Updated on 09.14.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Failed Batches

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.

Liora said, I made my own soy yogurt for a little while, but a lot of batches failed, which was a waste of money and the batches did not come out consistently. While it looked like an easy process that would save us a lot of money (my husband eats this at least once a day), it was not worth my time and it got more expensive then the store-bought.

Liora’s experience matches my own with regards to some of the challenge of making things at home for the primary purpose of saving money. Almost anything you make at home is fraught with some degree of risk, particularly when the process of making that item is a new one.

For example, I’ve made my own laundry soap in the past. The batch that you see in the post was quite successful. Two earlier trial runs failed, mostly because I didn’t really understand what I was doing. In fact, part of my motivation for writing that post was to try to make sure that others who try to make their own laundry soap don’t fail in doing so due to the simple things that I erred on.

In the case of the laundry soap, messing up a few batches wasn’t a big deal. Since my cost per load with my homemade soap was only about 10% of the cost of Tide, I could mess up quite a few batches while learning and still be able to save money overall.

On the other hand, if you’re making homemade yogurt as Liora is, if you mess up a few batches, you’re going to quickly be on the losing side of the equation. The closer the cost of your ingredients is to the cost of just buying the end product at the store, the smaller your margin of error is.

This comes from experience as well – we’ve made our own homemade yogurt. Homemade yogurt is really one of my wife’s pet projects – I’ve merely served as assistant on a few batches. However, although we’ve had many successful batches, we had several failed batches early on. Again, it mostly boiled down to figuring out the best procedure.

It took a lot of batches of yogurt to get back to a situation where we’re saving money on the yogurt after those failed batches. In fact, depending on the equipment calculations, we might not even be there at this point.

It’s because of these experiences that I would suggest two specific guidelines for deciding whether or not you should make things for yourself.

First, do you use this item frequently and consistently? We live in a house with five people, so we certainly use the laundry soap in sufficient quantitites.

On the other hand, yogurt is not necessarily something we use in great quantitites. We certainly eat it if it’s available, but it’s not something we have a need (or near-need) to use again and again.

Second, is there a large gap between the price of making it and the price of simply buying it? With laundry soap, there’s a large gap between the price of making it and the price of simply buying it. With yogurt, that gap doesn’t really exist.

If you have a large gap, then it’s not a big deal if a batch doesn’t turn out as you would like. If the gap is small, however, an errant batch can result in a net loss.

There’s also something of a third factor: do you enjoy the process of making whatever it is you’re making? I personally enjoy making new things, particularly during the learning phase. The simple act of figuring out how to do something new brings additional joy into my life, so I consider this an added value when making something with the theoretical purpose of saving money.

Making stuff yourself usually saves dollars, but when you’re learning, you can easily knock it down to pennies or even to a loss. Is it worth it to get over that learning curve hump? It depends on you, your situation, and what you value.

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  1. lurker carl says:

    My successes may be failures for others. You’ll never know unless you try. And the experience tends to be worth considerably more than saving a little money.

  2. ChrisD says:

    I suppose another factor of making it yourself would be if you can make something for the same price as shop bought, but you have something of better quality/provenance. You might not want to spend the money to get the more expensive version, but you are happy to spend the time.
    For example I hate the normal bread in the UK so making the type I like would save me having to find and pay for premium/artisan bakeries.

  3. Becca says:

    The most likely cause of failed batches of yogurt is improper temperature in the incubation process. The best method I know involves using a small Igloo cooler filled with hot water. After heating milk to 180 degrees and cooling milk to 115, and mixing in the yogurt starter, pour into quart canning jars (I do two quarts at one time) and place in the cooler filled with hot water. Likely the hottest water from your tap is about 120 degrees (measure temperature to be sure). The yogurt needs to incubate at 115 degrees, so hot tap water is about right. Float your candy thermometer in the water and close the cooler. Every hour or two check the water, as it likely will cool slightly. If so, replace some of the cooled water with hot to bring the temperature back up to 115 degrees. This method insures constant accurate temperature, and that the milk is also warmed from the sides, and not just the bottom. About the only way you can do this wrong is to incubate too short, or two long of a time. It should look some what solid, but not watery around the solid yogurt. Four to five hours is about right. It gets more solid after refrigerated. Once you get a system going it might req
    Should your yogurt batch fail, find ways to reuse the milk/yogurt, such as in muffins. You could just freeze this in small containers and then thaw and use as needed. So there is no waste of milk, just some lost time.
    If I make yogurt completely from powdered milk I can make a quart for about 80 cents. It produces a nice solid fat-free yogurt. Two quarts takes five to ten minutes of time when I am actually involved doing the process. I follow the box directions for reconstitution, plus add another third cup of milk powder per quart to make it thicker. I buy only the large size box at our wholesale club, which currently has the lowest price.
    Most skills require some learning process. You could argue that because you fell off a bike a few times it is better to walk. But once you get the hang of a skill, you have that skill forever.

  4. Becca says:

    Hmmm. I had a premature send, and didn’t finish editing. Oh well.

  5. Cheryl says:

    Also consider if the failed batch is a total loss abd needs to be thrown away. In the case of failed yogurt, I use it in place of buttermilk so it is just used in a different way,

  6. Laundry Lady says:

    I’ve been told you can use milk that is about to go bad to make yogurt and then it isn’t much of a loss if the milk was going to thrown out soon anyway. I’ve never lost a batch of yogurt. I don’t make it often right now because my daughter is off her yogurt kick and doesn’t eat it fast enough. However, for babies and toddlers, if the yogurt doesn’t set up enough use to for serving cold cereal or thicken with baby cereal. I never had a yogurt batch that was inedible, just not quite thick enough. My husband also heats the too thin yogurt and adds flavored jello to set it up. But I also find that using a crock pot makes the whole process much easier.

  7. Matt says:

    How do you figure that the gap between making and buying yogurt “doesn’t really exist?”

    I know that for us, the organic yogurt we buy (in a 32 oz. container) costs $4 at our local grocery. When we make yogurt, we use a gallon of organic milk that costs $5.50 and a small yogurt starter (if we don’t have any from last batch) that costs 50 cents. Therefore our costs break down as follows:

    Cost for 1 gallon of yogurt (bought): $16
    Cost* for 1 gallon** of yogurt (made): $6

    Next time you claim a gap “doesn’t exist” please back it up with numbers!

    *It also does take enough energy to run the stove for 1.5 hours – but I’m pretty sure that’s an expense measured in pennies, not dollars.

    **Technically it’s 1 cup less than a gallon – you lose that during the yogurt-making process.

  8. Brittany says:

    Matt– it costs me $1/quart to buy plain fat-free (or light vanilla) non-organic yogurt on sale (two weeks out of the month) or $1.29 not on sale (the other two weeks). It costs me $3.48 for a non-organic gallon of milk. I’ve never made yogurt, so I’ll use your $.50 starter figure.

    1 gallon, bought on sale: $4
    1 gallon, bought not on sale: $5.16
    1 gallon, home-made: $3.98

    So, at most, I save $1.16, for 5+ hours of work. Normally, I only buy the yogurt on sale, so I’m saving $.02. Add in the stove costs, and the savings is nearly or fully eliminated.

    At my yogurt level, there is no significant gap. But it’s not so much that the gap does or does not exist. It’s more what #2 ChrisD pointed out–the real savings comes from wanting the higher-price and supposedly (no judgment, just not my food choices) higher-quality item, without paying the premium.

    But in this case, I can still buy delicious generic yogurt in the store for $2 less than you can make it organically at home. And since multiple studies have shown there’s no health difference in organic and non-organic milk and I’m hella cheap, the “quality increase” just isn’t worth $2 and five hours of work for me. But maybe it is for you. So rock on.

  9. Tom says:

    #4 Becca, great write up. Google “Sous Vide Beer Cooler” for a home kitchen hack that uses the same technique you use to simulate a $400 piece of equipment used in high-end restaurants to cook meat to perfect doneness.
    BTW, the author, Kenji, is beyond awesome if you’re into food, science, and terrible puns.

  10. Jeremy says:

    Trent, I know this isn’t really what the article is talking about, but I would take a look at updated research on soy. I would avoid it.

    As for a comment related to the article. I love baking whole wheat bread, but I realize the time involved far outweighs the cost. I value making some of the items that I consume from raw materials. I also brew my own beer as you do, which is very rewarding and somewhat time consuming.

  11. littlepitcher says:

    @Brittany–Where the heck are you getting yogurt for a buck a quart? Cheapest out here in Appalachia is $2.29.
    My homemade projects are inevitably for something which is expensive in stores, cheap at home. “Rotel” tomatoes, at a buck for a ten ounce can, translate into over $20 savings per case of tomatoes, even when tomatoes are an expensive $15/case. If the tomatoes aren’t great or I put too much garlic or too little hot pepper, the product’s still usable. Ditto my homemade sambal paste. At $3.29 for a minuscule jar, I save $40 or over with red jalapenos at $1/lb. Some things aren’t available in stores at all–canned muscadines/scuppernongs are a good example. Once canned, even the skins can be eaten and the antioxidant level is great.
    The savings on my successes more than cover an occasional batch failure or unsatisfactory new recipe. The only people who never fail are those who never try anything new.

  12. Cathie says:

    wow, what is muscadines/scuppermongs?
    And our cheapest yogurt is usually about $2.49/qt. on sale and the “better brands” are typically over $3. I am planning on giving homeade a try here, since we do eat it every day.

  13. Cathie says:

    Looked it up. (muscadines/scuppernongs)

  14. JS says:

    I agree, just don’t let fear of wasting money from failed batches keep you from experimenting and learning new skills. Almost no one would know how to cook if they gave up because they messed up a meal.

  15. joan says:

    Great timing on this article, I just made my first batch of homemade yogurt and it was a miserable failure. Now I am encouraged to try again. Thanks to all the comments.

  16. Brittany says:

    At my local grocery store? (The large name one, not even the discount stores, where I could probably get it cheaper when I have time.) Food is rather cheap in Texas. But I imagine your milk prices are also higher than mine?

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