Saving Pennies or Dollars? Making Your Own Tomato Sauce

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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