The other day I came across an old popcorn popper my family has had for years but seldom uses. I decided to fire it up and have a bowl of popcorn. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the popcorn came out. I love popcorn. It's a great snack that can fill you up on relatively few calories. Our family buys a lot of microwavable popcorn, typically by the box from Costco. I also used to buy a bag of Smartfood popcorn once a week to have as a snack at lunch. After I finished my bowl of popcorn I decided to calculate the cost to pop my own kernels versus buying microwavable popcorn or a bag of Smartfood popcorn.
Popping Loose Kernels
On my last trip to the supermarket, loose popcorn kernels were running $0.75 per pound. I'm sure you could probably get a cheaper per pound price by buying a ten pound bag at a club wholesaler like Costco or Sam's Club. There are two popular methods for cooking loose popcorn kernels if you don't have a popcorn popper. The first is the brown bag method whereby you take a brown lunch bag, fill it with about three ounces of kernels, fold the end of the bag, and stick it in the microwave for two to two-and-a-half minutes. No oil is needed. The other is the stove top method, putting oil and kernels into a pot on the stove.
To find out the cost differential between loose kernels and microwavable packs I needed to first calculate the cost per pack, and then find out how many kernels are in a pack. We've typically bought microwavable popcorn by the case at Costco and the cost comes out to roughly $0.33 per pack. Next, I cut open a pack to weigh how many loose kernels were in each pack; this came out to roughly 2.8 ounces. So if you take $0.75 per pound, divide by sixteen (the number of ounces in a pound) and multiply by 2.8 you get roughly 13 cents, the cost in loose kernels. If you add on a couple of cents for seasoning, the cost of popping loose kernels is still less than half the cost of microwavable packs.
Loose Kernels vs. Smartfood Popcorn
Next I wanted to figure out how much money I could have saved if instead of buying those bags of Smartfood popcorn I had popped my own loose kernels instead. To do this I needed to figure out how many ounces of loose popcorn kernels were needed to fill the 5 oz bags I used to buy. This came out to roughly 3.5 ounces of loose kernels. Again, if you assumed a cost of $0.75 per pound, divide by 16 and multiply by 3.5 you get roughly 16.4 cents of popcorn to fill a 5 oz bag of Smartfood popcorn. Of course, this doesn't take into account the seasoning added to Smartfood popcorn, but even if you double the cost to add some seasoning this only comes to $0.33 versus the $2.42 the bags cost in the supermarket. So if instead of buying one of these bags a week I had popped loose kernels instead, I would have saved (2.42-0.33)*52 = $109 a year.
The great thing about popping your own loose kernels is you can control the seasoning. I often use "I Can't Believe it's Not Butter" spray butter which has no calories and a little garlic salt. This really cuts down on the calories. For example, popcorn has roughly 86 calories per un-popped ounce so the 3.5 ounces to fill up that bag of Smartfood popcorn had 301 calories, compared to the 800 calories a typical 5 oz bag of White Cheddar Smartfood popcorn contains.
The Cost of Convenience
Running the numbers of popping my own popcorn versus just buying microwavable or pre-popped popcorn in a bag just reinforces my rule of thumb that convenience is costly. If you want to take a gander at another example where convenience costs you a fortune, check out my post on the true cost of cut fruit.
Can Popcorn Save You $100?
Well I doubt many of you have a bag-a-week smartfood habit. But consider this, an ounce of unpopped kernels costs just a little under five cents and you only need 1-3 ounces for a filling snack. That's a snack for only 5-15 cents. By substituting healthly popcorn for packaged snacks your yearly savings will quickly add up.