This is prime barbecue season, and most of the main ingredients for a backyard banquet are soaring in price. Beef, ribs and chicken -- as well as the lettuce, tomato and other secondary goodies that make the meal -- all cost a lot more than they did last summer. And don't forget dessert. Prices for that wonderful fruit salad and the Hershey (HSY) bars for s'mores are going up, too.
Blame Mother Nature for a lot of those price hikes. Droughts continue to worsen in many prime growing areas in the U.S. An unusual pig virus has pork prices sizzling, and of course, good old supply and demand is always a factor.
When you visit the grocery, you'll find the biggest price hikes along the periphery of the store -- the fruit and veggies along one of the far walls, dairy products at the other end and the meats along the back wall.
Statistics Back Up Rising Costs You've Been Seeing
The government reported Tuesday that the Consumer Price Index rose in June by 0.3 percent, and food costs edged up by just 0.1 percent, after a 0.5 percent increase in May. There's always the disclaimer that food and energy prices are volatile, and you shouldn't look at just one month's data. So we'll look at the longer trend.
While prices are spiking in some areas of the supermarket, the overall increases are in line with historical norms. The Agriculture Department expects food prices to increase in the 2½ percent to 3½ percent range this year, not far from the 20-year average of 2.8 percent per year.
But there are some trends down on the farm that make it tough for supermarket shoppers.
Smallest Number of Cattle Since '51
The first has to do with the extensive and long-lasting drought that has ravaged California and big sections of the Midwest. Farmers have had to significantly reduce the size of their herds as the drought raised the cost of animal feed and put severe stress on livestock. These problems are now in their third year, so herds are thinning out, and the impact is beginning to pile up.
The Agriculture Department says herd sizes are the smallest they've been since 1951. And because of the long incubation period for cattle and the time it takes to fatten them up, beef prices aren't likely to come down any time soon.
"It's too early to tell the extent of the problem or how long it will last," Agriculture Department economist Annemarie Kuhns said. "There's still too much uncertainty."
The Agriculture Department expects meat prices overall to increase by about 5½ percent this year. Beef and veal will be a little bit more than that, while pork will be a little bit less.
Droughts Wallop California, Southwest, Great Plains
Fresh fruits and eggs are also expected to increase in the 5 percent to 6 percent range. Fruits and veggies are mainly effected by the weather. The drought in California, the Southwest and the Great Plains is now in its third year, with no signs of letting up.
California growers account for about half of the nation's fruits and veggies, but water is so scarce that some farmers have decided not to plant all or part of their crops this year. In addition, Florida orange growers have suffered from a withering disease that has cut the size of this year's harvest -- and the size of the fruit itself.
Consumer experts say shoppers don't have as many options to substitute an alternative food (pork for beef, for example) for one that's rising in price. But there are some tactics to trim the grocery bill.
Maura White, a frugal living expert from Rochester, New York, suggests using cheaper cuts of meat and making friends with the store butcher. White, who runs the Happy Deal, Happy Day website, says smart shoppers should "ask the butcher about sale prices, usually mid-week or late in the day."
As for fruits and veggies, White urges consumers to take advantage of farmers' markets and locally grown produce. She's also a big advocate of coupons and shopper apps. Among her favorites, in addition to her own site, are: i-bought-it.com, checkout51.com and the price comparison app Favado.
12 Ways to Save Money on Food
Rising Food Prices Give Shoppers Indigestion
This advice applies to adults and kids alike. Plan out your shopping list before you head to the grocery store so you’re not tempted by impulse buys, and let any children along for the ride know that you plan on sticking with that list. Small expenditures add up to big money, so try to avoid giving in to any last-minute requests.
If your children continue to insist that you purchase their requested items, then ask them to bring their own piggy bank money. Remind your children they are only allowed to pick something they can afford. It's good practice for grown-up budgeting.
You might not have 20 hours a week to scour multiple publications for the best deals, but if you focus on searching for online coupons, you'll end up saving just as much. Search online for products with the word "coupon" afterward. For instance, if you're looking for Cascade dish soap, search for "Cascade dish soap coupons."
To make sure that you don't waste money on impulse buys, schedule your shopping around paydays. The day or day after you get paid should be your shopping day. Before you go shopping, make a list and make sure it has everything you'll need until the next shopping day on it. Now make a commitment to yourself that you will make what you're going to purchase last until the next shopping day.
Stocking your freezer with frozen meals can help you save money on lunch, since they cost just about $5 each. It can even be a healthier option because they help you practice portion control. Just make sure you're purchasing meals that have no preservatives, and watch out for sodium levels.
Don't waste your time making a sack lunch every day. Instead, prepare a week's worth of lunches on Sunday, and your body will thank you for the extra 10 to 30 minutes of sleep you'll gain each night. If you cook one big meal on Sunday, make sure it's easy to change up throughout the week. Chicken, rice and vegetables all cook quickly and taste great with different sauces and cheeses.
Most families throw away so much food on a weekly basis. A better idea is to turn your dinner leftovers into a lunchtime feast. Apps like BigOven help you use your leftovers to make yummy, new dishes. All you have to do is enter the ingredients you have, and the app will show you different recipe options for your leftovers. You'll save money using food that would have been thrown out.
If you know you have $400 to spend per month on your food budget, that's roughly $100 a week. Whether you shop once or twice per week or use cash or credit doesn't matter as long as you stay within your spending limits. Just be sure to only spend the amount you allotted per week.
Keep your shopping list in a set location so all members of the household can access it. Write estimated prices of the items you are going to buy next to each item on the checklist. It can serve a dual purpose as a price book you can use to guess how much you will spend.
If you've ordered from the kids menu at a restaurant recently, then you know how big the meals are – they're almost as big as meals for adults, and they can cost up to $10 each. If you have multiple children, an easy way to cut down on this expense is to have them share a meal. Not only does this lower the cost of feeding everyone, but it also cuts down on food waste.
Most stores are open late, and without the distraction of announcements, people and maybe even your kids, you can have your own Zen moment. When you are clearheaded, you're more likely to zone in on what you really need and leave out what you really don't. Plus, it's easier to give the cashier coupons without causing any delays for the people in line behind you.
We are a society consumed by all sorts of apps, but if you want to grocery shop, save money and still be lazy, let Favado, an app created by Savings.com, do the work for you. The app will tell you about items on sale from different stores, and if there is a store coupon or manufacturer coupon, it will also let you know that too. (Of course, you can just use it to scan the weekly ads to keep things simple.) And if you're already glued to your smartphone, it's easy to incorporate into your shopping routine.