The Cheapskate's Ultimate Guide to Supermarket Savings

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Would you buy dented cans, crushed boxes and expired products to drastically cut your grocery bills? Apparently, quite a few Americans fed up with the high price of food are determined to take frugal living to another level.

According to a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there's a growing trend among financially strapped consumers to shop at so-called salvage or surplus stores that sell imperfect packaged goods for as little as half their original price. Some of the salvage sites I visited claimed savings of as much as 90% off of everyday prices.

The imperfections vary from dings, dents and superficial cuts in a carton to items with wrong, outdated or misspelled labels. Salvage stores also feature overstocks and seasonal goods that consumers didn't buy, along with products approaching the end of their shelf life. You might find Halloween candy in November, say, or  Valentine's Day treats in March.

Don't expect to find these castoffs at big supermarkets like Safeway, Kroger or Publix. Salvage, or discount, grocers are generally community-based independent or chain stores. One such operator, Anderson's Country Market in Madison Heights, Va., links to a nationwide directory of salvage and discount grocers on its Web site. Click here for the list.

Like other salvage grocers, Anderson's doesn't know exactly what will end up on its shelves from one day to the next. Part of the mix depends on the misfortune of others. "Accidents happen, even in the grocery business," Anderson's explains in a FAQ. "If a case of green beans gets dropped, and a couple of cans get bent, those cans (and sometimes the whole case) don't make it to the grocery store shelves. Instead, they are sold to stores, like ours, where we salvage usable products and pass the savings on to you."

"Our groceries arrive packed in boxes, wrapped and stacked on pallets. We don't know what's in the boxes until we unpack them. It's like a big surprise package! There are some items we get on a regular basis, and we will almost always have in stock (i.e., green beans, Hamburger Helper, BBQ sauce, pasta, etc.). Items that are unusual or somewhat exotic we may see only once or occasionally (i.e., specialty salad dressings, high-end sauces, On The Border Salsa, etc.)."

Salvage groceries must meet the same Federal health and safety regulations as goods sold by major chains, according to Stephanie Kwisnek, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, and operators say they inspect all salvage goods before they go on sale. Still, consumers should carefully check damaged cans, for instance, to make sure they not swollen, which could signal a botulism risk, Kwisnek said.

As for date codes, they're only required by the federal government for baby food and infant formula, and most products should be perfectly safe to consume, even after the "sell by" or "use by" date has passed. The codes usually refer to the date the product is likely to be at peak flavor and quality. Milk, for example, ought to be OK for around seven days after the sell-by date. By contrast, dating for baby food and formula is important for both quality and nutrient retention.

As a rough rule of thumb, the USDA says that high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods like meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years if the cans remain in good condition and have been stored in a cool, dry place.

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