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Cut your weekly grocery bill Clip, buy smart, and keep an eye on the scanner to save hundreds of dollars

It's no secret that food prices are taking up a larger amount of our income each month. For the year ending October 2008, dairy products rose 3.6 percent, cereals and bakery goods jumped 12.5 percent, and apples shot up about 20 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even with lower fuel prices, the cost of food will probably continue to climb in 2009, led by increases for meat and poultry. This is in part because food companies still have not caught up with the prolonged run-up in commodity prices.

You may have noticed that many packaged items appear to cost the same but now contain less food. For example, over the past year or so Skippy peanut butter's 18-ounce jars were whittled down to 16.3 ounces; Tropicana trimmed its 96-ounce container of orange juice to 89 ounces; and Breyer's 56-ounce container of ice cream slimmed down to 48 ounces.

To help you lower your tab at the checkout, we've compiled our best tips for saving on food shopping while avoiding money-wasting traps when you're pushing your cart through the aisles.

Before you go

Plan a route

Make a list of the things you need and take a look at your local market's newspaper ads to see what's on sale. Or check out store Web sites since many now post their ads online. Plan to hit a few stores so you can take advantage of the best sales. Those within a five-mile radius of each other will be especially competitive in their pricing. A study by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Southern Methodist University found that doing this can save food shoppers $17.45 a day.

Get coupons and store-loyalty cards

People who use them save more than 10 percent a year on groceries, or about $678, according to a December 2007 poll conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. You can hunt for coupons on your computer. We've found discounts on everything from frozen items to pet food to cleaning supplies on coupon sites such as www.coolsavings.com and www.smartsource.com. SmartSource doesn't require you to enter any personal information to get coupons, but like most sites you have to download a plug-in application to print them. Others may require an e-mail address and your Zip code at a minimum.

You'll have to disclose some personal information to get a supermarket-chain loyalty card, so expect that every box of Lorna Doones and pint of Chunky Monkey you buy will end up in some giant database. When you use a preferred-shopper card, you can automatically receive discounts on store products without clipping coupons.

Try manufacturer's Web sites

We recently found coupons for $1 off two Poland Spring Aquapod eight-packs at www.polandspring.com, $5 off a bag of Iams Healthy Naturals cat or dog food at www.iams.com, and $1 off a Tide TotalCare detergent sample at www.tide.com.

At the store

Evaluate circular savings

Don't assume that advertised prices are bargains. Some manufacturers pay to have their products featured in circulars. And don't be tricked by ambiguous wording or misleading images. We saw a picture of chicken legs and thighs in one flyer, though only the legs were on sale.

Avoid common spending traps

Think twice about accepting free samples, which often lead to impulse buys. And the most expensive products are usually found at eye level, so check out items above your head and below your knees as you walk down the aisles. Products displayed at the ends of aisles, known in supermarket lingo as endcaps, aren't necessarily on sale, but they can tempt you to make impulse purchases.

Try new brands

If you buy certain grocery items or brands over and over again just because Mom bought them, you might be missing out on less expensive alternatives that are just as good. Make sure you check out store-brand products, which can be up to 50 percent cheaper than the brand-name counterparts. In our tests, we've found many store brands to be as good or better.

Stock up on sale items

Some staples last longer than you think. Butter can be stowed for four months in your freezer without diminishing its quality, for example. Acidic canned goods like tomatoes are good for 18 months, and low-acid canned foods like peas and carrots can last two to five years. Juice in unopened bottles is good for 12 to 18 months.

You don't always have to buy a bunch to take advantage of a sale. Signs touting eight cans of soup for $10, for example, might not require you to buy all eight to get the discount.

Check prices in other departments

Cheese at the deli counter, for example, could be pricier than cheese slices or cubes in the dairy case. Look at unit prices. Big packages are often more economical, but not always. In one study, the Federal Trade Commission found that peanut butter, ketchup, coffee, canned tuna, and frozen orange juice frequently turn out to be costlier in larger containers. Make sure you compare unit prices (per ounce, etc.) before you buy.

Watch the scanner

In a recent poll, we found that one in five shoppers who said they watched the supermarket scanner frequently noticed errors.

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