How to save 50% on groceries this year
Use these simple tips to reduce the pain in the checkout lane.
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?
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if you find an item that "expired" on the shelf (that was not properly rotated) and you would be comfortable eating it ask to speak to a store manager or supervisor about getting it at a discount before you check out. With larger stores I have bought stuff, taken it to the service desk and requested a discount after I already paid and received a refund. The manager/clerks all think this is weird, but I don't care, it's my money.
Also, I love the managers markdown areas. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with the product, it might be that they just changed their packaging on it. Most coupons will still work on markdown items as a bonus (but don't count on it at all places). Check this area, I have seen wine, vitamins and pet food marked down for quick sale.
You can freeze almost anything or cook and freeze it. We have gotten marked down pies and cakes at the bakery and froze them and they were fine when thawed.
The best way to save isn’t even mentioned here. Of course they can't mention names of stores. Don’t shop at Kroger’s Giant Eagle, or any of the typical food chains except for items that are reduced by a huge margin.
Locally in Pittsburgh, Giant Eagle sells a dozen eggs for over $2.00. A dozen of eggs at Aldi is 79 cents. Aldi is much cheaper than Walmart as example. DON’T buy food at a dollar store. They sell cheap junk for a buck, but the food items are the same as convenience store prices.
Join COSCO, Sam’s Club, or shop at other discount grocery stores without brand names such as Save-a-lot, Aldi, to name a couple locally. These stores have the same products and many items have labels that are not well known brand names, but the labels are similar design and color. These are the brand named good but are purchased at bulk from the big food producers.
Buy non perishable items such as canned vegetables, fruits, and other canned goods by the bulk….such as a case at a time.
Fortunately for me there’s a farmer’s market nearby where I can buy meat. Their chicken breasts, pork chops, roasts, and beef cuts are huge, and they have actual butchers behind the meat counter who serve you and wrap the meats right there.
Notice how Tyson (as example) is now adding water to the chicken for weight. They even came up with some phony excuse for doing this. Watch out for things like this. There are literally hundreds of tricks these well known brand named companies are doing to cheat you.
I shop at Meijer and always hit the bakery clearance, which is routinely 40% off day-old bread and pastries. Many of these things freeze well if you don't want to eat them right away. They also have some markdowns on meat, most commonly beef. It's not "expired" food, it's food that is nearing the sell-by date. Which means it's still a few days before the "use by" date, and perfectly fine to use quickly or freeze. I also buy family packs of meat, which are typically cheaper on the pound than smaller packages, then freeze individual portions.
Produce markdowns are less common, but I've found good prices on mushrooms and salad greens, provided I can use them the same day. Last week I got a bag of 4 large grapefruits for a quarter - nothing wrong with them; I suspect they were from a larger bag that was damaged.
Post-holiday clearance is great for baking ingredients. After Christmas I stocked up on chocolate chips - yes, they're red and green, but if you aren't picky about the colors, it's a good deal.
i just dont eat anymore-too expensive-
i grow my own tobacco and still my own whiskey
I do this ALL the time. Did it when I worked FT = lunches. Do it now that I am retired = less days I MUST cook. All in all = less food waste, less gas/electric used, less water used (clean up) and saves a BUNCH of my time. Definate INTENDED consequence.
I ALWAYS, ALWAYS check the produce, meat, grocery & general merchandise clearance sections at the produce markets (0.99/lb mushrooms, bags of salad/kits 0.75), grandkid stocking stuffers, cheap meat (think I have ONLY bought 1 non-sale, non-clearance meat item in the past year), cheap cottage cheese (lunch of choice 2-3x/week) and further I hit the deli meat ends packages for ham, turkey and/or roast beef (1.99/lb). These = endless meal possibilities WAAAY over & above just sandwiches.
Don’t remember the last time I bought bread or rolls anywhere but the outlet store or day rack.
I'm a sale shopper. I do most of shopping at Fred Meyer (Kroeger). I take advantage of the first Tuesday of every month being a senior at a 10% discount on most items. I also buy in bulk the items that I use most often and either shelve them or freeze them. I did this in my younger years when I shopped for my family; All of this processed food costs you so much more to buy and it is filled with so much sodium and preservitives. OMG Today's world doesn't realize the importance of getting fresh produce, so much of it that is free if you take the effort to harvest, to store for the year. I sometimes think that it's a talent that is all lost..................Just sayin'
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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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