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How to Save on Groceries, Fight Hidden Food Inflation

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
4/5/2011 10:26 AM   :  63 comments   :  14,601 Views

How much attention do you pay to the cans, boxes and bottles you buy at the supermarket? If you pay close attention, you might have noticed your favorite products--even healthier ones--shrinking. If, like most consumers, you just grab an item and toss it in your cart, you might not have observed the change--and that's what food manufacturers and marketers hope.

From a NYT story:

“Whole wheat pasta had gone from 16 ounces to 13.25 ounces,” she said. “I bought three boxes and it wasn’t enough — that was a little embarrassing. I bought the same amount I always buy, I just didn’t realize it, because who reads the sizes all the time?”

Ms. Stauber, 33, said she began inspecting her other purchases, aisle by aisle. Many canned vegetables dropped to 13 or 14 ounces from 16; boxes of baby wipes went to 72 from 80; and sugar was stacked in 4-pound, not 5-pound, bags, she said.

Five or so years ago, Ms. Stauber bought 16-ounce cans of corn. Then they were 15.5 ounces, then 14.5 ounces, and the size is still dropping. “The first time I’ve ever seen an 11-ounce can of corn at the store was about three weeks ago, and I was just floored,” she said. “It’s sneaky, because they figure people won’t know.”


Commodity prices are rising; there's no arguing that. What guests on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show debated this week was whether it's deceptive to charge the same amount for products when consumers are getting less--without knowledge. They used examples such as tuna fish that's now sold in 5-ounce cans instead of 6-ounce cans, 64-ounce bottles of OJ that now have just 59 ounces, and potato chips with 20% fewer chips.

That's the bad news. But there's good news: You can still save on groceries, despite shrinking products. Here's how.

Buy in bulk. Part of what you pay for at the supermarket is marketing, packaging, and displays. By buying in bulk, you can buy as much or as little as you need, and the prices are often lower than they would be for prepackaged goods. These days, you can find organic foods in bulk, too.

Shop at a warehouse club. The more you buy, the more you save. Though it might require a bit of money up front (up to $50 a year), warehouse clubs offer per-unit prices that are lower than most supermarkets. I joined Costco last year, and I was pleased to find that there are plenty of healthy, whole foods available there. I buy oats, almonds, quinoa, and whole-wheat pasta there at a fraction of the cost. Single? It still works. I live by myself, but I split the cost of a membership with my boyfriend, and we split large items that might spoil before we have time to eat them. If you just can't afford a membership, ask friends and neighbors if you can tag along when they go. Most clubs allow members to bring a friend.

Read labels--and not just for the calories. Those labels on store shelves tell you more than the retail price; they also allow you to compare prices. Look for the unite price, which is often smaller and in the corner. It will tell you how much the item costs per ounce, pound, etc. Usually, the price is lower per unit for larger boxes.

Buy off brands. For staples, there are few discernable differences among brands when it comes to taste and quality. Splurge on name brands for a few favorite products, and buy store brands for the rest.

Shop elsewhere. The large chain supermarket isn't the only place to buy food. Investigate food co-ops, farmers markets, and even bargain stores such as Aldi, which is known for selling a private line at cheap prices.

And don't forget in-store and manufacturers' coupons (Twitter and Facebook are great sources for deals and tips), credit cards that offer cash back or perks, in-store discounts for loyal customers, and sticking to the perimeter.

Remember that the less processing a product has to have, the less it will cost, regardless of the package size. A canister of oats is going to cost less per serving than a box of packets of flavored oatmeal. Your wallet and your waistline will appreciate the savings.

That's not all. Our sister site, SparkSavings.com, has several articles on saving money on food--even organic and specialty health foods.

And--perfect timing--we have a new app that will help you pick out fruits and veggies at the grocery store, plus tips on prepping and cooking your produce. No more wasted food! Download the Perfect Produce app!

Have you noticed your favorite products are shrinking? Which ones? How are you fighting back and saving money?


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Comments

  • DOWNDEBBY
    63
    Unit pricing on the shelf lables is my best defense against rising costs. Sometimes the smaller package is more for your money. I also discovered this at the local warehouse, sometimes they don't beat out the cost of an item just give you more than you might need. Coupons are useful but if I find another brand that is cheaper I put the coupon away and get the cheaper brand. You really have to be dilligent just to keep afloat. I guess it is the equivalent of our ancient ancesters who actually had to hunt down and kill or gather food. - 7/27/2011   11:38:07 AM
  • 62
    Yes, I've notiiced price increases and shrinking contents for the past couple of years. As a result I turned to vegetable gardening and most recently to global bucket gardening.

    No green thumb here. With the global bucket concept raising vegetables has not only been productive, it's also quick, easy, compact, and extremely inexpensive. For the How-To check out the website at http://www.gaiasgarden.com/blog/200
    9/07/27/global-bucket-gardens
    /

    Happy gardening and enjoy your fresh produce! - 4/20/2011   4:44:44 AM
  • 61
    I'm glad this post was put on here.My sister has recently moved out so the house hold income drop 757.00 a month now its just my moms income for now.So I have been shopping for deals and using coupons I hope it will help me out this month and the next. - 4/17/2011   3:15:08 PM
  • ANNETTECAMPBELL
    60
    Wow, now that I think about it, it's so true. Funny how junk food gets supersized and real food gets "downsized"...It makes you a little paranoid about the Powers That Be.

    Anyway, I guess I hadn't noticed because thankfully I spend very little time in grocery stores these days. My friends and I have been doing something that's a combination of suggestions above--we buy in bulk, and split the goods. For me, it's a super-efficient solution because I don't have to have a lot of storage space and I can order directly from distributors, get great discounts, and have things delivered to my house, saving myself a ton of time, money, and gas! Also, we take turns going to local farms and buying fresh produce in bulk. It's cheaper than the farmer's market AND we support local businesses...

    If you have internet access (which you obviously do), it's so easy to organize a split like we do. We use a free online tool called SplitStuff ( http://splitstuff.com ). The site also has information about collaborative consumption, i.e. "splitting." Ever since I found out about it, I've been hooked.

    Hey, if it really is a free market, the solution is in our hands. Of course we can do more than "harumph"! :) BUY IN BULK AND SPLIT IT!

    Annette - 4/13/2011   6:39:15 PM
  • CYNNANE
    59
    How about simply growing as much food as you can over the summer, then eating and canning it. A garden is work, but not THAT much work. How many hours of TV does the average person watch? Cut out an hour a week and garden. You will save money, improve the environment, get a little work out, and even the kids can get involved. No room to garden, see if your neighborhood has a Community Garden. It is doable if you try. - 4/13/2011   4:30:45 PM
  • 58
    Noticed the change in two specific items, Charmin Mega Roll Bath tissue is much smaller (I also noticed they longer include the roll extender). Skinny Cow ice cream cones are much smaller but still have the same calories and price. hmmmm - 4/9/2011   11:26:14 PM
  • MOOCHIE2472
    57
    Farmers markets all summer for us fresh is the best..we live in ND and we have a very short growing season so we really look forward to the produce summer and fall.. - 4/9/2011   8:44:06 PM
  • MOOCHIE2472
    56
    I use a lot of off brands.My mom told me years ago the off brands have to try harder to get your business and the already established ones have got the name and can be a little lax with their products. So buy off brand and maybe that will send a message to the big companies that we are not going to take it anymore..we want more for our buck - 4/9/2011   8:41:56 PM
  • 55
    I can't wait for the Farmer's Markets to open in my area. Even if they're charging the same as the supermarket, I'd rather give them my money. Shop Local!!! - 4/9/2011   1:40:51 PM
  • 54
    Okay, but, if we notice, do we do anything about it? Do we stop buying the smaller sizes? Or do we just harumph and toss it in our cart anyway?

    I keep a price book that includes unit price and the price by date and store. I haven't really noticed that they're getting smaller, but I skip it if the unit price is higher than usual. - 4/8/2011   2:53:28 PM
  • 53
    Yes, I have been noticing this for a while. NOT COOL. They must think consumers are idiots and wouldn't notice. I think ice cream cartons and cereal boxes have shrunk by half. Of course we will notice. - 4/8/2011   9:24:12 AM
  • GALEY2
    52
    I have to agree that the recipe problem is frustrating. It helps when the recipe states the size of can or package and at least you can adjust before you cook and ruin a dish. It costs too much money to waste any food.I have to agree with another member who said she wished they would leave the size alone and just increase the price. At least you could make an informed decision. I was in my local Safeway yesterday and wanted a pkg. of breadcrumbs. This is something I normally do not buy as I make them myself but needed some quickly. They were in a display bin and they had an expiry date on them so I reached to the back looking for the freshest. It was then I noticed that the pkgs. in front were 40 grams more than the pkgs in back but all were the same price. These were the Safeway brand. Guess which ones I bought? It really is awful to see this all the time. Our food guide recommends serving sizes but as pkgs. decrease you can't win there either. It takes 2 of those tiny little yogurts to make a recommended serving size. It really is most annoying! - 4/7/2011   5:48:43 PM
  • BEAKIEBEAN
    51
    Ugh-cereal is the worst offender to me-They jacked up the price so it's $3-5 for a box of cereal and then they keep shrinking the contents. Cereal used to be an easy and inexpensive breakfast-not so much anymore! - 4/7/2011   3:46:26 PM
  • AJANTHONY5
    50
    I was shocked by some of the things I read. Many times I do buy without reading the size. I tend to focus on calories and other nutrient information. I need to pay attention - 4/7/2011   3:20:56 PM
  • 49
    the most annoying to me is the peanut butter that looks like the same size it used to be but instead of a flat bottom it is pushed up in the middle of the bottom making it even harder to get out the end of the peanut butter!

    it's also interesting how packaging touts when it is bigger. like the 6.6 oz yogurt - 10% more - but there had never been a 6 oz package touting 25% smaller (from the traditional 8 oz)
    - 4/7/2011   1:51:25 AM
  • 48
    One of the biggest problems for me, is that my old recipes are no longer any good. My old recipes call for a can of this or that based on the old sizes. Now that cans are being downsized, my recipes don't turn out the same. - 4/6/2011   10:17:24 PM
  • 47
    This has been going on forever. I remember first hearing about it in economics 101 w/chocolate bars. Unfortunately prices always go up never down :( - 4/6/2011   9:51:32 PM
  • 46
    Great blog - 4/6/2011   9:31:30 PM
  • ETHELMERZ
    45
    I noticed it especially with yogurts, and then our dietitian told my diabetic husband not to eat any of them, so we don't buy them anymore, too much sugar. Haven't bought a fresh tomato since last August, and quit buying bell peppers too, bought some frozen on sale instead. The manufacturers used to do this years ago with wash detergents mostly, way back in the 1960's. No wonder it takes so long to shop these days. - 4/6/2011   9:25:21 PM
  • 44
    The problem is bulk shopping and membership stores are not suited for single people or people who live in apartments or small homes with little extra space. I have a tiny freezer and not much space to store large amounts of paper goods or other food items. Even with smaller packaging, it is many times more cost effective for me, a single person, to stick with that. You can still save in other ways, but please recognize that bulk and membership stores are not cost effective for everyone. - 4/6/2011   7:51:46 PM
  • 43
    I've noticed this with yogurt now a 6oz container, was an 8oz, and yet it is priced higher. And forget about coffee. I gave up. I used to buy a 37oz can for 6.99, now I buy a 32.5oz can for 8.99. What in the world? I would love to shop at one of the big warehouse stores; but with a family of four, it just isn't worth it. We don't have enough roon, nor do we consume enough. - 4/6/2011   6:46:49 PM
  • 42
    It seems that everything is smaller, packaged foods are sure not, what they once were. Who has seen a full bag of anything in years? - 4/6/2011   4:48:53 PM
  • CAPEJIM
    41
    Suggestion on the Perfect Produce app - please, PLEASE indicate (for all your apps) if it requires an internet connection to do the searches! Those of us with iPod Touches (and no WiFi at the grocery stores in our area) would appreciate this - especially since this (Perfect Produce) app costs money. (And we were talking about saving money, correct? ;-) - 4/6/2011   4:45:04 PM
  • 40
    Noticed this years ago -- I can't think how long it's been since a pound of coffee actually WAS 16 oz.! We've noticed it more recently in tuna and yogurt as well. It makes me crazy when following an older recipe from times when the sizes were standard as well as larger, that calls for 2 cans of tuna, or a container of yogurt . I guess it's fortunate that I'm eating fewer processed and canned foods, but I cannot avoid them altogether. - 4/6/2011   4:16:31 PM
  • 39
    Noticed this years ago -- I can't think how long it's been since a pound of coffee actually WAS 16 oz.! We've noticed it more recently in tuna and yogurt as well. It makes me crazy when following an older recipe from times when the sizes were standard as well as larger, that calls for 2 cans of tuna, or a container of yogurt . I guess it's fortunate that I'm eating fewer processed and canned foods, but I cannot avoid them altogether. - 4/6/2011   4:16:07 PM
  • PICKANYNAME
    38
    I am definitely cognizant of per unit costs when I shop!!! However, my "club membership" is Sam's, which is basically just a place to buy in bulk for regular Walmart pricing. Very few things are really THAT much cheaper!!!!

    With regard to the produce app: I wish there were more apps for BB users. Seems like everything is catered to IPhone!!!! - 4/6/2011   4:04:37 PM
  • BAMAJAM
    37
    My father taught me to "pay attention" at the check-out register. Always watch the prices as the items are scanned! Countless times, I have not been given the sale price, or other mistakes (in store's favor) have occured. Recently- seven consecutive store visits, prices were higher than the advertised specials. By watching at the register, I can catch the errors. If you are not "alert" at check-out, you risk being overcharged.... It is bad enough that the packages are shrinking! - 4/6/2011   1:51:20 PM
  • 36
    Anyone that cooks and follows a recipe has noticed this. And it's been going on for years. Recipes (especially ones a few years old or older) call for sizes and quantities no longer found in the stores. Yes, it bugs me! The ones that bother me the most are the pastas (down to 13.25 from 16 oz.) and the shredded cheese (not 2 cups any longer but 1.75 cups). In some cases I wish they'd leave the package size ALONE and just raise the price if necessary. - 4/6/2011   1:35:19 PM
  • 35
    I've been aware of this for years; package size shrink, toilet paper rolls are shorter, and prices keep on going up anyway - so they should just leave sizes alone! It's ridiculous when you have to change recipes and use a PORTION of a package to make things even out. Food processing companies really should pay attention to what consumers want; we're kind of STUCK with it if we want to eat so they don't care. - 4/6/2011   1:01:44 PM
  • 34
    I am able to shop several different stores, and can comparison shop. When a particular produce is just too high I don't buy it; sometimes I then find the same item for much less somewhere else. Costco can be great for fruits and vegetables, and their meat has high quality ratings.

    I generally shop the perimeter. I expected when I started buying mainly fresh, organic when I can, and whole grains, my grocery would be higher, but worth the expense. However, my costs have actually decreased because I'm not buying processed foods. They really add up, at any location. - 4/6/2011   12:29:04 PM
  • 33
    I haven't seen the shrinking sizes yet. I HAVE seen the price increases. Maybe because most of what I buy is produce and in the bulk section. But my grocery bill has gone way up! - 4/6/2011   11:43:22 AM
  • 32
    you know, i don't mind the shrinking sizes because of $money, but planing and recipes drive me crazy now. we used to make tuna patties for the house with 4-5 cans of tuna, now we need 6 at least, for sure.after i noticed the tuna was 5 instead of 6 oz, i stated looking around. I could of sworn growing up tuna was 8 oz, but i know coffee was always a pound and 5 pound containers, now some odd ounces. cans were always a no 1, or 2 size. that meant 16 oz or 24 respectively, now 13 oz & 20? the ones that bother me the most are items i use most often... spaghetti (not a pound anyone), coffee (not a pound any more), and tuna... (5 oz.) what? crazy! - 4/6/2011   10:44:19 AM
  • LAURAB242
    31
    That toilet paper roll keeps getting shorter and shorter. Well, the rolls are narrow, they claim more sheets per roll but it is very narrow sheets! - 4/6/2011   10:38:28 AM
  • 30
    Definitely ! What did I notice shrink, in particular ? Yogurt. Yogurt servings have shrunk and their prices have increased. It used to be the organic brands cost extra, not any more. Even convention Greek style yogurts can run $1.50+ a container !! So, I do tend to buy yogurt on sale when I can. - 4/6/2011   10:05:47 AM
  • 2DIETORNOT2DIET
    29
    I noticed that years ago when they put less coffee in the 3 lb size it went down to 39 oz instead of the 48 oz it once was, this has been going on for a very long time - 4/6/2011   10:01:53 AM
  • 28
    I have always shopped Aldi, and bought store brand at a regional chain supermarket. Where I live Sams and Costco are not cheaper than the regional supermarket or Walmart or Target, or Kmart.. They all have the same cost-per-ounce, the packages are just bigger, so you are stuck with more product than you want... - 4/6/2011   9:28:38 AM
  • 27
    Yes! This is a real pet peeve of mine. I first noticed it with coffee. Then many products--what really tore it was the toilet paper--it is narrower. Most annoying are products that I use as ingredients and need a specific size to make a recipe. It's all about profit and the heck with the consumer--it really makes me angry!!!! - 4/6/2011   8:56:33 AM
  • 26
    Aldi and Trader Joes (owned by Aldi) are life savers! While I have noticed smaller packaging at Aldi, their prices still remain the absolute lowest. - 4/6/2011   8:09:01 AM
  • 25
    I LOVE Costco for groceries. I can get a 6 pack Heads of Romaine for a little over $3.00. The red peppers, come in a pack of 8 for around $4.00. Good deals all around! - 4/6/2011   7:26:14 AM
  • 24
    That perfect produce app looks awesome! Wonder if there is something similar for blackberry? - 4/6/2011   7:19:13 AM
  • 23
    great ap... or it would be if i had an iphone. can we get this as an android ap perhaps? - 4/6/2011   6:54:00 AM
  • 22
    I have been shopping at the local farmer's market for years. choose one that is run by smart folks who really search for best prices, and develop a friendship with them... you will get more for your money, and you might get a taste of something really good you might not have tried before! Remember that gas prices are going up and everyone is affected.. but farmer's markets usually start out cheaper, so the increase still pays! - 4/6/2011   1:55:30 AM
  • 21
    What is driving me bonkers is having to tweak recipes for 15-oz (or less) cans and less than one pound of pasta per recipe, etc. Recipes that have stood the test of time for 20 years now have to be readjusted.

    Oh, but on a good note, one of my favorite cereals (Central Market's Organic Toasted O's) has NOT shrunk by much---just an ounce---and was on sale for less than $3/box for 15 ounces. I like it b/c it's not laden with additives, and my kids like it with just a little honey added.

    But yeah...everything else I have to re-evaluate whether or not to buy stuff these days. Crossing many items off of my list that were formerly "must-haves". - 4/6/2011   12:01:52 AM
  • 20
    I try to offset the price increases with either coupons or using less. My grocery bill has been stable for a while with the exception of holidays. I have also been seeking out farmer's markets or more direct sources instead of low quality stores where the food will go bad before I cook it. I often buy meat at a local butcher just as I need it. Better quality for less meat and same price, no waste. I have fewer leftovers but am managing the food quality and quantity better. - 4/5/2011   11:15:46 PM
  • 19
    I have noticed the shrinking sizes of cans and packages. Also, prices have been steadily rising. So I look at all the ads for markets, CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens circle things that are a a good sale price in the ad, take the ad to the market with my coupons and go buy just those items. The best part is I have to pass all the stores on my way home so I don't waste gas which is also rising daily here in Southern California. - 4/5/2011   10:16:33 PM
  • PATTYISKIND
    18
    I have noticed the shrinking packages. The one that shocked me was a 7lb bag of potatoes. I actually stopped buying them for awhile and I must not be the only one because my 10lb bag is back. My favorite trick for saving on groceries is not leaving the house to buy them. I read the flyer online, then email my grocery list to my kids. They pick up the groceries for me and I can't make any impulse purchases. I realize that not everybody can do this, but my grocery bill went from about $100 to about $25 a week (I have a bit of an impulse control problem). - 4/5/2011   5:15:09 PM
  • 17
    Shopping mainly the perimeter is cheaper and a LOT healthier. Also, if you have a local produce store (or stores) it's worth checking them out. Some charge about the same prices or are more expensive than your local supermarket, but some are cheaper. Some are even a whole heck of a lot cheaper. And usually at the produce stores around here (San Francisco) that I've been too you'll find more locally grown produce and even cheeses from local dairies. Some of the cheeses are cheaper and the ones that aren't are usually a lot better quality than the most of the national brands IMO. - 4/5/2011   3:33:31 PM
  • 16
    We're military and we're seeing those price increases at the commissary, too. Occasionally I'll find things there that are on sale, and that's when I buy up. Like, pasta, Healthy Choice frozen dinners, canned diced tomatoes, seem to randomly go on deep sales. Love it! But then when I just need 2 or 3 things and I run to Wal-Mart, or the grocery store, I about fall over from the prices! - 4/5/2011   3:33:00 PM
  • 15
    On one side, I really dislike the shrinkage of products. Especially with Danone yogurts, they went down from 200g to 125g in the last years, and the big cup from 500g to 375g.
    I prefer the bigger cups of other brands very often, even if they are more expensive for the bigger size.

    Then, on the other side, I also see that large bulk items encourage to eat more. Small units encourage to eat only a small unit, or to buy only what I really need.
    - 4/5/2011   3:21:44 PM
  • 14
    Cereal prices have gone UP while the packages have gone down, used to be 16oz boxes, they are now 14oz. I've seen stores now selling meats by the piece instead of by the pound. "whats that you say? a ribeye for under $12, sounds wonderful, wait, its only 4 oz. "
    We have a large chain of Krogers that are monopolizing our market, they are everywhere, but the nearest walmart is 12 miles from me as well as the nearest meijer. I'm stumped. I buy off brand everything, except cheese slices, mac n cheese, and i prefer Chi-Chi's tortillas, otherwise, its all off brand and i still can't afford grocery day. - 4/5/2011   2:40:08 PM

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