En español | As soon as I enter the supermarket, I make a beeline for the dented cans and crushed boxes bin at the back of the store, followed by tours of the produce, meat and bakery departments to see if they have any deals on aging delicacies.
This entertains my wife to the point of saying, "If you are what you eat, then my husband should be reduced for quick sale."
So, if you're up for searching for scratch-and-dents in the supermarket, here's what you should know before you go hunting for reduced-for-quick-sale bargains:
Is It Safe? Here's the official scoop from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding labels on food and other perishable items:
- A "sell by" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy a product before that date.
- A "best if by (or before)" date is a recommendation for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A "use by" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. The USDA says that because the "use by" date usually refers to best quality and not product safety, "even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality — if handled properly."
While there is no federally mandated food-dating system in the U.S. (other than for infant formula and some baby foods), the USDA website provides a wealth of information on food storage and safety.
Don't Underestimate the Savings. If you're not on the lookout for reduced-for-quick-sale food items at your grocery store and other places like the dollar store and even drugstores, you're missing out on some real savings. In my experience, you can expect almost a 50 percent discount — or even more — on dented canned goods, as well as on boxed items like cereals and cake mixes that got a little crushed in shipping. Discounts on meat, produce and baked goods approaching their "sell by" date are often discounted by 30 percent. For extra values, look for grocery stores that mark down meat with preprinted, fixed-value labels (e.g., "$1.50 off"), which of course means that the best values are on the smallest packages.
Remember the Coupons. Stephanie Nelson (aka "Coupon Mom"), one of the nation's leading authorities on grocery coupons, says coupons can be redeemed for most items that are already reduced for quick sale. "Stores get reimbursed for coupons regardless of the condition the item is sold in or the price," Nelson says. Make a game out of checking the dented and crushed bin against your coupon file to see how many items you can get for free or almost free by doubling down and redeeming a coupon on an already discounted item.
Ask and You Might Receive. "Everything is negotiable," but I've found haggling for a better price on groceries is a toughie. Your best shot is to keep an eye out for items (especially meat, dairy and baked goods) that are nearing their "sell by" date, as well as produce that's looking a little past its prime. In those cases, just ask your grocer to give you a better price. Also, I've had a lot of success in getting additional markdowns on dry goods in the dented/crushed bins just by asking a store clerk if they can "do a little better," since the pricing of such items is usually an arbitrary decision in the first place.
Adventures in Menu Planning. Challenge your inner chef by planning your menu around reduced price groceries. The first time I ever made a stuffed veal breast was when I found one nearing its expiration date that was marked down to under $1 a pound. We loved it, and I probably would have never cooked one otherwise. Use various recipe databases from aarp.org, epicurious.com, allrecipes.com and food.com for inspiration.
Salvage Stores. There are an increasing number of stores across the country that specialize in nothing but "salvaged" or "surplus" groceries. These include seasonal or overstocked items, items nearing their expiration, products damaged in shipping, or even discontinued brands with outdated packaging or labeling. Shopping at salvage stores is more a treasure hunt than a practical way to shop for groceries — but you never know what you'll find. Look for a salvage food store near you.
Learn Your Store's Markdown Schedules. It pays to find out exactly when your grocer marks down meat and other perishables as they near their "sell by" date. For example, I discovered that at my local supermarket, meats are marked down for the weekend first thing on Saturday morning, as soon as the store opens. But at the same store, baked goods are generally marked "day old" and the price is reduced when the in-store bakery closes at around 5 p.m., four hours before the store closes. Like any business, there's a set schedule the staff follows, and knowing that schedule can mean you're the first in line for a real bargain.
Even for Gourmets. Think your palate is too sophisticated to appreciate reduced-for-quick-sale fare? Think again. Stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and other discount department stores often carry gourmet food items — everything from fancy preserves to specialty pastas to extra virgin olive oil — at bargain prices. Items at these stores are usually foods that were overstocked at gourmet shops, are discontinued brands or have outdated packaging.
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.