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How to save 50% on groceries this year

Use these simple tips to reduce the pain in the checkout lane.

By Donna_Freedman Jan 7, 2013 3:16PM

Logo: Close-up of a person using a calculator in a supermarket (George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)Your grocery bill will likely be going up soon, thanks to the 2012 drought in the Midwest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects food prices to rise 3.5% to 4% in the coming year.

Food is one of our largest fixed expenses, but it's also the one with the most wiggle room.

You probably can't negotiate lower rent or a lower car payment, but a little creativity can produce a lower grocer bill, especially if you follow the advice offered by Alea Milham on her Premeditated Leftovers blog -- a simple tip that can save you 50% or more.

 

"I go grocery shopping with my list and coupons, but I add one more step to my trip to ensure maximum grocery savings: I look through the manager markdowns. Every. Single. Time," Milham says.

I'm also a huge proponent of the manager markdown, in various forms:

"Used meat."
That's what a friend calls it, jokingly. Marked-down meat is fine if it's used or frozen promptly -- and it's 30% to 50% off.

Day-old bread.
You'll find everything from focaccia to hamburger buns that were baked in-store the day before. Check the packaged bread aisle, too; I've lucked into considerable discounts on close-dated multigrain loaves.

Dinged produce.
Apples that sustained a few bruises, zucchini with a couple of nicks, potatoes from larger bags that got torn open -- whatever the reason, it's cheap.

Scratch-and-dent canned or dry goods.
Cereal boxes with crumpled corners, cans with dents, seasonal items (e.g., canned pumpkin or "holiday" coffee or tea) and other odds and ends show up in markdown bins.

Close-dated dairy.
When I see that orange sticker on milk cartons, I pounce. Soon-to-expire milk works well for yogurt or rice pudding.

Obviously, you can't count on getting all your groceries this way. But even a few finds a week  can have a noticeable impact on your food budget: 

  • That half-price sandwich loaf means cheaper brown-bag lunches.
  • A 50%-off family pack of ground beef translates to multiple meals: meat loaf, tacos, spaghetti, sloppy Joes.
  • Recently I bought diced tomatoes for 59 cents, sweet potatoes for 34 cents and mixed vegetables for 39 cents. All have a place in a "can-do" kitchen.

Look beyond the supermarket

Manager markdowns might even improve your diet, Milham notes, by "allowing you to buy organic items that are normally too expensive for your budget."

The photo accompanying her article shows a large container of organic baby spinach for $2.99 and a 1.28-pound package of pork for 83 cents. Yes, 83 cents: The manager put a "$3 off" coupon on a $3.83 package vs. a "50% off" reduction.

Sometimes the reason for a markdown isn't clear. For example, I bought a package of Tillamook cheddar cheese slices for just over a dollar, even though the sell-by date was several months off.
Manager markdowns aren't limited to supermarkets, either. I found boxes of vanilla-pudding mix, whose sell-by dates were more than a year in the future, for 9 cents (yep, 9 cents)  in a drugstore clearance bin. The same drugstore yielded bags of Starbucks coffee for 50% off, a price made even better by manufacturer coupons.

I've even seen marked-down items at a gas station convenience store: a 5-pound bag of flour for $2.50 and a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter for $1.80. Both had sell-by dates of more than six months in the future.

Some best-practice tips

Milham is serious about the "every single time" thing. Even when she just needs milk and eggs she'll make a quick tour of the markdown bins. (So do I.) In fact, she reserves 10% of her grocery budget for such finds. Get to know the store manager, she advises, and ask what time the deals are set out.

You shouldn't buy more than you can use, but you may be able to find a way to make even close-dated items last longer. When I lived in Seattle, I turned 33-cents-a-pound damaged apples into chunky applesauce with cinnamon and a little brown sugar -- a delicious dessert, and even better mixed with homemade yogurt. Sometimes I'd luck into discounted mandarin oranges and simmer them into a simple marmalade, another great yogurt add-in. I also found marked-down lemons and limes, squeezing and freezing the juice for later.

Your freezer is your friend. Any close-dated meat should be used promptly or frozen; ditto late-date breads and milk, and marked-down cheese. Or how about freezing discounted vegetables or some of that homemade applesauce? The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a terrific resource for storing all sorts of comestibles.

When is a scratch-and-dent can too dented? According to  this USDA fact sheet, you should pass up 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."

As for sell-by dates: Fresh juice and dairy products are best bought by the dates on the package, according to the USDA's "Food Product Dating" fact sheet. But for shelf-stable foods, the sell-by or best-by date relates to peak flavor only. I've eaten food that was years past its best-by date and I haven't died. Not even once.

Just so you know: There is no universally accepted food-dating system in the United States. No federal law requires expiration dates except for infant formula and some other baby foods.

One last thing: If you see a ton of foods you like in the scratch-and-dent bin or want to make enough applesauce to can, go ahead and ask if you could get an additional discount for taking all of the items off the manager's hands at once. As frugality author Jeff Yeager once told me, "The ultimate proving ground of your negotiating skills is if you can negotiate on groceries."

Readers:
Do you buy marked-down foods? What was your best deal ever?

More on MSN Money:

116Comments
Mar 16, 2013 11:02AM
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My wife and I have found that by cutting back on our food "intake", it has cut our monthly grocery bill more than half.  We no longer eat steaks on a regular basis, or have large amounts of snack treats available in our pantry.   And, yes, we now pay close attention to bargains whether it be in a grocery store or retail store.  The principal of shopping now is to "think before you buy".  Is it something you really need, or is it something you just "want" to have.  
Jan 23, 2013 5:08PM
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Be careful buying at the dollar store as some have suggested.  I have found that some products there are made to be shipped to foreign countries and therefore do not alwasy adhere to US standards regarding safety and content.  Just be aware!
Jan 23, 2013 12:18PM
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First off walk to the store! You'll have your kids beg for much LESS when they pack it home! You'll learn soon that veggies weigh much less than meat and cheese.

If  that's impractical, then don't use a shopping cart.  Same result.  Give everyone a reusable shopping bag, when it's full, head for the car. Priorities COUNT!

 

NEXT, explain to your family and everyone who will listen... " THE SYSTEM LIED TO YOU!!! THAT'S RIGHT, GET OVER IT. WE DON'T NEED EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME!"

 

Cooking what you grow feeds Billions of people daily. Get a 5 gal bucket, add soil and a plant and grow food anywhere you have a house plant, even at work. It's time to act like grown ups folks. Get your kids and neighbors involved, and let's work TOGETHER to remove the blinders, cure obesity, and pull our fat butts off the couch!

 

THAT'S THE ATTITUDE THE REST OF THE WORLD COULDN'T BEAT IN 1945. You better believe they are just waiting for another chance....

Jan 23, 2013 10:02AM
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Yum....yum....eat'em up.  Give me the junk food ! ! !
Jan 23, 2013 10:00AM
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Can you buy cookies, ice cream and snacks on sale too ???  That is the diet of most Americans.  That is why 2/3 of all Americans are obese. 
Jan 23, 2013 9:57AM
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Could you just imagine what a OBESE person's food bills are per month ? ? ?

Jan 12, 2013 8:38AM
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On top of the day old bread, dinged cans and "used meat", pair those marked down items with a manufacturer's coupon if you can.  I have purchased reduced Smoked Sausage for 1.49 and used a manufacturer coupon for 1.00 off each one.  The savings are unbelieveable on things like this.  Freeze it or put the cans in a pantry for use when needed.  The bread--not so much on saving for a later date.
Jan 11, 2013 4:32PM
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You can also save a whole lotta money by NOT buying things just because they're on sale. If something's 3 for $5 but you really only need or want 1 or 2, you'll save about $1.60 to $3.30 by NOT buying 3 of whatever it is. Like loaves of bread for example. Unless you really eat alot of it, it'll mold before you can eat it all & it'll go to waste. Then you'll have to throw out whatever you thought you saved which costs more money than buying everything "on sale". Don't buy multiples of things that are on a "2 for, 3 for or 10 for..." sale unless you're REALLY gonna need it & eat it & it's something that can be stored well for a while if you're not gonna eat/use it right away. You'll save a bundle.
Jan 11, 2013 2:51PM
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Horrible article.  Damaged containers could result in health concerns.  
Jan 11, 2013 1:09PM
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1. Eliminate buying any meat/fish
2. No processed foods
3. Grow a garden
4. Stop eating out
5. Buy only what is in season that is when the price is the best value
6. Buy only items that are on sale stock up to carry you over to the next sale

Not only will you save money but you will save even more in medical bills/health issues.
You are what you eat!

Jan 11, 2013 11:51AM
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I don't eat meat or poultry so my grocery bill isn't so astronomical to begin with.  I'm weaning myself off of processed foods so that will save bucks.  So, I can eat fresh veggies and fruits and not have to look for foods that are considered "seconds" and still eat cheap!  I'm losing weight and feeling great!  Try it!
Jan 10, 2013 11:58AM
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Listen to your Grandmother, she can teach you a lot. And teach your kids starting when they are very young, if they help make things more likely they will eat them, their taste habits are learned behavior, they may not like homemade stew if they are used to Mc-somethings. Yes you have time even if you work, the slow cooker is a wonderful invention, so is the freezer.  Beware of out-dated items, My Aunt got really really sick from out dated cold cuts, if things are close to end of shelf life if you can't use them within 24 hours of purchasing them either freeze or cook pronto. The big expense comes in the form of what you waste.  
Jan 9, 2013 12:57PM
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I think everyone has heard how to say money at the grocery store, I wish there were more ideas put out there to save besides the ones you have mentioned here.

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It's informative to read the comments, I can't help but be impressed by the imaginative ways shopper's (woman, bless them) keep their family's fed & save dollars. It's a bit sad that in this great country of ours, some have to resort to these measures to ensure they stay within budget.

 

One would have thought that by the year 2013, America the bountiful would contain a society that

would be the envy of the world. Yet 36% of our population depend on food stamps,welfare, we are going backwards to Depression times. Why, are some not doing their fair share?

 

Our gov't. seems to think it's proper to financially assist 1/2 of the world with billions in aid,  but our own citizens go begging. Some things need to change.                 HF 

    

Jan 8, 2013 3:59PM
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How to really save on grocery shopping---avoid the prepackaged crap and cook your own foods as wil ultimately get more for less.

 

Think about those pasta and cheese boxes---cheap fat promoting food, yet when you make your own not only can you freeze it you get a more healthful filling meal!

 

Also Bags of salad cost twice the amount as that of a head of lettuce, celery stick and an onion.

Jan 8, 2013 3:56PM
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Some of your suggestion are disgustingly gross.

Such as purchasing bad produce!

Jan 8, 2013 3:54PM
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Milk about to turn? bread, rolls, patsries, going stale? Do what our ancestors did. Make bread pudding! Very popular in my house, with infinite flavor and variety possibilities. Add those apples that are starting to shrivel; peaches going soft, etc. Recipes abound on the net. I never throw out those last ends of old bread, biscuits or cinnamon rolls going stale. Freeze then until you've accumulated enough for a big pan of bread pudding. Believe me, this is the ultimate left-over recipe. It can even be turned into a main course with meat and savory spices, to use those left-over turkey or roast pieces. Delicious and so very versatile! 
Jan 8, 2013 3:35PM
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This is an old, recycled article.  Nothing new here.

Jan 8, 2013 3:02PM
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I tell you all one thing. You Americans think you got the best of everything. Well, If you saw the farmers markets in China you'd know differently. The quality, freshness, taste and overall size puts American produce to shame. And its a lot cheaper too.
Jan 8, 2013 2:45PM
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I dont live in America now, but every time I go back Im amazed at the latest gimmicks I see. Now I see that every food item has several micro-specialty high priced brands. Sauces are a good example. Why do my oats have to be "Steel cut"? Does that add some extra iron or something? What is "pulled pork" all about? We used to call it "shredded". I guess someones pulling my pork on that one. Bottom line is, Americans are suckered into the latest fads and pay dearly for them. remember Krispy Kream? I remember someone brought those over-priced donuts to work and people went fanatic. Not only were they dangerously full of sugar, they were just cheap donuts with a fancy name. Add one more Kardiac to the end and you get KKK.
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Donna Freedman

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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