Sometimes The Unit is Not the Unit

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If you’ve ever dabbled in frugality, you’ve probably had the idea of unit pricing drilled into your head. Don’t pay too much attention to the total cost of something, but rather the cost per unit.

Too often, in my experience, I’ve gotten the unit wrong. Yes, I’ll divide the dollars per ounce, but the ounce isn’t the unit I should be dividing by.

And I’m not talking weight-versus-mass-versus-volume. The unit I should be dividing is non of these. Rather, the unit is per-consumption.

Say I’m getting a candy bar at the checkout lane. One candy bar costs 75¢. But another candy bar - same brand, same type - that is double the size is a dollar. Which candy bar is cheaper?

If I’m only going by cost per weight, then the answer is the larger one for a dollar. But regardless which candy bar I’m going to get, I’m going to eat it all in one sitting. In this case, the smaller candy bar for seventy-five cents is cheaper.

Or if I’m McDonald’s - ordering the large size combo meal may be cheaper per fry and cheaper per ounce of drink, but it’s not like I’m going to save any fries or drink for later. I’m going to sit down, eat the entire thing, and be on my way. Both the large and the medium have the same unit.

Per sitting isn’t the only unit that is often ignored. A half-loaf of bread might be cheaper than a whole loaf of bread if the odds are the bread will mold before I finish it anyway. If bread goes bad in a week, and I can’t even finish a half-loaf in a week, then the half-load might be cheaper. Even if the half-loaf costs 75¢ and the whole loaf costs $1.

And even with non-perishables, it might not make sense to buy more if you may never use them. Sometimes this might seem more obvious - why buy two roofs worth of shingles if you only need to shingle one roof? Other times it might seem less obvious - do I really need twice the amount of bath towels? (Although where can you buy bath towels in bulk?)

Frugality then, in the sense of unit pricing, isn’t getting every little bit for as little as possible. It’s using your money - and resources - thoughtfully and sensibly.

1 comment for Sometimes The Unit is Not the Unit

  • That’s so smart! Unit pricing only makes sense if you know you are going to use everything you buy in the time it stays usable, and that by buying more you won’t automatically use more. That appeals to the engineer in me, I often saw people trying to solve the wrong problems. Sometimes the lowest energy machine wasn’t the best choice because it couldn’t really do the job. I had a boss who got a good deal on sheetrock when he was building a house, so he bought way more than he needed. That was thirty years ago and I think it is still sitting in one of his sheds. Not smart.

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