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Whether it’s at the gas pump or at the supermarket checkout stand, Americans are paying more for the same products compared to last year. In total, that figure comes out to $433 more per month for the average U.S. household according to Bloomberg Economics. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that the consumer price index for food-at-home or grocery store purchases increased 12 percent compared to the same time last year, three to four times as high as the average inflation rate of the previous decade.
Prices for goods and services generally increase when consumer demand increases or supply decreases. “Unfortunately right now, we’ve had both of those things happening,” says Mac Clouse, a finance and economics professor at the University of Denver.
Increases in consumer demand and decreases in supply driven by the pandemic, stimulus programs, global conflict, supply chain kinks, and other factors have driven inflation to its highest rate in over 40 years. More than two years since the start of the pandemic, Clouse says these intertwining factors have caught up with the economy after businesses and travel have returned to normal.
While inflation struck the consumer price index across all categories, food has been one of the most severely impacted items, especially since the start of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. It’s also a category of spending that most Americans can’t escape.
“You don’t really have too many substitutes for food,” Clouse says. “You can try to buy cheaper cuts of meat or beans instead of steak or something like that. You can try to cut back on different kinds of food, but the prices of all food products are going up.”
As the war in Ukraine drags on, farmers in the U.S. are directly impacted, and so are consumers. The price of oil has increased, affecting how costly it is to run industrial agriculture equipment, and the cost for fertilizer—which makes up an average of 36 percent of a farmer’s operating costs for corn and 35 percent for wheat—has more than tripled, according to the USDA.
Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of fertilizer and wheat, and the USDA predicts wheat prices will increase significantly in 2022. “You really can’t find a time in history where we’ve had as many things going on at the same time that are having the impact on inflation and goods and services that we see today,” Clouse says.
He explains that most Americans will pump the brakes on discretionary spending, like baseball games or eating out at restaurants, which have seen a less-sharp rise in inflation than food at home. He doesn’t expect inflation or supply to improve soon.
“This one is gonna take some time,” Clouse says. “Part of this has to run its natural course, unfortunately.”
While raising the federal interest rate by 0.75 of a percentage point (which the Federal Reserve did in mid-June) may slow spending in certain areas of the economy, it’s unlikely to help food inflation, Clouse says. Increasing or slowing demand is quicker than alleviating supply issues.
Some grocery store employees have noticed how shoppers are shifting their habits because of inflation. More people are shopping “for the weekend” by timing their shopping around sales, taking advantage of rewards and loyalty programs, and buying in bulk, says Katie Macarelli, manager of public relations for Natural Grocers: “That’s where we see the sales trend.”
Macarelli says Natural Grocers has raised prices on their products due to inflation, though below the national food-at-home rate, which measures inflation on products purchased from grocery stores. Natural Grocers hasn’t released the annual figure yet, but says in the first quarter of 2022, inflation at Natural Grocers stores rose five percent.
Food production, shipping, packaging, and vendor labor costs have also increased, and Natural Grocers is trying to absorb as much of it as possible before consumers are affected, Macarelli says. The stores work with many local vendors, and shorter supply chains have helped the grocery chain cope with inflation, although there are certain items that have still been inconsistent.
Here, we gathered some tips to help you save a few bucks at the checkout line, including some advice from Macarelli.
Enroll in Rewards and Loyalty programs
This is the first line of defense against higher prices at grocery stores. Save on certain items by signing up for a rewards program, like Natural Grocers’ N Power or King Soopers’ SooperCard (which can also help you save at the pump).
Time your shopping around sales
Pay attention to mailers, coupons, or in-store promotions, and plan trips to the grocery store around sales. For an easy meal or recipe inspiration, Natural Grocers bundles items like buns, beef, and vegetables for a burger meal deal to feed a family of four.
Buy in bulk
Buy more, save more. Spring for the bigger portion if possible. Though you’re likely paying more upfront, the price per unit is often less than the cost of a smaller package. On items like rice, grains, beans, or spices and herbs, “you can save a lot of money when you’re not paying for packaging,” Macarelli says.
“I would also stroll thoroughly through every aisle,” Macarelli says. Instead of instinctively grabbing a familiar brand, compare the price to the competing brands next to it. In-house brands are normally the most affordable.
Ask for advice
Ask a store employee for the best sales. There may be something out of sight that’s been discounted, or the store may have upcoming promotions to take advantage of.
Substitute meat for a day
Practice being a vegetarian for a day and eat plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, or nuts instead of meat. These are more affordable options than animal products, which take more resources to produce (and, in turn, take more from your wallet). Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are also experiencing more inflation than other grocery products.
Do the work yourself
Instead of buying pre-shredded cheese or lettuce—which require additional labor costs that are then passed on to consumers—buy by the block or head and shred it yourself at home.
Try something new
Try a subscription service like Misfits Market or Imperfect Foods for discounted prices on organic food that didn’t make the cut for the storefront. Or instead, opt for non-organic instead of organic produce until prices normalize.