Some Things Are Still Cheap

Once in a while at work I am taken aback at how cheap some things are. I find myself on occasion wondering how a certain item could be made in China, shipped over here, marked up, then marked up by me and still cost what is a relative pittance.

I have always been amazed at how cheaply you could eat if you needed to. I am not talking about USDA prime cuts here. If you were down and totally out and needed to resort to cheap food just to sustain, you can get by on just a few bucks a day. Mac and cheese is .59. A loaf of bread is still under a buck. Fruit and veggies are still relatively cheap compared to other foods.

Back about 15 years ago I attended a seminar put on by Honeywell. The presenter arrived with several loaves of bread and brought the receipt from the store for them. This initiated a discussion of the whys and hows of choice, and marketing. Some people want more expensive bread because of the ingredients, some want a healthier fortified bread for the nutrition, and some people just want the cheapest thing they can find, any quality perceptions or realities be damned. I don’t remember what the point of the seminar was, but I always remembered the bread demo. I recently ran into this gentleman at a convention and he was happy that I recalled him as “the bread guy”.

Shaving is one of those things that I hate to do. It takes valuable time out of my day, and I still get cut on occasion. I have been shaving for approximately 20 years now, every day for six days a week. Sometimes I must shave twice a day if the wife and I are going out to a formal gathering late at night since I now have a pretty decent 5 o’clock shadow. That means that I have shaved my face a staggering 6,240 times as of now (approximately). About 15 years ago I declared Sundays as “universal shaving amnesty day”, at least in my house. Hey, I am just following instructions. It is in the Bible, you know:

Genesis 1:31: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
Genesis 1:32: And God was most pleased with what he hath made, and declared the seventh day to be without shaving. And the angels on high did sing and rejoice: “Hallelujah, we rejoice in the celebration of shaving amnesty day”. And God did then create the holiest sport of American football which didst occupy all of man for most weekends between the holy months of August and January. And the angels did celebrate once again.

Since I have been shaving my face for so long (I don’t know how women can stand shaving their legs, btw) I have had the opportunity to try just about every product on the market ever made to help a guy get through his morning misery of shaving. I have settled upon the traditional shaving cream and razor. At Walgreens the other day I was blown away by this:

I decided to try a can, just to see the quality of the stuff. This is great shaving cream, somewhat similar to my usual shaving cream of choice, Barbasol. It is very foamy, which I like. There is a LOT of shaving cream here, enough for several months of shaving. I went back a day later and bought six cans (only $1 each!) and have enough for several years of shaving now. I could see that others didn’t have the same opinion of the stuff, because the more expensive shaving creams seemed to be picked over more (remember the bread demo?) than this brand on the bottom shelf.

I guess getting back to the main theme of this rambling post, I can’t believe that a manufacturer in Canada can make this stuff, ship it to a Walgreens distribution center somewhere, then they can send it to Madison, stock it, charge me one thin dollar, and still make money. I suppose it could be a loss leader, but I can think of lots of products that would be better than this one for a loss leader.

Related:  Enter the new ChicagoBoyz Eatin’ Cheap Contest!

Cross posted at LITGM.

62 thoughts on “Some Things Are Still Cheap”

  1. Barbasol? You rich guys are always using the fancy stuff. ;)

    I used to use Gilette Foamy because I liked the smell and texture. Then about fifteen years ago they changed something and it was never the same afterwards. Now I just use whatever is cheap.

    Funny you should mention mac & cheese. I used to eat that in college when I could get it for between 19 and 25 cents a package. By chance I noticed it in the store recently and it was priced at something like a buck or $1.29. Its price seems to have increased by much more than the rate of inflation.

    Speaking of which, what kind of bread can you get for $1? And while fresh foods are inexpensive they have nonetheless increased substantially in price over the past twenty years or so.

  2. It’s not only the price of things that has dropped but the added quality or capability you can get for the same price. Computer would be the obvious example but even things like power tools, kitchen ware, etc.

    I think decreasing prices are also responsible for the increase in food portion sizes. To stay at the same price point and keep the same absolute margin, food vendors have increased portion sizes.

  3. Back in the ’80s, it was Ramen soup for me. I noticed the price has doubled since then. It’s now 20¢.

  4. Barbasol it is, agreed.

    Shannon is right. The quality of prepared and frozen foods is so much better now than it was 30 years ago there is no comparison.

  5. Jonathan – Plain generic white bread is .89 at my local grocery. Better yet we have a Wonder Bread outlet close to my place of business where you can get stuff nearing date code expiration for cheaper yet. In the king loaf.

    The mac and cheese special I saw in the paper was for .59 on sale, and it was even the Kraft brand. Certainly a loss leader to get people in the store.

  6. I’ve had the same issue with shaving. Grab my lather, lather up, grab my razor, sip sot, rip my face to shreds. [thank you Bill Cosby]. Heck, I could even cut myself with an electric razor. One of the humane gifts I granted myself while stationed in Korea was a Sunday shave at the Post Exchanged done by local nationals. One of the ladies was apologizing for the shave saying I had the worst combination of heavy beard and soft skin. Genetics are wonderful. It took a couple years later when retirement provided the opportunity to discover the secret to a good shave – time. We’re all in a hurry in the morning in taking care of personal business before charging into the day’s challenges. Time provides an opportunity to do a proper job. I use Edge gel, but the key is to apply it and then, just like the barber, apply a hot to very warm hand towel to face and let sit [this takes the time] to prep the beard properly. Once the towel cools, then rinse, and reapply the gel. With a little practice, it delivers a far better result.

  7. “I think decreasing prices are also responsible for the increase in food portion sizes. To stay at the same price point and keep the same absolute margin, food vendors have increased portion sizes.”

    I think it is an enticement to the customer more than anything else.

    Anyone remember when steak house chains became popular throughout the Midwest back in the 1970’s? Buy a steak and the salad bar was free. Eventually, over the slow creep of decades, the salad bar became better equipped than any military chow hall I have ever seen.

    Nowadays they have a ginormous “salad bar” dominating the entire center of the restaurant, with meat dishes like chicken wings, meat loaf, and ham available in as large a quantity as you desire. One end is devoted to desserts, with about twenty different types of cakes nestled up next to fifty different types of cookies, and all right next to the soft serve ice cream station.

    Any of our readers visit Las Vegas in the 1960’s? The casinos had a reputation for treating the customers right, and their inexpensive buffets were a big selling point. It was considered a sign that the place had a touch of class, since even the hoi polloi could eat like kings if they took a gambling vacation.

    Now you can find something that beats the 1960’s casino food blizzard all hollow in just about any large strip mall. The average person, for about the cost of a pizza, has an opportunity to eat in a way that his parents only saw when they were spending money like water in Sin City.

    Dan is right. The relative cost for food has certainly gone down by a remarkable degree over the years, and his point about Canadian shaving cream points up the fact that variety and consumer choices have skyrocketed.

    And there are still people who think this is a bad thing!


  8. I saw somewhere (Barrons?) a graph of the % of income people spent on clothing, from 1900 or so forward…can’t remember the exact numbers, but at the start of the graph it was very significant %.

  9. “…% of income people spent on clothing, from 1900 …”

    Old apartments in Chicago did not, and some still do not, have closets. People had wardrobes which held their few decent items worth hanging up.

    I am reading (picking at, really) a good book called A London Family, 1870-1900 by Mary Vivian Hughes, which is very good. She was from a relatively poor middle-class family. She had one dress she wore for several years during what we would call high school, and while this was unusual, it was not outrageously so.

  10. I was reluctantly dragged into a debate last weekend with an old friend at a party who, in her effort to describe how horrible things are, mentioned the mass starvation taking place in the US. I pointed out that as somebody who has had an extremely bad year (very, very bad) I have never gone hungry because contrary to her view, food is cheap in the US. That set her off on a diatribe about White Bread, Monsanto and the conspiracy by Monsanto to addict the poor to white bread.

    I used to like white bread.

  11. 600,000 men died 143 years ago to win the right to stop shaving. A lot of people think that war was about slavery or states rights, but the truth is that the men of this fine nation wanted to stop shaving. So they went camping for four years. More than half a million were killed, but they finally won the right to not shave. R. Lee had a great beard, didn’t even trim it from his neck. Notice that all the presidents since that time wore beards until the last veteran was no longer elected.

    Yesseree, those were the days.

  12. I still like white bread, and whatever that woman’s been eating has obviously affected her brain.

    People starving to death? Where? Has your friend actually laid eyes on an actual welfare recipient? They run overweight-to-obese as a general rule.

  13. McD’s, Burger King and Wendy’s have 99 cent menus as well, and if I lose my job I’d probably get meals there, or from a ramen packet..

    Incidentally, I just picked up a 18oz loaf of whole wheat bread (not X-grain fancy schmancy stuff) at my local supermarkup (not Whole Paycheck or anyplace fancy schmancy).. $3.49!

    (I got a couple loaves of split-top wheat from Costco for $3.29, I stuck ’em right in the freezer, and I will probably end up packing more food in the freezer before my money becomes completely worthless.. Paging Dr. Weimar…)

  14. When I last lived in the UK I was in the North of England (West Yorkshire). I was stony broke. There is a chain of stores there (parent company Scandinavian I believe) called Netto. Netto was my lifeline. They sold sliced white plastic bread (think Wonderbread for those in the US) for 26p a packet. Their perfectly acceptable baked beans were 7p a can. At that point the exchange rate was £1 ~ $1.50 do we are talking 40¢ and 10¢ respectively. I could feed myself for a week, albeit rather monotonously, for a pound or two.

    Now I live in the tropics, and am a long way from broke. And food is still cheap. I’ve noticed there is a degree of inflation kicking into the staples, but 1.5× a very small number is still a very small number. Milk is 75¢ a litre, up maybe 20% over the last year. If I were reduced to eating rice and beans, I would need pennies a day to live. I honestly don’t know how much they cost because looking at the price is not a rational use of my time. The dollar peg has hurt my spending power a bit, but not by much.

    The real metric, of course, is how many minutes (or hours, days etc.) I have to work to afford a particular item. To pay my food bill for a month is perhaps a day. To pay my other essential living expenses is another five or thereabouts. I make enough to go large in the bar with my buddies on a Friday night on Friday morning.

  15. Shaving is actually one of the more pleasurable things I do. I spend the money to get good stuff and use soap and a brush. Like to look good and smell good which starts out my day good. Shaving soap by Mama Bear. Forgot the price. I bought about 10 tubs and am set for about 2-3 years.

  16. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has a minimum diet it uses for planning purposes. It’s designed to keep one adult alive, if not happy, for one year. It’s something like 120 pounds of corn, 120 pounds of wheat, 60 pounds of soybeans, and a pound each of salt and vitamin C.

    Corn is going for just over $6 a bushel, so at 56 pounds per bushel, the corn will set you back $12.89 (in bulk, again). Wheat, $8.31 a bushel, 60 pounds a bushel, so $16.62. Soybeans, $13.86 a bushel, 60 pounds a bushel, so $13.86. Ten bucks will more than cover the salt and vitamin C, so $53.37.

    Call it $54 to minimally feed a person for a year. Even with the recent runup in food prices, that’s cheap.

  17. SHAVE IN THE SHOWER!!! Repeatedly rinse your face while washing other places, next put on shaving cream and let it sit for a few while you continue to wash other places. After delaying as long as possible, shave happily. The wetness and time makes for the best shave, and its much more pleasant to start the day this way than squinting into the mirror. Oh, for a mirror get a $10 one that sticks to the wall. It doesn’t have to be anti-fog. At the start of the shower wash the mirror with soapy hands, then rinse, and it will stay unfoggy for 15 or 20 minutes.

  18. I’m amazed at how cheap (and good) steak is in the US. Two packs of pretty good quality beef at my grocery store go for $2.45. Fry one up, add a can of string beans (.65), a potato (.35), a little yogurt (.10), a banana (.35) and glass of ice tea (.03) and you have a nice steak dinner for less than $3.

    The best rule of food shopping… shop the walls and never go down the aisles (except for ice cream!).

  19. Here in Texas one can buy a HEB brand loaf of bread for 89 cents. One can pay four bucks for browner, nuttier, smaller stuff with a fancy label (and sometimes I do), but HEB bread works just fine for basic sammiches and toast. If one’s main concern is ingestion of refined flour, then I suggest one’s threat radar is a bit too narrowly focused.

  20. Shave? I have not shaved in 30+ yrs.
    Here in CO. fresh fruit and veg have risen in price, as have eggs and milk. However bargins are around. Sams and Costco are great places to get things like bread and put in the freezer. Grits are dirt cheap (no snide comments please). It does take a little time but you can do alright. I always take a shopping list. I even have a spread sheet of prices so I can keep up with price changes.

  21. I’ll second Eric on HEB … anytime some interesting but pricey food product comes along, pretty soon HEB has done a private label deal and is selling it under the HEB brand at half price. All hail HEB! Which, BTW, serves as a case study for all the whiners out there in how to successfully compete with Wal-Mart.

  22. I always wonder why folks bother with shaving lotion/gel/cream, et. I just wet my face with a hot rag and shave it off. Not the lightest beard around either. You guys are complicating your lives.

  23. 1) Barbasol is $1/can at the dollar store.

    2) From John Fremont in 1856 to Benjamin Harrison in 1892, every Republican candidate for President had a beard. No Democrat candidate ever had a beard. The 1896 Republican candidate (McKinley) was clean-shaven; also a Civil War veteran. (At the battlefield of Antietam there is a monument on the site where mess sergeant McKinley served sandwiches and hot coffee to the men of his regiment under fire. It’s the size of a small car!)

  24. I’ve sported the beard for about 8 years now. I still shave the neck and cheeks about twice a week. I think the last pack of blades I bought was about two years ago.

    But I digress…the point about “how can they sell this stuff so cheap?” reminds me of Milton Friedman, and his talks about of the power of the free market. You take your standard box of ramen that you buy for 20 cents. Your 20 cents goes in a million different directions — store employee salaries, store overhead, gas for the truck that bought it to the store, costs for the ramen packaging, ingredient costs for the noodles themselves, etc. And nobody’s doing it out of the goodness of their heart. They’re all in it to make a buck. There’s no central governmental Department of Ramen establishing approved flavors and price points.

    Milton explains it with a pencil, not ramen

  25. James R. Rummel Says:
    April 23rd, 2008 at 9:22 am

    What’s wrong with simply lathering up your hands, then your face, and skipping the brush?

    The brush lifts the whiskers off of your face, making them easier for the razor to cut.

    Use a straight razor for the closest shave, btw. It’s also an enjoyable shave, if you are into that kind of thing.


  26. Okay. The secret to a good shave …is baby oil. Apply baby oil as a pre-shave; massage it in. Put your lather of choice over that. If you’re really, really into it, use shaving creme (the kind that comes in a tub).

    I discovered this when my wife bought me some Caswell & Massey stuff from her fav’ soap store (they make a pre-shave oil too, but all their stuff is hideously expensive …and sadly enough, you’ll consider it worth every penny if you try it).

    Last. Use that five-blade shaver from Gillette. Gadzooks, but that thing is the best evah!

    Ironic, really: the Caswell Massey products date back to the 1700’s, and that shaver from a couple of years back.

    …for the best, closest, nicest and least-blood-letting shaves I’ve ever had (40 years worth). Just try it.

  27. Nobody has yet mentioned the single best consumer product of all time. (I agree that shaving is pretty cheap, as bodily functions go.) The best consumer product of all time is Edge Gel, and nobody who has ever used it would disagree. I’ve used it for close to 30 years now, and it never fails. The can runs out when it is empty, not nearly empty, and it just stops, rather than producing a load of disgusting scum that you wouldn’t put on your face.

    I have no connection with S.C. Johnson, by the way, but I wish them well.

    To get back on topic for a moment, I think that practically everything in the US is an enormous bargain. I’ve lived abroad, so I’m not just shooting off my mouth. I find it galling that the media (and many others) are constantly whining about the cost of gasoline, when in fact gasoline is cheaper (here at least) than milk, or any of a number of other staples (check the unit price if you don’t believe me). You could easily spend more on bottled water than gasoline. The cars that I buy (lease actually, but it comes to the same thing) are about 1/3 the cost of the same cars in Europe or Japan. If I were a golfer, I could join a club for a good deal less than the typical $1M price in other places. I can eat at a restaurant for a fraction of what a similar meal would cost elsewhere. Name something (anything), and I bet it is cheaper here than in Europe or Asia.


  29. In my opinion razor technology peeked with the three-bladers. The four, and five-bladers are inferior because it’s difficult to rinse the hair and dead skin out of them quickly. Three blades is just right and there is enough space between them for near instant clearing.

  30. Someone mentioned HEB in Texas — hooah! That is the best grocery store chain in the country. I miss it now that I live outside the Loan Star State. Tasteful atmosphere, friendly employees, great store brand (high quality as well as innovative store brand products), great non-food section, great overall selection, and most of all great prices! They had pretty much destroyed all competition in the Houston area last time I lived there. Even my husband, a non-native and not enthusiastic about the state in general, says from time to time, “You know, one thing I do miss about Texas is HEB.”

  31. “I went back a day later and bought six cans (only $1 each!) and have enough for several years of shaving now.”

    Makes me wonder about the shelf-life of shaving cream.

  32. The morning of my fiftieth birthday I looked in the mirror, remembered Orwell’s remark that “At fifty everyone has the face he deserves,” and started the beard. Shaving? I splurged on a somewhat pricey Norelco beard trimmer and a couple of times a week I spend a minute or two trimming the beard, and that’s it.

    If you sometimes need to shave twice a day you’ll have no trouble growing a quite satisfactory beard; forget the expense, think of the time you’ll save.

  33. Teachable moment: Consider examining Fernaud Braudel’s The Structure of Everyday Life, if only for his chart on 400 years of wheat prices. It nudges you past the sleepy nodding most economics causes to appreciate both your place in time, and the impact of ordinary things on everyday life. Washington politics and television news be damned. This is the real thing.

  34. These days I shave completely about every 3rd day. In between days I’ll just shave cheeks and neck leaving the jaw line and under lip.
    Really easier on my skin.

    Safety blades, that I started shaving with, were better than the current options although the handling of the blades in the early morning could be dicey. With modern shavers, and a moderately heavy beard, one must repeatedly shave the same area of skin. The old safety blades were much sharper and one swipe shaved as close to the skin as possible. This also would result in the occasional “nick” but was well worth the trade off.

  35. Many years ago, I read two articles about how to shave within a week of each other and combined the advice. First, wash your face with soap and a wash-cloth before applying lather. (This lifts away loose skin, the main cause of razor snag and cuts.) Then, lather up and leave the soap or gel on for about two minutes. This ‘tightens’ the skin – you can feel it – and seems to lift the whiskers to their fate. Rinse, lather up again, and shave – do a small area at a time, know which direction shaving each patch of beard gives best results, and rinse the whiskers out of the razor every few strokes. This all takes time so it is best to have some news or music to listen to, or followers competing for your attention. I find seeing my wife in the mirror having her shower or wandering around naked is quite satisfactory – ‘shave, still beautiful, rinse, shave, still beautiful, rinse’.

  36. My apologies to Tyouth – your name was somehow inserted above the previous post.

  37. “Tim Worstall – we look down on you soap shaving peasants with contempt.”

    No, no, it’s James Rummell that’s the peasant. Having a special instrument (to whit, a brush) to do something when you don’t need that special instrument is a well known symbol of middle class nervousness. Nancy Mitford wrote about it: c.f. fish knives.

  38. Know why beards are considered a sign of wisdom? It’s because you’ve learned you don’t have to shave.

  39. I don’t use any shaving cream.

    The trick is to shave in the shower and let the steam do the work of softening up the wiskers.

  40. In my college days it was frozen beef pot pies (26 cents each), Dinty Moore beef stew, and tuna sandwiches that kept me going.

  41. My friend at the party spoke of revolution while I spoke of the obesity problems of our poor. It is all about perspective.

    I lived in Ukraine for a couple of years and remember passing old ladies selling 3-4 tomatoes on the street, or whatever they could pull together to buy what they needed to survive. The point is that sometimes I think some Americans don’t understand what true poverty is.

  42. I hate to shave as well! I have a thick course beard that has always been difficult to shave without tugging. Here is my solution that works for my type beard, and I have suggested it to friends and family, and many of them have switched. (Forgive me if I repeat what other comments have said.)

    I only shave in the shower, and after I wash my hair. The hot water and steam soften my beard making it much easier to remove.

    I only use bar soap, no shaving cream, which I apply by hand by dragging the bar of soap across my face a few times,and then lathering by hand.

    The best razor I have found is the Gillette Mach 3. There are none even close. Prior to using this razor I would nick myself just about every time I shaved. Now I hardly ever nick myself, maybe a few times a year. The only drawback to the Mach 3 is the area around my nose, where I have to deform my nose in order for the razor to get all the hairs there.

    Using this method I have overcome my loathing of shaving, and I suggest anyone who has a beard like mine give it a try!

    Cheers :)


  43. A few months ago, I used the impending winter as an excuse to grow a beard. In reality, my main motivation was to save myself a few minutes every morning. With spring finally here, (hopefully,) I’ve decided

    I’ve recently invested in a good beard trimmer and I’m using that, and shaving my neck twice a week, (usually Monday and Thursday.)

  44. I’ve often wondered how anyone can seriously claim there’s widespread hunger in the US when (just as an example) packs of Ramen noodles are seven for a dollar. (Not 20 cents, Mishu–19, at least where I buy it.)

  45. I’ve often wondered how anyone can seriously claim there’s widespread hunger in the US….

    Point of clarification: There is a difference between “hunger” and “malnutrition.” One could survive on cheap Ramen noodles short term if necessary, but eventually your body is going to suffer. Bones, brain, liver, kidneys — they’re not going to like it. And it’s one thing to be a short-of-funds college student who eats nothing but Ramen noodles for two or three days before going home for winter break and ransacking your parents’ larder; it’s another thing to be a 3 or a 4 or a 5 year old.

    Than again, there are people with the money and resources to eat well (ie, healthy) but choose not to. They usually wide up with clogged arteries, diabetes, and clinical malnutrition (a few of my older relatives would fall into this group).

    Anyway, my point is there is a difference between hunger and malnutrition, and there is a difference between eating cheap and eating healthy, and most of important of all, there is a difference between why you’re eating such ultimate cheap foods as Ramen noodles, how old you are, and how long you’re going to be doing it.

  46. Obesity is not a sign of being well-fed — in the US it’s more likely to be a sign that your diet is full of high-fructose corn syrup.

  47. Ahhh, shaving. A gentlemanly art lost on so many in this age.

    For everything you’d ever want to know about how to change your daily shave from painful necessity to a pleasant luxury go here: Badger & Blade

  48. I’ll agree that shaving cream is cheap, but not the whole shaving package. I use a 3-blade and the price of the razor cartridges is insane. I liken it to printers. The initial purchase of what is basically the razor holder (printers) while not a pittance, is reasonable. And as you’ve noted the cream (paper) is no problem. But the razor cartridges (ink / toner cartrides) … that’s where they get you.

    And now I’m stuck. At one point I decided that I would just switch to whichever brand had the cheapest cartridges and take a one-time hit on repeating the up front cost in order to reap a cheaper ongoing expense. Unfortunately they are all about the same (some sort of collusion going on there perhaps). And going back to the disposables is not an option. Those used to work just fine for me, but once I started using the sturdier razor and the 3 blades something changed. One time I forgot my razor on a business trip and had to resort to a pack of disposables … not pretty. For as much skin as I cut I still didn’t get a close shave.

  49. You’ve got a slight mistranslation in your excerpt of Genesis. It’s an older mistranslation which, had it not made it into the original English language versions would have saved a lot of trouble later on. The correct translation of the final sentence is: “And the angels did celebrate in the end zone.” As I’m sure you can easily see, the consequences of this mistranslation have been far reaching.

  50. razor blades

    Clark Howard, the radio consumer advocate and all around cheapskate, says he was able to use a simple 1 blade disposable razor for almost a year…by simply cleaning off then blotting the blade dry after each use.

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