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The 10 cheapest brown-bag sandwiches

Len Penzo conducts his fourth annual price survey of common sandwiches packed for school and work.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 10, 2012 12:55PM

This post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.


Len Penzo dot Com on MSN MoneyLast week I got a notice in the mail announcing that my kids' school lunch price would be increasing by about 10% this year to $2.25. Despite the increase, I'm sure many busy parents struggling to make ends meet think that's still a bargain for lunch. It's not.


Image: School lunch (© Stockbyte/SuperStock/SuperStock)In fact, with the new school year quickly approaching, one of the easiest ways to save money is to bypass the school cafeteria fare and make your kids a brown-bag lunch at home. Whether it's for school or the office, brown-bagging a sandwich, piece of fruit and carrot sticks or a serving of chips will almost always be less expensive than buying lunch somewhere else.


That said, some sandwiches are obviously going to be more economical than others. After all, who can forget celebrity chef Martin Blunos' $168 cheese sarnie?


Thankfully, the results of my fourth annual brown-bag sandwich price survey show that most folks will end up spending far less than that in 2012 -- even for the most expensive sandwich on the list.


How the survey was conducted

As I have every year since conducting my first sandwich survey in 2009, I moseyed on down to my local grocery store and recorded the per-serving costs of various ingredients for 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.


As in my past sandwich surveys, for consistency in determining prices of the individual sandwich ingredients, I selected items with the cheapest per-unit costs, regardless of brand. To keep it simple, I also assumed all sandwiches would be made with wheat bread. (Post continues below.)

Survey results

Here are the results of my price survey, conducted Aug. 5. The first graphic 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 last year's survey:


Sandwich Survey 1

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 common brown-bag sandwiches in 2012. Rankings are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive:


Sandwich Survey 2

The next chart shows a year-by-year comparison for each sandwich since my first survey, in 2009.


Sandwich Survey 3

Now, I realize that some people don't use any spreads at all. I also understand that some folks enjoy two or three slices of bologna. And I know lettuce and tomato can be placed on sandwiches other than a BLT. If you make your sandwiches differently, you can simply look at my shopping survey numbers in the top chart and adjust the sandwich costs in the bottom chart accordingly.

Observations and tips

  • You can often save upward of 40% by avoiding name brands and buying the store-brand products instead. As my blind taste tests have proved, sometimes it's tough to tell the difference.
  • Try cooking your own ham or turkey and slicing it yourself, to save even more money. Likewise, it's also cheaper to buy block cheese and slice it at home.
  • If you're like me and love to put tomatoes on a sandwich, grow your own. You'll save a bundle. Best of all, they taste much better than anything you can buy from your grocer.
  • For the first time, peanut butter and jelly holds the honor of being the most economical sandwich in the survey, finally knocking the perennial champion, salami, off the top spot.
  • The signs of inflation that began to appear in 2011 have clearly accelerated, and many of the latest increases are rather disturbing. For instance, ham, salami, bologna, turkey, tuna, mayonnaise and jelly prices all increased by 40% or more since the last survey -- and the price of cheddar cheese increased an incredible 137%! With that in mind, it should be no surprise that prices for nine of the 10 surveyed sandwiches saw increases this year.
  • Last year's most expensive sandwich, the BLT, was the only sandwich in the survey to see an overall price decline this year, thanks to significant drops in the price of tomatoes and bacon. In fact, the BLT is the only sandwich in the survey that is less expensive today than it was in 2009.
  • The price of lobster has been cheaper than bologna, due to a glut of the tasty crustacean. But don't let that scare you. A bologna sandwich is still one of the most economical sandwiches on the lunch menu. Of course, that assumes you're making the sandwiches -- not Martin Blunos.

More on Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:

Aug 10, 2012 7:59PM
I would have liked to see nutritional values included along with the other factors considered in this article. What you gain in the cheapness of your lunch can easily be offset by the cost of the medical bills that ultimately result from unhealthy eating.
Aug 13, 2012 11:41AM

OK, who eats an egg sald with only eggs and mayonnaise??? Who eats a tuna salad with only tuna and mayonnaise???



Aug 13, 2012 6:36AM
As far as slicing your own meats and cheeses... Any good supermarket or deli will slice for free what you buy from them. You can have them slice it very thin (shaved) or a little thicker. You may even be able to buy the better quality meats and cheeses and sliced a bit thinner. Just a personal note if your cheese slices come individually wrapped, you are not getting cheese. Try a half pound of sliced American cheese from the deli and compare it to the individually wrapped stuff. You will know what I mean.
Aug 12, 2012 12:20AM
I made my own jam and jelly with fruit grown by family, so it's cheaper and I control the sugar. Albeit pectin and sugar are not free. Of course I likely counter it with name brand peanut butter. Len, you should do a blog on the other components of a sack lunch - like fruit, chips, cookies. We buy milk at school - probably pay more but it's colder and there is no chance of leaking or being forgotten in a thermos over the weekend. Keep up the great research and my arteries are grateful that salami was finally de-throned
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