Keeping to a household budget often means trimming unnecessary expenses, but some items are indispensable – food, for one.
You probably already cut coupons and buy store brands just like any budget-conscious shopper. But did you know that some grocery stores specialize in cut-rate food and household goods not “good enough” for your average supermarket?
They might be called “salvage,” “bargain,” or “discount” grocery stores. You might find them in a strip mall or tucked into an industrial neighborhood. Either way, these stores can cut a nice chunk of change from your food bill and enable you to save money on groceries.
Types of Bargain Grocery Stores
Each cut-rate retailer is different. Some are large chains, like ALDI and Bottom Dollar Food. These chains sell some products branded with their own generic label, in addition to non-generic items. They’re largely able to offer lower prices because they feature few, if any, of the departments you’ll find at a supermarket, like in-house butchers and bakers. Most carry the same types of merchandise you’d find in a supermarket, including produce, milk, frozen dinners, and shampoo.
“Salvage” groceries or “outlet” stores, on the other hand, are stocked with second-rate goods. The shelves are full of dented cans, banged-up boxes, and items past the manufacturer’s use-by dates. You’ll see cereal boxes promoting movies that are no longer in theaters, and store brands made for chains in other parts of the country.
Pros & Cons of Discount Groceries
Discount grocery stores have both strong points and drawbacks.
- If you liken garage sales to treasure hunts, you’ll love bargain grocery stores. My prizes have included scented candles I’ve given as gifts, and all-natural peanut butter discounted at more than half off the regular grocery store price.
- Some accept manufacturer’s coupons. For instance, if you have a coupon for $1.50 off a 12-ounce bag of ground coffee, you’d pay $6.99 if you went to a supermarket charging a normal rate of $8.49. However, at a bargain store selling the same bag of coffee for $3.99, you’d pay only $2.49!
- If you have brand loyalty for certain products, you can occasionally find them for a much lower price at a no-frills grocery. I recently saw Softsoap hand soap bottles for $0.99, compared to $1.49 at a Wegmans supermarket.
- Some discount grocery stores do not accept credit cards. This is no big deal if you normally pay for your groceries with cash or a debit card, but my husband and I buy almost everything with cash back credit cards in order to rack up rewards points.
- Discount grocery stores have a smaller selection than a supermarket, and you’ll likely need to visit a supermarket afterward to find remaining items on your list. Are you looking for tarragon or brie? A supermarket is most likely your best bet.
- Discount retailers generally don’t stay open as late as a supermarket, so you have to plan your shopping accordingly.
Chances are, most bargain groceries are perfectly safe. But keep an eye out for these warning signs:
Damaged Cans and Jars
The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns against eating anything from cans that are leaking, rusting, bulging, or badly dented. The same goes for jars that are broken or have bulging lids. Otherwise, you might get a deadly disease or food poisoning along with your dinner.
Dates on Food Packaging
The dates on food packages are slightly nebulous. Here’s how the USDA defines them:
- Sell By: Buy the product before this date.
- Best if Used By: This is a recommendation for best quality, but the food is still safe to eat after the date has passed, within reason.
- Use By: Federal law requires this date for baby formula or baby food – never give an infant formula past its “use by” date. But for other products, “use by” is similar to “best if used by.”
What to Buy and What Not to Buy
You may want to avoid purchasing certain staples at a discount grocery store. This decision comes down to personal preference and the quality of the merchandise you find.
- Produce. I’m extra-cautious about bargain-store produce. The first time I visited the Bottom Dollar Food store that opened near my house, the avocados were softer than the pillows on my couch. Ew.
- Meat. Bottom Dollar’s cheap steaks excited me at first, even though they were slightly discolored and thinner than what I normally buy. Regardless, I gave them a try. My husband requested that I not buy steak from that store again.
- Dairy. This might be a matter of personal taste, but if you’re uncomfortable with dairy products near or even past their expiration date, stick to the supermarket.
Discount Grocery Shopping Tips
- Create a grocery list and head to the discount store first. If you need two boxes of cereal this week, you may as well get them for half-price.
- Shop when you’re not in a rush. You’ll need extra time to examine sell-by dates and assess the freezer burn on that chocolate cream pie.
- See something you’ll use later but don’t need right away? Stock up if you have the space and will consume your finds while they’re still safe to eat. The inventory at discount grocery stores changes all the time, so it might not be there next week.
- Be willing to try a few new things. You might discover a new favorite food – but don’t stock up on something you’ve never tried just because it’s cheap. Groceries are never a good deal if they’re just going to sit unused in your pantry.
Cut-rate grocery stores are a great way to save money on your food bill as long as you’re willing to keep an open mind and take the time to closely examine what you’re putting in your cart. As long as your pantry is stocked with food that tastes fine, who cares if the packaging isn’t pretty? You can eat healthy on a budget, regardless of how much you pay.
Have you discovered any tricks for saving money while food shopping? What are your thoughts on discount groceries?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)