Friday, June 14, 2013

Popcornomics

As I noted way back in 2010, my favorite snack is popcorn. I have a bowl of it nearly every afternoon, and I've come up with a method for making it (buy in a jar, then pop it in the microwave in a covered bowl) that's both cost- and time-efficient. But lately I've become disgruntled with the results I've been getting with the cheapo brand of popcorn I've been buying at the supermarket (Cousin Willie's). It costs only $1.25 per pound, but it seems to leave an awful lot of kernels unpopped. After popping 1/4 cup of corn, I often seem to be left with as much as 1 or 2 tablespoons of unpopped kernels at the bottom—a quarter to a half of what I started with—that just ends up going straight into the compost bin. (I've tried to put the unpopped kernels back in the microwave for a second go-round, but only a few of them pop, and they usually come out tough and undersized.)

What made this even more frustrating was that last winter at Aldi, I bought a couple of bags of their store-brand popcorn and found that it was both cheaper and better than Cousin Willie's. It left fewer duds at the bottom, and the popped kernels were bigger and fluffier. However, I've never been able to find the stuff at Aldi since then, despite checking at several different stores. It looks like they've just stopped carrying it.

So on my most recent trip to the grocery store, I decided to try springing for a slightly more expensive popcorn. Instead of Cousin Willie's, I went for Jolly Time, which was labeled as a "high popping hybrid." I measured out my usual quarter-cup into the popper, and the difference was clear right away. With Cousin Willie's, the popping would slow to a rate of several seconds between pops after about four minutes; leave it in any longer, and it was liable to burn. The Jolly Time, by contrast, kept merrily on popping for another 45 seconds, and when I pulled the bowl out, it was full to the brim. The individual popped kernels weren't quite as big, but they were still tasty, and I was left with only a dozen duds at the bottom of the bowl.

So my initial thought was that from now on I'd splurge on the good popcorn, since it's worth paying an extra 60 cents a pound for better results. But a second later, it occurred to me that this isn't really splurging; the more expensive popcorn is actually a better value. If I buy Cousin Willie's for $1.25 a pound and half of it doesn't pop, then I'm paying the equivalent of $2.50 a pound for the kernels that actually pop. With the Jolly Time, by contrast, I pay $1.87 a pound, but at least 90 percent of it pops, so I'm paying only $2.08 per pound of poppable corn.

This led me to wonder how many other examples I could find of saving money by paying more up front. Here are a few that came immediately to mind:
  • Buying CFL or LED bulbs rather than incandescents.
  • Paying extra for an energy-efficient appliance rather than buying the cheapest one available.
  • Buying a good pair of shoes that will last several years, rather than a cheap pair of shoes every year. (Sadly, this only works if you have already tried the pricey shoes and know they will last, since a higher price tag by itself is no guarantee of quality.)
  • Paying more for a computer that can be upgraded as needed (with extra memory, faster processor, etc.) rather than choosing a cheap bare-bones model with fewer slots.
That's all the examples I could think of off the top of my head. Anyone got some others to share?
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