Penny-Pinching In The Toiletries Aisle: The Simple Dollar Looks At Toilet Paper

toilet paperFor those of you unaware, I am a big fan of buying in bulk, even though I live in a relatively small space (hint: don’t look in my closet). Why? If I buy in bulk, the cost per unit is often so much cheaper than buying “normal” packages that I end up saving a boatload.

However, the makers of many consumer products have begun to use a number of tricks to make bulk buying more difficult, trying to trick you into spending more for less product even if you buy the mega-bulk size at your local warehouse club. No product is more vicious than the toilet paper manufacturers, who must be an army of clever capitalists.

They do this by overloading you with options to the point that you’re dazed and confused and just grab something – anything – to get the confusion over with. So that we don’t go into complete overload here, let’s look at just one brand, Charmin. I choose this brand because their products have served me well over the years, but they are terribly guilty of brand extension.

If you look at the Charmin product page, you’ll see quickly that they sell a bunch of different varieties: Charmin, Charmin Basic, Charmin Plus, Charmin Scents, Charmin Mega Roll (which is in fact regular Charmin, just in a bigger roll), and Charmin Ultra. What are the differences here? Well, you can probably realize that Charmin Scents is a perfumed variety and a bit of package analysis tells you that Charmin Plus has a lotion in it, but Charmin and Charmin Mega Roll are the same product in different packaging, and the differences between Charmin, Charmin Basic, and Charmin Ultra are pretty hard to discern (Ultra is a slight bit softer, I guess).

It gets worse, far worse.

Let’s say you decide on Charmin Ultra, because you want the softest experience possible. Not only are these rolls sold in packages with different roll counts, some of the rolls contain significantly different amounts of toilet paper. A “big roll” equals two regular rolls, a “giant roll” equals two and a half regular rolls, and a “mega roll” equals four regular rolls. Converting toilet paper amounts between a “big roll” and a “giant roll”? Five rolls of “big” equals four rolls of “giant.” You can derive this in the grocery store, but Charmin is intelligent enough to realize that most people aren’t going to bother and are simply going to just grab a package that they “think” is a good deal.

So how does a frugal consumer escape this trap? Here’s a quick procedure to break through all of the nonsense and quickly find which one you need. Be sure to bring along a pocket calculator, though, or use the one on your cell phone.

First, determine the brand you want. Before you even think about size, determine the brands you’re willing to buy. If you don’t care too much, that basically makes everything available, but if you’re picky, you can quickly eliminate most of the brands in the aisle.

Next, take a particular package and figure out how many sheets are inside. This usually means multiplying the number of actual rolls in the package by the number of sheets per roll.

Now, divide the price of the package (including any coupon deductions) by the number of sheets. This is your price per sheet, and this is the number you should use to compare packages. Do this a few times with various packages (it takes a few seconds on a cell phone calculator) and you’ll pretty quickly see that there are some surprising variations in the costs of toilet papers, even if the packaging indicates that some buys are better than others.

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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