Everything is so expensive. Gas prices are soaring and the sticker shock at the grocery store is never-ending.
Food is expected to rise between 3 percent and 4 percent, which is on top of the 4 percent increase last year, the highest since 1990, according to federal data. An average year's increase is 2½ percent.
Here are 10 tips for saving money on groceries and keeping food prices from busting your budget.
1. Track spending:
Write down everything you buy and look for areas that can be cut. Coffee on the road, for example. Set weekly spending goals and try to stick with them.
"If self-discipline is a challenge, pay with cash," write Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross in "Cheap. Fast. Good!" (Workman, $13.95). "For most people, it's tougher to part with the real thing." The authors of the syndicated Desperation Dinners column offer practical advice and thrifty, family-friendly recipes in their 500-page book. They even tell how they managed on $100 a week on groceries in researching their 2005 book.
2. Make a plan:
Make a grocery list based on a menu plan and stick with it. Plan the menu on one sheet and the grocery list on another, write Mills and Ross. You can post both on the fridge, so they're easily accessible. If you're shopping with a list, you'll be less tempted to buy items you don't need and won't use. Menu planning has so many benefits: It cuts down on that panicked moment when you walk through the door and have no idea what you're going to cook; you'll eat better and make better use of leftovers; because you know what's for dinner tomorrow, you can do part of the meal prep tonight; you'll also be more apt to inventory what's in the pantry and freezer and use those items.
3. Check the per-unit price:
Bigger isn't always better. Take out the calculator and do the math. This will allow you to compare prices across brands and package sizes. Many price labels on store shelves conveniently report the price per ounce or other unit.
4. Buy on sale:
Make a commitment to buy only what's on sale, then build your eating habits around those foods. If chicken is the sale item, pass on the steak and buy poultry. But be flexible. If you get to the store and find steak has been marked down because it's nearing expiration, get that instead. The satisfaction you'll get out of eating that steak will more than make up for the extra dollar or two you spend on it. Also, don't be a brand loyalist. If the brand of peanut butter you normally don't use is the better value because it's on sale, get that instead.
5. Don't shop when hungry:
You're more likely to buy impulse items -- ice cream, potato chips, candy -- that are bad for your budget and bad for your health. Mills and Ross suggest not shopping during rush hour and when you're tired. You want to have time to scan the shelves for marked-down items and to compare prices on different forms of the same item (fresh juice vs. concentrate, for example.)
6. Look beyond the supermarket:
Items are priced low at his store, said Dan Fox, owner of Groceries 4 Less on Carpenter Road, because he, like other owners of outlet stores, buy bulk surplus items at rock-bottom prices and pass on the savings.
You'll find better prices on dairy and meat at warehouse stores. Canned foods and boxed cereals are a deal at outlet stores. Frozen pizza, gum and snack foods can be less expensive at Wal-Mart or Target. Bread is discounted at bakery outlets. Prices are terrific on tortillas, avocados, limes and tomatoes at Latino markets. Spices are plentiful and cheap at Indian stores. Asian seasonings are priced right at Asian markets.
Myrtle Miller of Salida is an example of the "money-saving gurus" cited in "Cheap. Fast. Good!" because she shops at more than one store. Save Mart is her supermarket of choice, but she goes to Costco for meat and Wal-Mart for juice and oatmeal, she said.
7. Buy in season:
Farmers markets and fruit stands are good bets during harvest. Even if you buy most of your produce in the grocery store, stick with what's in season. California produce purchased in season is going to cost a whole lot less than produce shipped long distances because the transportation cost, which is factored into the price, is less.
8. Eat all the food you prepare:
Repackage and stash mini-meals in the freezer. That leftover soup that seems so unappetizing because it's overstayed its welcome in the fridge could have been put into a container and frozen on the night it was prepared. Don't underestimate the pleasure of pulling out four or five of those little packages and not having to prepare dinner.
"Meat in the freezer that's already cooked is like gold in the bank," the authors write.
9. Wean yourself:
Take the money you're spending on restaurant meals, vending machines, takeout coffee, etc., and put it in an empty jar for something special just for you. The jar will fill up quickly and you can reward yourself for saving money.
10. Pack your lunch:
It takes the guesswork out of what you're going to eat and where you're going to go. A packed lunch makes good use of leftovers and can help you practice portion control. And don't forget about all the money you're going to be saving.
The Associated Press and The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.