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6:56 AM Mon, Oct. 15th

Practical Saver: Are discount grocery stores a good value?

I am excited about the four discount grocery store options the tri-city area has to offer. Discount stores are outlets that carry overstock items and slightly damaged goods. Products found in these establishments may be past the manufacturer's "use-by" dates, or the packaging may be dented, bent or crinkled. As the name indicates, items are at a discounted price.

So, are the "use-by" dates something we need to be concerned with? Also, since the items may not be as fresh and the packaging is not in as perfect condition as found in regular grocery stores, are the discounts worth it? Here is my research to answer these questions.

The "best used by" date found on food packaging is meant to assist retailers in rotating their inventory. According to the USDA, these dates are not a purchase or safety date, but a suggested use-by date. If the date is in a month/ day/year format, it is suggested that the purchaser use the product by that date for best flavor and quality. This is not intended to be the date that the product expires and becomes unsafe to eat. There are two categories of dates found on products:

A "sell-by" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.

A "best if used by (or before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Eggs, for instance, are a product that has a "sell-by" date. The USDA suggests purchasing eggs before the "sell-by" or "EXP" date on the carton. They should be stored in their original carton in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. For best quality, use eggs within three to five weeks of purchase. If the "sell-by" date passes during that time, the eggs are still perfectly safe to use. Milk also has a "sell-by" date, but is good for up to one week past that date.

Freshness is definitely a factor to consider when shopping at discount stores. The "use-by" dates are helpful for selecting the freshest quality possible. For example, freshness usually affects the taste of Hostess-type packaged food, as well as bread, soda and chips. Discount stores also carry a variety of products whose lack of freshness may not be as noticeable, such as pancake mix, canned food, and pasta.

You may also see dented cans on the shelves at discount stores. According to the USDA, severely dented cans or products that are dented on the seam should be avoided. I interpret this to say that slightly dented cans are safe to purchase.

Next, let's focus on prices. They are often hit or miss. In my experience, several items have prices that are low enough to grab my attention. At one store for example, Aunt Jemima pancake mix was $1.69 for a 32 oz. box. This is a pretty good price. Nature Valley granola bars were $1.25 per box. This is also a great price, but the boxes were all damaged and the bars were broken and crushed. So, the lower price was not worth the level of damage. This could be an acceptable price, however, if the bars were going to be used to sprinkle onto yogurt.

Another treat that discount stores sometimes offer is name-brand bread. Bread in these stores is typically around $1 per loaf. Bread's freshness is a factor, so I am careful to look at the "sell-by" dates to ensure I am selecting the freshest options off the shelf.

When shopping at discount stores, allow yourself extra time to assess the dates and freshness. For the most part, I don't use discount stores to stock up on items; I find myself using the discount stores for bread and an occasional bargain, and as a replacement for shopping at convenience stores for snacks and candy.

Discount grocery stores in our area can be found at:

• Long Mesa Drive and Robert Road, Prescott Valley

• Florentine Road and Navajo, Prescott Valley

• Road 2N & Hwy 89, Chino Valley (next door to Post Office)

• Road 3S & Hwy 89, Chino Valley (inside Ace Hardware).

Kara Rozendaal, a financial planner, wife, and homeschool mother of three, has lived in Prescott Valley for 16 years. Learn more about her classes and ways to save money at www.PracticalSaver.com.