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The 10 most economical sandwiches

What's cheaper: Tuna or egg salad? Len Penzo adds it all up in his second annual survey of how much homemade sandwiches cost.

By Karen Datko Aug 6, 2010 8:15AM

This guest post comes from Len Penzo at Len Penzo dot Com.


Yes, school is right around the corner, and the honeybee is once again gearing up for another season of endless sandwich making for the kids' brown-bag lunches. She won't be alone.


Every day, millions of people pack a sandwich or two to eat for lunch at their school or place of employment, and who can argue with that strategy?


While I realize that packing a homemade lunch is more economical and more healthful than eating out at a burger joint or some other greasy spoon, this intrepid personal-finance blogger was not satisfied to simply accept the obvious financial wisdom of forgoing a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese in lieu of the handmade ham and Swiss cheese sandwich. Uh-uh, not me.


So last year I took a vow to never rest until I knew which of the 10 most common brown-bag sandwiches offered the best value of them all. The result was my inaugural brown-bag survey, conducted in August 2009.


You didn't expect me to rest on my laurels, did you? Especially when I had hundreds -- OK, a few -- requests for an updated sandwich survey. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)


How the survey was conducted

Once again I evaluated 10 of the most common brown-bag sandwiches: peanut butter and jelly; bologna; tuna; ham and Swiss; roast beef and cheddar; egg salad; salami; American cheese; turkey; and bacon, lettuce and tomato.

To determine the price of each sandwich, I simply needed to know the per-serving costs of all the ingredients.


Of course, that required me to take a break from watching a "King of Queens" marathon and run down to the local grocery store. Sixteen episodes later, and just a wee bit groggy from all the entertainment, there I was with my trusty notebook at Albertsons, taking price and serving size information off all the applicable product labels and price tags, just as I did the year before.


For consistency in determining prices of the individual ingredients, I selected items with the cheapest per-unit costs, regardless of brand.


For simplicity, I also assumed all sandwiches would be made with wheat bread. (I know, kids. I love Wonder Bread too.)

Survey results

Here are the results of my price survey, conducted Aug. 2. The first graph shows the sandwich serving sizes and per-serving costs for each ingredient. It also includes the percentage increase or decrease in the per-serving price of each item from the 2009 inaugural survey:


With that data in hand, and using my handy spreadsheet, it was no effort at all to determine the most economical sandwiches.


Here are the official Len Penzo dot Com rankings of the 10 most economical brown-bag sandwiches in 2010. Rankings are based on total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive:

As I noted last year, we can split hairs all day long on the exact makeup of each sandwich listed. To be consistent, I kept to the listed serving sizes on the nutritional labels. Yes, I realize that some people don't use any spreads at all, while others prefer two or three slices of bologna, or lettuce and tomato with their roast beef and cheddar sandwich.


If you make your sandwiches differently, you can simply look at my shopping survey numbers in the top graph and adjust the sandwich costs in the bottom chart accordingly.

Observations and tips

  • For the second consecutive year, salami tops my list of the most economical brown-bag sandwiches. In fact, at only 25 cents per salami sandwich, the price actually dropped 2 cents from last year. In all, three other sandwiches saw price drops from the previous year: egg salad, American cheese and the BLT.
  • Helped by a 33% price decrease, egg salad was the biggest mover in the survey, climbing from the seventh most economical sandwich to No. 5.
  • Tuna, turkey and Swiss, and ham and Swiss saw minor price increases over the previous year. Roast beef and cheddar, PB&J and bologna saw no price increase.
  • Speaking of bologna, as I reminded my readers last year, the conventional wisdom out there is that bologna is a very expensive lunch meat. But for the second consecutive year, my survey shows this is simply not the case. The fact remains: A bologna sandwich is one of the most economical sandwiches you can make. In fact, bologna sales tend to spike during poor economic times.
  • Unless you are worried about potential adverse health effects, no need to hold the mayo; the price of condiments adds very little to the cost of the sandwich. For this survey, mayonnaise came in at only a nickel per serving. Mustard is only a penny per serving -- and dropping. Although the price change is almost imperceptible, the per-unit prices of both mayo and mustard dropped this year, if only by a fraction of a cent.
  • Tomatoes are great to put on a sandwich, but they are relatively expensive. Grow your own, and you'll save significant money.
  • If you want to save money on ham lunch meat, get a small whole ham and have the butcher slice it up. It's cheaper and tastes better.

Finally, always remember that even the most expensive sandwiches on the list are still cheaper than going out for lunch.


More from Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:

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