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Sticker shock at the supermarket

U.S. families use ingenuity and belt-tightening to save on mounting grocery bills.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2008

Coupon clipper: Tonya Brown in Decatur, Ga., uses the Web and radio shows to find bargains.

Patrik Jonsson

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Tonya Brown never used to mess much with coupons and in-store "10 for $10" sales. But over the weekend, this mom from Decatur, Ga., came armed to the Kroger grocery store with a fistful of store coupons and sent her kids, Jordan and Nia, out into the aisles in search of bargains.

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"Just in the last week I've started paying attention," says Ms. Brown. "My main thing is to make sure we eat healthy foods, and those are the ones getting really expensive. It's becoming a real challenge. If we could save $200 a month on groceries, that's major for us right now."

Like tens of millions of Americans across the income spectrum, Brown's checkbook is feeling the vise grip of rising prices, tighter credit, and stagnant paychecks.

With food prices up 6 percent from last year – flour alone has gone up 87 percent – and gasoline prices up by more than a dollar since 2006, the receipts are adding up, causing a "dramatic" shift in kitchen-table decisions from Albuquerque to Atlanta, says Maura Daly, a spokeswoman for the charitable hunger-relief organization America's Second Harvest in Chicago.

The struggle to put healthy food on the table is tough enough as meat, egg, and veggie prices are rising fastest. But a 15 percent increase in soup-kitchen lines nationwide since last year indicates that many families are struggling to put any food at all on the table.

New evidence of the difficulty: 1.5 million more people use food stamps than a year ago, a 5.7 percent increase, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, Americans are trying to stash more money away in savings – indicating a "scrounge" reaction as families dig deeper into their cupboards. Taking place over bins of oranges and stacks of canned soup, this may be the century's biggest test so far of America's consumer resiliency – and inventiveness.

"The American consumer is facing change, and that's always upsetting," says Herbert Rotfeld, editor of the Journal of Consumer Affairs in Auburn, Ala. "Change is confusion, but is it harmful? It's too early to tell."

Evidence of a grocery-aisle mind shift is clear. Coupon-clipping has reversed a 16-year-slide, driven by Internet "clipping" and sites devoted to spotting in-store sales. Americans clipped 100 million more coupons in 2007 than the previous year, a 6 percent increase, according to NCH Marketing.

"Grocery spending has the most wiggle room of any disposable expenditure, so if a family can save $400 a month, that's major in an average family's budget," says Atlanta shopping expert Stephanie Nelson, who has seen traffic on her website double in the last year.