My 2nd Annual Brown Bag Survey: The 10 Most Economical Sandwiches

Yes, school is right around the corner and the Honeybee is once again gearing up for another season of endless sandwich-making for the kids’ brown bag lunches.  She won’t be alone.

Every day millions of people pack a sandwich or two to eat for lunch at their school or place of employment, and who can argue with that strategy?

While I realize that packing a homemade lunch is more economical and healthier than eating out at a burger joint or some other greasy spoon, this intrepid personal finance blogger was not satisfied to simply accept the obvious financial wisdom of forgoing a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese in lieu of the handmade ham & Swiss cheese sandwich.  Uh-uh, not me.

So last year I took a vow to never rest until I knew which of the ten most common brown bag sandwiches offered the best value of them all.  The result was my inaugural Brown Bag survey conducted in August 2009.

You didn’t expect me to rest on my laurels did you?   Especially when I had hundreds, scores, dozens, several, a few, two requests for an updated sandwich survey.  (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)

How the Survey Was Conducted

Once again I evaluated ten of the most common brown bag sandwiches: peanut butter & jelly; bologna; tuna; ham & Swiss; roast beef & cheddar; egg salad; salami; American cheese; turkey; and bacon, lettuce & tomato.

To determine the price of each sandwich, I simply needed to the know the per-serving costs of all of the various sandwich ingredients.

Of course, that required me to take a break from watching a King of Queens marathon and run down to the local grocery store.   Sixteen episodes later, and just a wee bit groggy from all the entertainment, there I was with my trusty notebook at Albertsons, taking price and serving size information off all the applicable product labels and price tags, just as I did the year before.

For consistency in determining prices of the individual ingredients, I only selected items with the cheapest per unit costs, regardless of brand.

For simplicity, I also assumed all sandwiches would be made with wheat bread.  (I know, kids.  I love Wonder bread too.)

Survey Results

Here are the results of my price survey, conducted August 2, 2010.   The first graphic shows the sandwich serving sizes and per-serving costs for each ingredient.  It also includes the percentage increase or decrease in the per-serving price of each item from the 2009 inaugural survey:

SandwichSurvey2010-1

With that data in hand, and using my handy spreadsheet, it was no effort at all to determine the most economical sandwiches.

Here are the official Len Penzo dot Com rankings of the ten most economical brown bag sandwiches in 2010.  Ranking are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive:

SandwichSurvey2010-2

As I noted last year, we can split hairs all day long on the exact make-up of each sandwich listed.  To be consistent I kept to the listed serving sizes on the nutritional labels.  Yes, I realize that some people don’t use any spreads at all, and others prefer two or three slices of bologna, or lettuce and tomato with their roast beef & cheddar sandwich.

If you make your sandwiches differently, you can simply look at my shopping survey numbers in the top figure and adjust the sandwich costs in the bottom chart accordingly.  :-)

Observations and Tips

- For the second consecutive year, salami tops my list of the most economical brown bag sandwiches.  In fact, at only 25 cents per salami sandwich, the price actually dropped two cents from last year.  In all, three other sandwiches saw price drops from the previous year: egg salad, American cheese, and the BLT.

- Helped by a 33% price decrease, egg salad was the biggest mover in the survey, climbing from the seventh most economical sandwich to number five.

- Tuna, turkey & Swiss, and ham & Swiss saw minor price increases over the previous year.  Roast beef & cheddar, PB&J and bologna saw no price increase.

- Speaking of bologna, as I reminded my readers last year, the conventional wisdom out there is that bologna is a very expensive lunch meat.  But for the second consecutive year my survey shows this is simply not the case.  The fact remains: a bologna sandwich is one of the most economical sandwiches you can make.  In fact, bologna sales tend to spike during poor economic times.

- Assuming you aren’t worried about the potential adverse health effects, don’t worry about holding the mayo; the price of condiments adds very little to the cost of the sandwich.  For this survey, mayonnaise came in at only a nickel per serving.  Mustard is only a penny per serving – and dropping.  Although the price change is almost imperceptible, the per-unit prices of both mayo and mustard dropped this year, if only by a fraction of a cent.

- Tomatoes are great to put on a sandwich, but they are relatively expensive.  Grow your own and you’ll save significant money.

- If you want to save money on ham lunch meat, get a small whole ham and have the butcher slice it up.  It’s cheaper and tastes better.

- Finally, always remember, even the most expensive sandwiches on the list are still cheaper than going out for lunch!   :-)

40 comments to My 2nd Annual Brown Bag Survey: The 10 Most Economical Sandwiches

  • Love this post even though I am not a fan of lunch sandwiches. I know that bologna is not that expensive, but when I look at that thing I always wonder what kind of stuff has been mashed up into that sausage. It kind of looks like….hmmm….where is the meat? – I take left overs with me for lunch. Then I know I am getting good food. Cost is not necessarily my driving force, but left overs are still a ton cheaper than even a burger joint. I am more interested in taste, value, etc. (as I just wrote in my most recent post where I talk about making your own jam).

  • I like all of the above, but one of my favorite (and most economical) choices is last nights dinner!

    Sandwiches can get kind of boring after a while, especially if you’re a consistent brown bagger. But left overs in the microwave can be real break, and cost nothing since you have them anyway.

  • Jenna

    Would be interested to see how the break down changes with locally sourced and organic foods.

  • It would be interesting to know which sandwich is healthiest, then least expensive. Perhaps that can be an added addition to next year’s study. BTW- You aren’t really feeding your kids bologna, are you?! Is that even really meat?

  • With all the stuff around about saving money, I don’t think that most people consider that switching out the kind of sandwich that they take for lunch can make a big difference.

  • I really like the “number crunching” aspect of this post — the figures just don’t lie.

    I’ve always preferred bologna sandwiches myself. Reminds me of my own school days when my lunch was in a plain brown paper bag (not a fancy lunch box) and consisted of one bologna sandwich and one red apple.

  • I’m a huge fan of peanut butter and jelly, so woot for the savings!

    My lunches are usually leftovers, sandwiches, or meals made specifically for my week’s lunches (like chili or spaghetti). I’ll have to look into salami…hadn’t ever thought of making a cold sandwich with salami before…

    • @MoneyO: An excellent article it was too, C! Folks, you can check it out at http://www.moneyobedience.com/blog/setting-up-a-budget/you-don%E2%80%99t-save-money-making-your-own-jam/
      @Kevin: I rarely get to take the previous night’s leftovers to work. I have a teenage son, you know. LOL
      @Jenna: Hmm. That would be interesting. But I suspect the prices would higher, but still cheaper than eating out!
      @LittleHouse: LOL! Well, I can tell you head cheese is not cheese. As for bologna, I can definitely say that it IS meat – but I’m not sure where it comes from and I really don’t want to know! :-)
      @MNMM: I really love bologna too – especially when it is fried!
      @FunStuff: You don’t know what you’re missing! Now, when I make a salami sandwich I go to our local Italian deli and get the really good stuff. I also top it with fresh-sliced deli provolone – and put it on a hard crust Italian roll. Yum, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. It is a bit more expensive than the cheaper variety I used for this study. If spending a few extra cents isn’t a problem, that is way better than the stuff hanging next to the bologna just above the Velveeta cheese. :-)

  • cbrynna

    PB&J becomes even cheaper when you make the jam or jelly from your own fruit trees.

    • Show off. ;-)

      Seriously, that is a great idea, Brynna! You and C have a little something in common in that regard. Do you make your own peanut butter too? I know it can be done.

  • Not only does brown bagging it save money, it’s almost certain to save calories. Eating out usually involves huge portions and hidden fat.

  • sewingirl

    My sister carried a PB&J almost every day for 12 years of school. We all wondered if she’d turn into a giant peanut (I was hoping) but she survived. She now claims, at 40something, that it was a big time saver, not having to choose something different every day. Now I find out that she was simply lobbying early for that “favorite child” spot with my eternally thrifty Mother. Go figure.

    • @Jennifer: Mmmm. Hidden fat. :-)
      @Sewingirl: Oy! The monotony of 12 years of PB&J would have killed me! I hope sis at least changed things up just a little bit by using different jellys and jams. You know you ould have “topped” sis by alternating between salami and bologna every day. ;-)

  • Pineview Style

    “Speaking of bologna, as I reminded my readers last year, the conventional wisdom out there is that bologna is a very expensive lunch meat.”

    That’s news to me. I’ve always thought that bologna was pretty much a bottom tier lunch meat. Besides that, I often see it on sale.

    Also, I wonder where wish sandwiches rank? You know, where you slap 2 pieces of bread together and wish you had some lunch meat in the middle.

  • Len, I love that you actually sat down and calculated the actual cost of each sandwich. Great post!

    But I hate Wonder Bread! It’s Martin’s Potato bread or nothing!

  • Jenna

    @Pen Penzo – I would agree completely! Maybe next year you can add that to the comparison?

  • this is so awesome. totally something my mom would have used when i was growing up!

  • @Pineview: I’ve encountered lots of people out there who argue that, on a price per pound basis, bologna costs as much as steak. Of course, I tend to run around with lots of ignoramuses. (Birds of a feather, you know.) As for the wish sandwich: some folks here would argue that a bologna sandwich IS a wish sandwich. ;-)
    @Mike: Oh, I love potato bread too. Actually, I love almost any kind of bread. I always said if somebody put me on a bread and water diet, I wouldn’t complain – at least not for a little while.
    @Jenna: And WHO is Pen Penzo? Sounds like the kid brother I never had. But okay, I’ll definitely look into it. :-)
    @Danielle: Well, print it, cut it out, and tape it to your refrigerator! :-)

  • mdairbrushguy

    Sorry Len, your cost analysis is EXTREMELY FLAWED for the following reasons. Food vendors manipulate their “serving size” so they can boast about various health concerns, such as sodium, sat fat, trans fat, calories, etc. on the package, like “0 Trans fat” when the fed says less than 0.5 grams of trans fat/serving – “0″ trans fat/serving. Teaspoon, tablespoon, cup, oz, etc. are STANDARDIZED MEASUREMENTS. Tell me Len, how many “slices” are there in a foot(?); a pound(?); a quart9?); etc. A “serving size” of YOUR favorite brand of potato chips might be “10 chips” for example. I search thru the bag of chips and give YOU the 10 SMALLEST chips in the bag while giving your most hated enemy the 10 LARGEST chips. Is that “serving” equal in your mind? I don’t think so. That is why you need to determine the weight if each “slice” in order to ACCURATELY determine the cost. Kraft plastic wrapped American cheese slices weigh LESS THAN an ounce whereas MANY sliced cheddars (e.g., Cabot Cheese) weigh 1 oz. I buy sliced ham that is rectangular in shape and weighs 1 oz/slice. How much did YOUR slice of ham weigh, 3/4 oz perhaps? Also, most pre-packaged “Black Forrest” ham is shaved and I hope that you don’t think that 3 slices of shaved Black Forrest Ham is equivalent in weight to the 3 slices of 1 oz/slice ham I buy. I also know of NO ONE who will say that a 1 slice balogna or salami sandwich is EQUIVALENT to a 3 slice roast beef sandwich (remember my potato chip example). You need to define how much each “slice” weighs for each item (1/2 oz, 2/3 oz, 3/4 oz, 1 oz, 1-1/2 oz, etc.) and THEN calculate the cost.

    Also, not all eggs are created equal. There are small, medium, large, extra large, and jumbo with corresponding difference in price/egg. What wss the size of your eggs in your cost calculations? Recipes universally, unless otherwise stated, use “large” eggs. Use “medium” sized eggs in the recipe instead of “large” and your batter or mixture will probably be too dry. Use “extra large” instead of “large” and your batter or mixture will probably be too wet. In either case, if that mistake is made in baking, your result will, in all likely hood, be a failure.

    So Len, in the future, use standardized measurements, rather than arbitrary things like “slice” for your cost analysis. I’ll bet if you used adjusted standardized measurements like oz, your cost results would be quite different.

    • You are absolutely right by inferring this analysis is not scientific. It is one based on common sense. I’m comparing slices of lunch meat here, not slabs or sides of beef. Why quibble over whether a slice of Oscar Meyer bologna weighs 1 oz or an off brand weighs 0.877454324567782 ounce? Does 0.123 ounces really make a difference, considering the cost per slice? Not really. The reality is, most people look at a package and see they get 7 slices in the package for x dollars.

      The size of the eggs were large.

      I appreciate the lesson on how to conduct an experiment. But to do what you are asking would require me to spend all day at Albertsons taking data that I believe, in the long run, is not that important from a common sense perspective.

      That being said, do I think the results would be much different if I used the scientific method? No.

      Thanks for taking the time to give your perspective.

  • OK Len, Of course I loved the post, especially since my favorite sand is PP&J, one of the cheapest. But, I must differ with your Roast beef and cheese, WHO PUTS MAYO on roast beef? Dfinitely need to use mustard with RB & Cheese. Cheers!

  • Always like stats to back up an analysis. Kinda suspected this, but putting numbers to it is a nice touch.

  • Wow, talk about getting analytical! That’s a great list you got there.

    Processed meats are good, but I guess just be careful (don’t know if you heard of the Listeria outbreak at the Maple Leaf factory that killed dozens of people).

    Can’t beat PB & J…. just a quarter for a sandwich, you can’t even make a phone call with that nowadays (they charge 50cents at payphones now here in Vancouver).

  • Macs

    Interesting exercise, and well worth crunching some numbers. In contrast to mdairbrushguy, though, I’m going to say the approach with slices is CORRECT in this context – when you make a sandwich you slap on one, two, or three slices, you don’t weigh out your bologna (whatever the heck that is :-) ) to get a certain number of ounces (OCD and body-builders notwithstanding).

    But regardless of price I will never ever touch peanut butter. Foul stuff… don’t know why I hate it when I love peanuts???

    And let’s hear it again for the jam-makers – I love making my own jam. Last batch was extra-special as it was raspberries foraged from the local woods, and it’s sooo tasty :-)

    • I love peanut butter, Mac. But it has to be the smooth variety. The crunchy stuff just ruins the whole PB&J experience for me.

      And I’m a jam guy – especially strawberry. Jelly just doesn’t cut it.

  • Angie

    We did something crazy a few years ago and bought a meat slicer. We spent $150 bucks on it and it was worth every penny. We are able to buy turkey and roast beef from Costco and slice it ourselves, then we can freeze it. This brings our lunch meat costs down from $8 per lb to about $3 per pound. Also, it’s the best thing to use to slice up all that homemade bread so that all of your slices are the same size (key to getting my husband to eat homemade bread) and cheese bought in bulk. You can make the slices a lot thinner (not something the husband is a fan of) but it saves us a lot of money.

  • My only quibble with this is the amount of stuff that goes on sandwiches. (I’m not saying you need to re-tool your experiment – your analysis is your analysis.) I ran my own numbers for BLTs because that number just seemed hugely high to me.

    A few differences:
    * I buy my bacon by the pound when it’s on sale for $2.50 (pretty reliable every few weeks around here); the packages average 18 slices per. Instead of using four slices, I use three.
    * A large tomato, depending on how I slice it, nets me three to four sandwiches.
    * I use a lot of lettuce on my BLTs, probably three leaves (and sometimes even four).

    I used your prices for everything but the bacon, and came out to around 90¢. Is it still more expensive than salami? Absolutely. But that’s a decent-sized sandwich, and nowhere near the $2-topping price you found.

    I also find the salami sandwich not in line with how I make a salami sandwich – there’s almost always provolone on mine, and two slices of salami. If I assume that provolone is priced similarly to the Swiss cheese you used, that brings the salami sandwich to 66¢. (I also find this sandwich much more comparable to a decked-out BLT.)

    I think the biggest takeaway I’m trying to provide is that a little variation in ingredient quantities and shopping sales can bring a favorite down into reasonable range. Mostly, whatever analysis you read, make sure it matches what you’re actually doing, otherwise you might not be getting the expected benefits.
    :) Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for your comments, Erica. Your points are all well-taken. As I said in the post, we can quibble all day long on how to make a sandwich. As for me, I enjoy provolone on my salami sandwich too. Well, sometimes. Other times, I like just the salami by itself. :-)

  • Olivia

    We found if you make egg salad sandwiches, one large egg is more than enough. Even two fried eggs are a bit too messy for us. So in our situation, eggs win out. We have a discount grocer near us so our costs are skewed, ham is next, PB&J next, cheese, then tuna costs the most.

    We do our BLT’s when there’s a super sale on bacon ends and the tomatoes are overrunning the garden. We’re about due….

  • Love it! I’m a numbers-and-chart lover, so this approach speaks to me. :) We don’t eat much beef, so the salami and bologna are out, but we eat a ton of peanut butter around here – a tasty, healthy staple that continues to be cost effective.

    If you were looking for ways to jazz up the ever-economical PB&J, I wrote a post a few months ago with a variety of peanut butter sandwich options. I didn’t price them out, but I did come up with quite a few alternatives to the standard jelly accompaniment, and variety keeps me happy with regular peanut butter!

    http://thesavedquarter.com/2010/03/09/the-peanut-butter-sandwic-matrix/

  • Lisa

    Where in the world do you find a 22 slice loaf of bread for 99 cents?! The cheapest I’ve been able to find bread in my area (Arlington, VA) is 2.99 and it’s a much smaller loaf than 22 slices.

    • Len Penzo

      Wow, bread is pretty expensive in Virginia compared to Southern California! Remember, too, this survey was done last August, and food inflation has taken root since then. I’ll be doing my next updated sandwich survey next month, so we’ll be able to see how the prices have changed over the past year.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Len Penzo and Little House, Vy. Vy said: What are the cheapest sandwiches to make for work? http://goo.gl/2Hb5 [...]

  • [...] 10 Most Economical Sandwiches. You'll save by making your own sandwich rather than buying one at the deli, but you'll really save by going with salami, bologna, or PB&J (25¢, 30¢, and 31¢ per sandwich respectively, according to Len Penzo's exacting study), rather than a swanky BLT ($2.16 per sandwich). And if you're trying to make your PB&J especially economical, go with more J (7¢ per serving), less PB (15¢ per serving). (See also: More Than 100 Ways to Spice Up Your Sad Homemade Sandwich.) [...]

  • [...] The 10 most economical sandwiches – Len Penzo [...]

  • Carnival of Personal Finance #269: THE DIVA$ EDITION :: Finanial Matters etcetera

    [...] from Len Penzo dot Com presents My 2nd Annual Brown Bag Survey: The 10 Most Economical Sandwiches, and says, “If you think PB&J was the cheapest sandwich on the list, think again! [...]

  • [...] 10 Most Economical Sandwiches. You'll save by making your own sandwich rather than buying one at the deli, but you'll really save by going with salami, bologna, or PB&J (25¢, 30¢, and 31¢ per sandwich respectively, according to Len Penzo's exacting study), rather than a swanky BLT ($2.16 per sandwich). And if you're trying to make your PB&J especially economical, go with more J (7¢ per serving), less PB (15¢ per serving). (See also: More Than 100 Ways to Spice Up Your Sad Homemade Sandwich.) [...]

  • [...] Penzo shares the results of his 2nd Annual Brown Bag Survey: The 10 Most Economical Sandwiches. Glad to see that my favorite was at the top of the [...]

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