Friday, August 15, 2014

Breaking the Law of Beverages

Lately, I've discovered, a major rule of for frugal shopping that I learned at my mother's knee has begun to break down.

When I was growing up, I hardly ever poured myself a drink from a carton. The main beverages I knew were water, which came right out of the tap; milk, which came a big cardboard box; and juice, which came in a cardboard-covered cylinder that you stored in the freezer. When I left home and started buying my own groceries, these habits stuck with me—not just because it was what I was used to, but also because I could plainly see that the powdered milk and frozen OJ I grew up with were a lot cheaper than their fresh equivalents. And buying this way seemed like the most earth-friendly choice as well, because shipping the milk and juice to stores in their concentrated form used less fuel. Indeed, if I'd ever thought to lay out an Ecofrugal Law of Beverages, it would have been something like, "Don't pay for the water when you can add it yourself."

In more recent years, though, I found that this law wasn't quite as hard-and-fast as I'd thought. For instance, I discovered that a really good sale could sometimes drop the price of refrigerated orange juice to a point that was actually cheaper than the equivalent volume of the frozen stuff. And, as we started buying the sale-priced juice more often, we discovered that there were actually significant differences in taste between brands. The kind labeled "not from concentrate" (NFC), usually sold in a plastic bottle, tasted better to us than both the stuff in cartons and the kind we mixed up ourselves. So even as the bottles dropped in size from 64 ounces to 59 and the usual sale price rose from $2 to $2.50, we were willing to pay a bit more per ounce for it. However, when I speculated on this blog about whether, once our mortgage was paid off, we might want to start buying this stuff even when it wasn't on sale, Brian balked. He liked the NFC better, he said, but not enough to pay $4 a bottle for it. So, barring the occasional sale, the Law of Beverages was still holding.

Just recently, however, our local Aldi started carrying its own brand of NFC juice, called Nature's Nectar. (Apparently it's actually been around for a while, since this article from 2009 mentions using it in a taste test, but we only started seeing it at our store recently.) Its regular price has just dropped from $2.49 a bottle to $2.29 a bottle, making it actually cheaper than the sale-priced juice at most other stores. And, when he tried it, Brian said he liked it at least as much as Tropicana. So, if we've already deemed it worth paying an extra 90 cents or so for the NFC juice on sale, then clearly it's worth paying an extra 70 cents for the Aldi NFC juice at its regular price.

On top of that, it looks like the Law of Beverages is breaking down with regard to milk, as well. As recently as 2011, I observed on this blog that milk from powder was only 50 cents a quart, while fresh milk cost roughly twice as much. Not long after that, however, the price of a 20-quart box of dry milk jumped from $10 to $13, and by now it's up to $15. At the same time, sales on fresh milk are growing more common; where once it was rare to find a gallon of milk for less than $3.50, now it's fairly common to see it for $3, which is exactly the same price per quart as the powdered.

Of course, powdered milk still has some other advantages over fresh. Since it comes in a great big box, you don't have to buy it nearly as often. You can mix up just a quart at a time, as needed, rather than filling up your fridge with gallon jugs. And it also keeps almost indefinitely, making it handy to have around in case of emergency. So even if it were actually more expensive than fresh milk, we'd still keep a box of it on hand. But for everyday use, we now find ourselves pouring fresh milk nearly as often as dry, and every time I pull out that big gallon jug, it feels like I'm rebelling against my upbringing.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that what my mother was really teaching me all those years wasn't simply what kind of milk to buy; it was the much broader principle of not wasting money. So if I really want to stay true to that principle, I have to be willing to change my specific buying habits in response to a changing market. The Law of Beverages may no longer hold true, but Franklin's Law—"A penny saved is a penny earned"—is still valid.

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