Tai Ching-hung has a new routine every Friday: going walkabout to compare prices. Scrutinising the tags at six or seven outlets each time, the housewife visits supermarkets, pharmacies and wet markets in Lok Fu, where she lives, and makes odd forays to districts such as Wong Tai Sin and San Po Kong. Tai isn't just going the extra mile to keep household expenses down, she is helping her friends to become savvy shoppers. Earlier this month Tai began posting her findings on parenting website Baby-kingdom.com and invited other families to share tips on how to cope with soaring prices. Feedback has come swiftly. People have sent in information from different neighbourhoods on where the best deals on household items - from toiletries to soft drinks and fresh vegetables - can be found. One woman reports offering her domestic helper a year-end bonus to look around for bargains and families are taking turns to travel to Shenzhen to shop for each other. 'The response reflects how many of us are plagued by rising costs, especially for food,' says Tai, a mother of two. She, too, has been going to Shenzhen to stock up on rice, milk and frozen dumplings, which are half local prices. 'I shop across the border once a month. The yuan has appreciated but many food items are still cheaper on the mainland,' she says. 'I go to large supermarkets with a greater flow of people because the food is usually fresher.' Government figures show that food prices last month were 17.2 per cent higher than a year earlier, with costs for pork and beef up by more than 50 per cent. 'The only way to cope with skyrocketing prices is to shop wisely,' Tai says. 'You may think it's too time-consuming to go to so many different shops but it pays off.' A recent Consumer Council survey revealed that prices for staples such as rice, cooking oil and canned food at supermarkets may be more than double those at neighbourhood grocery stores. However, shrewd housewives such as Tai have long known the difference. 'Prices have gone up at both neighbourhood stores and supermarkets, but I think the rate is far steeper at the chains,' she says. 'Some supermarket sales aren't sales at all. They merely mark up the tags and the discounted prices are actually the original ones. If you don't make a habit of comparing prices, you'll probably be fooled by the so-called sale.' Promotional offers requiring the purchase of multiple units may be another ruse. Tai recalls, for instance, a four-can pack of fizzy drinks being offered for HK$10. Yet the eight-pack went for HK$21.90, which was more expensive. She advises novices starting on price-comparison excursions to bring along a list of essential items. 'Once it has become a habit, you'll have a rough idea which shops offer greater discounts,' she says. 'There's a great sense of satisfaction when you know how much money you have saved.' Poorer families are inevitably hardest hit by surging food prices but, as the internet exchanges show, the middle class are increasingly sensitive to having to dig deeper into their wallets. Even busy executives such as Tong Wai-lan, a public relations manager, are doing a little price comparison. Tong doesn't have time for regular checks but she keeps an eye on prices when shopping at weekends, and checks out pharmacies in Lam Tin and Kwun Tong when she can. 'I figure the ones in Kwun Tong are generally cheaper for shampoo, toothpaste and lotions,' Tong says. 'I also stock up whenever there are promotions at supermarkets.' South Horizons resident Lee So-lin, whose grocery bills have risen 30 per cent in the past two months, says: 'I was shocked to find that a kilogram of hairy gourd has jumped from HK$4 to HK$12 in the past few months.' Spiralling costs constantly crop up in conversations with friends, Lee says, and it has been so severe she recently switched to frozen pork and chicken, which is half the cost of fresh meat. Wan Yau-kwong finds customers at his frozen meat shop in Causeway Bay are making similar substitutions. 'Some housewives from Mid-Levels who used to shop at high-end supermarkets have also started buying frozen meat from wet market stalls,' he says. 'Some even order in bulk. Anna Choi, an avid cook who writes a regular food blog, used to create elaborate feasts at home using lobster and other expensive seafood. She and her husband, who regard themselves as gourmets, had no qualms spending thousands of dollars on a special meal. Yet Choi has also begun to economise - she won't be buying blue-fin tuna to make sashimi for their next celebration. However, she isn't lowering her culinary standards. Frozen meat can make tasty dishes if properly marinated and cooked, Choi says, and the wet markets in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok often offer good deals on fresh ingredients. 'There is a great variety of meat and seafood and the best time to go is around 6pm because the stalls often offer discounts before calling it a day,' she says. In Fanling, housewife Chang Sou-choo is taking the inflationary pressure as an incentive to reduce food waste, estimating portions more carefully to avoid leftovers and making quick-boil soups instead of those that require lengthy simmering. 'The children don't like eating meat that has been simmered for a long time, so it's often wasted,' she says. However, nutritionist Georgia Guldan says rising food prices are more than an issue for people's wallets. A professor in the biochemistry department at the Chinese University, she says consumers can expect little relief as long as current global trends in the food chain continue. These include rising meat consumption by the expanding middle class in India and on the mainland, and more crops being grown to meet the demand for biofuels rather than for food even as food needs grow with the world's swelling population. And since the push for biofuels is linked to rising energy prices, Guldan says Hongkongers can help the planet by making use of the city's excellent public transport network instead of using private vehicles. Some dietary changes can help reduce the burden on our wallets while maintaining the best nutritional value. 'Eat more whole foods and minimise consumption of more expensive, and often less healthy, processed foods,' Guldan says. 'We can eat less meat, but more grain. Beans, nuts and tofu are healthier and lower-cost proteins.' The food price spiral, she says, 'gives us great opportunities to assess how we live and eat, individually and as a population'.