Sweet Frugality: Lessons in a Cup of Tea

This post originally appeared on The Finance Buff and has been cited in the 207th edition of the Carnival of Personal Finance.

I like the efficiency and frugality of bulk purchasing. My volume purchasing includes various jumbo multi-pack paper goods and five pound sacks of my favorite non-caffeinated tea (hazelnut Teeccino). After a recent, particularly large Costco run that included many bulk purchases I felt like I’d just finished a large meal. After consuming so much I could not imagine ever needing or wanting more. It seemed inconceivable that I would ever run out. Of course, I was wrong.

About one year ago I purchased a ten pound bag of sugar to be used for tea at work. Hauling the bag into work wasn’t trivial as my commute includes a lengthy walk from train stop to desk. To take my mind off my heavy burden I contemplated how long it would take me to consume that quantity of sugar. I didn’t read the package to see how many teaspoon servings there were (960) or really think much about it. I just took a WAG. My guesstimate was 18 months. Of course, I was wrong.

It turns out that the average American consumes about 140 pounds of sweetener per year, including refined sugar, corn-based sweeteners, honeys, and syrups (source: USDA, Table 50). Upon learning this I reacted like any healthy apple-pie eating American would, “Not me!” I was certain I consumed far less sugar than this. I eat well: lots of vegetables, few fats. I could not imagine consuming more than a few tens of pounds of sugar per year. Of course, I was wrong.

The moment after I dropped the ten pound sack of sucrose on my desk I marked it with the current date and the date upon which I expected to use the last crystal. I mark the date of first use of bulk items sometimes, just to help me determine how long they last. It’s just plain, good, old-fashioned, penny-pinching fun. (I also mark the installation date in a concealed spot on my large home appliances: washing machine, dryer, furnace, hot water heater, etc.) My new sack of sugar was now adorned with, “start-6/16/08, end-12/16/09 (est.).” Surely it would last that long. Of course, I was wrong.

Approximately eleven months after my first, sweet scoop from the bag it was empty. Accounting for vacation days and holidays, eleven months at the office is about 205 work days. Since a ten pound bag of sugar has 960 teaspoons, that’s 4.7 teaspoons per day. I drink two very large mugs of tea every work day, each one about 18 ounces or 2.25 cups. Thus, I used almost exactly one teaspoon of sugar per 8 ounces of tea. Nevertheless, I used 10 pounds in 11 months, which is equivalent to nearly 11 pounds per year. And that’s just for tea, modestly sweetened, at work, on work days only. And I believed I didn’t consume much sugar. Of course, I was wrong.

Since sugar is in nearly everything (see this for an amusing illustration), it is not hard to imagine I consume vastly more than a few tens of pounds of sugar per year. While I have not done (nor will I do) a careful dietary analysis, a reasonable extrapolation from my sugar consumption via at-work tea (another WAG) suggests I do indeed consume much closer to 100 pounds of sugar per year (or more) than I do to a few tens. I really was wrong.

I love my tea. It is tasty and makes a few moments of work feel special and relaxing. It has also taught me two valuable lessons. I’m not as different from the average American as I thought. And, in sugar consumption, as in saving, little things add up. In this, I am confident, I am not wrong.

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