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Save big bucks on spices and herbs

The price can vary 400% or more even within the same market. Use these tips to save money and prevent waste.

By Donna_Freedman Dec 4, 2012 1:18PM
Logo: Grocery shopping (Jupiterimages/Jupiterimages)During the holidays, many of us prepare foods we don't cook the rest of the year. Just how old is that ginger, anyway? How long will it take you to use it up? Will it lose its potency before you're halfway through the bottle?

Most important of all: How much did you pay for it?

Take a look at the unit price label on the grocery shelf. At one market I visited the store-brand ground ginger goes for $3.33 per ounce, or $53.28 per pound.

That is, if you were buying it from the baking section. Just a few aisles over you could get ginger for $13.19 per pound -- and you could buy as much or as little as you needed.

The bulk-food or "health food" sections found in many markets sell a number of herbs and spices. In the Fred Meyer store near me, a sign invited me to "buy a pinch or a pound."

This is a great frugal practice all year long. Suppose you wanted to try a new recipe that calls for yellow mustard seeds. Would you rather pay $7.49 per pound in the bulk section or $18.24 per pound in the baking aisle?

Or suppose you try a recipe that calls for turmeric and no one likes the dish. You've now got a tin or bottle of the spice that could sit unused for months or years.

In the bulk aisle at Fred Meyer you could pay $10.99 per pound versus $47.84 in the baking aisle -- and you could take along a measuring spoon in order to buy the amount the recipe requires.

Incidentally, those are Alaska prices. The going rate is probably less where you live.

Get a nice price for spice

A few more suggestions for saving on seasonings:

Health food stores.
Look for ones with bulk-buy bins.

Ethnic markets.
Before I left Seattle I stocked up on some 99-cent seasonings from an Asian/Western market: curry, cloves, pickling spice, celery seed and popcorn salt. (An article on notes that properly stored spices can last from one to four years and herbs from one to three years.)
Spice/tea markets.
Online or in your neighborhood. Frugal tip: Cash in for Amazon gift cards from rewards programs like Swagbucks or MyPoints and "buy" them for free.

Every so often spices and herbs go on sale at Walgreens, Rite Aid or CVS. We're talking $1.50 for basics like oregano, basil, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg and paprika.

Dollar stores.
You'll see the basics noted above and maybe some others, depending on the store.

Those last two don't sell high-end varieties, obviously. But it may not make much difference, according to the professional tasters at Consumer Reports who compared high-end and dirt-cheap brands of oregano and cinnamon.

"A pricey spice could be worth trying in a simple dish (oregano on fresh tomatoes, for instance) or where it's the main ingredient (as with cinnamon buns). For recipes with many ingredients, you probably don't need to pay a premium," the magazine says.

Frankly, some of us don't care. I have a fairly proletarian palate; the more expensive stuff would probably be wasted on me.

If a recipe called for something unusual like fenugreek seeds, I'd buy only as much as I needed at a place like Fred Meyer. As for other spices, I generally find the drugstore and dollar-store brands taste fine. So I'll stick with them -- and save.

More on MSN Money:

Dec 10, 2012 12:03AM
I get my spices, herbs, dried peppers in the Mexican food section of the grocery store. Manageable portions for as low as $.79 here in California.
Dec 7, 2012 10:26PM
My suprize (to me) source for the best cullinary herbs I have found at really great prices is my local metaphysical store.  I was looking for lavender flowers for a recipe, could not find them at any of my regular stores , mentioned the dilema to my then high school age daughter who knew a Wiccan and she suggested I check out the store.  Everything there is cheeper than the regular stores and many are cheeper than Dollar Tree not to mention that the quality is fantastic.  The only herbs I like better come from my own garden. 
Dec 4, 2012 3:35PM
several internet bulk herb stores offer the best selection and prices. huge selection as most herbs are not used as food additives. they have other uses. these uses are why the big drug companies are in the amazon rain forest looking.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.