worry about stopping at McDonald's," he said, adding that the new arrangement should save his family some $12 a week.

"We're not poor but still you try to maintain a budget. But every week everything is higher," Haskins said.

Marguerite Winter, 46, of 707 17th St. SE, said she maintained her budget by refusing to buy expensive items and by shopping in the suburbs, where she believes some prices are lower.

"I only buy the cheapest brands," said Earlene Gaines. Picking out a can of beans from the basket, she said: "These are four for $1 today. You rarely can get that.Peanut butter and jelly are sky high."

The only reason Gaines can buy food at all is because of food stamps, she said.

A few aisles over, Madeline Settles, 40, of 1438 Cedar St. SE, a teacher, had stopped by on her way home. "The prices are outrageous," she said. But in the next breath, Settles added: "If I want it and I'm working, I'll buy it."

Statistics on Washington are grocery store prices are gathered each month by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. The next complete report on all area consumer prices, published six times a year, will be issued in a month. CAPTION: Picture 1, Phillips Haskins: Figures to save $12 a week by fixing lunches at home.; Picture 2, EARLENE GAINES; "Everything costs too much . . ."; Picture 3, Madeline Settles: "The prices are outrageous (but) if I want it . . . I'll buy it.", Photos by Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post