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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 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 3:39PM
I hardly ever pay full price for meats. I always find the best deal in the mark down meats section. I regularly check the day old bread sections as well.

I also consider myself a master negotiator. When I was purchasing my son glasses on his birthday, I asked the technician if we could get a discount since it was his birthday. She promptly took $50 off our bill. My son was impressed.

My motto- it never hurts to ask for a discount!

Jan 7, 2013 4:07PM
"...and I haven't died. Not even once."  Lol!
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.
Jan 7, 2013 3:44PM
These are all nice ideas, but um, last time I checked, your average Vons doesn't carry much day-old, dinged, dented, closed dated food.
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 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 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 8, 2013 12:06PM
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 1:00AM

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 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 4:09PM
I'm a discount bin shopper.  When Kroger stopped carrying TIGI products, the &13.99 hair spray I love was marked $3.00 a can.  I bought the lot and now have my favorite spray for at least 6 months.  Tom Thumb in our area has the best food bargin bin and I have gotten great deals on day old danish and breads.  It's the smart way to shop these days.
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 8, 2013 12:32AM
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 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 8, 2013 11:13AM
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 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.


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 11:43AM

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.
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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.