This Christmas, my mother bought me a breadmaker. In true frugalista fashion, she got it on Craigslist for a whopping $7.
So a few days after the chaos receded, I excitedly invested in yeast and wheat flour and lugged the machine out of the corner. Of course, in true Craigslist fashion, it didn’t work.
Sometimes you get what you pay for.
It was a slight annoyance, but I just ended up elbows-deep in dough and then, having no pans, baked it in a trusty Pyrex bowl. My creation ended up delicious; when I took some to my family, my little sister ate an entire loaf before I could protest.
I’m not really Betty Homemaker, but I’ve been increasingly interested in making food from scratch, mostly because I think it’s almost always cheaper to make your own than to buy it ready-made.
I’m also surrounded by a family and friends who do the same. This season, my mother made homemade mustard and ketchup as gifts, I tried my hand at yogurt pretzels, and we had dinner with friends who regularly make their own peanut butter. In the past, my parents have even experimented with keeping their own goats and chickens, though they stopped at keeping beehives.
I just have to ask: Is homemade actually cheaper?
All the fun of making it aside, I thought I’d use my most recent bread experiment to compare actual costs. A bag of flour cost me $3.30, of which I used six cups — so $1.04. One packet of dry yeast cost me another $1.25, and I added a little sugar — I would guess 20 or 30 cents’ worth. My water is effectively free for me, so my entire loaf cost a little over $2.
The average price of a loaf of bread in the U.S. (according to Answers.com) is $1.59, so I didn’t save money.
Especially taking into account the time I spent making the bread, the gas the stove used to cook it, and the fact that I can buy bread for 99 cents in the day-old section of the grocery store, the obvious thing to do is to buy — not make — bread.
All in all, probably yes; with the efficiency of mass production, how could my little kitchen compete? With a quick Google search, I found that with our modern mechanization and mass production of food (and the use of hybrid seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers in farming), Americans spend less than 10 percent of our income on food. In the 1930s, when we still homemade most food, the country spent more like 25 percent of its resources on food.
In some ways, this is a great advancement. The resources we don’t spend on food can be put into recreation, technology, education, medicine — all worthy investments, in my book. Besides, without the mechanization of farming, think of all the college students who would still be working the family farm.
On the other hand, in the search for quantity we have often sacrificed quality. Much of our savings come in the form of fast food, and the 99-cent bread I get at the store is the clear nutritional, aesthetic and taste inferior of a traditional, whole-wheat loaf.
So I think I’ll stick with my $2 bread.
I know I’m the frugalista, but I’m still willing to pay an extra dollar — and put in some work of my own — for the (albeit clichéd) pleasure of a warm loaf straight from the oven, full of real ingredients that I myself put together.
Vivian Underhill’s Boulder Frugalista runs every Tuesday in the Colorado Daily.