Convenience Foods: What They Really Cost

Every time I visit the grocery store, I’m amazed to see how much of the fresh produce aisle is taken up with prepackaged fresh foods. You know what I’m talking about – bags of prewashed lettuce, pre-cut apples, pre-cut celery, pre-cut pineapple, and so on.

I understand why such items are for sale – they’re convenient. It’s easier to just grab a bag of prewashed romaine lettuce than it is to grab a head of romaine and deal with it when you get home.

Yet, when you look at the prices, you’re actually paying a significant markup. Two bags of Dole romaine lettuce at my local grocer costs about the same as a single head of romaine. The bags cost about $4.50 together, while the head costs about $1.60 (with some variance, of course, due to weight, sales, and so on). By buying the head, you save $2.90 – or, from a different perspective, you’re paying $2.90 for the convenience of someone else washing your lettuce.

Is that really worth it? I bought a head of romaine lettuce myself, put it in one of those handy bags that they provide, and took it home with me. Upon arriving home, I set a stopwatch for myself, then chopped the leaves off of the head of lettuce, rinsed them thoroughly, rinsed the bag a bit (leaving some moisture inside), then put the leaves back in the bag, tying it. I then tossed the knife in the dishwasher and stopped the stopwatch.

Total time? Three minutes. Actually, it was just a bit shy of that.

Let’s say over the course of the next year, I repeat the same action twenty times. I buy a head of romaine, put it in one of those bags from the store, take it home, chop it myself, and store it in that bag. Each time, I’m saving myself $2.90. Over the course of a year, I spend an hour chopping up the lettuce and save myself a total of $58.

The same holds true for all of those convenience foods.

Apple slices? I found apples I like at the store for $1.29 a pound, whereas pre-sliced apples added up to $4.76 a pound (I found four four-ounce bags of them for $1.19 each). I have a nice little apple slicer, so I’m able to slice up a few apples at dinnertime and completely clean up from it in about thirty seconds. My estimate on this is that buying un-cut apples saves me about $80 for every hour of apple-slicing I’m willing to do.

Celery sticks? I can buy a bag of celery for $1.49 or I can buy about three containers of pre-sliced sticks for $1.99 each. I spend about four minutes cutting the sticks and it saves me $3.47 – or about $52 over the course of a full hour.

I can go on and on with these items, but in each case the central idea is true: the convenience has a really, really high cost, much more than it might seem at first glance.

To me, this type of convenience food is a perfect example of how the little things really add up when it comes to personal finance. There are so many little conveniences that we pay for in life, whether it’s pre-sliced apples or take-out food or a lawn care service. When you actually step back and calculate the hourly rate that these things are costing you, it’s truly astounding. Yet people fill their lives with these conveniences and question those who skip out on them, then they wonder why it’s challenging to make ends meet.

Take a stand today. Slice your own vegetables. Then put that saved money aside for something for yourself.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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