How much can you save by canning your own vegetables?

Do-it-yourself canning is much cheaper than store-bought canned goods, but only if you have an abundant garden

Arthur D. Lauck/AP/The Advocate/File
Produce and canned goods are displayed at Michelle Field's home in St. Gabriel, La. If you have a lush vegetable garden, canning can be a great value.

Saving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Jacqui writes in: Canning. I’ve been told it can be really cheap, but from what I can tell unless you are growing your own, it isn’t worth it.

Sarah and I do a small amount of canning, mostly tomato-based things in a water bath. We can things like tomato sauce, salsa, pasta sauce, and so on. However, beyond that, we actually don’t can very much. We find it more cost-efficient to freeze vegetables in the fall and use them in the winter instead.

So, what are the comparative costs here?

Canning requires jars, lids, and rings. You’ll also need a large pot (for acidic items) and/or a pressure cooker (for other items). I won’t include the pots in this calculation because they’re easily used for other purposes. I’ll also only count 1/10th of the cost of the jars because they can be reused quite a few times.

You can get quart jars for about $1.40 apiece new. If you reuse them ten times, that’s $0.14 per jar. You can also get bands and lids for about $0.70 per set, and since you’re able to reuse the bands, you can also get just lids for about $0.40 apiece. Thus, your cost per canned jar for the materials is about $0.54 with some additional startup costs.

Canned goods You can buy a pint can of many canned vegetables at the store for $0.89 or $0.99. Many other items will cost substantially more than that. Thus, it’s pretty clear that if you have a source for fresh vegetables, you can save significant money by canning yourself.

Flash frozen goods You can get about a quart of flash frozen vegetables at the store for $1.39. Obviously, as with canned goods, the selection at that price is fairly limited.

Freezing requires containers and a freezer. We’ve had a standalone deep freezer for years. As I calculated before, the cost of maintaining and using a deep freezer is about $130 a year.

On average, we freeze an item for six months and it takes up about 1/2% of the freezer, so our cost for that individual item in the freezer is $0.32. We use freezer containers over and over again to freeze items, so the cost for the container is $0.01 or $0.02. This gives us a total cost of roughly $0.34 to freeze a quart of vegetables ourselves if we use it in six months.

Simply put, the raw cost of freezing or canning is cheaper if you do it yourself, but only if you have a source of free or extremely inexpensive vegetables and fruits.

The cost of even deeply discounted fruits and vegetables easily pushes the cost of freezing and canning yourself up into the range of “no longer a bargain” and “most likely a loss.” Freezing and canning yourself has startup costs, too.

You can save dollars, not pennies by canning (or freezing) if you have an abundant garden. Otherwise, it’s not worth it.

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