Maybe you’ve tried every frugal grocery hack in the book – things like always making a list, clipping or downloading coupons, shopping the perimeter, learning the sales cycles and never going to the supermarket hungry.
Or joining a warehouse club, where you can buy giant-sized groceries plus the occasional HD television.
The grocery hacks are all effective, and for some people it does make sense to sign up at a warehouse club. Before you do, however, try some of these tips. They’re creative shopping tactics that go beyond “buy only what’s on sale” kind of ideas — and that don’t cost anything to try.
1. Shop at “ethnic” markets
Ever walk or drive by a store dedicated to world cuisine? Not a frou-frou foodie store, mind you, but one that meets the everyday cooking needs of Asian, Latin American or Middle Eastern families?
Next time, stop in. You’re likely to find some pretty amazing prices even if you don’t cook Ethiopian or Chilean or other international dishes.
When I lived in Seattle I routinely shopped at one of these places, even though I wasn’t interested in cooking with taro leaves, mangosteen or edible cow bile.
What did interest me were things like chicken drumsticks for $1.40 less per pound than at a nearby supermarket, and 10-pound bags of potatoes that were $2 less.
The produce selection was both cheap and intriguing. I bought pinto beans and rice by the 10-pound sack for less than half what they cost in smaller supermarket bags.
Ethnic markets often have enormous meat and fish departments, and the savings can be considerable. At a Mexican-themed store in Phoenix, I saw protein prices that brought actual tears to my eyes. (I live in Alaska, where meat costs a bundle unless you hunt it down and shoot it)
Not sure how to cook that item? Ask! You might get a recipe along with instructions.
Know what food normally costs where you usually shop, so you’ll know whether you’ve found a better deal. If the price is about the same and you’d get gas rewards or some other deal at your usual supermarket, then wait.
2. Salvage grocers
Also known as “banana-box grocers,” these places specialize in damaged, discontinued or otherwise orphaned products. Sounds low-rent, right?
Wrong. Sometimes these things aren’t noticeably damaged, or even damaged at all. For example, if a forklift driver drops a pallet full of green beans, it’s cheaper to sell it all at a discount than it is to open the boxes and inspect and repack the cans.
Thus the green beans (or whatever) might look totally fine. And if they aren’t? According to the USDA, you shouldn’t buy any can that has visible holes or punctures; is swollen, leaking or rusted; is crushed/dented badly enough to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual can opener; or has a dent so deep you can lay your finger in it.
Discontinued products end up here, too. So do products that didn’t sell as well as expected in the region, and post-season items like unsold Halloween candy or Christmas cookies. Depending on the store, you might also find toiletries and cleaning supplies.
A site called Extreme Bargains maintains a state-by-state list of salvage grocers. It’s probably not an all-inclusive list, so do an online search for “salvage grocers [your city],” “banana box grocers [your city]” or “discount grocers [your city].”
On a budget? Look for deals on products you use all the time. Don’t be enticed by 10-cent chocolate bunnies or drastically reduced pumpkin-spice chai latte mixes. If you don’t need it, it’s no bargain.
If you see something you use and really like, buy as many as you can afford because it might not be there the next time you shop.
3. Restaurant supply stores
These are places where you can get warehouse-store quantities without paying an annual membership fee. As the name suggests, these stores usually cater to the restaurant trade; however, plenty of them allow members of the public in as well.
Looking at the ad for one such store, I saw prices like $25.50 for 10 pounds of hamburger patties, 2½ pounds of sliced cheese for $7.98, 25 pounds of flour for $5.77, eggs for 79 to 99 cents a dozen (depending on how many you buy), 5 pounds of carrots for $2.09 and 40 pounds of boneless skinless chicken breasts for $71.58 (about $1.79 per pound).
Got a large family? This is definitely the place for you.
Got a small household? Go in with a few friends, and split up the orders. You’ll get warehouse prices without paying a warehouse fee. Better yet: You won’t go home with an impulse-buy HD television.
Know what things cost. For example, the whole fryers were $1.02 per pound, but supermarkets frequently run prices that low or even lower. Packages of ramen noodles were about 31 cents apiece, but I recently paid about 17 cents a package at Walgreens.
4. Dollar stores
According to “The 7 Worst Things to Buy at a Dollar Store,” that isn’t the best place to pick up beauty products or canned and boxed foods.
Pick your spots and use coupons, though, and you might do quite well. Each week, CouponMom.com matches sale prices with coupons at supermarkets, drugstores and dollar emporiums. Often you can use downloadable or printable coupons instead of looking for them in the Sunday newspaper.
Some recent examples:
Free: GoGo squeezable applesauce packets, Curad bandages and gauze pads, Tetley tea bags, Theraflu Severe Cold, True Lemon drink mix, Alka Seltzer Plus Allergy, Zicam Cold Remedy, Nesquik powder, Cerave diaper rash cream, Pine Sol multi-surface cleaner, LA Looks gel
20 cents to under 40 cents: Angel Soft toilet paper, Hormel pepperoni, Duke’s mayonnaise, Raid fly ribbon
50 cents: Honey Bunches of Oats cereal, Louisiana hot sauce, Cream of Wheat
Can you do all of your weekly shopping here? Of course not. But how much do you usually pay for hot sauce or hot cereal, or for cold remedies or toilet paper?
Note: Some deals require an app like Ibotta. Stephanie Nelson, the coupon mom who founded the website, has written some free e-books explaining how to combine coupons, sales and apps for the best possible price. To download her free information, check out this tutorial.
Shop the sales, and then get out. It’s way too easy to spend money at a dollar store.
Generally speaking, the grocery prices at drugstores aren’t the best. But, oh, those weekly loss leaders. Get the right combo of coupon, sale price, loyalty program, app and in-store manufacturer rebate, and you sometimes actually profit on your purchases.
CouponMom.com does coupon/sales price matchups of food and health and beauty items for the CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens drugstore chains. Some recent examples:
Free plus profit: Colgate toothpaste, Tide Pods, Gain Flings, Alka Seltzer cold products, Pantene hair products, Dulcoease, Radiance Platinum vitamin C tablets, Crest Pro Health toothpaste
Free: Ajax cleanser, Poise products, Puffs tissues, Tampax or Always products
40 cents or less: Crest 3D White toothpaste, Colgate cavity protection toothpaste, Gold Emblem freeze-dried fruit, Puffs tissues, Secret deodorant, Olay or Suave body wash, Milka Oreo bars
50 cents to $1: Tide and Gain laundry products, M&Ms, Colgate Max toothpaste, Tampax, Fixodent, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Degree deodorant, Bounty paper towels, Bush’s baked beans, Purell hand sanitizer, Butterball turkey bacon
Note: Some of these prices are contingent on combining loyalty programs and in-store manufacturer rebates. Not everyone wants to bother, but savvy deal hounds can really rack up the savings. (And again, CouponMom.com makes it pretty simple.)
Even if you don’t need some of these free items, shelters can use them.
Some of these things also make good stocking stuffers. Your adult children might enjoy not having to buy toothpaste or shampoo for a couple of months, especially if they’ve got student loans and starter salaries.
6. Clearance items
Also known as the “scratch and dent” shelf, this is where damaged or unwanted items go to die. Some of these articles really are damaged, e.g., a can of tomato sauce that got dropped by a consumer who put it back on the shelf instead of paying for it. Yet sometimes the “damage” is merely cosmetic; I once glimpsed a torn (yet still full!) bag of Huggies for $2.50.
Another reason items land in the clearance bin is that they’re seasonal (think “lots of canned pumpkin”) or that they just didn’t sell the way stores hoped. Take advantage.
Laura Harders, who blogs at BeltwayBargainMom.com, has a great tip: If the clearance bin is loaded with stuff that you use, ask for a volume discount for taking most (or all) of the items. Don’t ask a cashier, though — find a manager to ask before you check out. He or she might be delighted to get rid of all that stuff at once and be happy to authorize a lower price.
Look for clearance bins every time you shop at drugstores, dollar stores and even convenience stores. I’ve found startling deals in all three places, such as a large roll of waxed paper for 50 cents, canned soup for a quarter and boxes of pudding for 9 cents.
7. Last-chance produce
Those bananas with the red tape around them. The plastic bag that contains several kinds of citrus. The table of tomatoes with a price tag so low you think they accidentally left off a digit.
Maybe those bananas or tomatoes ripened faster than expected, or maybe the manager ordered too many limes. Either way, you win. This stuff won’t hang around, and the manager would rather make some money than throw it all away.
Obviously you shouldn’t buy produce you can’t finish. But you can adjust your menus somewhat, such as offering a side plate of sliced tomatoes instead of a dish of green beans. Turn the slightly bruised apples into applesauce. Juice and freeze lemons or limes for future dishes (or adult beverages).
Bananas also freeze well, for use later in baking, smoothies or baby food. Personally, I like them really ripe and have no trouble finishing up half a dozen brown-spotted fruits in a couple of days.
Don’t buy stuff you can’t deal with quickly. If you’re a working parent taking night classes and dealing with a teething baby, maybe you really won’t find the time and energy to chop and freeze all those cheap onions, or peel, cook and puree the apples. And if you don’t, the “savings” from the cheap produce will wind up as food waste.
8. Close-dated dairy
The average U.S. resident consumes 627 pounds of dairy products each year, including 155 pounds of milk and 37 pounds of cheeses. Imagine cutting the cost in half even some of the time.
Watch the sell-by date, but keep in mind that the milk will probably still be good after it — especially if you put it right back in the fridge after use, instead of letting it sit on the breakfast table.
And if the last of it starts to smell a little sour? Use it for a super-cheap pancake supper or do an internet search for “sour milk recipes” for ideas. (Hint: Back in the day, recipes with “sour cream” used cream that had, in fact, gone sour.) You really can’t taste it. Ask me how I know.
Close-dated milk can also be turned into other products you’re used to paying a bundle for, such as yogurt, cream cheese, queso fresco and cottage cheese. Search online for easy recipes. I make all my own Greek yogurt for anywhere from 77 cents to $1.80 per quart — a huge savings over the retail price.
No need for close-dated milk to go bad if you’ve got room in the freezer, though. Remove a cup and a half from the plastic jug to make room in the container before freezing. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, you shouldn’t freeze milk in cardboard cartons.
But if cardboard is what you’ve got, pour it into a plastic container and allow for some space for the milk to expand as it freezes. Wide-mouthed containers need a half-inch of headroom for pints and 1 inch for quarts; if the container is narrow-mouthed, leave an inch and a half of head space for both amounts of milk.
Incidentally, the milk will look pretty disgusting once it freezes. Don’t worry; it will be fine when thawed. If the milk looks as though it separated, give it a good shake.
Homemade rice or bread pudding, or even pudding from a mix, is a great way to use up close-dated milk. Puddings are easy to make and much cheaper than ice cream.
9. “Used meat”
That’s what my life partner calls the contents of the “manager’s special” section of the meat department. He and I always stop there as soon as we hit the supermarket, in search of animal protein that’s discounted by 50 percent or more.
The meat is close to its sell-by date, but it’s not past it — so quit turning up your nose at the idea.
It’s not a sure thing. Probably two-thirds of the time we don’t see anything we want. Sometimes that’s because the price is still too high, and sometimes it’s because I’m not interested in that particular kind of meat. Even so, I always check it because you never know what you’re going to find.
When you buy close-dated ground beef, either cook it immediately or freeze it immediately. Leaving it in the fridge isn’t safe. The USDA fact sheet “Ground Beef and Food Safety” can tell you everything you need to know.
Larger cuts are likely to have a couple of days left before their sell-by date. Even so, toss them in the freezer if you can’t cook on the day of purchase. Better safe than sorry.
Turn one deeply discounted steak into a meal for four or five by cutting it into pieces for stew or soup.
Ask the meat department manager what time the discounted meat is put out, and try to get there for first pick.
10. Day-old bakery items
If your supermarket has an in-store bakery, chances are some products won’t all get bought. The unsold goods become what I call “calypso bread,” because it’s day-old … daaaaay-old. (If you don’t get the joke, check this Harry Belafonte video on YouTube.)
Chances are it won’t be just bread, though. Cookies, cakes, pies, cupcakes and doughnuts also show up here. These aren’t exactly healthy, but what’s life — or a grocery budget — without a little sin? Discounted sin, at that?
Keep your eyes open in the prefab bread aisle, too, because that stuff gets marked down as well. Recently I bought a loaf of 100 percent whole wheat bread for 99 cents.
Need to contribute sweets for a class picnic or Scout meeting, or to provide baked goods for a party at work? Shop the day-old section first. Once it’s on a plate, who’s going to know?
French toast makes a fun supper now and then; imagine feeding your whole household with a $1 loaf of bread, a few eggs and a bit of syrup (or cinnamon sugar, or honey).
“Old” bread makes the best stuffing and croutons. Let it sit out for a while to get even more stale. For stuffing, cube and freeze until you’re ready to roast a chicken or turkey; for croutons, toss with olive oil and spices and bake until crisp and brown.
A similar hack is…
11. The bakery outlet
Bread has a fairly short shelf life, even if it’s suffused with preservatives. Supermarkets want to turn over this commodity quickly. If it doesn’t sell fast enough for a manager’s liking, back it goes to the bakery – which drops it off at the outlet store.
While some loaves have only a day or two left on the clock, others are within four to six days of their sell-by dates — and all are priced at 50 to 75 percent off.
Think about how many sandwiches and how much toast gets eaten in your home. Now think about paying as little as $1 for a multigrain loaf that retails for $3.50 at the supermarket.
Not that bread is the only thing you’ll find there. Rolls, tortillas, buns, bagels, English muffins, cookies and other products can be found at outlets across the country. My partner recently bought large bags of corn chips for a quarter each.
Search for “bakery outlet [your city],” or check these sites for an outlet near you:
Bread freezes well, so if there’s a good deal get two or three (or more).
Ask about loyalty cards or other special promotions, such as senior discounts or BOGOs.
No joke — people really do give away food on The Freecycle Network. I’ve seen grocery items being given away for reasons ranging from “We’re moving” to “I’m no longer on the [whatever] diet and want to ditch these products.”
I’ve also seen notices here (and on Craigslist) that sound something like this: “I’m drowning in zucchini (or plums, or berries, or whatever). Please come help yourself!”
Watch for these, or maybe put up a notice of your own: “Seeking surplus fruits and vegetables.” After all, home gardeners who can’t eat it all have to deal with it somehow.
(For more on foraging and gleaning, see “Stop Paying for Your Food!“)
Act fast — things on Freecycle can go quickly.
If you’re harvesting, be careful not to damage garden plants or trees.
13. “Bread from the dead”
These everything-must-go sales often take place soon after someone dies and the house needs to be cleaned out.
Since “everything” means everything, you may find some swell deals on items from the cupboard and pantry.
Maybe the idea of estate-sale groceries freaks you out. Try it this way: Would you buy that beautiful (and priced to sell) dining table in the next room? Then why should cans of soup, boxes of panko or rolls of aluminum foil be any different?
Check the “best by” dates on any food items you buy.
Request additional discounts if an item such as waxed paper or dish detergent have been partially used.
Ask for a volume discount if you’re buying a ton of stuff.
14. Getting groceries delivered
Sounds counterintuitive, right? Paying a supermarket or a service like Instacart or Shipt to bring food to you?
Not necessarily. Staying out of the store means you get only what’s on the list. No impulse buying!
(Admit it: Even if you consider yourself iron-willed, how often have you been tempted by the smell of freshly baked French bread or chocolate chip cookies? Or seen a display of out-of-season fruit that caused you to stray?)
According to personal finance writer Carrie Wiley, the $3 delivery fee is well worth it. “We spend $20 to $30 per week less just by not going into the store,” says Wiley, who writes for The Simple Dollar.
In an article called “Can Grocery Shopping Online Save You Money?,” blogger Jen Smith notes that being able to track spending as you go means that you don’t outpace the grocery budget.
Smith also notes that some Walmart stores will waive the fee if you come pick up the order. You still have to drive there, but only after someone else has done the hard work of pulling all the items together for you.
Allow for a bit of a learning curve, for example, you really might need 2 gallons of milk per order even if it sounds like a lot.
Before you sign up for delivery, search for discounts or promo codes. You’ll save $10 to $20 on your first order.
15. Produce auctions
Some are supplied by Amish farmers, some aren’t. Either way, you have a chance to buy up huge amounts at often-sweet prices.
Sounds like heaven for someone who likes to can or freeze food, or who just eats a lot of fresh produce. If that’s not you, then attend with a friend, or more than one friend, and split an order.
A blogger named Heather wrote about produce auctions on her website, The Homesteading Hippy. She recommends arriving early to check in (you’ll need a photo ID). While you’re doing that, ask for listings from the previous week’s auction so you’ll start with a reasonable bid.
After that, go out and check the merchandise. Say there’s a cart with five 25-pound boxes of tomatoes, and your bid of $10 is accepted. Congratulations, right? You just got 125 pounds of tomatoes for 10 bucks!
Nope. You got 125 pounds of tomatoes for $50. The bid is per-box, so now you have to buy all five. “It can add up quickly … if you are not careful, you could easily spend over $200 without realizing it,” Heather warns.
Some winning bidders are willing to sell part of their produce haul, so have some cash on hand. If you plan to bid yourself, find out what kinds of payment are accepted; it might be a cash-only auction, or perhaps credit (but not debit) would be accepted.
To find one near you, search for “produce auction [your city].”
Know your financial limits. Auctions can be exciting places.
Politely ask for a sample. If the fruit or vegetable tastes marvelous, make a mental note (or one on paper) to bid on that batch. If it’s sub-par, move on.
Beware the accidental purchase. Heather wound up taking home 30 watermelons after inadvertently signaling a bid. “Lucky I got them for only (25 cents) each,” she says.
Got any other ideas for slashing your grocery budget? Share your thoughts in the comments section or on our Facebook page.