Monday, September 1, 2008

The Chest Freezer: A Good Frugal Tool for You?

I love having a chest freezer. We've bought it less than two years ago and I already take it for granted. In addition to my meager forays into canning vegetables, I've been socking away garden produce in my chest freezer for the last few months. So even while I've been following the $50 per Month Grocery Challenge, we've actually been adding to our food stores.

A while back, My Money Blog posted about our exact situation: having an extra chest freezer in the garage. I wanted to add to that discussion. If frugality is your prime concern, there are many things to think about before making the decision to buy a chest freezer. Some factors are obvious. If you're in an efficiency apartment or a very small home, space considerations probably rule out a chest freezer. But for most of us, the question comes down to costs vs. savings.

Over the next few days, I'm going to walk through the issues around owning a chest freezer. Naturally, if you're in the market for a freezer you'd want to consider several options:

Sizing your freezer. Think carefully about how big a freezer you want. If your family is large, and you cook from scratch most of the time, it makes sense to get a large freezer. If it's just you and one other person, choose a smaller model. The potential monthly savings goes down with the number of people you need to feed. So your costs must also go down if you want to come out ahead. Though it's tempting to buy large, having a large stock of stored food that doesn't get eaten up doesn't save you anything at all. A small family can store a large supply of meat and vegetables in a small freezer. My husband and I bought half a hog and half a lamb one year, and though it took us a long while to eat through all that meat, the meat itself took up a surprisingly small amount of space. As a rule of thumb, chances are good that you could get by with less freezer than you think.

Of course, if you fill your freezer with a lot of prepared meals and frozen dinners, you're allocating a significant amount of dead space to packaging. So consider how densely stored your food is going to be. Volume per volume, pre-packaged food will give you fewer servings than unprocessed meats, fruits, and vegetables. If you make your own prepared foods to freeze (such as quiche, casseroles, etc.), you're unlikely to use up extra space around them for packaging.

Energy efficiency. There are many stand alone freezers out there. Chest freezers are usually recommended over uprights because they are more efficient. This is due to a law of physics: cold air is heavier than warm air. Open an upright freezer and all the cold air falls out at your feet. Open a chest freezer, and the cold air more or less stays put where it is. If you're paying for your electricity, or if you only generate your own in small quantities, it'll probably pay for you to get a well insulated chest freezer, if you're going to buy any freezer at all. On top of that, it would be wise to choose a model that does better than the average in terms of electricity usage. The EnergyStar website has a good tool for evaluating all EnergyStar rated freezers. It would be a good place to begin looking for an individual model.

Shopping around for the best price. If you're reading this post, you have access to the internet, which gives you a wealth of opportunities to compare prices for durable consumer goods. Once you've narrowed down your choice of freezer models, shop around for the best price. Be sure to include any differences in sales tax and shipping or delivery costs. Then spend a little extra time speaking directly with any local vendors of this freezer who might not have an online presence. If you find a competitive price locally, be sure to ask if they could offer you a discount for paying cash. 'Cause you're not putting this on the credit card, right?

In order to make a smart decision about a potential purchase, we need to get down to brass tacks. In other words, we need to know what it will cost us. So the first task is to come up with an actual monthly cost of ownership.

Cost of buying the freezer itself. This is going to make a difference not only in the amount of money you have to lay out up front (because of course there's absolutely no question of putting this purchase on a credit card), but also in figuring out what it's going to cost you to have the freezer on a monthly basis. Of course, this isn't literally true. Once you've bought the freezer there wouldn't be any further cost if you left it in the garage unplugged. But for the purposes of evaluating the purchasing decision, we need to divide the purchase price by the life expectancy of the appliance. Ten years is the average life expectancy for a chest freezer. When you figure out the price, be sure to include any sales tax you would pay, as well as delivery charges if any. Then just divide the total cost by 120 (12 months x 10 years). This is your monthly cost of ownership.

Monthly electricity costs. Now you need to know how much you'll pay in electricity to keep the freezer cold. It so happens that the EnergyStar website also includes a nifty spreadsheet that will let you calculate the cost to run your freezer to a very high degree of accuracy. To use it though, you'll first need to know how much you pay the electricity company per kilowatt hour. If your bill looks like mine, figuring this out is very confusing. But somewhere on your bill there should be a total dollar amount for the month, as well as the kilowatt hours you actually used. Simply divide the dollars by the kilowatt hours, and you'll have the amount you're paying per kilowatt hour this month. It may vary from month to month. If you want to track this figure to find your average cost per kilowatt hour, go for it. But the calculation from any given month gives you something to work with. Plug that number into the spreadsheet, along with other details on the model of freezer you're considering. This will give you a figure for your monthly cost to keep the freezer running.

Now add the monthly cost of ownership to the monthly electricity cost to run it. This is your actual cost of keeping your chest freezer running. It's also the amount of money you need to save in food costs each month in order to just break even. Any savings over and above that amount will be money in your pocket.

So we've now come up with a specific dollar amount with which to make a purchasing decision. Tomorrow we'll discuss ways you might or might not recoup that cost, and some other pros and cons of ownership.


marci357 said...

good article :) Followed your posting link from beingfrugal 9/17.

Will be reading the next in the series and hope to see that there are more than financial reasons for owning the freezer. I'm single, but have grown kids and their families - and am often cooking up the family favs to give for holidays and birthday gifts... plus all the pies and quiches ahead of holidays.... plus all the garden produces.... So while the gift giving may not be cost effective, I couldn't do it without the freezer, so I guess I am paying for convenience also :)

In any case, I wouldn't be without my freezer :)

Kate said...

I wouldn't be without mine either, Marci. My baked goodies take up a significant portion of the real estate in the freezer too. Thanks for letting me know you liked this post.


marci357 said...

I bought a new freezer last year - at age 53. Because of that, and thinking the freezer might last til I'm in my 70's... (hopefully for both it and me)..instead I bought an upright this time. While I know it is not the most efficient, I feel it will be easier for an 'older' woman to use. There may come a time when I cannot lug those heavy 25 turkeys out of the bottom of a chest freezer, but I can slide them out of the upright. I needed a user-friendly model to take me into my older age :)

NVgeologist said...

Quick note on pricing out a freezer, my wife and I bought a huge chest freezer for about half the retail cost by going to the Sears scratch and dent outlet in our town. It had an couple ugly paint abrasions on it, but no dents, and was backed by the same warranty as any other. We've had it for three years now, no issues at all. Don't know how we'd get by without it. Might be a good option for those who can find them.

Kate said...

NVg, good tip. Thanks for sharing it!

Anonymous said...

I am contemplating and pondering acquiring a small chest-type freezer for the shanty.

What worries me most are power outages that are caused by tornadoes, ice storms, etc.

With my luck I would have the critter well-stocked then be beset by a lengthy power outage and if it was an ice storm the roads may be impassable thus not allowing access to dry ice to keep goodies cool and in this area temperatures are variable and storing stuff outside in the cold may not be safe due to rapid temp. fluctuations that can occur, etc. etc. etc.


My ancient withered brainlet is befuddled, again.