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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."

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

More on MSN Money:

Jan 7, 2013 10:33PM
So just eat things that are barely spoiled or not fresh? That's not new. Most of America already does that. 

Personally I just buy bulk and package by servings then freeze or have a half bull slaughtered and grow my own berries, peppers, and tomatoes.
Jan 7, 2013 10:28PM
well ost grocers dont maek down meat i know we dont what we do is give it to a food shelf , if grocers start marking down meat, then people just wait for that and dont meat at its regular price!!
Jan 7, 2013 9:56PM
Buying dented cans is a gamble - with your health, and possibly, your life. A bio-chemist explained to me several years ago that when a can is dented, microscopic openings can (and usually do) occur in the seam on the side of the can and/or where the top and bottom are joined to the can. There does not have to be a visible leak, but bacteria can (and will) get into those openings. Depending on just which bacteria take up residence and how long they have been there, you can wind up with anything from a mild upset stomach to botulism. There does not have to be any bulging of the ends of the can - that usually takes quite some time to happen; since that is from the gases that build up as a result of the bacteria feeding on  the food in the can.
Jan 7, 2013 9:51PM
Where oh where do these characters get their info from? I have not seen any food stores offering any discounts on anything accept meats once in a great while. Food is just priced out of sight! The grocery store throws all old fruit and veggies out as they get subsidised for foods not sold so it is better for them to throw it in the dipsy dumpster than actully lower the price on it....It is all big business!
Jan 7, 2013 9:46PM
Not sure where this person shops but we don't have any such discounts in our area accept for meat once  in awhile...There are no discounts on veggies or fruit that is dinged. They take it all away and dump it in the dipsy dumpster....Great ideas though....too bad they aren't realistic!!!
Jan 7, 2013 8:56PM

My wife used to buy all the groceries and she always did such a good job.  Now, I buy some for her but I simply don't know how to do it.  Until recently, I didn't know which aisle the milk was on.  I don't know if a price is a good buy or not unless she is with me.  She knows.  But, if I pick something up, I may pay more because I don't know.  I could save money on washing clothes though.  Wear underwear two days and then turn them inside out and wear two more days.  Toilet paper can be used and then folded back and used again.  Doesn't work well if you try to wash it though. I like all black socks.  That way, just get two and go.  No matching up.  Them dang white underwear is bad to show skid marks though.

Jan 7, 2013 8:23PM
Thats all fine and dandy unless you live in Clayton, New Mexico. Here , if the can is dented or the box is crushed, they raise the price. Or it seems. And our store is owned by an ex state representative. We get screwed one way or another. As for the drought in the midwest. That is just another excuse for the farmer to raise his prices. I used to do lots of farm work over the last several years and know for a fact that if there is not much rain or snow over the year, they use more water from their wells to irrigate. But then they use the excuse that they dont have much water to use. They dont realize that some people know what all those blinking lights out in the fields mean.
Jan 7, 2013 8:22PM
The problem is a lot of those canned items are not healthy.  Fresh or frozen is always better than canned.  Saving is important but good health is a higher priority for me.  We don't have day old bread in my store but we do have a bread outlet where I pay $1 a loaf for whole or 7 grain bread.  And I only shop for things I have a coupon for (except fruits and vegetables which I always buy fresh and in season). 
Jan 7, 2013 7:48PM
Food in dented cans is just asking for trouble. I worked at Campbell Soup in Sacramento, CA and dented cans do not ship out. They are rejected, contents thrown out and the can is recycled.
Jan 7, 2013 7:12PM
Where we  live   only  meat  is ever  marked down,   but  I snag  good cuts when  ever  I can.  .    The stores in  Maryland  never  offer  damaged  pages  they put them  in  the dumpster.   No  dented cans   I  prefer to  avoid  them  you can  never be totally sure that the  can   does not have a  microscopic hole  that will allow bacteria  to  enter.   Better safe than sorry there.   Same with any packaging where  the contents  have been exposed.   Produce that  is damaged spoils very rapidly so   musty be use  immediately. 
Jan 7, 2013 6:13PM

Here's something to ponder.  When something is for sale at a blowout price, is it ethical to clean off the store shelf?  I've been tempted, but usually I leave at least a couple items for the next person.


Buying closeout items (common for a $5.99 item to be marked down to $0.99 for example) is a great way to contribute to your local food bank.  While I'm not a fan of those packages of smoked frankfurters marked down from $5.99 to $0.99 I'm sure my local food bank appreciated the contribution.


Other common items that are marked down are toiletries (deodorant, toothpaste, etc) which believe it or not, Food Banks love to get.


Jan 7, 2013 6:07PM
I very often buy the reduced price meats that I find on sale, but I do look to see that they are not too far gone. The day old breads at one store go directly to a food bank so they are not sold at all. The dented/ dinged cans or boxes are sold at full price.
I also tend to plan the meals for a week around the meats that are on sale as well as what is on sale at the store.

Jan 7, 2013 5:29PM
We bought a small freezer and have not paid full price for meat since, that was 10 years ago.  Whenever I am at the store I check the managers specials, we then plan on dinner or freeze it as soon as we get home.  I always check dented and clearance sales as well.  The store will once a year do a can veggies case sale.  Since it is just the 2 of us we get together with another couple we know and split the cost of the cases.  We buy eveerything, carrots, pea, green beans and corn.  I have not bought canned mushrooms in over a year.  We have done this several times with our friends and it saves us both a lot of money.  Then we don't have to worry about things getting to far out of date before being used. 
Jan 7, 2013 5:03PM

 I would never buy expired meat.  I also don't buy much canned food.  I have found the healthier I eat the cheaper my food bill becomes.  Processed foot costs more than fresh, home made food.


Jan 7, 2013 4:59PM

In our area, we have Share our Surplus once a month which is mostly donated produce, some dairy and bread items that are close to expiration dates.  For $25, you get one share and it normally fills a normal size grocery cart.  Produce must be taken care of soon, but I have been able to freeze and/or can just about everything.  I have not had to buy potatoes, onions or bread since May of 2012 in a grocery store.


We also have Ruby's pantry which is very similar in theory.  Not much for produce, but lots of dairy and other items that can be frozen.  Does not require lots of prep to process once received.  Shares are $15 and you get 2 large boxes or more of food.  Normal items include - Chobani Greek yogurt, ice cream, frozen chicken, potatoes, onions, frozen pancakes/waffles, liquid eggs, heavy cream, etc.  Again, haven't had to buy yogurt since this started in September!


We have our own beef, but since these programs started, my actual supermarket costs per month for a family of 2 have been about $70 a month.  It has also helped my children with growing families save many dollars on their grocery bills each month.

Jan 7, 2013 4:54PM

"How to save 50% on groceries."


Each half as much.


Shopping the ads use to save money, now I am paying 2x's-3x's more on sale items than I did 2 years ago.  I use to get the little pork sausages 3 packages for a buck, now I pay a buck for one package, sale price.  I could go on and on but I won't because most posters know what I am talking about.

Jan 7, 2013 4:52PM
Only buy food for 2-3 days, that way you spend less and you throw oway less. Win, Win!!!!!!
Jan 7, 2013 4:17PM
Save more with refund world-    Rebates, coupons, samples.
Jan 7, 2013 4:10PM
In this area there is no day old bread, dinged cans or anything like that.  I grew up on dented cans and never got sick, but I just don't see that.  If a can is dented these days, it just stays on the regular shelf.  I've pretty much given up on meat - too expensive and I don't think it's so healthy .  If you buy a loaf of bread, it's good for weeks, so forget about day old bread.
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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.


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.