Shopping for toilet paper shouldn’t be as complicated or expensive as it is. Brands love to splatter their packaging with claims that one of their “Mega Rolls“Corresponds to 12 or 18” normal rolls “but is less direct about how much paper they actually give you. This makes it almost impossible to compare prices from brand to brand – or even within a brand’s range.

That, of course, is the whole point. When faced with dozens of packages of functionally identical products promoting similar (but also conflicting) marketing claims, you are likely to give up trying to make an informed decision and just grab something at random. Brands know this, so they put as many options on the shelves as possible in the hopes that overwhelmed customers grab one of them. Fortunately, it’s possible to compare toilet paper prices – all you have to do is do a little math.

How to break down the price

First, figure out the total area for each option you are considering. Most brands list it on their packaging, but an increasing number don’t. When there are no more square feet, take the number of sheets per roll and multiply it by the total number of rolls to get the total number of sheets in the package. These numbers are small and difficult to read, but at least one of them will be there.

From here you can split the price in either dollars per unit or units per dollar. For dollars per unit, divide the package price by the total area (or total area). For units per dollar, divide the total area (or total area) by the package price. To save money, you want to minimize the dollars per unit or maximize the units per dollar. You can use any of these calculations that you prefer, but you need to use the same formula consistently to keep the comparisons accurate.

Don’t trust the math of the store

Unfortunately, you have to do these calculations yourself because Unit prices on the shelves are notoriously unreliable. For example, in this listing on the local Safeway website, the price is broken down by “number” but it does not state what a “number” is (note mine):

A screenshot of a Safeway listing for Quilted Northern Ultra Plush toilet paper.  The unit price is $ 1.11 per count and the total price is $ 19.99.  The unit price is underlined in red with a Screenshot: AA Newton

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A quick check shows that this is the price per roll: 1.11 x 18 rolls per pack = $ 19.98. (Thanks for the roundup, folks!) With most competitors quoting unit prices in the range of $ 3 to $ 4 per 100 square feet, the Quilted Northern looks like a steal – until you find that $ 1.11 per roll about $ 3.70 per roll makes 100 square feet.

In-store unit prices can also be wrong, as in this case claiming that a $ 20.99 packet of toilet paper is $ 116.61 per 100 square feet (note mine):

A Safeway list for Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper.  Unit price is $ 116.61 / 100 square feet and the total price is $ 20.99.  Both prices are underlined in red Screenshot: AA Newton

According to the label, this package contains 516 square feet of paper. At $ 20.99 for the package, this equates to $ 0.04 per square foot, or about $ 4.00 per 100 square feet. I bet $ 116.61 is the wholesale price, or what the store will pay for a case of this particular item.

Is toilet paper math a huge pain in the ass? Yes unbelievable! Unfortunately, this is the only way to cut through the jungle of shit and find out how much you’re actually paying for toilet paper. When you’ve found a brand you like, at a price you can tolerate, replenish it when it goes on sale. You’ll never have to do the math again – at least until you change the size of your rolls.