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How to Find the Best Deal & When It’s OK to Pay More

posted Sep 3, 2015, 1:05 PM by Julia Quam   [ updated Nov 5, 2015, 8:16 AM ]

Comparison shopping at the grocery store can be tricky. You can’t just buy whichever bag of apples is cheapest, because bags may differ in size. A small bag of apples may cost less than a big bag of apples, but the big bag may be a better deal per apple. How do you know whether it’s worth it to buy the bigger bag? The answer is unit pricing, a simple way to compare costs regardless of quantity.

Many grocery stores provide unit prices as part of the price tag that's displayed on the shelf. The unit price will be listed as a price per unit of weight (e.g. dollars per pound), unit of volume (e.g. dollars per fluid ounce), or number of a product (e.g. dollars per 100 count). To get the best deal, simply choose the product with the lowest unit price.

For example, imagine you're shopping for tomato sauce and see two options: an 8 oz jar for $0.80 and a 15 oz jar for $1.10. Both price labels also have a unit price listed: the 8 oz jar is $0.10 per ounce and the 15 oz jar is $0.07 per ounce.The 8 oz jar is less expensive, but when you look at the unit price on the label, you can see that the larger jar is cheaper per ounce.

While many stores provide unit prices, they may not always be correct or easy to compare according to this article. If the store does not provide unit prices or if you want to verify unit prices yourself, you can easily calculate them. Simply divide the price of the product by its total weight, volume, or count. Repeat for all the products you’re comparing and determine which has the lowest unit price. For example:

A 5-lb bag of potatoes costs $3.99. To get the unit price, divide the price ($3.99) by the total weight (5 lbs) to get $0.78 per pound. If loose potatoes are being sold for $0.85 per pound, then the 5-lb bag is a better deal.  

In general, but not always, bulk items and larger packages tend to have a lower unit price. Also, the more work the manufacturer or grocer does for you, the higher the unit price will likely be. For example, baby carrots are more expensive than whole carrots because the manufacturer had to peel and cut them. Likewise, canned beans are more expensive than dried beans because they’ve been cooked and canned, and because they’re heavier and cost more to transport.

So should you always buy in bulk and purchase items in their rawest possible state? Not necessarily. Choosing the lowest unit price might not be a good idea if: 

  • You can’t use up the larger bag before it goes bad. If you buy the 5-lb bag of potatoes, but half the bag goes bad before you can use it, you’ve just thrown away $2.00.  You would have been better off buying a smaller amount of the loose potatoes. Alternatively, you could split the 5-lb bag with a friend to both reap the savings.
  • The prep work is standing in the way of you eating better. If you want to eat more vegetables and love carrots, but hate peeling and chopping them, maybe buying baby carrots is worth it to you. If you don’t buy the baby carrots, you may forgo carrots all together or let a bag of unpeeled carrots languish in your fridge. You won’t reap the health benefits of carrots if you don’t eat them because it’s too much work.

When thinking about which product to purchase, you should also consider the value of your time. I checked one grocery delivery service web site and they had a 5-lb bag of carrots for $3.69, which works out to a unit price of $0.74 per pound. They also have a 1-lb bag of baby carrots for $1.99. That’s a difference of $1.25 per pound.

But how long does it take you to peel and chop a pound of whole carrots, then clean up afterwards? Let’s say it takes 10 minutes. Buying the bag of baby carrots means you’re paying $1.25 for 10 minutes of time savings, which works out to $7.50 per hour. Depending on your schedule and budget, that may be worth it to you or it may not.

Unit pricing is more of a starting point. Be sure to consider how much food you actually need and how much time and motivation you have to dedicate to food preparation before making a final decision about which product to purchase. For more on how to save on your food bill, check out the USDA’s 10 Tips to Save More at the Grocery Store or come chat with one of our dietitians during their visit to your café.