Time Saved? Money Wasted!

by Cathryn Sykes

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Make Your Own Convenience Foods

The American people are being sold an illusion and the name of this illusion is "convenience."

Today, in the produce section of my local supermarket, I saw something that dropped my jaw nearly to the floor, individually shrink-wrapped potatoes and individually shrink-wrapped onions. Price? The cost was 99 cents per potato and $1.99 per onion!

When the shock passed, I checked the price of bagged potatoes and onions, then did some calculating. The result? These shrink-wrapped versions cost 70 cents to $1 more each than ordinary potatoes and onions. Why would anyone pay that much extra?

I asked the cashier. The packaged potatoes, it seems, were "prewashed." The cashier was enthusiastic about this. "Lots of people buy these. It saves them time. And," she continued happily, "the onions are prepeeled. Isn't that convenient?"

It took all my self-control to keep from shrieking "Are you nuts?!" Instead, I went home, pulled a large potato out of the ten pound bag I keep in a cupboard (potatoes keep a long, long time in a cool, dark, dry place), and scrubbed it with my hands, using my thumbnail to scrape away eyes and dark spots. It took me 30 seconds. I grabbed an onion and a knife, chopped off the top, and peeled the onion. Another 30 seconds.

In both cases, I'm paying 70 cents to $1 to save myself 30 seconds. Put another way, I'm buying time at the cost of $84 to $120 an hour! How did I figure this out? I took 60 minutes, divided it by the amount of time the "convenience" item would save me (in this case, 30 seconds), and multiplied that by the extra money it costs. (60 divided by .5 or half a minute is 120, times 70 cents is $84. Times $1 is $120.) You can use the same formula to check the real cost of any time you save using any "convenience" product.

A friend of mine, for example, bought pre-marinated, individually vacuum-packed chicken breasts for $2.67 per four-ounce portion. It never occurred to her this is $10.68 a pound! Boneless chicken breasts were selling for $3.29 a pound. If it takes 5-cents worth of seasoning and one minute to season a pound's worth (do it in the morning and leave it in the fridge to marinate), you pay $3.34 per minute for this "convenience" or $200 per hour!

Other examples of this nuttiness are everywhere. Is your freezer full of Stouffers or Lean Cuisine, at $3-4 per single portion package? What if instead you cooked twice as much as you need on weekends, froze entree-sized portions in plastic containers and took the same three minutes to microwave it each evening that you'd spend microwaving the "convenience" food? I estimate the cost of the beef stroganoff I cooked last night at 40 cents a portion. It took me 30 minutes to cook six portions. I froze five. Saving five minutes and paying at least $2.60 more each, I'd be buying time by using the "convenience" food at a rate of $31.20 per hour!

Another example? Microwave popcorn. The cheapest nine-ounce bag at the store was $1.19. It takes three minutes to prepare in the microwave. A 32-ounce bag of popcorn kernels costs the same $1.19. I brought that bag home, clicked off my trusty stopwatch, slapped a pot on a burner, poured a tablespoon or so of oil in it, threw in three spoonfuls of kernels, popped them and checked the time. Two minutes, fifty seconds. Allowing twenty seconds to wash the pot and put it away, I saved only ten seconds. Yet the oh-so-convenient, time-saving microwave popcorn costs 3.5 times as much.

What about non-food "convenience" items? I use a plastic-sleeved wring mop. Yep, I actually fill and empty a bucket when I mop my kitchen. Takes me an extra sixty seconds. The disposable strips for those stick-on mops cost about 33 cents each. Estimate 15 seconds to put one on, then take it off and put it in the trash. So, if I use one, I spend 33 cents to save 45 seconds, buying time at the rate of $26.40 per hour!

How about radiator coolant? At my neighborhood store, there's a new option available, which is a "premixed" version with half coolant and half water. It cost $5.84. A gallon of pure coolant cost $7.59.

The premix contains half as much coolant, actually only equal to $3.79 worth of the pure stuff. So at a cost of $5.84, the premix costs $2.05 extra per half gallon.

I took the pure stuff home, hauled out my trusty haul-it-along container and started to pour, switching to tap water at a the half-full mark. Two minutes later, I was done. The premix would have saved me two minutes and cost $2.05 extra.

Remember the formula? 60 minutes divided by two minutes equals 30. Times the $2.05 extra equals buying time at the rate of $61.50 an hour. What a bargain! Costs like these are why buying such items often just make no sense at all.

Because we rarely calculate the real cost of buying such products (and how little time we actually save), we've become a nation of people who work long hours to make money we then spend to save minutes.

The real price? Homemakers who work instead of staying home with their kids. Breadwinners who hold down two jobs under the mistaken impression that this is the only way they can make ends meet, meanwhile throwing away incredible amounts of money to save tiny amounts of time.

Think about it. Say you're paid $12 per hour. Buy $60 worth of "time saving" products that save you a single hour of time, and you've just worked five hours to save one hour! (Actually, it costs more, when you factor the bite taxes out of your paycheck.) Insane. So ignore the commercials and marketing claims. Estimate the cost-to-time-saved ratio before you buy. Chances are, you'll save money, quite possibly a lot of money. Then maybe you can afford to work less, and that's the best way to save time.

Updated October 2013

Cathryn Sykes is a writer specializing in personal finance.

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