Updated on 08.16.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Making Your Own Tomato Sauce

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.

Kim asked, “Today I made my own tomato sauce. I’ve thought about canning it but after I buy the jars will I really be saving any money?”

There are a lot of variables in Kim’s question.

First, are the tomatoes homegrown or did you buy them? If the tomatoes came from your garden, then the cost for those tomatoes is negligible. If you had to buy them (unless there was an exceptional sale), then the tomato cost alone would eat up all of the value of making your own sauce.

Tomatoes often cost around $2.99 per pound in our area during the summer – and more during the winter. Every pound of tomatoes yields roughly a third of a pint of tomato sauce. Thus, buying tomatoes at that price will cost you about $9 per pint in tomatoes.

You can easily find 15 ounce cans (just shy of a pint) of tomato sauce for $0.99. Even organic tomato sauces, like Muir Glen, can be found for about $1.50 per can. If you’re buying tomatoes for turning into sauce, you’d better be getting a huge deal on them.

So, without a doubt, you really must be getting the tomatoes from your own garden or from the garden of a friend to make saucemaking worthwhile. Don’t even consider it unless you’re getting tomatoes for pennies. From here on out, we’ll assume you have a free (or nearly free) source for your tomatoes.

You’ll probably also add some seasoning to your sauce in the form of things like olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh herbs from your garden. This will add a slight increase in cost, perhaps $0.02 per jar.

The second cost worth discussing is that of the jars. The initial cost investment in jars can be fairly high. You can easily find a twelve pack of jars with rings and lids for $16 – and perhaps for less if you shop around. You can also find a dozen regular mouth lids for $4.25.

You need the twelve pack of jars to start with, so your cost for the first batch is $16 – $1.33 per jar. Yes, your first batch of tomato sauce will be at a loss.

However, you can reuse jars many times. If you can annually, you’ll probably get an average of ten uses out of the jars. If you can other things in other seasons (like jam), you’ll get more uses than that.

Each subsequent canning will require only a batch of lids – approximately $0.35 per jar.

Thus, if you can tomato sauce ten times, you’ll produce 120 jars of sauce at a cost of $16 (for the initial jars, rings, and lids) plus $38.25 for additional rings (nine batches at $4.25 per batch). That’s $54.25 for ten batches (120 jars), or $0.45 per jar.

Your total cost, if you’re willing to commit to canning over this long period, is $56.65 for 120 jars of sauce. That’s the $54.25 for jars plus $0.02 per jar for additional seasonings beyond the tomatoes.

Onto that, you’ll want to add roughly $0.02 for tap water and about $0.80 in energy costs to boil the water you’d need for that many batches. The total cost, then, is $57.47 for 120 jars canned at home.

Buying 120 cans of tomato sauce at the store would cost you $118.80 (at $0.99 a pop). Thus, your savings for canning that many jars at home is $61.33.

Is that worth the time invested? You’re probably spending two active hours per batch of sauce (plus some inactive time, where things are boiling but you don’t have to be standing right there). That’s a total of twenty hours, meaning you’re saving money at an hourly rate of about $3 per hour.

You can make your own judgment call on that. However, I’d also note that homemade tomato sauce is tremendous as a food item. It makes your house smell delicious as you’re cooking it and the taste of it is far superior to that of canned sauce from the store.

There is another option, however. It’s one that we use. Freezing.

We buy quart freezer Ziploc bags from a warehouse club at about $0.29 per bag. We are able to reuse these a couple times, so our cost per batch gets down to about $0.10 per bag. The freezer cost is negligible, since we’ve got a large freezer with adequate space for the sauce. We simply put about a pint and a half into each bag (when it’s cooled to about room temperature), then seal it and pop it in the freezer. Our time invested here begins to approach a return equal to minimum wage.

In our experience, freezing is the least expensive way, but you need to use it fairly quickly (within three months) or else “freezer burn” becomes an issue. If you’re looking at more long-term storage, canning is a better option.

In either case, you can definitely save dollars by either freezing or canning tomato sauce – especially if you have the jars already in hand. You’re not going to be making a huge return on your money, but it’s definitely a solid return. Add on top of that the fact that homemade sauce is delicious and you probably have a bargain.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    Try Craig’s list for jars. I sold off most of mine (jars and rings) last year for $!0/dozen and I had LOTS of calls. Also check resale stores like Goodwill.

  2. chuck says:

    why cant u reuse the lids? seems wasteful to only use them once. cant they be washed just like the jars?

  3. lurker carl says:

    You don’t need individual rings for every jar you have, just one ring for each jar you process that day.

    You can not reuse the lids. The rubber gasket is attached to the lid and it will not seal again after the first use.

  4. mary w says:

    Chuck – lids have a sealing compound (not sure exactly what to call it) around the edge that is what seals the lid to the jar under heat. Re-using again might or might not get you a good seal.

    I get my jars on Craig’s List or estate sales. Most recent score was 5 dozen assorted sizes for $20. Ace hardware periodically has a $20 Groupon for $10. I use that to buy lids and other supplies.

  5. George says:

    Spot on article! Mom gave up canning our tomatoes in the ’70s and switched to freezing them. If we could grow decent tomatoes at our house, that’s the method I’d use…

    Unfortunately our soil seems to have a fungus that attacks any tomato plant that’s not in a pot. Strangely, it doesn’t affect potatoes.

  6. DeeBee says:

    Making your own sauce lets you control the ingredients, especially sodium, and that may be reason for some to prefer homemade regardless of costs.

    My friends and I use the freezing method and find that it works well.

  7. Adam P says:

    Yes to what #6 says. I make my own sauce because it’s delicious and I know exactly what goes in it. I make a big batch and freeze it, and it costs a lot less than a jar of sauce. That said, I use a big can of Eden organic crushed tomatoes (no salt). Throw in some minced onions, garlic, red wine, fresh chopped basil and other herbs and it tastes so much better than any store brand. And it’s healthier and cheaper.

  8. valleycat1 says:

    We can, dehydrate or freeze produce for the taste and freshness issue rather than for the cost.

    If you’re new to this, don’t get discouraged the first time or two; once you get your system down and figure how to stage the equipment, etc., preserving gets to be pretty routine & easy.

  9. Tanya says:

    Interesting comparison. Many people assume that homemade is always less expensive, but given the variables, it may not be. However, it will definitely taste better!

  10. Barb says:

    Commercial canned tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste use tomatoes picked at the peak of ripeness, which cannot be done with those sold in your local grocery store (they need to be able to survive shipping). Because of this commercial canned tomatoes have a higher acidic value and often taste much better than those purchased fresh. So if you want homemade tomato sauce watch for sales on canned tomatoes and buy in bulk, but watch the use-by dates on them.

    My experience has been that frozen or canned garlic has a very poor taste so I much prefer tomato sauce from scratch, made with canned tomatoes. My preference is to mix a large can of diced or crushed tomatoes with a tiny can of tomato paste.

    Price-wise this is an excellent deal. In my area fresh tomatoes are rarely as low as $1.50/#, more usually a good deal on them is $2.50/#, and they taste very bland. Yet you can get 16 oz. cans for at or just under one dollar regularly. Plus no spoilage loss!!

  11. brandy says:

    we make our own spaghetti sauce from #10 cans of crushed or diced tomatoes (depending on the brand… some brands’ crushed is too watery, others are perfect). a couple bucks for a huge amount of sauce, which we freeze. comparing to fresh isn’t the right comparison for us!

  12. Gretchen says:

    Actually, you shouldn’t add anything to canning tomatoes because they are already on the line of what’s acceptable for water bath canning.

    (Although I’m never personally doing tomato sauce ever again. I save my canning efforts for things I can’t just pick up at the store. They boil down too much.)

  13. Gretchen says:

    Note that the canning pot itself (does that have a name?) and the jar lifter, etc.

  14. chuck says:

    speaking of tomatoes, theres a new book coming out about the tomato industry:

    Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

    like most of our industrial food industry, it isn’t pretty. looks like a “food inc” on tomatoes.

  15. moom says:

    Finally, some food that isn’t super-cheap where you live! Normally, the prices you quote seem absurdly low from either my current Australian perspective or from memories when I lived in upstate NY.

  16. Paul says:

    Funny that this should come up as I’m planning to make my first excursion into making sauce this weekend–I needed tomatoes and the only place I could get them at the time was Costco, so now I have like 6 left over and I want to use them before they go bad. . . wish me luck!

  17. deRuiter says:

    Buy used jars for next to nothing at yard sales or through Craigslist. Also ask anyone you know if they have unwanted jars. If you can a lot of jars, you don’t need a ring for every jar, just the number of rings for the jars you’ll can on your busiest day. The day after you can (jar) your food, you remove the rings, wipe down the jars, and check the seals (tap on the metal lid, a high pitched “ping” means a fine seal, a low pitched “thud” means refrigerate the jar and eat quick. You never store your finished jars of tomatoes, jelly, whatever, with the rings in place on the jars. The vacuum seal keeps the lid firmly in place with no ring needed after the processing part. Don’t remove the ring until the day after you can. The lids have to be tossed into metal recycling after one use as the rubber seal is no longer reliable, it is intended for single use. Unless you have a huge family who sits down to eat together, pints are better than quarts for most things. Pints also process a lot faster than quarts and the smaller amount insures that the temperature for processing reaches all the way inside the contents. Water bath for high acid foods and stuff with loads of sugar like jams and jellies, pressure canner for low acid things. Once you get the hang of canning, you can fit it in easily with regular cooking. Want fresh, home made applesauce for dinner? Cook a lot more than you need, and can half a dozen pint jars for later use while you serve it fresh for supper. Canning tomatoes requires little time and a hot water bath. Adding onions, garlic, other non acid ingredients means you must process the sauce in a pressure canner for the time required for the longest treatment ingredient. Better to can the tomatoes, or plain sauce, and add bell peppers, onions or garlic when you remove the tomatoes from the jar and are ready to cook, saves a lot of processing time.

  18. Brittany says:

    99 cents for 15 oz of tomato sauce? 8 oz cans are 25 cents here, not on sale. Canned chopped tomatoes are 50-65 cents for a 15 oz. With your numbers, I can’t even see canning worth it from a money perspective; with mine, it’s just lubricious financially. I also don’t notice that much of a taste difference… why waste perfectly delicious homegrown tomatoes by cooking them down until they taste like what I can buy for super cheap in the store? I’ll stick to just eating the tomatoes. Yum.

  19. Johanna says:

    There are a lot of costs left out here. Growing a garden is not free. Having the stove on all day to make the sauce is not free. The electricity for the freezer is not free. (Even if you already have the freezer and it’s already running, it takes extra energy to run when you put something in that’s at room temperature.)

    Numbers aside, though, I’m with Brittany – I’d rather eat fresh tomatoes fresh and buy canned tomatoes canned. I can come up with other ways to make my house “smell delicious.” (If that’s even a good thing – do I really want to be tempted to eat my house?)

  20. HippykidZ says:

    I too go the canned tomato route. I use herbs from my garden and fresh onion, pepper, garlic. I make and freeze a batch every few weeks.(we eat alot of pasta) I use gallon ziptop bags and lay them out on a cookie sheet. If you are careful and push most of the air out, when they are frozen they’ll lay flat in the freezer.

  21. Katie says:

    I’m a little confused by the terms in this post quality-wise. I think there’s no question that homemade tomato sauce is better than canned. But homemade tomato sauce made with high quality canned tomatoes tastes as good to me as sauce made with fresh tomatoes. And, as stated, high quality fresh tomatoes are so good for other things, it seems like a waste.

    Anyway, I find the best canned tomatoes for sauce are the whole ones (the kind without a lot of additives in the can), particularly the San Marzano ones. You can squeezez them in to little pieces when you put them in, which is tons of fun, and they simmer down beautifully.

  22. rebecca says:

    trent’s numbers seem way off to me, and I live in the midwest too where year round I can get a dozen quart jars with lids at walmart for $8. I refuse to pay more than 20cents a jar on craigs list, and that price gets me tons!

    No matter how good the quality of store bought canned goods, tomatoes home canned from my garden taste hundreds of times better.

    You can waterbath can tomatoes just fine, if you are worried about acidity you can add a table spoon full of lemon juice or vinegar to each quart. As long as you have a large stock pot that will cover your jars by an inch with hot water, you can use it to can. and a basic jar lifter is $2. i use my pressure cooker/canner to can my tomato sauce because I add onions and peppers to it which require a pressure canner.

    And I have frozen tomatoes in the freezer from last year and no freeze burn yet, they still taste great.

  23. Teresa says:

    @#22 rebecca – I recently had to buy jars at Wal-Mart and picked up a 12 pack of pint jars with rings & flats for $6.77. Then I used a $0.75 manufacturer’s coupon to bring the cost lower.

    Another place to look is thrift stores and estate auctions for canning jars.

  24. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    To each their own, but, if I lived by the guide that I’d rather eat all my tomatoes fresh rather than can/freeze any of them….I’d turn into one! Right now I have about 30 pounds of fresh tomatoes on my countertop, you’d better believe I’ll do something with them besides trying to eat them all fresh. I have at least another 5 pounds ripe on the vine that I have to get out and pick this morning. It all depends on how much you grow. Add to that the 8 pounds of green beans, 10 pounds of lemon cucumbers, the plethora of peppers and herbs. For a family of four, it’s way too much to consume as it’s picked. Plus, we have more that we grow. We also share with other people, or trade for things we don’t grow. I just found a new source for picking blackberries after the last place I picked was flattened by a bulldozer….so we’ll have jam again too. Until gas prices made it too expensive of a venture, I’d also sell my uncle’s sheep wool in exchange for lamb and beef from his ranch. I was able to sell his wool for about 20x what he was getting locally. But, it is all time consuming, so people will do what they have time for – or what they get enjoyment from doing.

    My 2 cents.

  25. rebecca says:

    #24 I agree totally. If you compare home canned tomatoes to regular cheap store bought ones you don’t come out too much ahead. But most people I know can and preserve for quality rather than cost savings. My home grown organic tomatoes are way cheaper than store bought ones, plus we get those benefits all year round, saving tons through the winter. And I love giving all the extras away.

  26. Georgia says:

    I get a dozen 8 oz jars and lids at Dollar General for $7.50. But, I use them for storing in the fridge and freezer. They are the right size for a single person and are much cheaper than the Pyrex glass storage bowls at $2-2.50 @.

  27. EngineerMom says:

    $3/lb for tomatoes?! Really? That seems absurdly high for Iowa, a farm state, at the peak of tomato season (late summer). I used to live in the Twin Cities, and at one of the many farmer’s markets, a bushel basket of “canning tomatoes” cost between $5-$10. For a BUSHEL BASKET. Even if I bought the regular tomatoes, I rarely paid more than $1/lb, and only then for heirlooms.

    Are you by chance quoting grocery store prices, Trent, despite your claim to love farmer’s markets and local foods?

  28. Jean says:

    My vote is with the quality of whatever you have the time and energy to can, and if you enjoy it it’s a labor of love. Like many of the previous comments, a case of a dozen jars with lids and rings runs about $6.50 to $7.00 depending on the size of the jars at my local Walmart. However, I rarely buy new jars because I scout them out all year at thrift stores and garage sales , and once friends know you can you wouldn’t believe how many you’ll get offered as people clean out, downsize or inherit them, so my only annual expense is lids. Everyone we know with a garden knows I’ll take any overruns on cucumbers–in exchange they get several pints of homemade bread and butter pickles. Pickles and jams also make great frugal hostess gifts and holiday gifts. When we have enough tomatoes from the garden to can them, though, I hoard those! Nothing like some of your summer bounty for winter pasta and chili!

  29. Diane says:

    When shopping at the dollar stores, I watch for items that are sold in canning jars, so I always have plenty on hand. Others have cited Craigslist and yard sales, which are good sources for canning accessories too. Freecycle is a good option, as is old-fashioned putting the word out. Finally, end-of season markdowns and clearances are a good way to stock up on rings and lids. I once found double packages of pectin gel at the 99 Only Stores. I stocked up and shared it with friends, who were kind enough to reciprocate with lovely jars of homemade jam.

  30. Brittany says:

    Earth MaMa Jo–

    Why do you plant so many many tomatoes if it is in far excess of what you and your family can eat? Reduce in favor of something you don’t currently grow.

    And when I had a huge garden, I did generally come very close to turning into a tomato during tomato season! Tomatoes were probably half my food intake. I love homegrown tomatoes. I’ve had homemade sauce from them, and there’s just no difference from cheap store bought. Not worth wasting such good tomatoes! Trading for other produce is a good strategy, especially across weeks (i.e. Toss off your extra zucchini on me in late June, when I don’t have many tomatoes, and I’ll far repay the favor later.). If you must preserve to avoid waste, I’ve found salsa to maintain good, fresh tomato flavor why better than tomato sauce.

  31. Its great to use my homegrown tomatoes for sauce when I have them, but that’s only about one or two months a year. If you like to make great sauce year round buy canned crushed tomatoes at store and use those, I have an easy recipe for that at my blog, Elementalcheapness.com

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