The Easiest (and Fastest!) Way to Compare Prices While Grocery Shopping

published Mar 1, 2023
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Woodinville, WA USA - circa May 2022: View of a variety of yogurt for sale inside a Haggen Northwest Fresh grocery
Credit: Colleen Michaels/Shutterstock

When I taught cooking classes at Whole Foods Market for at-risk youth, a big part of our curriculum was centered around budgeting and shopping. The single most useful skill I taught the kids was how to read unit labels on retail shelf price tags. Sounds super nerdy, but it’s one of the best ways to get your money’s worth in the aisles. 

What Is a Unit Price? 

Look at a shelf price tag in the grocery store and you’ll zero in first on the price in the larger font. That price is telling you how much you’ll pay for the entire package of goods. Look a little closer and you’ll also see a smaller number that will tell you the price per ounce/pound/liter/cookie you’ll pay when you buy that package. This number is the unit price and it’s there to help you compare products when they come in different-sized packages. It basically breaks down the cost per cookie when you’re looking at two packages — say, one with 24 cookies and the other with 12 — so you can find the better buy without doing any math.  

Credit: Ivy Manning

How to Use Unit Price Labels to Compare Cost of Similar Products  

Take this instance where I was shopping for avocado oil at Costco. I came across two bottles of avocado oil of similar quality, but which is the best buy? The first bottle costs $15.99. The one right next to it costs $19.99, so at first glance, it might seem like the first one is a better deal. But look closely at the unit price in the lower left corner of each tag. The first bottle costs $15.99 per liter, while the second bottle costs $9.99 per liter for the same type of oil, so it’s actually more budget friendly to buy the second bottle because it costs four dollars less per liter. 

There are times I choose a specific brand over another for flavor reasons, even if it is more expensive per unit. But when it comes to staples where I’m less likely to notice a difference (oil, baking supplies, canned goods, and dried pastas and grains), I zero in on that unit price in the smaller print to help make my shopping decisions. 

Often the larger container will have a lower cost per unit because packaging and storage are expensive, and that cost is passed onto you. But in some cases, the smaller size product will actually be cheaper. The unit cost will tell you without you having to do mental math or reach for your phone’s calculator. When it comes to perishables like yogurt, cheese, and meats, just keep in mind that buying more than you need isn’t a good deal if it goes bad before you can use it up. 

A Note About Unit Prices and Coupons and Sales

For dedicated coupon clippers, you’ll need to do some quick math when applying coupon discounts to the unit price when comparing items, to suss out which products are really the best deal. Ditto when things are on sale; the unit price is often not listed on temporary sale signs. That said, the unit price tip is a true friend when it comes to navigating the grocery store aisles awash with tempting products and splashy packaging. Read the fine print of the unit price before you buy — especially when buying staples.

What do you do to make sure you stay on budget while shopping for groceries? Tell us in the comments.