Early Lessons, Part 2: Pay Attention to Unit Pricing

Click here for Part 1 in this series. This post contains affiliate links.  If you make a qualifying purchase after clicking a link, we may receive a percentage of the purchase price.

My mother always took us grocery shopping when we were small.  By the time I was 8, she would say she either needed to bring a calculator or me.  I would keep a running tally of everything in the basket in my head and I would calculate unit pricing, also in my head, whenever she needed, without losing track of the running tally.  I like math 🙂

An Overview of Unit Pricing

Unit pricing is the single most important piece of information you need in order to truly comparison shop.  Is the 40 oz jar of peanut butter a better deal than the 16 oz jar of peanut butter?  The only way to know is to know the unit pricing.

To find the unit pricing, you divide the price of the product by the number of units in the product in order to find the price of a single unit.  In the peanut butter example, let’s say the 40 oz jar of peanut butter is $7.50 and the 16 oz jar of peanut butter is $3.00.  Which one is a better deal?  $7.50 / 40 = $0.19 / oz.  $2.75 / 16 = $0.17 / oz.  The smaller jar of peanut butter is the better deal. (I made up prices; the real price on Amazon is much better than this, if you are an Amazon Prime member.  The ad below is an affiliate link.)

Two things make unit pricing easier today than it was when I was a child.  First, 18 states plus the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia now have labeling laws that require the price posted on the shelf to include unit pricing.

Florida requires unit pricing on shelf tags. In this case, the price per ounce is in the orange box. The units appear below the price.

Major online realtors, including Walmart and Amazon, have unit pricing listed on the food items for sale on their site.  If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with unit pricing on the shelves, you don’t need to calculate it yourself.

Second, if you’re carrying around a smart phone, you have a calculator on you at all times.  There’s no need to remember a calculator or to do the math in your head.  You’ve got an app for that!

When do You Need to Calculate Unit Pricing?

If you live somewhere that does not include unit pricing on the shelf labels, you have no choice.  If you want to know the unit pricing, you must calculate it yourself.  Even if you live somewhere that has unit pricing on the shelves, there are times when you will need to calculate the unit pricing yourself.

What is a Unit?

In the peanut butter example, I used the number of ounces in the jars as the unit.  Weight and volume are the most logical units to use for many, but not all products.  Do I care how much my paper towels weigh?  Not at all.  How many sheets do they have?  Or how many square feet?  These units make more sense.

The unit price on the shelf may be calculated using a unit that does not make sense to you personally.  Maybe you want to buy a certain number of servings of fruit and you want to compare the price per serving of apples and grapes.  You would need to figure out how much a single serving costs in order to compare.  A serving of grapes might be 1 ounce, but you may count a whole apple as a serving regardless of its weight.  Or maybe the paper towels are labeled per square feet and that seems like nonsense to you because you’re going to take a sheet at a time, whether you are using a smaller select-a-size sheet or full size sheet.  If this is your situation, you will have to calculate the unit price yourself.

Similar products may be labeled in an inconsistent manner.  As in the photo below, tea might be labeled by the number of tea bags in the box (right) or the weight of the product (left).  In the photo, the price alone might make you think the loose tea is much more expensive.  However, if you convert the tea bags to a per ounce unit pricing, you see that the tea bags are the more expensive option ($3.48 / 3.3 ounces in the box = $1.05 / ounce).

In order to compare inconsistently labeled products, you will need to calculate unit pricing based on the same unit for all of your options.  Choose the unit that makes the most sense for how you use the product and do the math!

Sales and Coupons

Sales flyers never have unit pricing in them, so if you are looking at sales flyers before you go to the store, you may want to calculate unit pricing as part of your planning process.  Once in the store, the signs with sale prices do not always include unit pricing to reflect the sales price.  If you have a coupon, you will need to subtract the coupon from the advertised price before dividing: (Price – Coupon) / Units.

A Preview of Things to Come

The next four columns in this series will all relate to and rely upon the idea of  unit pricing.  The bottom line is you need to be able to make a true comparison of the cost of the products you buy and the best way to do that is the unit pricing.  Since you have a calculator in your pocket or purse, it isn’t hard to calculate unit pricing.  It may take a little time to calculate when you first start doing it, but some of the strategies coming up will reduce how often you need to make the calculation.  Stay tuned!

Click here for Part 3: Keep a Price Book.

Early Lessons, Part I: The Why

This post contains affiliate links.  If you make a qualifying purchase after clicking a link, we may receive a percentage of the purchase price.

Over the years, I have waxed and waned in my practice of the various strategies I’ve learned regarding saving money on groceries.  When I have money, but not much time, I don’t maximize these strategies.  When I have both time and money, I don’t maximize these strategies.  When I have time, but not much money, I must maximize these strategies.  At the moment, I find myself in the latter category, and so I am reminding myself of the things I already knew.  I thought I would share these things with you, to adopt or not, if it works for you.

Why Focus on Food?

This poster is World War I-era propaganda, aimed at those who were at home, rather than in the battlefield.  Governments across the world encouraged their citizens to economize in many areas, as a way of supporting the war effort.

If you are looking to save money in your overall budget, victory starts in the kitchen.  Food is the third largest household expenditure in the United States.

Housing and Transportation costs may be reduced, but they tend to be sunk costs.  If you own a home, it will take time to sell and buy or rent a less expensive place.  If you rent, the penalties incurred in breaking a lease may be more than you would pay to stay through the end of the lease.  Reducing transportation costs might mean moving closer to work, buying a new vehicle, or figuring out ride sharing options.  Since Housing and Transportation are sunk costs, it may take weeks or months to work out lower-cost options.

In the chart above, the amount spent on food includes both dining out and food at home (groceries), which includes purchase of both raw ingredients and prepared foods.  This chart breaks the food budget down into the types of food purchased, based on the level of employment in a household.

Households where all adults were employed spent about half of their food budgets at restaurants, whereas households where a primary shopper was unemployed spend only 36 percent. Households where all adults were employed spent 10 percentage points less of their food budgets on non-ready-to-eat foods compared to households where a primary shopper was not employed. The statistics for this chart are from the ERS report Consumers Balance Time and Money in Purchasing Convenience Foods, released on June 27, 2018.

This chart demonstrates why it makes sense to start with food if you want to reduce your budget.  You have multiple options for food: eating out, purchasing prepared foods, or purchasing raw ingredients and preparing food yourself.  Since food is perishable, you make a daily decision on what to eat. Therefore, the financial impact of changing your food decisions can be seen in a matter of days.

What’s coming in this series

The strategies discussed focus on grocery shopping for raw ingredients.  This is almost always the least expensive way to eat.  However, the overall goal is food that (1) tastes good and (2) promotes health (3) at the lowest possible cost, with an eye to the (4) time it takes to prepare food and clean-up afterwards.  The least expensive option possible is not always going to meet the first two goals and is likely to increase the time spent on cooking and cleaning up.

Almost everything I know about saving money on groceries, I learned from either my mother or The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn (Amazon affiliate link).  When I was growing up, our family did not have much money.  My mother kept a strict grocery budget and usually took her children with her when she shopped.  We learned many shopping lessons by osmosis!

I lived with my parents until I married my first husband, six weeks shy of my twenty-second birthday.  We did not have much money either, so I was always looking for ways to save money.  It was at this time that I found The Tightwad Gazette, which taught me systemization in a way that my mother had not.

The strategies I learned from my mother and from The Tightwad Gazette will help you determine the lowest cost of any food items you wish to purchase.  It’s up to you to weigh the monetary costs against the taste, health, and time factors impacting your life.

Click here for Part 2: Pay Attention to Unit Pricing

Click here for Part 3: Keep a Price Book

Click here for Part 4: Shop at Multiple Stores

Click here for Part 5: Use Coupons? Not Anymore

Click here for Part 6a: Calculating the Cost of Homemade: Ingredient Costs

Click here for Part 6b: Calculating the Cost of Homemade: Recipe Costs

Click here for Part 6c: Calculating the Cost of Homemade: Where to Start with Cooking

Click here for Part 6d: Calculating the Cost of Homemade: Putting it All Together

Daily Bread

In my post  last week, I told several stories about the Greenes and food.  All those stories were extraordinary food experiences.  Like in every household the day-to-day and the celebratory aren’t quite the same thing.  We are a household of two and the two of us have such different food requirements that we rarely eat the same food as each other at any given meal.

I am a lifelong, born and raised, lacto-ovo vegetarian.  Lacto = milk and ovo = eggs.  This means I eat animal products including all dairy, eggs, and honey, but I do not eat any actual animals.  I do not eat any poultry, pork, beef, lamb, seafood, or insects.

Chris, on the other hand, is a dedicated carnivore, though he rarely eats any meat other than poultry.  He eats very little dairy and limits (but does not entirely exclude) how much gluten he eats.

Due to our disparate food choices, in the many years we’ve been together, I have rarely cooked dinner for both of us to sit down and eat that meal.  Instead, I tend to cook for the freezer.    I will cook a meal for one or the other of us, package and label it, and put it into the freezer.  I will often spend a day or afternoon cooking multiple meals and filling the freezer.  When we want to eat, we either take one of my homemade dinners out of the freezer and heat it up, or we make ourselves a quick meal, like a sandwich.

This is a fairly empty freezer for us!  The freezer is a 14 cubic foot freestanding model.  Our refrigerator is an 18 cubic foot unit with no built-in freezer.

The combination of our unusual daily needs and our history of regular entertaining impacts the way we approach shopping for food.  Over the years I’ve developed a significant pantry.  I’m usually shopping to replenish the pantry or for fresh foods.  We shop at Costco rather more than might be expected from a two-person household.  We go to the local grocery store only for a very few items, most of which aren’t available at Costco in a quantity that we can reasonably use.  Since we love foods from a wide variety of cuisines, I also visit stores that carry specialty ingredients of those cuisines, as needed.  I order spices online because I can get a wider variety, at a better price, and excellent quality than from any one local source.

I strongly believe that cooking from scratch is the least expensive option overall, that the quality of homemade food is better than prepared foods, that homemade food is more delicious than prepared foods, and that meeting our dietary requirements is easier when cooking at home than when we purchase foods prepared either at a restaurant or at the grocery store.  Due to the craziness of our lives over the last several years, I’ve been cooking less than I’d like.  Getting back to cooking more is one of our highest priorities.

Over the next several weeks, I will be writing a series of posts going into more detail on our approach to food.  I’ll reveal the details of our pantry, share what we’re cooking, and talk about the cost of food.  I plan to publish these posts weekly, on Mondays.  Stay tuned!

SpaceX Merah Putih Launch

It was a clear night in Orlando giving a great view of the launch of Merah Putih.  Because the launch occurred on-time, at 1:18am the trajectory did not take the rocket into sunlight during staging giving a clear single engine burn visible from Orlando but no ‘jellyfish’ that appears when the plume from the 2nd stage engine is illuminated by sunlight.

According to the webcast fairing deployment was clean however because of the lack of sunlight to reflect off the fairings I was not able to see them separate.

Following staging the 1st stage performed a 3 engine burn and landed on the drone ship.  I wasn’t able to see the entry burn from Orlando, this is one of those times it pays to have your phone showing the launch webcast!  Entry burns are frequently visible from Orlando, especially when they are coming in to land at LZ-1 at the cape.

Following a clean 2nd burn of the 2nd stage for circularization, the satellite was deployed.

Here are some links for this mission:

NasaSpaceflight.com Merah Putih Updates

NasaSpaceflight.com Merah Putih Discussion

Reddit Merah Putih discussion

Reddit Merah Putih media/images

Chez Verde

Once upon a time, Chris and Karen met because of food.  My aunt was preaching at a church on the other side of town.  After the service, the church had a potluck and she sat at the same table as Chris, who was visiting the church for the first time.  After dinner she told Chris she was going to a different church on the other side of town for dessert because her husband was the pastor over there.  Chris followed her because of the paltry dessert selection at the first church.

When they arrived, my aunt made a beeline for me and announced, not quietly and with Chris only a few steps behind her, “I’m back and I brought a man.”

At the time, my first husband and I had been separated for six months and I had an attorney to represent me in a divorce, but the process was going slowly.  I rolled my eyes and replied, “I’m not looking for a man.  The last thing I need right now is another man.”

Three weeks later, Chris and I went on our first official date, to a wonderful restaurant in the North End of Boston.  Chris ordered two plates of Butternut Squash Ravioli.  I thought he was going to take one order home, but he ate them both.

Two years later, we moved to Florida.  We quickly found a church and needed a way to get to know people.  I wasn’t working at the time, so started hosting ‘At Home’ events every Tuesday evening.  The name came from a 19th century practice.  Women would pick an afternoon to be home.  They had small cards, like a business card, with their address and the times they were at home.  They would give these cards to others as an open invitation to stop by for tea during the times listed on the cards.

In our iteration, the invitation was for Tuesday evenings to accommodate those working outside the home.  The invitation was open to everyone in the household, not just women.  I asked people to let me know by Monday afternoon if they knew they would be there so I would have a way to judge how much food to make, but made it clear that they were still welcome to come at the last minute.  Dinner was ready by 5 pm and people were welcome to come any time and stay until midnight.  They were also welcome to stop and pick up a to go container if they didn’t have time to stay.  Some weeks we had 3 people; some weeks we had 20.  We ended these events a year after we moved because I was working full time.

When we got married 10 months after moving to Florida, I catered our wedding, with help from family and friends.  A month before the wedding, Chris and I made and canned 68 quarts of spaghetti sauce, several quarts of which we used for the wedding.  We started with 200 pounds of plum tomatoes, purchased from a local wholesale company that usually sells to restaurants.  Once you turn the tomatoes into sauce, you add the seasonings and cook down the sauce to thicken it and develop flavor.  This takes at least 4 hours.  It took us 3 days to cook all the sauce.  We took turns sleeping so someone was always available to stir the sauce so it wouldn’t burn.

Chris and Karen standing behind the table holding their bride and groom cakes. Karen is tying an apron around her waist.
How many brides don an apron at their weddings?! I made the cakes; after the formal cake cutting and feeding each other, I cut all the cake to serve to the guests. Chris helped plate and distribute the cake.
In this picture, you can also see the remnants of the buffet dinner behind us.

We bought our house a couple years after we got married.  We came up with the idea of turning the family room into a cafe themed dining space.  We thought we would develop a menu of our favorite dishes.  When we invited people over, we’d give them this menu as the invitation and they could pick out (in advance) whatever they would like to eat.  We named this cafe Chez Verde — “Chez”, which you’ve probably seen as a name on many a fancy (or want-to-be fancy) French restaurant, is a French proposition which can translate as “at” or “to” or “among” and “Verde” is the Italian word for green.  So Chez Verde = At the Greene’s.  (We have lots of fun with green puns in this house.)

The menu as invitation idea and the original details of Chez Verde fell by the wayside when I went to law school.  However, we still tend to refer to our kitchen as Chez Verde and the chalk board Chris built for the cafe still hangs in our kitchen.

the chalkboard that Chris built. Chez Verde is written across the top. Below that is written weeks of 8/5 - 8/18. Along the left side is a list with a letter for the day of the week and a number for the date. Some dates have notations of events. Below the list of dates, two boxes drawn in chalk contain recipes to be made and groceries needed.

In our happily ever after, we have experienced dramatic and unpredictable changes, but one thing remains the same: we love food and cooking.  We’re excited to share our experiences with you.  Welcome to Chez Verde!