A Guide to Groceries on the Cheap

Categories: Shopping
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Heather Hoch
A bundle of asparagus for 99 cents.

Nothing's better than finding an amazing deal on frequently purchased foodstuffs at the grocery store. But that thrifty thrill can be cheapened when you return the next week and notice that sale is no more. Luckily, there are several great discount food stores that have those so good you should buy in bulk prices 365 days a year. We stopped by four local stores that are keepin' it cheap, and found which had the very best deals.

Family Dollar:

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Heather Hoch
We found some Vienna sausages. Does anyone still buy these?

Our first stop on the hunt for discount groceries was at Family Dollar off Southern near Mesa Drive. The store seemed a little run down, but that's not anything to deter us from the hunt. Maricopa County's Health Inspection even gave the store a Silver award, with the only violations being for their apparently nasty bathroom. However, for a dollar store, their prices seemed a little steep.

We checked some basics to get a general feel for their pricing. First off, they sold a box of Cheerios for $3, which is sold at Walmart for $.50 more and the box is a little bigger. The same situation applies to Cheez-its, which we're addicted to so we had to check. We also found a 26.5 ounce can of tomatoes was $1.25 and a jar of pasta sauce was $2.50. If you're not astounded by these low, low prices, don't worry, we weren't either.

We called the company to find out what the deal was with their prices and found out they get their food exactly the same as a grocery store. As they put it, they have a "source with vendor" relationship on getting "first-run quality" goods. This is nice if you want the hippest new Oreos, but not so great if you are searching for a hot deal.

Big Lots:
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Heather Hoch
Nothing like a sweet deal on your favorite cereals.

Our next stop was conveniently located right next door to the Family Dollar. Big Lots has been on our radar for a while. They have some great deals on not only food, but also random appliances and such. A friend actually got a Dyson vacuum from Big Lots for under $200, which is about half the retail price. Pretty sweet deal.

Overall, we checked the same basics like Cheerio's and canned tomatoes and found that they were on average $.50 cheaper at Big Lots than Family Dollar. Big Lots is great for buying brand name basics at lower than their competitors. This is because they get their merchandise from manufacturer overstock. That means if packaging changes or anything updates in a brand in the slightest degree, it gets sold to Big Lots on the cheap.

As far as cleanliness goes, the store had no violations at the time of the last Maricopa County inspection, which was in October 2009. They received a gold award, which is just another plus to Big Lots.

99 Cents Only:
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Heather Hoch
99 cents for a bushel of jalapenos? Sold.

For the real deal hunters, 99 Cents Only is a mecca of groceries at great prices. At any given day, you'll find canned and boxed food for cheaper than you can get it almost anywhere else. Our favorite part has to be the produce section. You might be thinking that dollar produce is kind of nasty, and granted, sometimes it is. But when it's good, it is so good.

For instance, where can you buy a bag of about 20 jalapenos for less than a dollar? Or get three whole pomegranates for 99 cents? Or a box of just about any berry you could want for one dollar? A careful eye for quality can distinguish the semi-rotten from the deliciously ripe, and it's worth that bit of effort. The fun thing is that the produce section is ever-changing and you never know just what tasty treat you'll find.

We hounded the phone lines and stores for any information regarding how 99 Cents Only gets their food and can sell it at such low prices, and it seems it isn't so very different than Big Lots' method. They also buy manufacturer overstock goods, however, they said another secret is buying in mass quantities. The buying in bulk thing doesn't seem so far off from what, say, a Walmart does, but hey, we're not complaining.

In November 2009, Maricopa County inspectors went to the Rural and Southern Avenues location that we did and reported no violations. So it may look a little less fancy than your average grocer, but we can all take comfort in the fact that this place is clean as a whistle.

Robin's Nest Ministry:
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Heather Hoch
Save big on your favorite exotic canned goods at 99 Cents Only.

Food ministries are just about the cheapest way to buy food. The charitable food organization is designed for low income folks who don't mind some dinged cans and day old bread. We admit we've bought bread at Robin's Nest, which is located off University and Hardy in Tempe, which was moldy. We've even seen some questionable produce, which was why Maricopa County health inspectors didn't give the store an award.

However, $.25 for a loaf of bread or can of tomatoes or box of pasta is quite simply unbeatable. If you make sure to closely inspect what you're buying, you can find some super cheap food enough to make a dinner for four for under $5. The ministry is run by a religious organization, River of Life, that gets damaged goods from distributors and some stores like Wildflower Bread Company and Safeway.

These places would normally just throw the food away, but thanks to Robin's Nest it is saved and re-shelved. Basically, you buy their stuff, it goes to a good cause, and you help eliminate some food waste. For a nominal fee, it's like dumpster diving minus the dumpster and hassling security guards.

Now there are more spots to find great grocery deals, but this is just a starter list for the area. There are awesomely cheap stores just dying to give away their quality foodstuffs for less than your regular grocery store. Just don't be scared to go in and start going bargain crazy. There's nothing better than bragging about your grocery totals for the week to all of your friends!


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