My 5th Annual Cost Survey of 10 Popular Brown Bag Sandwiches

The price of lunch at my kids’ school is going up. Again. This year, a school lunch will cost $2.75 per meal — that’s 20% more than last year. I know.

Unfortunately, many busy parents struggling to make ends meet may think that’s still a bargain for lunch. It’s not.

At those prices, a parent with two kids will shell out $990 over the course of a 180-day school year.

In fact, with the new school year quickly approaching, one of the easiest ways to save money is to bypass the school cafeteria fare and make your kids’ a brown bag lunch at home. Whether it’s for school or the office, brown-bagging a sandwich, piece of fruit, and carrot sticks or a serving of chips will almost always be less expensive than buying lunch somewhere else.

Of course, not all sandwiches are created equal. For example, this year there’s a $61 club sandwich featuring Beluga caviar that’s being served at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong. And who can forget celebrity chef Martin Blunos’ $168 cheese sarnie?

Thankfully, the results of my fifth annual brown bag sandwich price survey show that most folks will end up spending far less than that in 2013 — even for the most expensive sandwich on the list.

How the Survey Was Conducted

As I have every year since conducting my first sandwich survey in 2009, I took a trip down to my local grocery store and recorded the per-serving costs of various ingredients for 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.

As in my past sandwich surveys, for consistency in determining prices of the individual sandwich ingredients, I only selected items with the cheapest per unit costs, regardless of brand. To keep it simple, I also assumed all sandwiches would be made with wheat bread.

Survey Results

Here are the results of my price survey, conducted August 3, 2013. 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 last year’s survey:

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 common brown bag sandwiches in 2013. Rankings are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive. As you can see, the most economical sandwich this year is bologna; a single sandwich costs just 41 cents. Bologna climbed two positions to displace last year’s crown holder, PB&J.

The next chart shows a year-by-year comparison for each sandwich since my first survey in 2009. As you can see, prices continue to climb. In 2009, the average price of the 10 sandwiches was 82 cents. Today, it’s $1.09; that’s an increase of 33%.

I realize that some people don’t use any spreads at all. I also understand that some folks enjoy two or three slices of bologna. And I know lettuce and tomato can be placed on sandwiches other than a BLT. 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

  • Providing my two kids with a brown bag lunch containing either a PB&J or bologna sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a small bag of chips — rather than paying the school to feed them — will save me approximately $500 this year.
  • Although bologna topped this year’s list as the most-economical sandwich, over the last five years, PB&J has been the better buy — but not by much; since 2009, the PB&J has averaged just 39 cents per sandwich, a penny less than bologna.
  • Don’t be afraid to buy store brand peanut butter. As my blind peanut butter taste test experiment proved, it’s just as delicious — if not more so. It’s also typically more than 20% cheaper than the national brands.
  • Try cooking your own ham or turkey and slicing it yourself to save even more money. Likewise, it’s also cheaper to buy block cheese and slice it at home.
  • BLT lovers will be disheartened to learn that tomato prices doubled from last year. Remember, homegrown tomatoes are not only cheaper, but they also taste much better than anything you can buy from your grocer.
  • The average cost of all ten sandwiches on the list increased by 9% this year, thanks in large part to salami and albacore tuna prices which also more than doubled. Even so, prices for six of the ten sandwiches in my survey fell this year. Ham & Swiss, roast beef & Cheddar, and bologna saw the biggest price drops.
  • Speaking of tuna, earlier this year, a single one sold for $1.76 million. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that tuna salad has the dubious honor of being the most expensive sandwich in this year’s survey. That being said, compared to the price of a school lunch, a tuna sandwich remains a fairly economical option. Just don’t garnish it with Beluga caviar.

Photo Credit: hiwarz

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