Updated on 09.22.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Canning Fruits and Vegetables

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Jacqui writes in: Canning. I’ve been told it can be really cheap, but from what I can tell unless you are growing your own, it isn’t worth it.

Sarah and I do a small amount of canning, mostly tomato-based things in a water bath. We can things like tomato sauce, salsa, pasta sauce, and so on. However, beyond that, we actually don’t can very much. We find it more cost-efficient to freeze vegetables in the fall and use them in the winter instead.

So, what are the comparative costs here?

Canning requires jars, lids, and rings. You’ll also need a large pot (for acidic items) and/or a pressure cooker (for other items). I won’t include the pots in this calculation because they’re easily used for other purposes. I’ll also only count 1/10th of the cost of the jars because they can be reused quite a few times.

You can get quart jars for about $1.40 apiece new. If you reuse them ten times, that’s $0.14 per jar. You can also get bands and lids for about $0.70 per set, and since you’re able to reuse the bands, you can also get just lids for about $0.40 apiece. Thus, your cost per canned jar for the materials is about $0.54 with some additional startup costs.

Canned goods You can buy a pint can of many canned vegetables at the store for $0.89 or $0.99. Many other items will cost substantially more than that. Thus, it’s pretty clear that if you have a source for fresh vegetables, you can save significant money by canning yourself.

Flash frozen goods You can get about a quart of flash frozen vegetables at the store for $1.39. Obviously, as with canned goods, the selection at that price is fairly limited.

Freezing requires containers and a freezer. We’ve had a standalone deep freezer for years. As I calculated before, the cost of maintaining and using a deep freezer is about $130 a year.

On average, we freeze an item for six months and it takes up about 1/2% of the freezer, so our cost for that individual item in the freezer is $0.32. We use freezer containers over and over again to freeze items, so the cost for the container is $0.01 or $0.02. This gives us a total cost of roughly $0.34 to freeze a quart of vegetables ourselves if we use it in six months.

Simply put, the raw cost of freezing or canning is cheaper if you do it yourself, but only if you have a source of free or extremely inexpensive vegetables and fruits.

The cost of even deeply discounted fruits and vegetables easily pushes the cost of freezing and canning yourself up into the range of “no longer a bargain” and “most likely a loss.” Freezing and canning yourself has startup costs, too.

You can save dollars, not pennies by canning (or freezing) if you have an abundant garden. Otherwise, it’s not worth it.

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  1. Matt says:

    We don’t can much, but the one thing we’ve canned a couple times is applesauce. We can get a huge amount of pick-your-own apples pretty cheap in the fall, then make and can enough applesauce to last us the year. I don’t remember the figures from last year, but I know that we ended up with it cheaper than at the store.

    The real reason we do it though is for the taste – homemade applesauce is just SO much better than store-bought in terms of taste! It’s almost not even the same food.

  2. Liz says:

    I think you’re forgetting what I consider to be the most important part of canning, which means that “‘no longer a bargain’ and ‘most likely a loss.'” is moot. And that’s the flavor. The most organic, grown in Eden peach in the world loses something when it’s canned by one of the big companies, probably due to heat. And I can sometimes taste the metal of the can itself.
    Also, I know exactly what is in the jars of peaches that I canned this summer (peaches, water, and good cane sugar [not too much]).
    I can mostly for flavor, but partly for ingredients. I don’t grow much of what I can myself, but I can get “not-certified organic but I know the farmer and how the stuff is grown” fruits and veggies from nearby farms for very reasonable prices. Plus it’s kind of fun — there is a visible tangible product at the end (and it’s a bonus that I can eat it).
    I still want to do applesauce and pears, but the hardest part for me is finding the time.

  3. Nick says:

    I’m getting into canning stuff, but only things that are very expensive in the store or if I can drastically improve on the costs or flavors of the item.

    For example, I’m a huge pickled okra fan. A jar of pickled okra in the store is 5-6 bucks. Meanwhile I can pickle my own for less than a dollar a jar and they taste the same if not better.

    I actually posted my recipe for spicy pickled okra a few days ago for those interested. If you google spicy pickled okra, it’s the recipe at Macheesmo a few results down…

  4. Diane says:

    I always keep an eye out for canning jars at thrift stores, estate sales, etc. I never pay 1.40 each. All my other canning supplies were obtained the same way. If you put the word out at church or the Senior Center, you’re likely to get a good response. Freecycle is also a good resource. My other secret is that when I’m shopping at the dollar-type stores, I will stock up on things packaged in canning jars. I may pay $1.00, but the jar is full of something edible to boot. Besides the previous comments about the taste, canned items also make great low-cost gifts. I enjoy giving abundantly, especially to folks who aren’t expecting much and canning is a wonderful way to be frugal and generous.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    Didn’t we just discuss this in August?

  6. Riki says:

    I’m about to try canning for the first time. My mom cans every year (tons and tons of stuff from mackeral to mustard pickles) so she’ll be there to help and lend me all of her equipment.

    I want to try it because I really enjoy do-it-yourself projects. And I have two apple trees so I might as well use the apples for something.

  7. Gretchen says:

    We did just discuss this.

    Tomatoes are totally not worth it. What you can buy canned tastes almost identical and tomatoes need a lot of cooking down.

    Oddly flavored jams are. I have never had success with pickles, unless I just fridge can.

  8. Deborah says:

    I agree with Liz – one of the reasons I can the things I do is because of the flavor and the fact that I know what’s in the can. Green beans that I can have a significantly different flavor and texture than a can of Green Giant.

    I don’t can/freeze a large amount of produce, but the ones I do taste better to me than the ones I purchase. Of course, thirty years ago I preferred what Green Giant offered, so…opinions obviously vary.

  9. yoko says:

    I agree with Liz also… I start canning last year and I love it!! I did local tomatoes and peaches.. It was great!! Canning tomato taste much better than regular can tomatoes. And I know where is coming from, supporting local farmer, and I know what in it!!
    I wish I know what else is good to canning…

  10. Becca says:

    I agree with most all prior comments. If you live rurally, you are bound to know people who have surplus of some things and are willing to give it away. We are having an awesome tomato year after several bad years, so we canned scored of quarts of spaghetti sauce, and still had bushels of tomatoes to give away. I decided this year to also freeze some stewed tomatoes, agreed takes a long time to cook down, but simmering it doesn’t need to be stirred. And I did the rough calculations for cost of electricity, and it is still cheaper to cook and freeze, versus buying stuff. Hourly wage? real low. But right now I don’t have higher hourly wage frugal tasks to do anyway. It just bugs me to watch them out there going bad.
    I agree that for some foods, home canned is way superior. Store sauerkraut is really bad, but home canned is wonderful; no comparison.
    One of my least favorite foods to put away is pumpkin for puree (also cook up and use butternut squash in place of pumpkin). Yet it just makes a better tasting pie, somehow more delicate. I have seldom bought store pumpkin, but when I do I am surprised by the cost. So I continue to put pumpkin in the freezer. Long after I have forgotten the hassle, it is nice to go to my freezer or canning shelves to get a quart of pumpkin that I know it was near free.

  11. Jules says:

    I have to ask whether jamming counts as “canning” because we buy a lot of fruit when it goes on sale and turn it into jam. We give about 1/2 of it away as presents and eat the rest–it takes about two years to finish a stock.

    My boyfriend is the one who does the jamming, and he adds stuff like cinammon, whiskey, basil, etc to his jams and gives them a divine flavor. Well worth the cost of fruit. As for the jars…they’re practically free. We save all of the jars from things like olives and just keep reusing them.

  12. leah says:

    Since dried beans are so much cheaper than canned (and easy to find), I think beans are another “win” for canning. Like other commenters, I mostly can chickpeas for the vast improvement in flavor and texture, but they’re cheaper too when you can your own.

  13. Des says:

    The financial costs here are grossly overestimated. I often find packs of lids at thrift stores for $1 a piece for 10 lids. The going rate for used jars around here is between $0.25 and $0.50.

    However, I can’t believe you didn’t even mention the time! I got 50 lbs of tomatoes from my dad’s garden over the weekend. It took 10 hours of work (active, stir-the-pot-every-few-minutes kind of work) to make 16 pints of spaghetti sauce. I can buy a pint of sauce for $1 in the store – making my hourly wage $1.44 without factoring in the prorated cost of the jars and bands. If I use my real hourly wage (take home pay after work-related expenses), those pints cost me $13.85 each. Yes, my sauce is much better than store bought, but not 13 times better.

  14. Bobbi says:

    Three reasons to can/freeze/jam: cost savings, taste, knowledge of ingredients. I make a year’s worth of strawberry jam for my husband. No high fructose corn syrup or whatever other mystery ingredient they can think of. My batch tastes better to us than even the gourmet brands and has a consistency we like. Two out of three reasons are good enough for me to do some “putting up.” However, I believe you have to get to a place where the reward is worth the cost. It can be a lot of hot work and difficult in small kitchens.

  15. Becky says:

    I enjoy canning (and Jules, I consider jamming canning!) for a lot of the reasons posted above. If someone’s thinking of getting into it, they should start pretty small unless they have an experienced friend or family member to help. It’s not rocket science, but things can go wrong occasionally, and you don’t want to get discouraged or waste a bunch of food.

    Making jam & jelly is really cost-effective if you have a free source of fruit. One year we found an incredible blackberry patch and I made three gallons of blackberry and apple-blackberry jam and jelly (in pint and half-pint jars). Not only did it make great gifts, but my husband ate everything we kept within a year. Considering he goes through at least one jar of jam per week, that saved us a lot of money and the jam was delicious. He’ll happily eat the cheap kind made with high-fructose corn syrup (as long as it isn’t grape), but when I’m shopping, I can’t bring myself to feed that stuff to my dear husband, so I tend to buy the $5/jar jams for him. Making jam from foraged fruit instead(typically stretched with apples from our own trees) is much less expensive and the quality is at least as high.

  16. Carrie says:

    I have been thinking about this recently, too. I like to can my own grape juice for use in religious services (communion/sacrament meetings). I know it’s not cheaper than buying it, by far. I purchase concord grapes from a local guy, and got them for about $1.05 a pound. That’s pretty typical around here. When it comes down to it, I spent about $27 to get about a gallon and a half of juice. about 192 ounces. I can get expensive juice, not on sale, for about $.07 an ounce. So, yes, for the sake of money only, canning grape juice is totally not cost effective. But, since I have other perceived benefits, it makes it totally worth it! Money isn’t the only reason to can produce.

  17. Carole says:

    I am an older person who has done a lot of canning in my time. I have had 2 pressure canners which I consider a “must”. The first one was bought an an auction sale and when it wore out the second was bought at a garage sale. Some people consider canning a hobby. I never enjoyed it that much. If you have access to free or cheap produce it is definitely a money saver. Meat can be canned and a lot of other things that one wouldn’think of can be canned. If the electricity goes out as can happen,then canned food will still be ok. Not so with frozen food.

  18. Becky says:

    One thing to mention though – as with so many other frugal activities, canning is only worth it if you enjoy doing it. If you hate spending hours in a hot kitchen stirring pots, then the money savings will never be worth it.

    I love processing food (pickles, jam, dehydrating, freezing) but I’m not that wild about gardening. I live in a rural area with lots of passionate and experienced gardeners.

    Next year, I’m considering offering to process my friends’ produce for them, for a cut of the harvest. If they drop off 40 lbs of tomatoes and a box of jars, I could give them back 30 lbs worth of sauce in their own jars, and keep 10 lbs for myself in my jars (or whatever ratio works for both of us).

    Has anybody here done anything like that?

  19. rebecca says:

    Yep, we just talked about this in august. Buy lids in bulk for just pennies, I often buy 1000 at a time, to last a couple years. And put out ads on Craigs list for jars, I offer 15 to 20 cents each, and get plenty of responses.

    Even if I didn’t grow my own produce, and I don’t grow all of it, the flavor and knowing exactly what is in it, plus no BPA in glass jars is totally worth it.

    Canning does take time, but I have time being a stay at home mom, and I don’t have money. So canning is worth my time.

    LIke Carole, I have a pressure canner which also can be used to water bath can, and its 23qt volume makes a great big stock pot for big batches of soup or boiling corn. I do have a jar lifter, which I bought for $3. Other than that anything I have for canning, like a large mouth funnel, I use for other things in the kitchen so they really aren’t specialty items.

    And I agree with Carrie and Becky, home made jam and grape juice have ruined my palate for the better. I can’t even swallow the store bought stuff. Ick!

  20. Becky says:

    Ha ha, Carole is contradicting me as I type, saying canning is worth it to her even though she doesn’t really enjoy it!

    Since I actually do enjoy canning, I’m not going to argue with her experience.

  21. Canadian says:

    I do not often have a free or cheap source of produce and yet canning is still worth it to me.

    1) I feel I am developing a skill that I will use even more later when I am in a position to grow more of my own food.

    2) I place a high value on making my own food. I get a lot of pleasure from spreading my homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam on my morning toast.

    3) I enjoy having foods made exactly as I like them (e.g. applesauce that has the perfect amount of spice and sugar) or that are simply unavailable in the store (e.g. unusual flavours of jam).

    4) I highly value eating locally grown food. I cannot buy locally grown frozen strawberries in the winter (even if I extend “local” to mean “all of Canada”). I cannot buy canned peaches that are not from another country either.

    5) Using my pressure canner, I can make actual prepared foods as opposed to just ingredients. I can make many jars of soup or stew, for example. This is a great time saver throughout the year. (Note: I can them rather than freeze because I do not have a deep freezer due to lack of space. Also they will not be affected by power outages.)

  22. AndreaS says:

    #13 Des: This year we pooled labor and resources with a neighbor to make spaghetti sauce, so split the jars with her, also gave some to a recent widow, and canned some for adult kids. We estimate it took about 16 hours to can 85 quarts quarts, including picking and clean-up.
    Now, we do some time-saving things you might not have done. We use a recipe that calls for adding store-bought tomato paste as a thickener, which greatly cuts the cooking time (no need to cook down as much). We also work with two canners simultaneously. We do not peel tomatoes, but grind them with skin in the food processor (the USDA may not approve, have been doing this way forever with no problems).
    Like many skills, it takes some time and experience to learn how to do things quickly and efficiently. Some of what we learned was passed down from previous generations. We are retirement age and still learn new tricks.
    I agree that one can buy a quart of sauce for $1, but it really isn’t any near as good. I agree if you don’t have the time and the desire to can, and the taste difference is not important to you, $1 jars will do.
    We also use our sauce for barter or gifts. A neighbor recently traded us a bag of her onions for one jar of our sauce.

  23. Canadian says:

    AndreaS: Good point regarding barter and gifts. Many people will find home-canned stuff to be a real treat! My co-workers love getting a jar of my homemade jam.

  24. Des says:

    @AndreaS – Yeah, adding a thickener definitely would have cut down on the time. I think next time I’ll try leaving it in the crockpot with the lid off overnight to reduce it, then just bring it to boiling before canning. We have a vitamix, so I just blended up the tomato chunks with the skins on (I didn’t know USDA was iffy on that…we’ll see how it goes I guess).

    Even though I know it isn’t financially worth it, I don’t really like spaghetti, and it wasn’t much fun for me to can, I will still do it again when he gives me the next batch. I just can’t stand to see the tomatoes go to waste (which is what would happen if I didn’t preserve them, he’d just feed them to his chickens… and these are beautiful heirloom tomatoes! I shudder to even blend them up and can them, I can’t take the thought of wasting them altogether.)

    Thanks for the tips :) I wish the matriarchs in my life had these skills to teach me.

  25. Allison says:

    @Des – You make an excellent point in that very last line: “I wish the matriarchs in my life had these skills to teach me.”

    My mom taught me how to can. I never *needed* the skill growing up. Dad had a great job and I never, ever felt like we had a need to be frugal.

    However, my hubby and I have weathered lay-offs TWICE in our lives and we would not have fared so well had my mom not taught me those frugal skills. She learned them because she was a kid in the depression era. A way of life. I didn’t need them in my teen years, but I sure needed them in my newlywed, then raising my children stage of life.

    My children all know how to be frugal. They know how to garden, can, freeze, clip coupons, shop wisely, make clothes, barter… I pray that they won’t NEED those skills, but I sleep well at night knowing they HAVE those skills.

    And just a side note — the cost of canning is completely irrelevant to me when I consider the Saturday mornings spent with my little army of helpers beside me. That time was PRICELESS.

  26. Gretchen says:

    Where do you buy lids in bulk? I also need bulk rings as a large percentage of mine rust.

    I’d also be careful canning pumpkin in a water bath, the USDA doesn’t recommend that since the pumpkin is so thick and you may not process all the way through.

  27. rebecca says:

    Gretchen, Try Amazon or Lehmans. I have purchased from both. A google search for bulk canning lids should get you started. Generally they come in two sizes, just make sure you get what matches your jars.

    Another option is to get reusable lids, from Tattler. They are a two piece lid, a rubber ring and a plastic cap which are used with a regular metal ring. The initial cost is more that a one time use ring, but over time they are a great savings, and you never have to worry about running low. The Tattler lids are also BPA free, whereas the one time lids are not.

  28. valleycat1 says:

    #26 Gretchen – once the canned goods have reached room temprature, you can remove the rings, as the lid part is what seals the jar. That might solve the rust problem if you immediately wash and dry them. Just be careful storing the un-ringed jars so you don’t break the seal.

  29. AnnJo says:

    Canning meats is much less work (assuming you can raw-pack) and more bang for the buck financially. The only processing you have to do with raw-pack meat is cut it up, put it in clean jars (no need to sterilize the jars), add lids & rings and process in the pressure canner for the recommended time.

    I can pints of turkey from fresh turkeys bought at 29 Cents a lb. the day after Thanksgiving, and other meats when I get them at really good prices. They are a convenience in making various casseroles, since they’re ready to go without defrosting, and I like the fact that I have a supply of meat that is not dependent on an uninterrupted power supply.

  30. Jennifer says:

    I like having access to local fruit in the winter made with much less sugar and no artificial sweeteners. And it just tastes better. If I don’t consider my time (since I enjoy it) it’s probably a wash. I’ve canned 63 jars this summer!

    Also it wasn’t important to me living in Southern CA but now that I’m in the northeast i can’t get good produce year-round. Tomatoes aren’t even red!

  31. Joyce says:

    I don’t have access to an inexpensive source of veggies, other than store sales, but I love canning soups, stews, stocks, beans, and other staples. I too make out menus, but sometimes, after a long commute, I just cannot manage that long, last mile of making dinner. It’s comforting to know I can just grab something off the shelf and know I’m getting something nutritious and not chemical laden. And it’s convenient for lunches, when there are no suitable leftovers.

    The real value to me is in making stock, if I had to pick out just one thing. Store-bought stock is a joke – it should be against the law to call it stock. USDA guidelines require only the equivalent of 1 oz of protein to approx. 1 gal. of water. And that’s for beef stock. Chicken stock, for some “strange” reason is not bound to those guidelines. So, where does that rich meaty flavor come from? Hmmmm….

    A well-made bone broth has more nutrition and health benefits than anything you can buy in the store. I freeze some, but like to can most of it. Half-pint jars are perfect for taking to work, or for a quick pick-me-up at home. Like nothing you can buy at the store. And, with decent stock on the shelf, you only have to add bits and pieces of leftover meat/veggies/starch and there’s dinner.

    I refuse to eat canned chili after reading in Consumer Reports some years back that it had the highest levels of “allowable filth” of any canned food they tested. (Rodent hair, mouse droppings, bug feet, etc.) Most all mass produced food has some. With my own chili, it’s made to my standards and tastes, as are other things I can.

    As pointed out by others, there is a significant savings if you get your supplies frugally. For me, the health benefits are key. As my grandfather used to say, “You can spend it on food, or you can spend it on medicine.”

    Off my soapbox .

  32. Georgia says:

    I have not canned in years (@ 47) but I know how to do it and could do it again if I had to. I always tell people that we are like the Hank Williams Jr. song – A Country Boy Can Survive. We’ve done it and can revisit any time we need to.

    It’s been so long for me because my husband always said that the farmer’s wife had to put the food on the table. So, I quit gardening and went out and got a job and bought the food. Lazy, wasn’t I?

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