9 MIN READ
The Cost of Convenience: 10 Habits That Save You Time But Kill Your Budget
If you frequently stop at the ATM for cash, then grab a cup of coffee at the gas station, you’re in good company.
More than 154,000 convenience stores in the U.S. serve an average of 160 million customers per day.
Why so many? Well, if you include the walk to and from your car, the average purchase takes just three to four minutes. Convenience stores are, well, convenient. And we like that.
We also like easy access to cash, which explains the 425,000 ATMs in the U.S.
And if it’s too inconvenient to go to the store for these convenience items? Try delivery. It’s no longer just for pizza; now, you can even have your socks delivered.
But what’s the cost of convenience? It’s $12 per pair for that sock subscription — about $10 more than this writer pays for his socks.
That’s just one example. Most “convenient” products and services come with higher price tags. Here are some items with the biggest convenience premium and some less expensive alternatives to consider.
1. ATM Fees
You like easy access to cash but use an out-of-network ATM? Stop!
Open an Account That Waives Fees
Some banks waive or refund ATM fees, even for out-of-network machines.
Get Cash at the Bank
Make it a point to stop at the bank monthly to load up on cash.
Get Cash Back at the Register
If you use a debit card when shopping, ask for cash back. You can do this with a Discover credit card, too.
Stop Using Cash
You might do better using a rewards credit card to pay.
2. Bottled Water at Convenience Stores
There is nothing like a drink of cold water on a hot day, but you might pay $1.50 or more for a 20-ounce bottle at a convenience store. That’s $9.60 per gallon. Business Insider reports that bottled water costs 300 to 2,000 times more than tap water.
And you may be getting tap water anyhow. Even Aquafina comes from a public water source. Here are some alternatives to overpriced tap water in a bottle.
Your Own Tap Water
Just fill a few bottles at home before you go out. Keep a cooler in the car if you’re traveling longer distances.
Filtered Tap Water
Depending on the filter you use, the cost per gallon can be as low as 11 cents.
Buy in Bulk
Bottled water goes on sale for as cheap as 10 cents per bottle, which works out to 64 cents per gallon.
3. Delivered Pizza
Eater found that Margherita pizza prices range from about $8.90 to $16 around the country — and that’s a pretty basic pizza. It also doesn’t take into account the cost of delivery and the necessary tip for the driver. Here are some alternatives.
Go Get it Yourself
Even if you spend a dollar on gas, you save the delivery charge and most of the tip (you can still leave something for the people working at the counter). Plus, some chains have pickup-only deals, like the current $7.99 large, three-topping pizza at Domino’s — a savings of 50% or so.
Buy Pizza at the Supermarket
All frozen pizzas are not created equal, but some come close to restaurant quality for about half the price.
Use Coupons and Gift Cards
It is not very convenient to go get your own pizza after digging up a coupon and buying a discounted gift card to pay for it, but savings-stacking techniques can cut the cost in half. The opposite of the cost of convenience is the savings of inconvenience.
4. Coffee at Coffee Shops
It now costs an average of $2.70 per cup for coffee at coffee shops. Maybe it’s worth it at times, but there are cheaper, if less convenient, ways to get coffee.
Try Fast Food Restaurant Coffee
McDonald’s recently lowered its coffee prices to $1 per cup, and fast-food restaurants in general are cheaper than coffee shops.
Stop at the Bank
Some banks keep coffee out for customers, so why not stop for a cup and get some cash while you’re there? You’ll save on both ATM fees and coffee.
Make It at Home
You can make coffee at home for about 16 cents per cup (less if you can tolerate generic and store brands). Bring it with you to work. Use a thermos if you’ll need it later in the day.
5. Prepared Fruits and Vegetables
It sounds like a great idea to have fruits and vegetables already sliced up for you. It is very convenient. But there are several reasons to avoid pre-cut fruits and veggies, and the biggest is the expense. According to CBS news, you’ll spend up to 392% more on pre-sliced produced than you would if you cut the items yourself. Here are some alternatives.
Buy Fruits That Don’t Need Preparation
If you really need the convenience but still want the health benefits of those fruits, eat those that require little or no preparation. Bananas and oranges, for example, are ready to peel and eat without cutting.
Buy Frozen Veggies
If you’re using vegetables for cooked meals, consider frozen varieties, which are ready-to-go and cheaper than pre-cut fresh ones.
Cut and Carry
Cut up a few days’ worth of fruits and veggies at home, and parcel them out into plastic bags or containers for convenient carrying to work or wherever.
6. Vending Machine Items
Nothing says convenience like a vending machine. No need to find a store or go home to eat — just push a few buttons. But you know you pay the price. Try one of the following instead.
Stop at the Grocery Store
Whether it’s a candy bar or a bag of chips, it will almost always cost less to buy it from a supermarket than a vending machine.
Buy in Bulk
If you really like the portion control that comes with those convenient little bags of chips and other snacks, buy them in bulk at a membership store like Costco or Sam’s Club. You can get the cost down to about 25 cents per bag.
Prepare Your Own Snacks
Fill sandwich bags with nuts, crackers and such at home, and carry them with you for when you need a snack fix. Besides being the least expensive of these options, it’s also a healthier snack option.
7. Fast Food at Convenience Stores
It’s tempting to grab one of those hot dogs or burritos on display under the heat lamps at the convenience store. But you never know how long they have been sitting there, and they cost too much for the quality you get. Instead, consider one of the following options.
Get Regular Fast Food
Fast-food restaurants usually have fresher food, and if you shop the value menu, it can be cheaper, too. (Try these fast-food menu hacks for additional savings.)
Buy and Microwave
If your convenience store offers the option to buy frozen burritos and other foods to microwave on-site, take advantage. It’s usually cheaper.
Eat Before You Leave Home
This is the least expensive way to go, and it’s probably the healthiest, too.
8. OTC Drugs at Convenience Stores
Medications, like almost everything else, cost more in convenience stores. You can prove this for yourself with a few quick comparisons.
What can you do to avoid those prices? Here are some suggestions.
Medicate Before You Leave Home
If you have a headache or a sniffle, take medicine before you leave the house so you won’t be tempted to pay convenience store prices.
Stop at the Dollar Store
You can decide for yourself which medicines at a dollar store are trustworthy, but simple ones like aspirin or cough drops are probably fine.
Go to the Grocery Store
Grocery stores with pharmacy sections have the lowest prices for many OTC medications.
Try a Pharmacy
The CVS and Walgreens stores you see on every other corner are cheaper than convenience stores, and they’re almost as convenient.
9. Soda From the Checkout Cooler
Have you noticed how expensive it is to buy a cold soda from those coolers near the checkout lanes in otherwise inexpensive grocery stores? Here are some alternatives.
Some supermarkets (Walmart, for example) sell cold soda near the registers for up to $1.50 and have cold soda for as little as 50 cents per can in machines in front of the building. You’re going to walk right past them anyhow, so save a buck.
Buy a Case
Buy soda on sale by the case, and chill it yourself. You’ll knock the price down to as little as 25 cents per can.
Water you bottled at home, of course. It’s cheaper and healthier.
10. Any Food or Drinks at Movie Theaters
Movies are expensive enough without succumbing to the convenience of eating and drinking the things sold at the theater. Some reports say more than half of moviegoers have snuck in food or drinks, which is one way to cut down that cost. Here are some others.
Watch for Specials
Some theaters have specials on concession foods and drinks on certain nights. Plan around those if you really need your theater popcorn fix.
Eat Before You Go
A healthy meal at a sit-down restaurant can cost less than two tubs of popcorn and two sodas at the theater. You can save even more if you eat at home.
Drink at the Water Fountain
Bottled water can be as much as $5 at theaters, even though most have water fountains. Enough said. Well, maybe not… It’s nice to have water with the movie, rather than out in the hall. And you aren’t technically breaking the rule if you bring an empty water bottle in your jacket pocket and fill it from that drinking fountain.
Sneak an empty plastic bottle into a theater? Yes, it’s kind of inconvenient, but once again: Sometimes the cost of convenience is overcome by the savings of inconvenience.
Your Turn: What do you do to avoid paying too much for convenience?
Steve Gillman is the author of “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. He's been a repo-man, walking-stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror and roulette croupier, but of more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).