How you can use unit price to save money when shopping

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How you can use unit price to save money when shopping
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Unit price just may be the most underrated way to discover the best deals when you’re shopping, particularly at the grocery store!

Understanding unit price

Unit pricing isn’t the flashiest of money-saving concepts, but it is among one of the most important.

In fact, understanding unit price is so important to saving money that money expert Clark Howard started teaching his kids early about this concept.

“I started talking to my kids around the third grade about unit pricing because I wanted them to understand the tricks,” he says. “I wanted them to know when something’s a deal and when it’s not.”

Table of contents

What is unit price?

Unit pricing tells you how much you’re paying per basic unit of whatever it is you’re buying. So for paper towels, it’s the price per square foot. For toilet paper, it might be the price per sheet. For canned goods, it might be the price per ounce.

Once you understand this, you can begin to get a better understanding of pricing and value in everything you buy.

Let’s say your grocery store has a sale on small individual packages of paper towels one week. They may have a unit price of 1.5 cents per square foot at the sale price. But a larger package that’s not on sale may have a unit price of 1.0 cents per square foot.

In this example, the bigger package that’s not on sale actually offers more value for your dollar than the smaller package that is. Why? Because you’re paying less per square foot (1.0 cents) for the bigger package that’s not on sale vs. the smaller sale-priced package (1.5 cents).

How do I find the unit price?

Look for the unit pricing of an item right on the tag directly on the grocery shelf. Not sure exactly what you’re looking for on the tag itself? See this example in which we’ve highlighted the unit prices on the shelf tags:

Unit price comparison of balsamic vinegar

So let’s say you’re buying vinegar. You have a choice between Alessi balsamic vinegar (8.5 ounces) and Colavita balsamic vinegar (17 ounces). Which one offers the best bang for your buck?

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Brand Size Price per ounce (unit price) Cash register price
Alessi 8.5 ounces 36.35 cents per ounce $3.09
Colavita 17 ounces 31.71 cents per ounce $5.39

You might be tempted to say the Alessi because it’s the cheapest. But the real answer here is the Colavita brand. You get more ounces (17 vs. 8.5) and pay a cheaper price per ounce (31.71 cents).

How do I calculate unit pricing if I can’t easily find it?

Not every store in every state displays unit pricing. But thanks to technology, it’s pretty easy to find the unit price of just about anything you’re shopping for.

Both the App Store and Google Play have apps that will crunch unit pricing for you. And best of all, these apps are free!

Screenshot of free Unit Price Comparison app from Google Play store
Screenshot of free Unit Price Comparison app from Google Play store

What are unit pricing regulations by state?

Unit pricing is regulated at the state level. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology maintains a list of states where unit pricing is supposed to be disclosed. These states include:

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Residents of states other than these may be pleasantly surprised to find that retailers in their area do in fact list unit prices. This is often true if you’re shopping a large national chain store.

But that decision is entirely at the retailer’s discretion; they would be under no state requirement to do so.

Final thought

Unit price is an important yet often overlooked way to help you save money when you’re shopping. And with the advent of free apps to do the math for you, now there’s no reason why everyone can’t start making smarter buying decisions.

Of course, this is only one of many strategies you can use to save money when you’re shopping at the grocery store or elsewhere. Want some other ways? Check out our complete rundown of 20+ ways to save money on groceries.

More money-saving stories on Clark.com: 

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