Unit Pricing: The Most Efficient Way to Save Money on Groceries.
The item with the lowest price isn't necessarily the best value or lowest price per unit. In other words, the item with the lowest price is not always the best deal. So how do you determine what the best value on the shelves is? Unit pricing is one of the most powerful tools you can use. It is quick and easy to do, and find how unit pricing can save you money on countless items, including groceries, hygiene, beverages or household supplies, and so much more.
Unit pricing allows you to directly compare two different types of the same food or other item by using a common unit of measurement. Or compare household goods such as paper towels or hygiene items such as makeup. You can find the best deal on almost anything when you use the unit pricing approach. That way, you know exactly how much you're getting for your money. It also helps to let you know exactly what you're getting when you buy something that is in bulky or odd packaging. We explain how to calculate unit pricing, and give examples, below.
Let's say you're shopping for blueberries. Or shopping for detergent. Use unit pricing to help you save money. You see a few different containers of a similar size on the shelves, but the prices are different. There are also a few types of frozen blueberry packages in the freezer section. Or countless brands and sizes of laundry detergent.
Unit pricing will let you know which one is offering the most blueberries or detergent for your money. If you know you'll need more blueberries than the cheapest option offers, going with a more expensive option that offers better unit pricing saves you more money overall.
It all starts with finding a unit of measurement that the items share. Almost everything you buy at the grocery store or super market, or department store or big box store, will have a unit of measurement. The common types of unit measurement include ounces, counts, square foot, fluid ounces, and pound among others.
Finding a Common Unit of Measurement
Fortunately, there is one simple unit of measurement you can use in most cases - the ounce (oz). But some products may have different sizes, such as gallons or per count or square foot, but the concept of finding the common unit still works.
There is an FDA requirement (Title 21, Volume 2, Part 101) that the "principal display" of food packaging list the net weight of the contents in pounds and ounces. Most food manufacturers simply display the total count of ounces to keep things simple. "Net weight" in this case means the actual weight of the food or liquid itself, before the packaging is added.
Checking the ounces (other shared unit of measurement) is important, because package size alone can be very misleading. Finding the common unit of measurement is the key to getting the best deal. Take potato chips, for example. You'll notice a lot of different brands next to each other, and the bag sizes generally look pretty uniform to the naked eye. But if you start looking at the bottom of each bag for the net weight in ounces, you'll see numbers that are all over the place.
This is pretty simple when you're comparing items that are at or about the same price, just looking for the most volume for your dollar. Where it gets a bit more complicated is in comparing items of different sizes - that's where some math comes in.
Examples of Unit Pricing
Unit pricing is a matter of simple division. Or just read the packaging or labels on the products you are shopping for. Find how to make the calculation below.
First, you find a listed unit that is common to the items you're comparing. In most cases, this will be the ounce since it will be present on both labels. But as noted, the listed unit may differ and can be count, pounds, square feet, or anything else. Then, you simply divide the cost of the item by the number of units in it.
- Let's say frozen corn from company A costs $1.50 and has 10 ounces in it. That's a simple one - $1.50 divided by 10 leaves you with a price of 15 cents per ounce.
- Then another bag of frozen corn from company B costs $1.20 and has 6 ounces in it. $1.20 divided by 6 leaves you with a price of 20 cents per oz, which is the unit pricing.
- The frozen corn from company A is a better deal! It costs 15 cents per ounce compared to company B of 20 cents per oz.
- If you are looking for the best deal on detergent, and product or company A costs $12.99 for 100 fluid ounces, this equates to $12.99 divided by 100, or 12.9 cents per fluid ounce.
- If product or company B has detergent for $16.99 for 150 fluid ounces, that equates to 11.3 cents per ounce.
- The laundry detergent from product or company B is a better value or deal. It costs 11.3 cents per fluid ounce vs. company A of 12.9 cents per fluid ounce. The unit pricing for Company B is much better.
- Lets look a something with a unit pricing of per count. If company A sells trash bags for $14.99 for 100 count, that is equivalent to 14.9 cents per bag. ($14.99 / 100).
- if company B has trash bags for $19.49, but you get 200 bags, company B is a better value. That is 9.7 cents per bag, which is $19.49 divided by 100.
- The trash bags from company B are a much better deal based on unit pricing per count. Company B is 9.7 cents per bag vs company A of 14.9 cents per bag.
- If you are buying hand soup, that is also unit price per fluid ounce. Company A offers you hand soap for $2.49 for 15 ounces. The unit price is 16.6 cents per fluid ounce. You get that by taking $2.49 divided by 15.
- Company B product is $1.00 for 10 fluid ounces. That equates to 10 cents per fluid ounce, or $1.00 divided by 10.
- Product/company B is a better deal. It is 10 cents per ounce vs company/product A of $16.6 cents per ounce.
Odd numbers can make this a little tougher to do off the top of your head. For example, you might run into an item that has 13 oz. total and costs $4.67. That won't produce a nice round number as a result.
There are tools to get help making the calculation. If this were a decade or so ago, you'd be stuck toting a calculator to the store or doing calculations on some scratch paper. Fortunately, we live in the era of affordable and abundant smartphones. If you have any doubts about a unit price, you can use your phone's built-in calculator app. If you don't have a calculator app or you want to make things even simpler, there are several apps out there designed specifically to give you unit prices - check out Unit Price Comparison for Android or Unit Price Calculator for iOS.
Unit Pricing on Store Labels
Some stores make this process a little easier by printing a unit price on the item's price tag. Some state governments require it as well. This isn't always due to regulations or altruism, however.
There is no federal requirement for stores to have unit pricing on their shelf labels. Some states do require it, but it is under 20. So most states do not require mandatory unit pricing.
You'll often see unit prices on store shelves even when the state doesn't require them to be there. Sometimes it's simply because the store believes in good customer service. Sometimes it's because the store is being a little sly and trying to confuse shoppers.
One trick is to use different units of measurement on different labels. Stores may mix and match the units of measurement to display whichever number looks like it's the lowest - ounces here, pounds there and number of suggested servings or uses somewhere else.
Also, look carefully at those sale tags that involve buying multiple items to get a lower price. Some sales tags will note the unit price, factoring in the sales price. There aren't always regulations about this, and store policies vary. Some will give you the lower price if you buy less than the suggested amount, but others require you to buy that exact amount to get the discount.
Unit Pricing Pitfalls
Unit pricing is a great tool for saving money and finding the best deals, but there are some other pitfalls to watch out for. As while you can save the most money by unit pricing, you may not always get the more ideal item.
As but one example, while the FDA requires food manufacturers to list net weight in a highly visible way, there is significant leeway for using water and other non-nutritious additives to artificially increase the weight. This is a particular problem with ham and chicken, a process called "plumping".
Anywhere from 10 to 20% of the weight might consist of water or broth. These might be disclosed on an ingredient list, but are otherwise hard to spot. Consumers mostly rely on the reputation of the seller to avoid them. If you buy chicken or ham from a supermarket deli, you might notice that "plumped" meat has an unusual amount of water in the pad underneath it.
Quality is also not addressed by unit pricing. Also, unit pricing only measures the weight of the item. It doesn't tell you anything about the quality or the nutritional profile. Since refined sugar is so cheap, it's frequently used as an additive to both make taste more palatable and add weight. For example, two jars of peanut butter that are the same price per ounce could be very different in nutritional quality depending on how much sugar has been added. Determining nutritional quality is a matter of carefully checking the mandatory "nutrition facts" label on the back.
The best unit prices may also be due to the need for a lot more prep. That might be time that you really can't afford to spend if you're busy. For example, dry beans are among the cheapest and most nutritious foods available but they usually require pre-soaking or long cooking that takes hours. Canned beans will almost always cost more per unit, but maybe not a whole lot more and the time saved in prep could be worth it.
Unit price labeling is also not always the easiest thing to read, even in states where it is mandatory. It sometimes consists of very small print somewhere near the bottom of the label. If you have vision issues, definitely bring whatever assistance you need to read small text with you to the store.
Finally, be aware that there is a special exception for clearance and special markdown items in some areas. Stores that jumble their items together in a clearance bin might not be required to show unit pricing on the new label.
Unit pricing is generally very easy to do. It is a quick and easy approach to saving money on any shopping you do. Always be sure to look on labels for any food, groceries, liquids, household supplies or any items you buy to get the unit pricing. The one with the lowest cost per unit will save you the most money.