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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
Jan 8, 2013 2:21PM
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or , you could write an article about buying cheap garbage and use your big fat check to eat out all the time .... just saying ...
Jan 8, 2013 1:54PM
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Eat a full meal before shopping. Amazing what crap you will throw in your cart when youre hungry.
Jan 8, 2013 1:49PM
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The only specials or reduced priced items in my store is meat, and I haven't eaten any for years. No savings here.
Jan 8, 2013 1:49PM
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"How to save 50% on groceries." - go and get non-perishables at a food bank.  in this economy most Americans are struggling and can use all the help they can get.
Jan 8, 2013 1:16PM
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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.

<P>

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.

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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.

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Never buy dented cans no matter how cheap
Jan 8, 2013 12:40PM
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Get you a cow, chicken, goat and a garden!  Don't know how to grow chips yet.
Jan 8, 2013 12:06PM
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I do the grocery shopping in my family.  I have no problem with dented cans as long as they aren't leaking and I can get them open.  I'm not buying the can, I'm buying the food in it.  Day-old baked goods are usually fine.  When I go to the store, I don't buy much that isn't either on sale or that I have a coupon for, or both.  I mostly buy store brands, and most of the time they are as good or even better than national brands, even though the grocers are figuring out that a lot of customers are buying store brands, and the price difference between store brands and national brands is much less than it used to be.  We never buy meat at the store.  We have a small freezer, and buy a quarter or a half beef or hog.  Meat will last a long, long time in a deep freeze.  Bread lasts longer if you keep it frozen and only thaw out what you need.  We also have no problem eating leftovers.  If you are someone who refuses to eat leftovers, you will starve in our house.  We just look at it as a meal you don't have to cook from scratch.  These days, you have to do anything you can to save money as long as you can do so without seriously risking your health.  Food is expensive, but medical care is nearly unaffordable.
Jan 8, 2013 11:59AM
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Forgive me but if organic food is ussually to expensive, how do they now save you money? I have yet to see organic food cheaper than the regular price on items. Why would they be lower now?
Jan 8, 2013 11:43AM
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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.
Jan 8, 2013 11:43AM
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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.

Jan 8, 2013 11:13AM
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We buy things like tortillas, pasta, dry beans and some canned foods, body wash, antibacterial handsoap, dishsoap, etc. at the dollar store.  It"s amazing how much the dollar store saves you on some of those staples.  Sometimes we even get things like hot dogs, pepperoni, bologna and other things like that that use to be cheap but now most retail stores rip you off on.
Jan 8, 2013 10:33AM
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i just dont eat anymore-too expensive-

i grow my own tobacco and still my own whiskey

Jan 8, 2013 10:33AM
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most of the meat on the grocer's shelf is filled with anti-biotics and hormones. There are hiddencosts. Either reduce meat in your diet or discard it totally. That is where you willsave money - and adults donot need milk.
Jan 8, 2013 5:41AM
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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. 
Jan 8, 2013 1:49AM
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I do pretty much everything stated in the article. Store gets most produce shipments Thursdays, so nearly anything in the the bins gets pulled and packaged and labeled at a reduced price, then placed on a rack in the back of the produce aisle. I have bought perfectly good oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and pomegranates. Also bruised & dinged apples, but I have found that peaches, pears and plums tend to be unusable. Store had 99¢ lb chicken drums or thighs, packages marked down with $2 off coupons because they will expire in 2 days. Bought several under $4 pack's of thighs and got them for under $2, around 50¢ per thigh. In the freezer they went. A freezer will pay for itself very quickly, once you start using sales and reduced/clearance foods and freezing them. Ground chicken or turkey, from $4 and up per package, to $2.50 or under $2. Lamb meat for stew, $1 a package after $2 on-package coupon. They stick $2 coupons on anything expired or expiring. in meats  Dairy stuff gets 50% off coupons, have bought eggs, buttermilk, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream, etc Crushed or dented or expired boxes of cereal. I only buy dented cans of stuff I actually use, and not if dented along the crimped seal. I also sign-up for numerous samples and trial-offers online. I haven't had to buy deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, coffee (I only drink a cup on Sundays), body/hand lotion, lip gloss/moisturizer, toothpaste and razors for years. I have either received them through giveaways, or chain drug store deals using coupons and sales. Recently, I haven't bought hair color either, due to free box coupon giveaways. I did a drug-store deal combining a sale plus coupons and got free olives, plus won coupons for more free olives from a Facebook giveaway. The Facebook giveaways have been great, I have won full-size products or coupons to redeem for full-size products (two bags of free chocolates last fall).
Jan 8, 2013 1:00AM
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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'

 

 

Jan 8, 2013 12:32AM
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I hit the stores early in the morning that's when the $3 a lb hamburger and the $8 a lb steak from the day before is on sale at &1.69and $3.99 a pound.  Buy the London broil when it's $2 and dice it up for stew meat and freeze it.
Jan 8, 2013 12:24AM
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Dented cans and open bags of potato chips?  The only dented cans I ever saw on sale, were really mangled. Opened any kind of container can possibly  be dangerous and is ill advised to purchase. As for last day or day  after expiration is ok if immediately eaten or frozen. This food is still good, just the last day to be frozen. Day old bread makes awesome toast. Microwave day old pastries almost taste like they just came out of the oven. Aldi makes some good foods. Some I do not like but most of it I do. Aldi probably makes the best cakes and frosting that I ever had. People ask me for my recipe LOL. As for extreme couponing, most stores that I visit or check out their coupon rules Never allow you to walk away with hundreds of dollars for almost nothing. Nowhere. The reality show is total BS in my opinion
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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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