Slash Your Food Budget With ‘Salvage Groceries’

Recently I bought ground coffee for $1.24 per pound. That is not a typo. All I had to do was overlook the slight dent in the side of the 29-ounce can.

I did. As a result, we got the makings of 225 cups o’ joe for a little less than a penny each.

Searching the “manager’s special” bin at every store is one way we keep the grocery bills down. We call it the “scratch ’n’ dent bin,” because so many of the foodstuffs have had brushes with disaster: scuffed or partially collapsed boxes, dented cans. But some items aren’t damaged at all: They wind up in the clearance bin because they’re seasonal products, close to their sell-by dates (more on that below), or foods that didn’t sell as well as the store manager hoped.

It’s true that some of these things are purely frivolous: gingerbread house kits, chocolate bunnies, holiday-themed cereal, pumpkin spice anything. But as noted above, we got coffee for about a penny a cup this way. Among the things I’ve seen in manager’s special bins are infant formula and baby food, pasta (I recently paid 50 cents for a pound of angel hair, which is an excellent price here in Alaska), cleaning products, diapers, pet food, soups, replacement mop heads, charcoal briquettes, OTC medications, aluminum foil, lard and canned beans, tomatoes, vegetables and fruits.

An entire industry has been built around “salvage groceries” (more on that below, too). We’re not fortunate enough to have one of these stores where I live. However, we do pretty well with manager’s special and clearance bins in supermarkets and drugstores.

My best deals ever were eight boxes of Royal instant vanilla pudding for 9 cents apiece from a Walgreens, and big boxes of aluminum foil and waxed paper for 50 cents each at a Dollar Tree. A discounted bin at a dollar store: frugal nirvana!

Want an even better deal? Find a store manager and make a flat offer on most or all of the whole clearance bin, if it’s got enough items you’ll use. Frugal author once told me that “the ultimate proving ground of your negotiating skills is if you can negotiate on groceries.” I’ve never tried this, but maybe you’re braver than I am.

The Dented Can Industry

Salvage grocers around the country also offer the same mix of products found in the manager’s special bin: slightly damaged items, unsold seasonal foods, products that didn’t sell, discontinued products, or even foodstuffs that have undergone a package or label change.

At times there’s not a thing wrong with the “damaged” merchandise. When a pallet of products gets dropped from a forklift, it’s more cost-effective for a wholesaler to sell it all below retail than it would be to separate and repackage the still-good items. As a result, consumers pay fire-sale prices for like-new products.

Keep your grocery list in hand, and don’t overdo it. For example, a big jar of marmalade for 50 cents would be a great deal (especially if your kids just saw the latest “Paddington” movie). But how many jars can you actually use? Don’t walk out with half a dozen unless you really like bread and jam.

It’s important to know what food normally costs. Even if you don’t keep a price book, you should have an idea of what you normally spend for the foods you normally buy. For example, that $1.50 box of cereal isn’t such a hot deal if you’re already able to get that kind of price by matching sale prices with coupons.

Remember to factor in gas costs, too. Going 15 miles out of your way to get dented Peeps is not a good use of your food budget.

And you will see a lot of sweets and snacks, especially after major holidays when treats are being remaindered. But regular supermarket shelves runneth over with empty calories, too. Use the same good sense at a salvage store as you would at Safeway: Stock up on great deals on healthy foodstuffs that you would buy anyway. Doing so can put quite a dent (ahem) in your grocery bills.

(Pro tip: If you’re living on the margins, this can be one of the few ways to get an occasional treat. That 10-cent package of Conversation Hearts isn’t the healthiest thing in the world, but what’s life without a little sin?)

To find stores in your area, check the list maintained by . Since this is likely not an all-inclusive list, you should also do a search for “salvage grocers,” “discount grocers,” and a recent industry subset, “Amish salvage grocers.”

Too Old? Too Dented?

Generally speaking, foods like eggs, dairy products, and fresh juice should be used by the sell-by date for best quality. Yet milk could still be good after the date on the carton, depending on how often it’s removed from the fridge and how long it sits on the counter.

Sometimes the date may surprise you: I found a “manager’s special” sticker on a package of good-quality cheddar cheese, even though the sell-by date was a few months away. I didn’t ask why was it remaindered; I just bought it.

If you’re buying close-dated meat or dairy, use or freeze it as quickly as you can.

Shelf-stable items can last for quite a while past the “best by” dates on packaging. In this case it’s a quality issue. Recently a friend cleaned out her cupboards and allowed me to take anything I wanted; my partner and I cooked with jarred pasta sauce, canned enchilada sauce, and other products that were two to five years past their prime.

And we haven’t died. Not once.

For shelf-stable items, a sell-by date indicates the end of peak flavor. No universally accepted food-dating system exists in the United States. In fact, expiration dates are not required by federal law except for infant formula.

Sometimes “damaged” means the corner of a box is crumpled or a can’s label is torn. No problem – buy it and save.

If a canned item is leaky or bulging, alert the store manager. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, small dents are probably fine. suggests you avoid any dent “you can lay your finger into,” especially if it’s on a can’s seam.

Other Budget-Friendly Food Sources

Some salvage grocers eschew the scratch ’n’ dent stuff, specializing instead in seasonal items, product overruns (why isn’t anyone buying this butternut squash/chipotle/quinoa soup?) and other inexpensively obtained foods.

Two well-known examples are , a chain of 37 stores in five southern states, and , with more than 280 stores in six (mostly western) states. Such stores also offer produce, meats, dairy, and a good selection of other grocery staples.

When I lived in Seattle, I sometimes shopped at the “Gross-Out,” as we fondly called this chain. Nothing gross about it, though: It was clean, the employees were friendly, the prices at times unbelievably low, and the ever-changing array of products was entertaining.

The trick at the Grocery Outlet – and any salvage store or manager’s special bin – is not to hesitate. There’s no guarantee that an unusual soup or multigrain cracker will be there the next time you shop, or maybe ever again. It’s the luck of the draw, so be ready to pounce if you see something that interests you.

A Few Pro Tips

Use coupons. Not all salvage grocers accept them, but supermarkets and drugstores do. Clearance coupon might equal free.

Buy as much as you can store. If the clearance bin has five deeply discounted boxes of pasta, why stop at one? Get all five and you’re set for a while.

Milk can be frozen. If you see a 99-cent gallon of moo that should be sold by tomorrow, remove a cup and a half from the jug and put it in the freezer. Don’t freeze milk in cardboard cartons; instead, pour the milk into wide-mouthed canning jars with a half-inch of headspace for pints and one inch of space for quarts (narrow-mouthed jars of either size need 1½ inches of headspace). Give the milk a good shake once it thaws.

Or forget freezing the milk and make some pudding instead. Bonus frugal points if you paid only 9 cents a box.

Veteran personal finance writer  is the author of “” and “.”

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