Lulu Ostler approaches the checkstand with fistful of coupons, a clipboard and a smart-shopper Web site's list of the best sales in town.
At Dick's in Bountiful last week, the mother was shopping for a household of nine and found $1 packages of taco shells, 7-cent limes and 50-cent mangoes, and she redeemed a coupon for Ziploc bags. Then she was off to Smith's down the street for the next killing.
"Last week, I bet I saved as much as I spent," Ostler said.
Although certainly not new to bargain hunting — she's refined her technique using the Internet over the past decade — Ostler is part of a rising number of Utahns redeeming coupons to keep their grocery budgets in check as food prices rise.
The Deseret News is tracking prices of common household items to see how they change over time. Tracked prices for food this month actually cost less now than they did a month ago. However, the overall cost of living, loosely measured by prices of 15 items from bananas to blue jeans, went up 1 percent — or 1.3 percent if you don't count discount sales.
The culprits are rising prices of a gallon of gas, a pound of hamburger — and a package of Oreos.
But the overall drop in the cost of items we measured probably doesn't mean your grocery bill is going to drop, or that there's an end in sight to rising costs of wheat, rice and corn that last week resulted in congressional hearings and a USDA agreement to buy $50 million in pork to help the hog industry.
It basically shows that measuring prices, according to Wells Fargo economist Kelly Matthews, is complicated stuff.
Since the baseline check a month ago, our shopping cart of food, diapers, movie tickets, take-out pizza and blue jeans went up $1.60, or about 1 percent. While the 15 selected items certainly aren't a scientific sample of the cost of living, a 1 percent rise is identical to the cost of living increase Wells Fargo reported for the previous month, after examining more than 600 items between February and March.
Most responsible for the 1 percent price increase on our cart was the price of a gallon of gas. Gas at the Maverik station we're tracking went up 6 percent, from $3.20 to $3.40.
A barrel of oil at one point this past month hit $119. And refineries are starting to add the more expensive alkylate to help your car run better in warmer weather and cut back on air pollution, so the prices are going to go up more.
Food prices are connected to pump prices, and gas prices have been skyrocketing due to the weakened U.S. dollar. Transporting farmers' harvests to processing plants and the grocery stores costs more. Globally, demand for basics like wheat, corn and rice is up in developing countries such as India and China, where meat is in high demand, and costs for the grain that feeds livestock are rising. Meanwhile, Congress' push to use corn to make alternative fuel instead of food has helped push prices higher.
"I think it's a wake-up call," South Jordan mother Rachelle Glines said of the global food situation after loading her van with 25 pounds of rice and 62 pounds of beans she bought at the Sandy Home Storage Center, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The center sells church members wheat, rice, beans and other basics, plus packaging supplies at cost.
"We need to be prepared in case of emergency or disaster," she said.
About a week ago, Sam's Club and Costco warehouses limited big-bag rice purchases after rice futures hit a record high. The idea was, with record prices, people would race to stock up. And they did.
A manager at the Salt Lake City Sam's Club in the middle of last week reported he had just one pallet of rice left, down from the seven or eight pallets he had before the limits were announced.
Chad Butler of West Jordan this past week came to the Sandy Home Storage Center because he wanted to start a family food supply. But he said the wheat he was hoping to buy had been cleaned out.
Along the Wasatch Front, the cost of groceries rose 3 percent between February and March alone, according to the Wells Fargo Consumer Price Index.
Yet the food in the Deseret News' shopping cart actually cost 40 cents less, or a nickel less, depending on whether a shopper has a Smith's Fresh Values card to get the discount on Oreos.
Maid O'Clover 2% milk was on sale May 1, down 19 cents, or 7 percent, from a month ago. The price of a dozen eggs also fell 19 cents, or 10 percent.
On the other hand, a pound of hamburger meat went up 10 cents.
While the few food items we tracked stayed the same or decreased in price, Utahns overall say they are paying more.
Some of them are turning to coupons to cope. Coupon redemption jumped 9.4 percent in March 2008 compared with the same month a year ago, said Dave Davis, vice president and general counsel for the Utah Food Industry Association. That increase came after a 10 percent drop between February 2007 and 2008, and a 20 percent drop between January 2007 and 2008.
Ostler says it takes her just a few minutes to get on shoppingsmart.com, which tells her local stores' deals and the page and week the coupon came in the Sunday newspaper, so she can pull it from her files. She said her savings quickly makes up for the service's $100 annual fee.
Bountiful resident Jana Wolfe is less involved.
"I clip less, because it seems I forget to use them," she said. "I really go off the ads."
Davis believes the rise in food prices and coupon use will continue.
"When the economy hits hard times," he said, "they're more likely to use those."