As prices have crept upward, many workers have had salaries frozen or reduced; some people have lost their jobs. It's a rough place to be when expenses are up and income is down.
Luxuries like chemical lawn services and spa treatments can be dropped from budgets to make ends meet, but groceries cannot. Unlike some items we previously might have viewed as necessities, food truly is essential.
Thankfully, we can find ways to cut back. If not on food, at least on what we spend on it. Some tips:
o Don't shop on an empty stomach. When I go into a grocery store hungry, everything looks good. Junk I wouldn't otherwise buy inevitably ends up in my cart and on my bill.
o Stick to one or two stores for your weekly or biweekly shopping. I hit a small bargain grocery outlet for staples. One Hagerstown store sells every variety of milk -- skim to whole -- for just $2 a gallon. For less common items, buying weekly sales with coupons at my favorite supermarket provides a variety of food at a satisfying price.
o Rely on the perimeter of the store, where most fresh, nutritious foods -- fruits, veggies, fish, meats and breads -- are stocked. When items on the inside aisles take a secondary role in your family menus, you can rest assured that your money is well-spent, rather than wasted on frivolities.
o Use coupons to snag goodies for just pennies or less. I clip 75 cent coupons for frozen, soft pretzels and catch them when they are on sale for $1.50. My neighborhood grocery store doubles coupons less than $1. VoilÃ . Free pretzels! I've similarly scored toothbrushes, Italian ice and many other items.
o Think generic. Take a psychological leap over the comforting logo and taste the store brand. There are treasures to be found from organic cereals to frozen cookie dough. The quality is usually good and the cost will slash your bill.
o Plan meals around flyers from your favorite store. Find the best sales, and base your meals on those ingredients. It'll stimulate ideas for a varied and satisfying menu. Avoid scouring flyers from multiple stores and chasing sales all over town. You'll burn up gas, waste your time, and tempt yourself with unnecessary items.
o Use a shopping list and stick to it. Keep a list in a regular place in your kitchen throughout the week, and jot down items you need as you think of them. Add the items you plan to buy based on flyers.
There you have your guide. Do not stray from it, and you should have everything you need to eat and some extra cash in your pocket.
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail.