My 3rd Annual Brown Bag Survey: The 10 Most Economical Sandwiches

It’s hard to believe, but August is finally upon us. Of course, for most folks that means it’s time to celebrate National Goat Cheese month. That is, unless you’re one of the millions of kids who would rather lament the fact that the first day of the new school year is right around the corner.

Of course, the start of the new school year means financially savvy parents will be making sandwiches for the kids’ brown bag lunches. And why not? In most cases, those homemade sandwiches are more economical than buying lunch at the school cafeteria.

That being said, some sandwiches are more economical than others, as the results of my third annual brown bag sandwich price survey clearly shows.

How the Survey Was Conducted

That’s right. For the third year in row, I actually walked down to my local grocery store and then 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. (Yes, folks, I realize I need to get a life.)

This year, a nosy shopper in the condiment aisle noticed me taking price and serving size information off the applicable product labels and price tags. “Are you one of those secret shoppers?” she asked.

“No, I’m doing a price survey for a personal finance blog,” I said.

“Oh! You mean like The Simple Dollar?”

“Yes, except mine is called Len Penzo dot Com.”

“Lead pencil dot com? I’ll be sure to check it out.”

“Hey, that would be great! Thank you!”

Come on, folks. Can you really blame me for just letting it go? But I digress.

Anyway, 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 July 30, 2011. 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 economical brown bag sandwiches in 2011. Ranking are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive:

Now 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

- Those clamoring for signs of inflation need look no further. Aided by big increases for bread, mayo, and lunch meat, prices rose significantly this year for nine of the ten sandwiches in the survey.   The total price for all ten sandwiches rose 44% over the previous year.

- For the third consecutive year, salami holds the honor of being the most economical sandwich.

- Tuna moved up two places in the survey to number 6. It was also the only sandwich to see a price drop from the previous year.

- The conventional wisdom out there is that bologna is a very expensive lunch meat. But as this survey proves yet again, a bologna sandwich is one of the most economical sandwiches you can make. Maybe it’s also why bologna sales tend to spike during poor economic times.

- If you’re like me and love to put tomatoes on a sandwich, you can save significant money by growing your own. Best of all, they taste much better than anything you can buy from your grocer.

- You can save money on ham lunch meat by buying a small whole ham and having the butcher slice it up.

- You can save money by avoiding name brands and buying the store-brand cheeses, condiments, and lunch meats instead. As my blind taste tests have proven, sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference.

- Primarily due to an 86% increase in the price of bacon, and a 129% increase in the price of tomatoes, the cost of a BLT almost doubled this year to $4.20 per sandwich. Even so, that’s still cheaper than going out for lunch.

- Oh, and there’s no need to hold the mayo. At a miserly six cents per serving, it adds very little to the cost of a sandwich. Likewise for the mustard; one serving costs but a single cent. Hey, who says you can’t buy anything for a penny anymore?

Photo Credit: katsuma

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    What an awesome survey! That cracks me up, real good one; this one should go viral. I’m eating a peanut butter and honey as I type (awesome combo few take advantage of) – I’ll have to see where it falls on the list!

  2. 3

    says

    I would have never guessed salami would beat out PB&J. Interesting! We’ve been eating a ton of hummus sandwiches (with home made hummus) lately since I rarely feel like cooking something hot in the summer.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Me either on salami beating out PB&J, but it has for the past three years. Who knew? Hummus sandwiches, huh? I think I’ll stick with PB & bananas. LOL

  3. 5

    tim says

    I liked the reference to “kids” (rather than children) after the homage to GOAT cheese.
    I loved the reference to inflation in food prices. While the testing was probably not to “government standards”, it is hard to dispute the rising food prices when the evidence is in black and white.(or glaring red as the case may be)

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      Good one! I wish I had caught that at the time, Tim, or I would have drawn attention to it in the piece. (Darn it, I hate it when I miss an opportunity like that.)

      You’re right; my testing is definitely not up to government or Consumer Reports standards, but the main story is not affected here. That being said, I do try to remain as consistent as possible from year-to-year to keep the fidelity of my comparisons as high as possible.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      PB&J is a classic. And judging by my poll results to-date, out of 1550 votes, only the BLT is more popular. (You can check all my poll results at my “Poll Archives” page — the link is above the blog header.)

  4. 9

    Fielding says

    Len,

    Just found the site through a link on MSN.com. Like what Im reading so far.

    Im a pretty frugal fella myself, but these types of articles bring out the classically trained economist in me.

    What about the opportunity cost, notably your time, with all these penny pinching blog ideas? Im not here to debate whether it is in fact cheaper to make your own lunch vs. paying for one, but what about the couple hours a week its going to take you to find the savings, make the lunches, etc?

    When comparing to the comparatively cheap govt lunches provided through almost all school systems, the savings on packing your kids a lunch has to be relatively minimal right?

    Your arguments on new vs. used cars or pay off your mortgage early or not type articles are spot on, but I fear that articles like these lose sight of the big picture.

    For my scenario, school lunches cost 4.50 a day in my local school system. Even the best shoppers can maybe cut 1/3 of that price off due to local food prices (I live in Wyoming so food isnt the cheapest here). Is the extra effort really worth the 5 bucks you save a week?

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      Glad you enjoy the site! I appreciate you bringing up the opportunity cost aspect. I figure it takes me roughly 2 minutes to make a sandwich for lunch and properly pack it. $4.50 vs. $0.38 for a PB&J sandwich, and, say another $1.00 for chips and some fruit is no contest. Especially since I get all my groceries in one fell swoop, so the time and money it takes to shop for the ingredients and bring them home is diluted so much those costs are negligible, in my opinion, because you have to spread it all out amongst all the purchases.

      (By the way, I love Wyoming. I’ve spent lots of time there over the years for my job. It’s a great state and extremely beautiful!)

    • 11

      jennypenny says

      School lunches cost around the same here too. If I prepare lunches I can get that down to around $2.50 ($2.00 if I bake instead of buying bread and cookies). Multiply that by 3 kids by 20 school days per month. That equals my internet/landline bill, or by gas$ every month.

      Re: opportunity costs
      Making lunches at 6:30am only cuts into my coffee-drinking time (much beloved, but not productive). It’s a good return on investment at an otherwise unproductive time. This is different than say, driving around during the afternoon to multiple grocery stores with multiple coupons and lists–I have much more productive ways of spending that time. Not all time has equal value.

  5. 13

    says

    Wow, BLT is $4! It’s way more expensive than the other ones. I’m a terrible sandwich snob and don’t eat anything other than what the Mrs. makes. She’s not suppose to eat too much lunch meat so we usually have tuna. Turkey breast sandwich is good too after Thanksgiving.

    • 14

      Len Penzo says

      I know, the price of a BLT has gone sky high this year — mostly due to bacon costs going through the roof!

      You know, looking at the survey I am surprised that turkey is as popular as it is. I had no idea so many people liked it. I’m like you, I prefer turkey breast sandwiches carved right off the bird. But the lunch meat turkey you get in the deli case, eh, not so much.

  6. 15

    says

    Thanks for updating this for inflation, Len. I wouldn’t touch salami because of all the saturated fat in it. PB&J is the best for us as we all like it & it doesn’t need an ice pack along in the lunch bag. It’s quick to make & goes well with a piece of fruit & school bought milk. Those school lunches are usually high in fat & not that tasty, in my experience (former teacher). A lunch from home is usually much higher quality. If you pack what you know your kid will eat there is much less waste too.

    • 16

      Len Penzo says

      Well said, Maggie. I think PB&Js are a great way to get kids to drink their milk — nothing better than washing down one of those sandwiches with a big glass moo juice!

  7. 17

    T$ says

    Nice post! I love your sense of humor. And most of these sandwiches. I’ve saved $ for years (hence the alias above–I’m not a swaggering, money-brandishing rapper) bringing lunch to work.

    Veering into the related cholesterol and fat question that many readers will be concerned about (e.g. Maggie@SquarePennies)…many of these sandwiches have both in spades–but it’s not as bad as conventional wisdom says.

    According to Gary Taubes (“What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie,” New York Times), grains/carbs are the biggest problem-causers: “…researchers point out that there are plenty of reasons to suggest that the low-fat-is-good-health hypothesis has now effectively failed the test of time. In particular, that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic that started around the early 1980′s, and that this was coincident with the rise of the low-fat dogma.”

    Also carbs that release quickly into the bloodstream (simple sugars like corn syrup, sugar, etc.) factor into “the glycemic-index concept” which “implies that a primary cause of Syndrome X, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity is the long-term damage caused by the repeated surges of insulin that come from eating starches and refined carbohydrates.”

    Even the most authoritative Framingham study on heart disease says raising cholesterol only causes a marginal increase in heart attack risk. About 75% of heart attacks occur in people with “good” cholesterol! Put that in your tuna sandwich and smoke it! (Um…well, that wouldn’t be very good for your health in any case.)

    Humans aren’t used to too many carbs, having become an agricultural society only 10,000 years ago. Humans ate mostly meat, nuts, fruits, bugs and vegetables that grew locally or maybe in small gardens tended by tribespeople.

    Plus the shift away from fatty diets has vastly increased the use of grains, especially corn. (Check out the book “King Corn” for fascinating details.) This shift–mostly to about 6 major grain species–has huge negative ramifications, including obesity, lower plant genetic diversity and increased pollution, among other things.

    It seems the best things to do are plenty of exercise, avoid most carbs except veggies and fruits, avoid sugared (actually corn syruped, in most cases) drinks, and eat meats (preferably ones not preserved with cancer-causing nitrates), nuts and bugs. Pork rinds are a delicious, healthy snack, and the best ones are made fresh, often available in big rolls at Latino supermercados. I hear grasshoppers are nice and crunchy–a great popcorn substitute, and even more flavorful!

    Betcha you didn’t think you’d find out all that from a blog on sandwiches! Or did it…umm, bug you?

  8. 18

    T$ says

    Gary Taubes also wrote a fascinating science-based op-ed, “What’s Cholesterol Got to Do With It?” for the New York Times:

    “In 1977, the researchers reported their results: total cholesterol turned out to be surprisingly useless as a predictor. Researchers involved with the Framingham Heart Study found that in men and women 50 and older, “total cholesterol per se is not a risk factor for coronary heart disease at all.”

    Not surprisingly, I’m eating more meat, fat, nuts and veggies, and feeling pretty good. I also do some exercise, but need to increase that.

    More food for the sandwich fire.

  9. 19

    Shopgirl says

    Hi Len,
    Just wanted to let you know that the serving sizes of many items including tuna and peanut butter have shrunk in the last year. So if a six ounce can of tuna was $1.00 a year ago, and has become a five ounce can of tuna for $.90 cents this year, then actually, the price went up, but appears to have dropped. Also, now, different companies are using different serving standads.ie-I just read that one pb jar is now 16.3 ounces (skippy?) and one has stayed at 18 ounces……Don’t even get me started on price comparing toilet paper and paper towels….. the sizes are never comparable….I guess that is what the price per unit is for! Great articles!

  10. 20

    says

    as stated again above, I loved the reference to inflation in food prices, too.
    It’s been long time since my family and I stopped eating salami just because of the fat. actually it happened when my friend told me what producers used to increase the taste (!) of salami ;)

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