Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How to Save, or Not, with a Chest Freezer

Yesterday I talked about how to come up with an exact figure for the monthly cost of owning and running a chest freezer. Today I want to discuss how to evaluate that number in terms of what it would mean in your life.

Ways of Saving Money with a Chest Freezer

In order for a chest freezer to become a tool to use in pursuit of frugality, it must allow you to actively save more money each month than it costs to keep the freezer running. How you might go about this depends very much on your lifestyle, and what lifestyle changes you would make if and when you get a chest freezer. Let's look at some of them.

Eat at home instead of eating out. This is the big and obvious one. For those of you with a full family life of kids, two careers, and an overloaded schedule, the temptation to just get the family fed with fast food can be overwhelming some nights. Paradoxically, you may be one of the best candidates for buying a chest freezer. The catch is that you do actually need to change your habits at least a little. If, by owning a chest freezer, you substitute a few meals at home each month for eating out, you're going to come out ahead. Even if you simply microwave a frozen dinner rather than eating in a sit-down restaurant, you're better off. Of course, frozen dinners for a single meal would probably fit in the freezer attached to your refrigerator. If you switch from occasional restaurant dining, delivery, or carry-out to storing and eating your own homemade freezer-to-oven ready meals, you'll come out farther ahead. And if you entirely break a regular habit of paying for meals out, you'll easily save hundreds of dollars per month.

Also paradoxically, if you already prepare all your meals from scratch without a chest freezer, you need to ask yourself if getting one is really going to let you save more than the cost of owning and running an extra freezer each month. If you're already following frugal ways, what's the advantage to you of making an expensive purchase like this one? Well, you could be a candidate though for...

Gardening extensively. It can't be denied that having storage space in the freezer allows the home gardener to put away an impressive quantity of very high-quality produce over the growing season. If you already garden, then you could use a chest freezer to leverage the effort of working a larger garden space. If you don't currently garden, you could begin doing so. But again, honesty is required here. Gardening is a fun hobby for some, utter drudgery to others, and a serious commitment of time and effort for anyone who does it. So is food preservation. You can't just pick a fresh vegetable and chuck it in the freezer. Some other work is going to be involved. Are you really up to (more) gardening? Could you tackle it as a family project if your kids are of age to help? Consider it carefully before using it to justify a major purchase. If you do pursue this, you also need to think about which plants suitable for your climate and growing conditions will be preserved in the freezer.

Raising animals for meat. This is probably beyond the interests of many people, but it's something to consider if you're serious about moving towards food independence. If you plan to keep rabbits, chickens or other animals for meat, a chest freezer is probably a very good idea. Even having laying hens will let you store some eggs in the freezer for the times of year they don't produce.

Reducing waste. Having plenty of extra freezer space is a great opportunity to prevent spoilage of food you've already paid for or grown. There are times when stuff sits around too long in the fridge. In many cases, there's a way to get it into the freezer for later use. Citrus fruits can be juiced and the zest peeled. Both of these can go into the freezer. Cheese can be grated and later used for pizza or casseroles. Vegetable trimmings can be stored up and saved for making stock. Leftovers can be shifted later in time just by freezing and thawing. Fruits can be peeled, cut up and frozen for later use in desserts or smoothies. Keeping spices and flours in the freezer also preserves them much longer than they would at room temperature. So you may get more use out of your investment in some costly ingredients.

Shopping the sales and buying in bulk. There's no denying that freezer capacity can change the way you shop. Some grocery stores sell their must-go meat in large quantities. If you have a chest freezer, you can take advantage of this. You could also consider buying half of a steer, hog, or lamb directly from a local farmer. Or, when your price comparison book tells you that you've found a great deal on anything you use on a regular basis, you can stock up like crazy. We've got about twelve pounds of organic butter and ten packs of Hebrew National hot dogs in our freezer right now, due to fantastic deals that we spotted several months ago. It's great to know you have the storage space to take advantage of such opportunities. The Frugal Girl has a nice piece on how to freeze large quantities of chicken when it goes on sale, so that it's easy to use later on.

Stocking up on other things. I also use our freezer to store up homemade bread and other baked goods. I can bake ten loaves of bread in one day and freeze them for later consumption. This allows me to save a little bit of money on fuel costs by running my oven less often, and by not heating up my house during the hot summer months. This results in a fairly small amount savings compared to not having the freezer at all. I would probably still bake my own bread without the chest freezer. But the savings, small and difficult to calculate though they be, are there nonetheless.

Driving Less = Lower Fuel Costs. Having a chest freezer and using it to stock up can mean fewer trips to the store, which can save you money on gasoline. This can be accomplished either by buying in bulk, or by using the freezer to store food you grow yourself. But again, you need to look at the particulars of your life. If you drive by the grocery store on the way to work everyday anyway, you probably won't drive less as a result of having a chest freezer.

Drawbacks, Concerns, and Risks

Increased work load. As with many ways of saving money, chest freezer frugality takes more effort as compared to the "convenience" of paying to have your food prepared for you. In order to save, you must do the food processing.

The fallacy of "saving." Remember that you aren't saving anything when you put food into the freezer. Whether you got a fantastic deal on a roast, or raised your own vegetables, you don't save any money by putting these things in a freezer. You only save when you pull that food out of the freezer and eat it in lieu of something else you might have eaten that would have cost you more money. If you buy and stock a chest freezer with the good intentions of eating at home, but then ignore that food and continue to eat out or bring prepared food into your home, you're just wasting money. Eventually, the food in the freezer will become a total loss. Don't fool yourself into stocking up more food than your family can eat before it gets freezer burned. The best sale prices don't mean much if you only prepare a few meals at home each month.

Extended power outage can lead to a big loss. The whole premise of using a chest freezer to save money rests on a steady supply of electricity. Losing power during a cold winter might not matter much if your chest freezer is located in an unheated space. As a rule of thumb, food in a chest freezer that loses power will be okay for up to 48 hours if the freezer remains closed. But if you experience frequent power outages during warm weather, consider this risk carefully. You could lose hundreds of dollars worth of food in one go.

Making the Decision

So, is a chest freezer for you? Think about the monthly figure you came up with based on yesterday's calculations. For us, that number is around $5.80. Let's look at it by crunching the numbers. We're a family of just two, which means we eat 180 meals per month (2 people x 3 meals per day x 30 days). On average, that means the chest freezer must be directly responsible for a savings of just over 3 cents per serving for every single meal we eat ($5.80/180 meals). Or we could say that we need to use it to save $1.45 per week in food costs ($5.80/4 weeks per month). This is just a break even point. To come out ahead, we need to do better than that.

How many meals do you prepare each month? And how many people do you feed in your family? The more home cooked food you serve each month, the better your potential savings. And by contrast, every meal you eat out or buy prepared food lowers the savings contribution of your chest freezer. Assess yourself and your lifestyle honestly. If two working adults eat out for lunch every weekday, that's 40 meals per month that aren't going to be affected by having a chest freezer. You can't use a freezer as a frugal tool if you don't eat at home.

Thinking about all the possible ways of saving money mentioned above. How many are going to apply to you? Does this look like a smart purchase to you? Can you realistically expect to save more than the monthly cost of ownership? If you are comfortable with the increased work load needed to save a lot more than that monthly figure, you're a good candidate. If you just don't cook that many meals at home, and you don't see that changing anytime soon, this purchase probably doesn't make much sense. The same is true if you already eat quite frugally without the benefit of a chest freezer.

Tomorrow I'll give some other tips for those of you who already own or are ready to buy a chest freezer.


marci357 said...

I think if you are putting in a lot of "free" food, then that makes it harder to figure out costwise.
Meaning homegrown veggies, gleaned fruits, friends' gift foods, game meat, clams, fish, home grown beef, homemade soups/stews... etc.- it's good to be able to take advantage of free foods. Putting those types of foods in the freezer do not have a purchased price, just a prepped price and labor. At the same time, if the electric goes out, which it does, I feel I am only out the food and the energy that has gone into it so far, but not out the initial cost of the food. Therefore, it's a gamble I'm willing to take as most of the food is free. I am thinking about borrowing the son's generator for a couple hrs next time I lose power tho :)

Kate said...

Marci, I agree that garden produce and gleaned food is difficult to put a price to. But I would value it at an average of $2/pound these days, which is probably about average for produce bought at the grocery store. I tend to value garden produce more than store bought stuff though.

As for losing power, we're pretty lucky. We live near a major hospital, and I think we're on the same power grid. In almost two years of living here, we've never been without power for more than a couple hours. Usually it just blinks off for a second and then comes right back on. It's a nice perq of living near the hospital. The down side is the ambulances.