I got a lesson about mass production and economies of scale while home on maternity leave.
I was obsessed with putting big, beautiful headband hair bows on my newborn daughter's fuzzy little head. So I bought gorgeous, handmade bows online at Etsy.com for $6 apiece.
They looked so easy to make, I was certain I could do better making them myself.
Turns out, I was wrong.
Because I was only buying small quantities of the fancy, high-quality ribbon the sellers were buying in bulk, I was paying top dollar for them.
And because I'm not the craftiest person in the world, my bows never looked nearly as nice as the ones made by the pros.
When all was said and done, I had some pitiful-looking hair bows that ended up costing me $1.75 apiece more than the ones I had bought (not counting the supplies I needed to get started).
Sure, I'd had fun in the process, but since my goal was to have a product rather than a hobby, going the DIY route was actually costing me more money than necessary.
And that doesn't even count the value of the time I spent making my own hair bows, or the other things I could have been doing during that time.
In today's society, we have access to great quantities of mass-produced goods of decent quality and at reasonable prices. So, though it goes against everything we've ever learned, sometimes things are cheaper to buy from others than to make ourselves.
Now certainly, there are several variables that are hard to quantify. When you make something yourself, you can customize it any way you choose. Sometimes things made at home are more meaningful or of a higher quality. Things done ourselves give us pride in our work. They give us something to do.
But for folks who are strictly concerned with the dollars and cents, MoneySmart has done the math on a few items.
Paying for it: Places such as Walmart and Snapfish.com advertise prints as low as 9 cents apiece, but once shipping costs are factored in, they come out to about 14 cents per print.
Prints at CVS are 19 cents apiece, but it just ran a Valentine's special charging 10 cents per photo.
Doing it yourself: You'll need a photo printer, say the more affordable Canon PIXMA iP2702 for $56. A photo ink cartridge, which yields about 300 photos, costs about $22 (about 7 cents per print). You can get 100 sheets of Kodak glossy photo paper for $12 (about 12 cents per print).
Total cost: About 19 cents per print, not counting the cost of the printer.
Verdict: You'll pay about 5 cents more per photo to print your pictures at home. If you opt to use CVS and don't include the start-up costs of the printer, it's a wash. But if you peg the cost of the printer at 1 cent per use, your first 5,600 photos will actually cost a penny more apiece to print at home.
Paying for it: You can buy stylish Chris Madden brand drapes in a pattern called Mystique Floral from JC Penney for $35 per panel. Each panel is 50 inches wide by 84 inches long.
Doing it yourself: You can find fabric with a similar look at JoAnn Fabric called Waverly Lightfoot House Sateen Quartz for $12 per yard. Other fabrics were a closer match, but started at $19 and went upward of $99 per yard. The Chris Madden drapes are lined, so we found drapery lining fabric for $5.99 per yard.
Each Chris Madden drapery panel has six grommets for hanging, which come in packs of four for $10.99 (about $2.75 apiece).
Assuming you've already got thread, a sewing machine and the skills needed to whip up a 50-inch by 84-inch panel in an hour, you can make something similar for $58.46, not including labor. If you decide to include labor and pay yourself at minimum wage, you're looking at $65.71.
Verdict: Buying these drapes at the store can save you from $23.46 to $30.71 per panel.
Paying for it: Wegmans brand canned tomatoes cost 79 cents for a 28-ounce jar. That comes out to 2.8 cents per ounce, or 89.6 cents per 32-ounce quart jar.
Doing it yourself: You can find a 12-pack of Ball brand one-quart mason jars with lids and bands for $9.99, which comes to 83 cents apiece. You can reuse them indefinitely, so assuming you use them over 15 seasons, we'll price them at about 6 cents per season, a negligible fixed cost.
Vacuum seal lids can only be used once, so you'll have to buy them again for every use. You can get 12 of them for $2.29, or 19 cents apiece.
If you can't borrow a canning rack, which is used to secure the jars while they're being processed, you'll need to buy one for $3. Considering you use it over 15 seasons, it comes out to 20 cents per season. Using the same logic, a magnetic lid lifter (which is used to pick up hot canning lids without burning yourself) will cost you $2, or 13 cents per season. The rack and lid lifter are therefore negligible fixed costs.
It takes about 3 pounds of processed tomatoes to fill a one-quart jar. If you buy vine tomatoes at $2.49 per pound, you'll pay $7.47 in tomatoes per jar, or 23 cents per ounce.
Labor is also a major issue. Canning is tough, hot work. Even if it takes you only three hours from start to finish, and you pay yourself just minimum wage of $7.25, that adds $1.81 per jar in a 12-jar batch.
These calculations do not include the cost of energy to cook, boil and sterilize.
Before adding the cost of labor and tomatoes, canning your own tomatoes will cost 19 cents per one-quart jar for the lids, or 0.006 cents per ounce.
If you grow your own tomatoes, after including labor, your cost rises to $2 per jar, or 6.3 cents per ounce. If you don't factor in labor, but have to buy the tomatoes, your price soars to a whopping $7.66 per jar, or 23.9 cents per ounce.
Verdict: The only way canning your own tomatoes makes sense is if you grow your own tomatoes and have such fun doing it that you don't consider it anything close to a chore. But if you have to pay for the tomatoes or factor in labor costs, forget it.
Assuming you've already got a canning pot, funnel and tongs, a free supply of garden tomatoes and enjoy the work -- you'll save about 71 cents per 32-ounce jar. That's an incredible savings!
But if you are buying your tomatoes, or if you have been canning your own for years and are sick of the job, don't feel too bad about buying your tomatoes at the store this year. Once you factor in the cost of tomatoes and your minimum-wage time, you can save yourself up to $102.94 on a 12-jars batch by simply buying the finished product at the store.