Unit pricing: Get more food for less money

This is a guest post from Charlie Park at PearBudget.

Recently, Get Rich Slowly readers got upset at the idea of spending $6 on a gallon of milk. Reading that, I had to chuckle a little bit: Shortly before we had to give it up, our milk went up to $11 a gallon.

Yup. You read that right: $11. A gallon.

Technically, the milk was free, but the boarding and care of the animals that give us the milk went up to $11 a week for every gallon we got. The payoff was awesome: farm-fresh, antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free milk. And the expense was necessary: My wife was nursing twins, and she’s allergic to milk from the store. (Now that the babies are weaned, we’ve stopped buying it from the farm.) But the result was the same: We drank a gallon of milk and it cost us $11. Yikes.

So why, if we were willing to spend $11 on milk, would I be qualified to write about saving money while shopping?

In order to have the money for such expensive milk, we had to keep an even sharper eye on our other grocery spending. To not compromise on the foods that matter to us (organic beef, good produce, hormone-free milk), we had to find other ways to cut food costs.

Standard Advice

Almost any “how to save money on groceries” article will tell you one of five ways to trim costs. You’ve probably seen them before:

  1. Buy different kinds of food (lentils in place of meat; generic instead of premium).
  2. Buy from a cheaper source (Food Lion, rather than Whole Foods).
  3. Buy in bulk (from Costco or another consumers’ union).
  4. Buy only foods that can be reused or recombined with other leftovers to make new meals.
  5. Use coupons or sales to only buy when items are discounted.

Each of those methods is a good way to watch what you spend. And new tools like The Grocery Game help to compare costs. Unfortunately, those options aren’t always possible, or they don’t do enough. Maybe you don’t have access to a bulk food club. Maybe you have trouble finding coupons for the kinds of food you buy. Maybe you already buy generic brands, but it’s still not enough.

Luckily, there’s something that you can do — today — that takes no planning, requires no math (usually), and that will save you money every time you shop. It’s called unit pricing, and it’s pretty neat. If you’re a grocery guru, you almost certainly know about unit pricing (it’d be great if you could add a comment to the post about unit pricing techniques you use); but if you’re new to grocery shopping, it’s possible nobody’s ever told you about unit pricing, or explained how it works. Let’s change that.

Unit Pricing

In most states in the US, and in more and more countries around the world, every time you see a price tag at a grocery store, you’ll actually see two prices. The more prominent number is the real price — the amount that the cashier will ask you to pay when you get to the cash register. The smaller number, tucked away on the side of the price tag, is something called the unit price. Often, the unit price will be in a smaller font size, printed with a lighter color of ink, or the real price will have yellow highlighting on it to call attention to itself. Ignore the big, bold, yellow-background number. Embrace the unit price.

The unit price is the amount you’re paying for each “unit” (ounce, pound, etc.) of the product you’re buying. By giving you a standard unit to use to compare products and packages, the store lets you make a more informed choice. You can let the store do the math for you, to make it easier for you to compare prices.

Here’s an example: I have a small party coming up, and I’d like to buy some soda. I’d like to avoid 2-liter bottles, if possible, opting for single-serving containers.

I go to the store, and it turns out I have seven different options (plus the two-liter bottle):

  • A six-pack of 24-oz. bottles for $3.50.
  • A six-pack of 8-oz. cans (the “100-calorie cans”) for $2.59.
  • A twelve-pack of 12-oz. cans for $3.99.
  • That same twelve-pack, but with a store loyalty card for $3.66.
  • An eight-pack of 12-oz. bottles for $3.49.
  • A 2-liter bottle for $1.59.
  • A six-pack of 8-oz. “classic” glass bottles for $4.19.
  • And then, there’s always the option of buying the pre-chilled 20-oz. bottles in the refrigerated case, at $1.49 each.

Maybe you’re better at doing math in your head than I am, but I look at all those numbers and my head starts swimming. My eyes begin to glaze over.

But here are the same options, with their unit pricing:

[spreadsheet demonsrating unit pricing]

Unit pricing lets you keep fewer numbers in your head. It’s easy to look at the options in front of you, to compare them, and to see which one makes the most sense.

Bigger is Not Always Better

Knowing that we’re now comparing apples-to-apples, we can look at the price per quart, and see that the six-pack of 24-oz. bottles is the cheapest of the “single serving options.” And we can see that the twelve-pack of cans is just little bit more than that. And we can see that the 2-liter bottle is the cheapest of all of them, and it gives guests power over their portion control, so maybe I’ll reconsider that whole “single serving options” decision.

“I know all that already,” you’re saying. “Buy the biggest box on the shelf, and you’ll automatically get the lowest price per unit.” That’s often (but not always) true. If you’re buying a commodity item (something you tend to buy every single time you’re at the store, and that you tend to go through at the same rate whether you have one pound or ten pounds of it on hand [think: rice]), you can usually get away with just buying the biggest package you can. But it’s easy enough to check and see that you are, in fact, getting the best price — just look at the tag. (For example, pay close attention in the breakfast cereal aisle. We’ve found that the biggest box of Cheerios sometimes has the highest unit price.)

Meat Market

I know you’ve basically got it by now. But there’s one more section of the store we’ll take a look at, since it’s a place where unit pricing is incredibly easy, and where it can make a big difference to your food bill: the meat department.

Meat is one area where unit pricing is actually really really easy. If you don’t use unit pricing anywhere else in the store, at least try it with the meat department. Most grocery stores print their own labels for their meat — the numbers are large and readable, they’re custom-printed for each package, and they include the sell-by date, the size of the package, and the unit price (all of which are useful data).

One especially nice thing about shopping for meat: it’s all measured with the same unit! So you can, very easily, see what the per-pound price of that ground beef is, compared with the per-pound price of the filet mignon. You can look at the boneless chicken breasts, as compared with the drumsticks. You can look at the fish versus the chicken, or the pork versus the beef, and decide which will be the better purchase.

Smarter Shopping

Unit pricing isn’t always the best method to use for shopping. There are always other things to consider as well. Are the ingredients safe? Will my family eat this? Obviously, unit price shopping isn’t a substitute for that. But it’s one more tool you can use to help you make better financial choices when shopping.

So if you’re trying to get out of debt, or you’re trying to save for the future, take a look at the choices you’re making with your food buying. Saving 20 cents here and 75 cents there can really add up. And maybe buying according to unit pricing will help you spend less on things that aren’t as important, so you can buy more of the stuff that matters. Like $11-a-gallon milk.

Charlie and his wife live in Virginia with their three daughters. They’re the folks behind an easy online budget program called PearBudget. Photo of Italian butcher by o0Karen0o.

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LC
LC
12 years ago

One thing to think about is how big the “servings” are. For example, if you get the 12 oz cans, people will often be satisfied with 1 can. If you get the 24 oz bottles, everyone will take a bottle and drink 24 oz (or throw out the remainder of what they don’t drink.) So you are encouraging everyone to take 2 servings when they may only want one, thus spending more money. And for meat, when I have chosen the lowest per-pound item, I go through and pick the lowest cost package. Even though it may have a few… Read more »

Alicia
Alicia
12 years ago

Good post. One thing to note on the unit price for meat is to consider how much fat or bone is included (ie things you won’t eat). If two varieties of meat have the same price per pound but one has a lot of fat to remove or a huge bone in it, the price per edible unit is actually higher. Now, that meat may be worth it for the added flavor of extra fat or cooking with the bone. But it’s something to consider.

Thomas Murphy
Thomas Murphy
12 years ago

Buy only what you need and not what you want !
People must understand that they need to put a limit on expensive products, or products that are considered luxury items.

Cindi
Cindi
12 years ago

Great post. I have decided I hate grocery shopping. There are so many things that make it complicated. Anything that eases that complication helps.

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

This is definitely a great tool for comparison shopping. The things that ticks me off is that from time to time the grocery store will not use the same units for comparable products. You’ll see one brand with $/quart, the next with $/oz, etc. Toilet paper always seems to have all sorts of wierd units. It would be nice if every product had a standard unit.

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
12 years ago

Many may not know this is another case for regulation. In my part of the country, anyway, it took a law to force grocers to post unit prices. Before that, there really was no way for a consumer to compare prices meaningfully without bring a calculator to the store.

Charlie Park
Charlie Park
12 years ago

LC – Good call on the “serving size” point. I do that, too. My decision-making process on meat:
1) pick the type of meat I want
2) pick the cut
3) pick the freshest package (that is, with the furthest-away expiration date)
4) of the packages that I’m looking at, find the smallest one.

You’re right: people really don’t notice the missing ounces of meat, and it’s healthier, and it costs less.

Toblerone @ Simple Mom
Toblerone @ Simple Mom
12 years ago

I agree with Alicia – it’s easy to forget the type of meat product and how much meat is actually in the package. For awhile I was roasting whole chickens, assuming they were less per kilo of meat. Turns out it was about the same as chicken breasts, when you weigh in just the meat part.

Charlie’s great, and I love his budgeting system! Go sign up.

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

I’m glad you made the point that larger packaging (or bulk packaging) is not always cheaper. People tend to believe that myth and always go for the bigger box, assuming it is cheaper. I often find it is cheaper (by unit) to buy two of the smaller packages to increase the volume of something I need, rather than buy it in bulk.

Damsel
Damsel
12 years ago

Another thing to remember in your example of the sodas is that people are going to have to have cups to drink from if you buy the 2-liters. I tend to go with disposable cups for a party b/c I don’t have nice glassware (IMO) — plus, I’m lazy and don’t want to wash them. At any rate, I have to factor in the cost of the cups, too, to see if it’s still cost-effective. 🙂 I’ve always done unit-pricing. The store brand is almost always cheaper, but there are certain items that just aren’t as good (my local store’s… Read more »

MonkeyMonk
MonkeyMonk
12 years ago

One things to keep in mind about using a grocery’s serving size calculation:

Product sizes have been shrinking dramatically lately (e.g., most brand-name ice cream went from 2 QTs, to 1.75, to 1.5 in a little under two years . . . and without a price drop!) and stores have been very slow to update their unit calculations and in many cases they might be referring to a discontinued larger size. My grocery is *full* of mistakes. It’s still useful, you just need to double-check to make sure the size referenced is actually what’s on the shelf.

Don
Don
12 years ago

I want to chime in on the larger packaging thing too. For various reasons, we eat a reasonable amount of “Pop tarts” although I always buy a store brand or generic. I’ve can’t tell you how many time a box of 12 costs more than twice as much as a box of 6. So, it sucks for the environment, but I buy two boxes of 6 (which I recycle at least).

I have especially seen the “more expensive big box” phenomenon in the past year, so it is worth paying attention to.

cmadler
cmadler
12 years ago

@Brian: I was going to make the same point. Unit pricing is nice, but when different sizes of a product are listed in different units (in the case of toilet paper, one will be listed in square feet, one will be listed in “squares” of paper, and one will be listed in rolls!) it’s nearly useless.

Joel Falconer
Joel Falconer
12 years ago

Another option for saving money on groceries that’s totally frugal and totally healthy… just cut the dairy out 😉

JoAnne
JoAnne
12 years ago

Also, if you use a coupon, it totally changes the unit pricing. It usually makes smaller packages a better deal – but the only way to be sure is to do the math.

Alison
Alison
12 years ago

I will second what others said about the price/unit on meat (with bone/without bone.) Although, it depends on what you’re cooking, how you cook it. For meat purposes, sometimes a whole chicken is more expensive than buying chicken breasts. I like to buy meat with the bone in for recipes that call for cooked chicken because then I get good homemade broth as well. I think chicken quarters are actually the most cost effective for this.

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

Love the article!

One area where I have to change my shopping habits is on fruit, depending on the store. Trader Joe’s charges by the piece, while the regular store charges by the pound. When I using the pound measure, I try to pick the smaller bananas and apples. They still satiate my kids’ appetites but cost less. This method doesn’t work so well when I go to TJS and pay by the piece.

Emily C
Emily C
12 years ago

It’s nice when the grocery store does it for you, but at my local Wal-Mart the unit pricing is frequently wrong.

So check the math every once in a while, just to make sure.

Scott
Scott
12 years ago

On the larger package idea…when I was in high school (twenty-something years ago), I stocked grocery shelves. It was not at all unusual to put up a big display of something like a 12 roll pack of toilet paper, with an increased unit cost, put a big, cheerful sign on it and people would buy like crazy!

Definitely, watch the unit cost!

Aaron
Aaron
12 years ago

This is the single most important part of my shopping. For example, the per-ounce price of chunky peanut butter in the small jar is 7.4 cents. The price of chunky peanut butter in the big “value” jar? 10.0 cents. I might look a little odd as I buy six small jars of peanut butter, but you can’t beat 25% savings.

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

So, the CVS route is the way to go…

for ex. Next week, you can get 4 12 packs on coke products for 8 dollars.

@ .16 cents a can, you won’t be able to find a better deal.

Sites like moneysavingmom.com and iheartcvs document these sort of deals.

check em out, my weekly shopping is now less than 10 dollars a week AND i’m eating better, name brand goods. Last week they had a great sale on organic pasta sauce, it ended up being LESS than hunts canned sauce!

Lulugal11
Lulugal11
12 years ago

I never paid that much attention to the unit pricing especially when it came to canned goods. Over the weekend my boyfriend and I went to buy some fish and we were looking at salmon versus tilapia. Well everyone always says salmon is more expensive and sure enough the price on the salmon pack was higher than on the tilapia pack. Then we looked at the per unit pricing and saw the tilapia was priced about 8 cents per unit more than the salmon. The tilapia had a lower price in total but the unit price was higher. We got… Read more »

Angie at Baby Cheapskate
Angie at Baby Cheapskate
12 years ago

Great post! Stores don’t want you to be able to check unit pricing from home! Quantities on diaper packaging, for example, are frequently airbrushed out in weekly circulars. Makes it pretty difficult to do the math.

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

Unit price works best if you have the discipline to not eat up the greater quantity of cheaper product more quickly because you’ve got more of it around! Recently, I’ve started to wonder about my grocery patterns — I’ve been practicing a “keep a lot of food in the house” method which would enable one to deal with any unusual event, from bad weather to money crisis. So, every week we spend about the same amount and it is always more food than we need so there’s cushioning going on. BUT I’m beginning to wonder if I should be more… Read more »

Klug
Klug
12 years ago

Great post. An quick way to do unit pricing is to use your cell phone’s calculator feature; saves me a lot of mental long division.

Kim
Kim
12 years ago

If the store updates the unit pricing when a package changes size it can save you from being taken for a ride. For instance, one brand of ice cream recently reduced the size of the carton but increased the price. Now it is smaller than the other brand. However, I still see people buying the new smaller packaging instead of the larger container of the other brand. They don’t seem to realize they are being cheated. They pay more per unit but don’t notice.

Unit pricing is your friend!

Rich
Rich
12 years ago

One more gotcha is the customer appreciation cards. The stores we shop have the higher non-card price marked as the main price, and the unit price is taken from that value. The card-price is lower, and changes the unit price.

Probably 3/4s of the items in the store have card-prices.

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

Just a cautionary tip for you husbands/boyfriends buying TP – beware unit pricing by sq. ft. I recently bought some that was cheaper per sq. ft. than the rest of the brands, and, without looking at any other metrics, it turned out to be the thin, single-ply mega roll. And boy, did I hear about it. 🙂

As is mentioned in the article, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, in more ways than one. 🙂

Beth@paydaytree
12 years ago

What a great post. I’ve never heard of unit pricing and this is definitely something that I will use the next time I go grocery shopping.

robin
robin
12 years ago

I’ve been doing this for years and it’s an easy habit. Some online grocery sites (like Peapod) will let you sort by unit price too! But like Elisabeth (#24) said — it sometimes doesn’t pay to get the larger quantity with the unit price. E.g., once I bought a HUGE thing of goldfish because my son has them for an occasional snack. Then I noticed that since we had this giant carton, he was snacking on goldfish 2x a day, and my husband and I had started munching on them too … So I’m back to buying the smaller, higher-unit-price… Read more »

Faculties
Faculties
12 years ago

You have to watch out at Albertsons — their unit pricing seems to be designed to be confusing, especially for sale items. So the sale items will have their unit pricing in some other measurement than the non-sale pricing (tenths of a pound as compared to ounces, or the like). Very confusing, and I suspect deliberately so. You need a calculator with you to do the math. I avoid Albertsons altogether for this reason.

allen
allen
12 years ago

@Klug:

I was just going to say how valuble using the cell phone calculator was. 😀

& @Brian:
The different units is why i keep a converstion program on my cell phone (you could also just keep a little sheet, i suppose. They don’t teach how many cups are in a quart these days).

Jenne
Jenne
12 years ago

Keeping a price notebook, with unit prices, can be really helpful. However, if you shop at discount places, not all of them will have the unit price, so note both. For things sold in standard sizes (cans, 5lb bags, dozens) you may not need a unit price.

Also, never assume generic or store brand is cheaper– check the unit price.

Keeping a price notebook for a few things you regularly buy is a good way to start saving.

Gordon
Gordon
12 years ago

Last year on a trip to Las Vegas, we stopped at one of the organic grocery stores, and I saw some extra effort put in on the unit pricing for bottled water. Every type of water they had used different units for the unit pricing, including using gallons, liters(!), ounces, cups, or then some weird fraction of these units (ie price per 150 ml)…

All designed to make unit price comparisons useless. use them carefully.

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

It’s actually surprising that not everywhere in the US unit prices are shown…

Heather
Heather
12 years ago

Looking at unit prices was the first thing I ever did to try to be frugal at the grocery store, because it was easy. I remember the time I realized that buying the BIG bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce was actually cheaper (per unit) than buying any of the store brand bottles. Boy was my husband happy – I can’t convince him that the store brand is just as good as the name brand. Unit prices are complicated when I try to use coupons. I have to re-figure the price with the coupon subtracted and then compare the unit price… Read more »

Adfecto
Adfecto
12 years ago

My engineering brain has had me following this shopping style for as long as I’ve been buying my own groceries. Around here unit prices are not the norm (except at walmart) so my wife takes me along on all of the shopping trips to use me as a walking talking calculator. She hates math and I hate over paying for my food!

Heather
Heather
12 years ago

HollyP (#17): That is so brilliant! I look for the biggest piece of fruit when they charge per piece, but I never thought to buy small ones when they charge per pound. It makes so much sense!

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

costco rocks.. end of story

Mary Sue
Mary Sue
12 years ago

Costco rocks if you eat a lot of processed and packaged food and are buying for more than one person. The last time I went, I couldn’t find a single thing that I ate except rice, and even though I eat rice at 7-10 meals a week, I still don’t go through 50lbs in a year. And they didn’t have brown rice. I alternate shopping between a damnhippie grocery store near my house and WinCo, and I use the notes function in my ancient and venerable phone to keep track of the price per unit of my staples (lentils ftw!)… Read more »

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

i find the more packaging is involved, the more it costs per unit. individual applesauce? expensive. big jar of applesauce? cheaper. you have to invest a couple bucks in some cheap stuff to bring it to work if you’re buying for the purposes of lunch (and really, who needs mini applesauce cups to eat at home? that’s what dishes are for.) but over the lifetime of those tupperware containers, you save a lot in packaging costs. and you throw a lot less stuff into the dump.

junkcafe
junkcafe
12 years ago

The 2 best friends of the frugal shopper: unit price and coupons. If the UP isn’t printed, take out the ol’ cell phone and make friends with the calculator feature (that’s right…no excuses). When buying cleaning products, I do this all the time since the manufacturers see to be changing sizes ALL the time. So, it is a constant battle between me the consumer and them the producer. Like that classic American Express tv ad, don’t leave home without the coupons! “If I don’t have a coupon or it’s not on sale, I’m not buyin'” is our family’s motto. JD,… Read more »

Net Debt
Net Debt
12 years ago

Trader Joes is good for your pocket book and your health!!

zohngalt
zohngalt
12 years ago

Considering just chicken. White meat (breast) is more expensive than dark (thigh/leg), and skinless even more. Even if I hadn’t always preferred dark meat, the price difference would convince me. When whole chickens are on sale, one can be put in a crockpot with onion, carrots, etc. and when done, there is broth plus the meat falls off the bone for use elsewhere. Legs are probably the worst deal due to the bone/meat ratio. When available, ground turkey or ground chicken is somewhat more expensive than ground beef, but the fat content is less. Of course, these timps apply to… Read more »

Terry
Terry
12 years ago

I was happy when grocery stores went to price per unit. I can do the math most of the time but when a product jumps from ounces to quarts or liters I can’t keep up.

Tage
Tage
12 years ago

I love this technique! I use it when I have a hankering for some sweets. What is the best deal, the “Buy 2 get 3 free” regular size skittles, or how about that large pack of the same item? Often times is the larger pack, but watch for big sales!

credit addict
credit addict
12 years ago

Be careful when letting the store do the math for your. Sometimes they’re wrong.

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

I’m surprised some places don’t have unit pricing. We’ve had it here outside of Philadelphia for as long as I can remember.

One thing to be careful of with unit pricing is not to buy the bigger size because it has a lower unit price when the package is so large you won’t eat it all before it goes bad.

Shopping on unit price alone is great for paper towels and canned soup that will keep forever, but not as good on milk or other perishables.

Throwing out half the food that was 20% cheaper doesn’t make sense.

John
John
12 years ago

I use unit price all the time when shopping and it super convenient that the stores do it for you. I did an analysis of spices that come prepackaged versus a bulk food store here and the difference is ridiculous! Toilet paper is the worst for unit prices though, since they typically (at my store) use price per roll. However, all the rolls have different number of sheets. You can get around this though since each package will tell you how many rolls and how many sheets per roll there are. I use this information to get a cost per… Read more »

Ben
Ben
12 years ago

In Australia the supermarket industry is dominated by a duopoly (during the week I read that they have over 70% of the market). The new government is running an inquiry into the pricing practices of the supermarket industry. Aldi entered the supermarket industry a few years ago and introduced unit pricing early in 2008. All of the other companies involved in the supermarket industry are highly reluctant to introduce unit pricing. We don’t have Copuons in Australia and the only way to know when items are on sale is to get the printed circulars (which run from a Monday to… Read more »

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