Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Frugal heresy

The latest issue of the Dollar Stretcher newsletter featured an article called, "10 Things You Can Stop Buying at the Grocery Store." The author, Carol Channon, claims that you shouldn't need to buy any of these items because, for most of them, it's cheaper and healthier to make them from scratch. Now, this is such a standard piece of advice for newcomers to the frugal life that it has almost taken on the status of a Frugal Commandment—"Thou shalt cook from scratch"—and it seems almost like heresy to contradict it. And I do, in fact, think that this is sound advice in most cases, and I frequently repeat it myself. But looking carefully at this particular article, it seems that Channon has managed in the space of a fairly short list to come up with several items that I consider exceptions to this basic rule. Moreover, she doesn't seem to have even attempted to do the math to calculate whether her money-saving advice really will save you money on these ten items. So at the risk of being branded a frugal heretic, I'd like to look at the ten items on her list, one by one, and discuss the actual numbers before coming to any conclusions about whether we should all strike these items from our grocery lists.

1. Packaged meat. Channon argues that it's much better to buy a whole chicken and cook it yourself, because it makes an easy meal and leaves you a carcass to make stock from. The problem is, a whole chicken costs more per pound than a package of drumsticks. We routinely buy free-range, organic chicken legs from Trader Joe's for $1.99 a pound; a whole organic, free-range chicken, according to this Trader Joe's flyer, cost $2.49 per pound on sale more than a year ago, so the regular price is presumably at least $3 a pound. So while a roast chicken may feel like more of a special-occasion meal than baked chicken drumsticks or thighs, it will also cost more.

As for beef and pork, Channon says you save more money by buying in bulk—by the side, or even a whole animal to be butchered—than buying packages. We don't normally buy these meats, so I'll have to turn for guidance here to Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!), who wrote in her third Tightwad Gazette book that the cost of beef sold by the side "is less than the regular supermarket price for the same cut of meat, but more than the supermarket's loss-leader prices." She also notes that, as with the chicken, "you must buy the more expensive steaks to get the [cheaper] ground beef." So once again, buying packaged meats on sale, and sticking to the cheaper cuts, is likely to give you a better price per pound than buying in bulk as Channon advises.

2. Juice. Channon says it's better for you to eat your fruit whole, and if you really want juice you should squeeze your own. I agree that whole fruit is more healthful than most bottled juice, which is why I drink very little of it. But as far as price goes, her advice once again falls short of the mark. As these figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show, Valencia oranges cost about $1.03 per pound, while orange juice concentrate costs $2.54 for 16 ounces, which is enough to make a half-gallon of juice. To get that amount of juice from the fruit, you'd have to squeeze 24 oranges, or between 6 and 8 pounds' worth, at a cost of $6.18 to $8.24. So while the home-squeezed juice might be more healthful (because it has the pulp in) and would almost certainly taste better, it would also be a lot more expensive.

3. Microwave popcorn. This is one item on which I agree with Channon. As long-time readers of this blog will recall, I make my own popcorn in a microwave popper at a cost of about 12.5 cents per bowl, and I season it with just a touch of olive oil and salt. Microwave popcorn in bags, by contrast, costs at least 25 cents per bag, even on sale, and is typically loaded with salt and butter (real or synthetic). So I consider the homemade popcorn an all-around win: in addition to being cheaper, it's more healthful, contains far less packaging, and is just as easy to make. (Channon recommends making it the old-fashioned way, in a pot on the stove, which is also fine, but I think my method is easier and just as tasty.)

4. Vegetables. According to Channon, you should either grow all your own vegetables or buy them at the farmers' market to "support your local farmers and local economy." According to my calculations, Brian and I do indeed pay less per pound for the veggies we grow ourselves (some time I'll get around to sharing the calculations with you), but our little garden isn't nearly big enough to supply all the produce we need—and even if we were to convert every square inch of our yard to edible landscaping, and buy a big freezer and canner to store the surplus, there's no way we'd be able to grow enough to get us through the winter without buying any. We couldn't pick up extra from the farmers' market to tide us over, either, because our local farmers' market runs only from June through November (though the associated artisans' market continues through the end of December).

Of course, as Challon would no doubt argue, we could always extra produce from the farmers' market when it's in season and preserve it at home. The problem is, in my observation, produce from the farmers' market almost always costs more than the same items would at the supermarket. Often, our area supermarkets even carry produce that's labeled as local—Jersey Fresh—at prices far lower than we'd pay by "cutting out the middleman" at the farmers' market. I realize this isn't the case everywhere; two-year-old studies in Vermont and Seattle, for instance, found that farmers' markets in those areas offered comparable prices on conventional produce and much better prices on organic. But around here, at least, the economies of scale at the supermarkets mean that they generally offer the best prices, even on produce that's organic or locally grown. This is not to say that I don't consider the produce from the farmers' markets worth the extra money, at least occasionally; I just look on it as a splurge, not a money-saving move.

5. Cookies. Surprisingly, Channon doesn't make the argument that you shouldn't eat cookies at all because they're bad for you, but she does say that it's much better to make them from scratch. I won't dispute that home-baked cookies made by anyone who's halfway competent taste much, much better than store-bought ones, but are they cheaper? I've seen big packages of generic-brand cookies at the supermarket for as little as a dollar; in fact, I've often thought that if I were ever seriously in danger of starving to death, and I just needed to get as many calories into my body as possible for the lowest possible price, it would be hard to do better than to live off one of these packages for a couple of days. Can a homemade cookie really beat that?

To find out, I calculated the cost of a batch of "Basic Refrigerator Cookies" from The Pillsbury Cookbook, which was the most basic, inexpensive-looking recipe I could find. Assuming that a cash-strapped baker would use margarine instead of butter, replace our usual organic sugar and free-range eggs with conventional versions, and leave out the nuts, I calculated the cost of the ingredients for this recipe using the figures from the BLS:
  • 3/4 cup sugar (3/8 lb.), 24 cents
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar (3/8 lb.), 29 cents
  • 1 cup margarine (1/2 lb.), 59 cents
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (1/4 ounce), 25 cents (based on the price I found at Trader Joe's last year)
  • 2 eggs (1/6 doz.), 31 cents
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (1 1/8 lbs.), 60 cents
  • baking powder and salt: 2 cents
This comes to $2.30 for the recipe, which supposedly makes 90 cookies (but would probably make no more than 75 without the nuts). So that's about 3 cents per cookie, while the cheap store-bought cookies were roughly 2 cents each. Not nearly as good, I'm sure, but definitely cheaper.

6. Spray cleaners. This is one of the few items for which Channon does give an approximate price: "You could pay $3 or $4 for that spray cleaner," she avers, yet its main ingredient is most likely vinegar, ammonia, or bleach, any of which can be bought more cheaply. This is one where I agree with her; vinegar costs about 45 cents a quart when you buy it in bulk, which works out to only 23 cents a quart when you dilute it 50-50 with water. A 28-ounce bottle of Method cleanser, by contrast, cost me $2.67 on sale at Target last year (the only reason I bought it was to get a new bottle to put my vinegar solution in). So good old vinegar and water, which is tough enough to handle most everyday cleaning jobs (and nontoxic, to boot), is definitely the frugal choice here.

7. Bottled water. Another item for which I agree wholeheartedly with Channon. As I noted way back in 2010, prices for bottled water range from 79 cents to over $150 per gallon, while tap water—which is actually held to higher health and safety standards and, in most tests, tastes as good or better—typically costs about half a cent per gallon. Even if you don't like the taste of your municipal tap water, you'll still pay far less by running it through a filter than you would by buying the bottled stuff, and you'll produce far less waste as well.

8. Herbs. I agree with Channon that these are way too expensive at the store. We've seen tiny packages selling for $2 or $3, and even if you buy a big bunch for a buck, as we do with parsley, you're left with the problem of how to use it all up before it goes bad. In most cases, when you use herbs, you only need a little bit, so it makes sense to follow Channon's advice and grow your own (either in a garden bed or in pots) and snip off pieces as needed. We have an herb bed outside our kitchen door in which we grow rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and mint; they fade in the winter but pop up again green and healthy in the spring. We also grow lots of basil in the garden, and after the frost hits we usually manage to nurse one plant through the winter in a pot. However, we've had no success keeping either parsley or cilantro alive in pots, so if we need these in the winter, we usually either go ahead and buy a big bunch or make do with dried.

9. Bread. This is a tricky one. Brian and I (well, Brian mostly) do bake all our own bread, even after the demise of our bread machine earlier this year, but we do this largely because (a) fresh bread tastes better and (b) Brian likes to bake. And we do spend less on our homemade bread than we would on store-bought bread; according to my calculations, each loaf costs us between 80 cents and a dollar, while the BLS figures show the typical cost of a one-pound loaf ranging from $1.41 to $2.04. However, the bargain rack at our supermarket fairly often has loaves of slightly stale bread marked down to as little as a dollar, so if we made a habit of stocking up on these and freezing them, it would be nearly as cheap as baking our own. Of course, it would require a larger freezer, so for now baking it ourselves is still a better value.

10. Trash bags. Channon's argument here is that if you simply cut back on packaged foods, recycle most food containers, and compost food scraps, you will "have less trash" to throw away. All of this is true, but she overlooks the rather glaring fact that less trash is not the same thing as no trash. As I observed when analyzing the contents of our trash last year, there are still some items that can't be either avoided, recycled, or composted, such as dental floss (I've never found one that's biodegradable), bottle caps, cereal box liners, deodorant tubes, and the occasional styrofoam tray. Also, what about the bones from that whole chicken she just advised us to buy back at the top of the list? You can't compost those, even after you've made stock of them, so they'll have to go in the trash—and once they're in there, they'll begin to make your house unpleasant if you don't get them out to the curb in fairly short order.

Admittedly, cutting down on the amount of waste you produce will mean you go through far fewer trash bags. Brian and I have, I believe, bought only two large boxes of them since we moved into this house over six years ago. But still, we will need to buy some eventually—unless Channon has some alternative to offer that she didn't see fit to mention in her article.

So out of the ten items on Channon's list, there are five that I mostly agree with and five that I mostly disagree with. I'm not saying it's a bad idea to buy whole chickens or local produce, to eat whole fruit instead of juice, to bake your own cookies, or to cut down on waste; I'm just saying that these strategies won't necessarily save you money.
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