Sticker shock! That’s what you face every time you go to the supermarket these days.

So, what’s a consumer to do? Here’s how to keep your grocery bills as low as possible…

PLAN YOUR TRIPS

1. Take a shopping list. To keep the list to a minimum, plan your meals for the week and then list the ingredients you need to buy. Stick to your list — but be flexible. Take advantage of store specials you come across.

2. Pay attention to what you have on hand — especially perishables. That way, you won’t have to throw away unused food.

3. Learn the layout of your grocery store. Sneaky secret: Stores put dairy products and meat in the back of the store to force you to walk through aisles of temptation — processed foods sold at higher markups — to get there. If you’re making a quick trip for milk, keep this in mind and be resolute — buy only milk.

4. Eat first. This tried-and-true tactic bears repeating. Going to the grocery store hungry is one reason we buy on impulse.

SKIP NONESSENTIALS

5. Drink tap water. Almost all municipal water in America is so good that nobody ever needs to drink water from Italy or France (or Maine, for that matter). Getting the recommended eight glasses a day from bottled water costs as much as $1,400 annually. If you don’t like the taste of your local water, buy a faucet filter or filtering pitcher.

6. Don’t buy processed foods. They cost more than meals you put together yourself from basic ingredients and generally are not as nutritious.

7. Grate your own. Like processed foods, pre-grated carrots, cheese, etc., cost more — and often don’t taste as fresh.

8. Skip the precuts. Cut meat and produce yourself, rather than buying individual servings or pieces.

9. Clean your own fish. It’s cheaper per pound of edible fish to buy whole fish (the smaller varieties, of course) at the market and then remove the head, tail, etc., at home.

10. Don’t buy toiletries at the grocery store. Make a separate list of toiletries and paper products for the discount stores, such as Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club, where they’ll cost 20% to 40% less.

SHOPPING STRATEGIES

11. Don’t be fooled by phony sales. Sneaky secret: Items displayed on the ends of aisles aren’t necessarily on sale. Manufacturers of those items pay for those prime display locations. Better: Compare prices in the main aisles, where products compete against each other.

12. Know when to buy in bulk. Only buy groceries you know that you’ll use before they go bad. Nonperishables are the safest to buy in bulk. Also: Just because an item is available in a larger size doesn’t mean it’s cheaper. Take a calculator to the supermarket to check “unit prices” by dividing price by quantity.

13. Buy generic. You can almost always save money by choosing a store label or little-known brand instead of a well-known brand. In some cases, particularly with items such as orange juice and condiments, the savings can be tremendous.

14. Stoop and reach. Sneaky secret: Food manufacturers pay for prime, eye-level shelf space at grocery stores — and their prices reflect it. So, look high and low, literally, for comparable items on other shelves.

15. Buy “must go” foods. Bypass the more expensive fresh-baked bread and reach for the day-old selection. Keep it in the freezer for toasting. Also, most bakery departments will discount fresh items drastically as the end of the day nears — you may just have to ask.

Stores routinely discount dairy, baked goods, produce and meat as these items approach their “sell-by” dates or become less attractive (think slightly bruised apples or crushed bread). These items are tasty and perfectly safe to eat, even several days after purchase. Ask the staff at your supermarket when they mark items down. Time your shopping accordingly.

16. Shop less often. Shoppers making “quick trips” to the store usually purchase more than they planned. If you go to the store three times a week and spend $10 on impulse buys each trip, that adds up to $120 extra per month. But if you go only once a week and spend the same $10 on impulse buys each time, you’ll spend $40 per month on impulse buys. That saves you $80 per month, or $960 per year.

17. Use the buddy system. Save money by sharing costs with someone else.

Examples: Split two-for-one offers… the contents of large, well-priced packages, such as a bag of potatoes… share the price of gas to the supermarket.

MAXIMIZE COUPONS

18. Check all sources for coupons. Americans saved an estimated $30 billion with manufacturers’ coupons last year. Most of the 278 billion coupons redeemed came from Sunday papers. But it can really pay to check manufacturers’ Web sites, as well as specialty Internet coupon sites, such as DealCatcher (www.dealcatcher.com) and CoolSavings (www.coolsavings.com).

Also: Take advantage of double- and triple-coupon policies at local supermarkets.

BE CHECKOUT SAVVY

You’ve come to the finish line­ — don’t blow it now…

19. Fight checkout temptation. The candy, gadgets and magazines right around the cash registers are high-profit items for the store — and the least useful to you. Resist!

20. Keep a close eye on the scanner. Americans lose from $1 billion to $3 billion a year on scanning discrepancies. Scanners are not always reset with current sale prices, so your chance of being charged the full price on a sale item is high.