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When it comes to buying food, are you a super saver? For millions of Americans, stretching every supermarket dollar has always been a way of life. Some people shop economically as a matter of principle. For many others, it's a financial necessity. This latter group has grown steadily in recent years, as economic hard times have spread to a growing segment of the population.

The Food Marketing Institute has surveyed consumers to find out what steps they are taking to lower their food bills.The 1992 survey inquired about eight possible ways of economizing. These included using coupons, doing more with leftovers, buying fewer luxury or gourmet items, eating out less often, buying fewer convenience items, doing more meal planning, buying in larger quantities, and buying only what is on the shopping list.

In analyzing the data, researchers classified "heavy economizers" as those who regularly practiced five or more of these eight measures. Heavy economizers were more likely to be women (22 percent vs. 16 percent), and to live in households with one spouse not working outside the home. Household size also made a difference. The percentage of heavy economizers was 13 percent among those who live alone and 30 percent in households of five or more.

The older consumers became, the less inclined they were to economize. The percentage of heavy economizers declined steadily with age, from 33 percent of those 18 to 24 to only 10 percent of those 65 and over. Clearly, some ways of economizing just aren't practical for older people, who may live alone or with just one other person. For such individuals, buying larger quantities doesn't always represent a savings.

And for frail elderly people, convenience items may be an important labor-saving step. Another explanation for the age-related decline in economizing is that some people over 65 aren't faced with severe economic problems and aren't concerned about cutting back on food bills.

However, reported income seemed to have less effect than one might expect on budget-cutting. The number of heavy economizers ranged from 23 percent among those earning $15,000 a year or less, to 20 percent among those making $35,000 to $50,000 a year. Overall, consumers use three basic techniques to reduce food bills. At present, 61 percent make greater use of coupons; 60 percent are doing more with leftovers; and 58 percent buy fewer luxury or gourmet items. And one in two shoppers is eating out less often or buying fewer convenience foods.

Consumers are becoming more thrifty. In 1991, 33 percent of individuals surveyed said they checked newspaper ads all the time for grocery specials. A year later, that figure has risen to 45 percent. Similarly, last year 36 percent said they almost always use coupons; this year, the number is 43 percent. And as many as 22 percent of consumers said they are buying store brands or lower-priced brands far more often than in the previous year.

The single economizing measure that has declined in frequency is buying only what is on the shopping list, down from 34 percent to 24 percent this year. This trend toward impulse buying may in fact be another money-saving device. When consumers arrive at the market and see an item on sale, they may snap it up even if it's not on their list.

Question: I read somewhere that milk will soon be available as a carbonated beverage. Is that true?

Answer: The idea of "fizzy milk," as it's sometimes called, has been kicking around for several years. Recently it has moved closer to appearing on the market. The current version is the product of cooperative research between a Department of Agriculture research center and a private manufacturer of flavor concentrates, syrups and other beverage ingredients.

The drink is a blend of reconstituted nonfat dry milk, skim milk, flavoring and fruit juice. These beverages could bolster milk consumption, which remains far lower than it should be if people are to get adequate calcium. And since it is made from nonfat milk solids and skim milk, the product will be virtually fat-free.

Still we have several concerns about this new version. Milk remains one of the supermarket's bargains. The new product may turn out to be more expensive, and we'd be unhappy to see carbonated milk add to already strained food budgets or, worse yet, replace other nutrient-rich foods.

For adults who might otherwise never touch a glass of milk and whose calcium intakes are dismally low, the carbonated product could be an acceptable alternative. But for children, we enthusiastically endorse the real thing.

1992, Washington Post Writers Group