Saturday, May 12, 2012

Price Check: I beat the smart kids!

Earlier this week, I was flipping through a couple of old issues of Real Simple magazine that I got from a free trial back in 2010. One article that caught my eye was the "Moneywise" column, which dealt with kitchen goods. Editors talked with an assortment of experts—a chef, a nutritionist, a food writer—to find out "the lowest prices you can pay for these common pantry items without sacrificing quality." I read it over and realized, with a touch of smugness, that I could think of a way to beat their bottom price on nearly every item on the list. Here's the full list, with their best price, my best price, and how I got it:

1. cereal
  • Real Simple price: $2.50 for a large box. They recommend "sticking with the cheapest options for O's and puffed rice," which are "just as healthy as pricier brands."
  • My price: $1.89. That's how much a 20-ounce box of raisin bran costs at the Aldi. (Their plain bran flakes used to be even less per pound, but they've gone up.)
2. loaf of bread
  • Real Simple price: $2.90. They say it's worth spending extra for "a loaf made of whole grains, with no trans fats or high-fructose corn syrup."
  • My price: $1.30. That's my rough estimate of how much it would cost to make a homemade one-pound loaf of 100 percent whole wheat bread using the recipe that came with our bread machine, using bulk-purchased yeast from the Whole Earth Center and the cheapest whole-wheat flour available at our local store. In addition to having whole grains, no trans fats, and no high-fructose corn syrup, this loaf is made with organic sugar and a free-range egg.
3. vanilla extract
  • Real Simple price: $4.70 for 2 ounces. They assume this is the lowest price it's possible to get for "the pure stuff."
  • My price: 50 cents per ounce. That's my rough estimate of how much it costs to make "the pure stuff" at home, using an organic vanilla bean from the Whole Earth Center and the cheapest vodka available at the local Rite Aid. (But if I didn't have time for that, I could also buy it off the shelf at Trader Joe's, spending $3.99 for 4 ounces—less than half the price they paid per ounce.)
4. dried pasta
  • Real Simple price: $1.60 for 16 ounces. This is their best price for "a recognizable brand," since they claim cheaper brands are "prone to overcooking."
  • My price: 77 cents a pound. Although I actually think that store brands are just as good as name brands, and the only way pasta will overcook is if you, you know, cook it too long, I can generally get a name brand for this price. I just stock up whenever there's a good sale (less than a dollar a pound). This price is the one I stocked up at most recently.
5. nonstick pan
  • Real Simple price: $50. They say this will get you "a thicker pan with a durable nonstick surface."
  • My price: $21. This is the cost at Amazon.com of a 12-inch cast-iron skillet from Lodge Logic, which is rated the best cast-iron pan in the ConsumerSearch report on skillets. (I worked on this report in 2010, and I found that Teflon and its name-brand equivalents—including the "earth friendly" ones—has no real advantage over cast iron. It's cheaper to buy, resists sticking just as well when properly seasoned, and can last for decades. The cast-iron skillets we use at home belonged to Brian's grandmother.)
6. chef's knife
  • Real Simple price: $40. They say this will get you a decent knife made of high-carbon stainless steel with a sturdy handle.
  • My price: $25. This is Amazon.com's price for the 8-inch chef's knife in the Victorinox Swiss Classic line, which was rated the best overall (not just the best value, but the best of the best) in the ConsumerSearch report on kitchen knives.
7. hand mixer
  • Real Simple price: $30. They say for this seldom-used tool, it's fine to go with a basic brand.
  • My price: $36. This was one of the few categories in which I couldn't beat the Real Simple editors. In the ConsumerSearch report on mixers, the most reliable budget-priced hand mixer is a 5-speed Cuisinart with an estimated price of $40. I found that you can get it slightly cheaper at Amazon.com if you buy it in black. However, according to the report, there actually is such a thing as a hand mixer that's too cheap—a $20 Black & Decker model is described as very loud and prone to splattering. So if the Real Simple price is meant to be for the cheapest hand mixer you can find, then I can still beat them on price—or I can beat them on quality while only spending $6 more.
8. pasta sauce
  • Real Simple price: $3.20 for a 24-ounce jar. They recommend looking for a short ingredient list that starts with tomatoes rather than tomato paste.
  • My price: $1.40, my estimated price for a batch of "Fresh Tomato Sauce" using Mark Bittman's recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It's made from canned tomatoes, onion, olive oil, salt and pepper, and nothing else. (Parmesan and fresh herbs are optional.)
9. orange juice
  • Real Simple price: $3.30 for 64 ounces. This is for "100 percent pure, not from concentrate."
  • My price: $1.99 for 64 ounces. We usually find the frozen concentrate is just fine, but if they insist on the pure stuff, this is what it costs on sale—and it's almost always on sale somewhere.
10. paper towels
  • Real Simple price: $7.30 for 6 rolls. They say this is an area where it's fine to "cut corners," since store brands are usually just as good as name brands.
  • My price: $0. Rags work better than either store-brand or name-brand paper towels, they're reusable, and they're free.
11. flour and sugar
  • Real Simple price: $2.80 for 5 pounds and $3.80 for 5 pounds, respectively. They recommend buying store brands, since differences among brands are virtually nondetectable.
  • My price: $1.99 for 5 pounds and $2.80 for 2 pounds (on sale). Yes, I'm spending significantly more for sugar than they are, but that's because this is one of the few products I always buy organic, regardless of cost. (Sugar is one of the most environmentally destructive crops, and organically grown sugar is...well, it's not as bad.)
12. tortilla chips
  • Real Simple price: $3 for a 9-ounce bag. They recommend going with a high-quality brand that has no ingredients other than corn, oil, and salt.
  • My price: $2 for a whole bunch. I never buy tortilla chips, but I sometimes buy corn tortillas, and the leftovers always get crisped up in the toaster oven, since they don't store well in the fridge or freezer. These homemade chips don't keep as well as the store-bought ones, but they're lower in fat and just as tasty when fresh.
13. olive oil
  • Real Simple price: $9 for 33.8 ounces. This is for "a flavorful extra-virgin."
  • My price: I don't care for the flavor of extra-virgin olive oil, myself, so I tend to buy the cheap stuff, which costs as little as $10 for 3 liters on sale. For "a flavorful extra-virgin," I can meet but not beat their price by buying from the bulk containers at the Whole Earth Center.
14. white rice
  • Real Simple price: $1.60 for 2 pounds, which they claim is "the least expensive package" of long-grain white rice. This works out to 80 cents a pound.
  • My price: $4.99 for 10 pounds at the Aldi—50 cents a pound. (Sale prices might be better, but white rice doesn't seem to go on sale very often. We had to pay full price last time we bought it, and that was after spending a couple of months looking out for a sale.)
15. coffee
  • Real Simple price: $7 for 16 ounces, bought from the bulk bins at the grocery store.
  • My price: $55 for 5 pounds. This was the second one on which I couldn't beat Real Simple's price—but my price is for organic, Fair Trade beans. This is the cost, including shipping, for five pounds of my favorite decaffeinated beans from Dean's Beans.
16. plain yogurt
  • Real Simple price: $2.50 for 32 ounces. This is the price for what they call "the most cost-effective option," meaning the cheapest you can find that tastes decent
  • My price: $3.79 for 32 ounces. I seldom buy yogurt, but I happened to need some recently for a recipe, and the best price my grocery store could offer was $3.19 for a quart of plain yogurt—and the organic Stonyfield Farms brand was only 60 cents more, so I went with that. So this was the third one on which the Real Simple editors beat me.
17. Dutch oven
  • Real Simple price: $50. This is for a "fairly inexpensive" 6-quart pot of enameled cast iron with a tight-fitting lid.
  • My price: $54. The 6-quart Lodge Logic Dutch oven, rated the best budget pick in the ConsumerSearch report on Dutch ovens, is $54 at Amazon.com (if you choose a standard color like red or blue). However, you can get a 5-quart Lodge Dutch oven in plain cast iron—no enamel coating—for only $30.
18. Cheddar cheese
  • Real Simple price: $2.50 for 8 ounces. At this price, they say, you can expect "a creamy consistency and a sharp, nutty taste."
  • My price: $1.50 for 8 ounces. While I can't vouch for the nuttiness of the flavor, I do routinely stock up on sale-priced Cheddar from known brands, such as Cabot, at this price. So after my short run of losses to the Real Simple editors, I finished the article with a win.
Final score: Real Simple 5, Amy 14 (counting flour and sugar as separate items). And that's with 20 months' worth of inflation factored in.

Can anyone beat my prices on the entries I didn't win—or even the ones I did? If so, please. tell me how!
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