How much convenience can you afford?

When times were tough, the first thing to go was the chicken.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. The first thing to go was the skinless, boneless chicken breast. The chicken stayed. It just wasn’t skinless or boneless anymore.

It wasn’t until I was a young man, living on my own and just getting by, that I finally started paying attention to the cost of groceries. And one of the first things I noticed was that my beloved and much-purchased boneless chicken breast was actually rather costly.

Luckily, what did I find in the cooler right next door? That’s right. Boneless chicken’s more affordable cousin, split chicken breast! The price difference was significant. “Why does anyone buy the boneless one?” I wondered. “This is so much cheaper!”

Later, after laboring through nearly 30 minutes of painfully amateur chicken deboning, I had my answer: sometimes convenience is worth the cost.

Speed kills (your food budget)

Grocery stores are the ultimate example of an accepted cost of convenience. We could grow our own food. Many people do. But most of us don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to cultivate our own food supply. So we pay other people to do it for us.

There comes a certain point, however, when the cost of convenience begins to outstrip the value it brings you. Your time is certainly worth something, but not all “convenient” products save enough time to justify their cost (and existence). For example:

Individual snack packs. Many of your favorite snacks (pretzels, crackers, etc.) now come in small, individually wrapped snack packs. It seems like a good idea (just grab a bag and go), but is it really that much harder to buy a large bag or box of something and portion it yourself into a small, reusable container? It’s certainly more expensive in the long run.

Shredded cheese. Block cheese is almost always cheaper by volume than pre-shredded cheese. Shredding cheese by hand takes about 60 seconds and approximately 10 seconds by food processor.

Hamburger patties. Grocery stores sell ground beef. For a bit more money, grocery stores also sell ground beef shaped into hamburger patties. Presuming you’ve seen a hamburger patty before, you can almost definitely shape one on your own.

Frozen pancakes. I’ll allow that Eggo waffles are their own special, non-re-creatable thing, but pancakes are easy to make, easy to freeze, and easy to reanimate.

Finding the balance

Generally speaking, the more work someone else has done to prepare something for consumption, the more it’s going to cost you. That’s the cost of convenience – when you pay someone else to do it for you.

To be clear, it’s okay to pay for convenience. Sometimes you can’t do something for yourself. Sometimes you just don’t want to. The trick is to find the balance between convenience and cost. You want the value of the time and energy saved to equal or exceed the financial cost.

When trying to decide what you’re willing to spend for convenience, consider your goals and priorities, both personal and financial. If your top priority is saving money or paying down debt, your goals will probably be better served by inconveniencing yourself. If you want to save money, but you also want to free up time to spend with your family, then you probably won’t be able to cut all convenience from your budget.

We could create a nice mathematical formula to help you decide which conveniences you can afford and which you cannot, but your best bet is to probably start experimenting. Try creating an “inconvenient” grocery list for the next few weeks. Focus on buying more basic, less ready-to-eat items and see what that does to your time and your bank account.

The best part is that as you learn to incorporate more inconvenient foods into your routine, you’ll find they become less and less inconvenient as you become more used to handling the prep work yourself. Even deboning your own chicken breasts gets easier with time.

You don’t have to shun convenience altogether, but it’s worth it to take the time to figure out how much you can afford.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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