Shopping cart with receipt with coins on wooden table. Sell-by dates cost you money on your grocery bill.

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Don't rely on those dates on your groceries — most foods are safe to eat at least a week after what they say.

When you’re trying to get debt-free, you’re always on the lookout for extra savings, which can ease a tight budget, free up cash to speed up your debt payoff, or both. Often, that means doing more cooking at home to avoid eating out and brown-bagging your leftovers for lunch. That’s a good tactic but you still may be missing on more savings.

If you’re the kind of person who strictly watches the “sell by,” “enjoy by” or “best by” dates on food packages, you’re probably doing so to keep yourself and your family away from spoiled food. But, you’re probably still wasting some of your hard-earned money.

That’s the findings of a 2013 study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. While grocery store managers find the suggested dates on food to be a good guide on when to sell or markdown food, in most cases those items remain entirely safe to eat for another week or more. It’s much longer for shelf-stable foods or even years for canned items.

How sell-by dates cost you money on your grocery bill

Food waste in the U.S. costs a family of four of as much as $2,275 a year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average American family spent $4,049 on food at home in 2016. That means you could be throwing more than half of your grocery money into the trash. If your chicken is past its sell-by date on the package, you may end up ordering out. Then food waste adds to the average $3,145 that the BLS reports American families spend on eating out each year.

After housing and transportation, spending on food is one of the biggest discretionary items in anyone’s budget. But no matter how good you are at meal-planning, stocking up on sales and generic items and stacking coupons, some of that money you’ve saved goes right out the window if those deals on groceries go down the garbage disposal.

One study found that 91 percent of shoppers throw out food that’s past its “sell by” date at least occasionally. Twenty-five percent of shoppers said they always trash food that’s older than that date. And 16 percent of consumers said they throw out milk on its “sell by” date rather than rely on the time-tested sniff test.

The thing to remember is that suggested “use by” and similar dates are just that – suggestions. They help indicate when a particular food item is freshest or tastes the best, but not that it’s no longer safe to eat. In fact, there’s no federal regulation on this kind of labeling, outside of baby food. Sure, the dates help provide a margin of safety against eating spoiled food but, let’s face it – they also encourage you to go back to the store to buy more, encouraging what can be unnecessary purchases of more food.

What those dates really mean

Best if Used By/Before: These dates have nothing at all to do with safety, but indicate when the product tastes best or is at its best. It’s up to you to decide whether those slightly less-than-crisp graham crackers are OK for your kids to dunk into their milk.

Sell By: This indicates when the manufacturer wants stores to take the product off the shelf. That way, by the time the consumer purchases the product, gets it home and gets around to using it, it’ll still be at its best quality. That can be days or even weeks later, however. According to Consumer Reports, “Milk, assuming proper refrigeration, should last five to seven days past its sell-by date before turning sour.”

Use By: Indicates the last day that the manufacturer believes the product will be at its best. Again, it has nothing to do with safety, except when it comes to infant formula.

How to tell if your food is safe to eat

To find the official guidelines on when you safely can eat food, check out the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper app and website, which allows you to browse and search all types of food. For example, cottage cheese is good for two weeks in the refrigerator, and one week if it’s been opened. Boneless chicken breasts are good for two days after you get them home, and up to nine months frozen. So, if it’s been a couple of days and you didn’t make the stir-fry dinner you’d planned, either cook and save that meat to give it another three to four days of useful life or throw it in the freezer.

One big thing you can do is avoid buying too much food in the first place, especially when it comes to produce. Making a menu plan for the next several days and checking your pantry and fridge before shopping helps. So does using leftovers, along with freezing and finding ways to use excess food. Those wilting carrots, for example, can be used to make soup stock rather than withering in the vegetable drawer, and the chicken that’s getting ready to turn will last several more days if you cook it now and use it later.

Obviously, nobody wants to risk eating spoiled food, but being too careful with food freshness dates can leave you with a spoiled budget.

Brian J. O’Connor is the author of the award-winning budget book, “The $1,000 Challenge: 
How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”

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Meet the Author

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor


Brian O'Connor is a contributing writer for O'Connor is a journalist, writer and consultant. He's a syndicated personal finance columnist and author of "The $1,000 Challenge."

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