Put a dent in your grocery bill
Consider 'manager's special' bins and these other ways to salvage your food budget.
You've heard of scratch-and-dent appliance sales? I apply the same shopping ethos to groceries, keeping my food bill down with "used meat," close-dated milk (I've paid as little as 99 cents a gallon), and slightly damaged dry and canned goods.
So do plenty of other people. In fact, some regions have entire stores devoted to "salvage" groceries. I wish.
Just how scratched and how dented are these foods?
Sometimes the damage is cosmetic, such as a cereal box with a crumpled corner. Sometimes it's nonexistent -- for example, if a case of green beans falls off the forklift, the shipper often assumes all the cans are dented and sends it off to a salvage grocer.
Items may be seasonal (e.g., unsold gingerbread mix at the end of December) or close to their sell-by dates. If a product is discontinued or its packaging is changed, the manufacturer kicks all the "old" stuff to the curb. There may be "overrun" -- too much product, not enough orders -- or it simply doesn't sell well in certain parts of the country.
And sometimes it's just plain puzzling why an item gets remaindered. I bought some boxes of vanilla pudding mix at a Walgreens for 9 cents each. (That is not a typo.) A convenience store's clearance section offered products like flour and peanut butter at prices cheaper than at the supermarket. In both cases the products in question were at least six months away from their sell-by dates.
Safe to eat?
When should you back away from the dented-can bin? According to a United States Department of Agriculture fact sheet, steer clear of any can that is swollen, leaking, extensively rusted, has visible holes or punctures or is crushed/dented badly enough "to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual, wheel-type can opener." (Post continues below video.)
As for close-dated products, keep in mind that "use by" or "best by" are really just suggestions. Except for baby food and formula, there's no requirement for dates on food or a uniform system for using them. (Read "When does food really expire?")
Keep these tips in mind, too:
- Can't drink that 99-cent gallon of milk fast enough? Freeze it.
- Chocolate also freezes well, so stock up on post-holiday treats. A few Hershey's Kisses or a fun-size candy bar makes a sweet ending to a brown-bag lunch (yours or your kid's).
- Was that 25-cent soup pretty good? Go back and stock up. It might not be available in a couple of days, or ever again.
- Check the nonfood aisle at salvage and discount grocers. One acquaintance found large bottles of a name-brand shampoo for $2; the company had just changed its label.
- Know what things cost. You might be able to get a better price by using sales and coupons once you've familiarized yourself with grocery sales cycles.
Finding the stores
A discount retailer called Extreme Bargains has a state-by-state list of salvage grocers. This is not necessarily an all-inclusive list, but it's a great place to start.
You can also search online for "salvage grocers" or "discount grocers" in your region. Or be retro and check the paper Yellow Pages.
Some discount grocers don't sell dented or dated items but do offer over-runs and other foodstuffs that are surprisingly cheap. A good example is the Grocery Outlet, a chain of more than 150 discount stores in the western United States. There's one down the street from me, and although we customers fondly refer to it as "the Gross Out," we love the place (and its prices).
Get in the habit of checking the dented-can/manager's special section every time you shop. If you see a lot of stuff you want, put it all in your cart, then find a manager and propose a bulk-buy deal: "This adds up to $18 but I'd take all of it off your hands for $10." You never know.
You probably can't meet all your dietary needs this way. But a strategic shopper will find that surplus/salvage grocers and discount grocery outlets, along with closeout bins in regular supermarkets, can make a big dent in the food bills.
Readers: Ever buy from a salvage grocery store or poke through the last-chance bin at your local supermarket? What's your best find ever?
More from MSN Money:
Our kids' school used to get a kick-back from store-branded gift cards purchased through our local grocer's community rewards program, so we got into the habit of putting our entire monthly grocery budget on the card at the start of the month. After a few months, we learned how much "month" that money would really buy, and so we got to be better planners with our grocery trips. This habit has helped tremendously with avoiding the little (almost daily) onesie-twosie shopping trips that used to bleed our food budget dry in two weeks. Even though the school reward program is now tied to our shopper discount card (instead of a gift card), we still put our grocery budget on the gift card because it is such a good way to stay on track with our spending.
As is my customary practice I checked out the discount/bargain shelf and to my amazement and wonder I found 8 large jars of normally priced @$8.99 premium gefilte fish for the delectable price of $1.00 each. Needless to say I stocked up!
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.
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Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.
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VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Tired of your wallet taking a beating at the grocery store? Here are some creative ways to save big on food costs.