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Gallon of gas got you down? Other liquid 'necessities' far higher; 10 big markups

Gallon of gas got you down? Other liquid 'necessities' far higher; 10 big markups

Sticker shock strikes U.S. motorists every time they fill their gas tanks lately: $30 to $40 a fill-up is proving tough to accept.

Sure, gas costs 40 percent less than two decades ago after adjusting for inflation. And in the United States we still only pay about one-third of what they do in Europe.

But that's little consolation. Retail prices have been hitting record highs for two months. We took cheap gas for granted for so long, abandoning our fuel-efficient cars of the '80s for SUVs and minivans, and now it's catching up.

Rather than grousing, there may be some comfort in realizing gas is far cheaper than virtually every other liquid product purchased.

While a gallon of regular fetched a record $1.82 nationwide May 3, a price survey of several dozen commonly consumed fluids found only one -- a plastic jug of supermarket-brand "drinking" water at $1.19 a gallon -- selling for less. The rest scanned in at $2.79 to $46,000 a gallon, based on a survey of prices from Northern California supermarkets and national Web sites.

Many of these products are only moderately more expensive than gasoline, but they're staples of life:

Milk -- $2.79 a gallon on average

Coke (KO: news, chart) -- $3.33 a gallon (based on a 2-liter bottle)

Tide (PG: news, chart) liquid detergent -- $12.61 a gallon (based on a 100-oz. jug)

Hershey's (HSY: news, chart) chocolate syrup -- $14.98 a gallon (based on a 24-oz. bottle)

Glidden (ICI: news, chart) Endurance paint -- $22

Other products sell for much more than gasoline, but we pay it little mind:

Kraft (KFT: news, chart) ranch dressing -- $31 a gallon (based on a 16-oz. bottle)

Pepto Bismol -- $56 a gallon (based on 16-ounce bottle)

A1 steak sauce -- $64 a gallon (based on a 10-oz. bottle)

Raid Home & Garden -- $73 (based on an 11-oz.can)

Vaseline (UL: news, chart) petroleum jelly -- $88 a gallon (based on a 13-oz. jar)

And others we're willing to splurge on or buy out of desperate need:

Deep Woods Off insect repellent -- $124 a gallon (based on a 6-ounce can)

Coppertone (SHR: news, chart) Sport Lotion sun block -- $192 a gallon (based on 8-ounce bottle)

Robitussin Maximum Strength (WYE: news, chart) -- $214 a gallon (based on 4-ounce bottle)

Dom Perignon 1996 champagne -- $379 a gallon (based on 750ML bottle)

Robert Mondavi (MOND: news, chart) 1999 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon -- $581 (based on 750ML bottle)

Of course, gasoline is a commodity that varies little, whether you buy Exxon, Chevron or from an independent station. It's produced by the boatload and carries no packaging costs.

Yet most of the U.S. supply is extracted from the ground as crude, transported to a tanker ship, crosses an ocean, gets run through a refinery, trucked and unloaded into gas-station storage tanks -- only then to be pumped into your vehicle. Considering crude oil is now running about 90 cents a gallon, and state and federal taxes about 38 to 50 cents, that's not much of a markup for processing and handling.

By comparison, consider what each of these 10 products costs on a per-gallon basis, most of them personal-care and health-care items that capitalize on a brand-name:

Starbucks (SBUX: news, chart) coffee -- $33 (based on a 12-oz. cup) -- Without hesitation, many of us pay a huge markup for water run through coffee grinds. A three-pound can of Colombian, on sale at the supermarket for $4.99, will yield about nine gallons, at 55 cents a gallon. A 6,000 percent markup is a hefty price to pay for convenience.

Pam Extra (CAG: news, chart) Virgin Olive Oil cooking spray -- $123 (based on a 5-oz. can) This product also plays to convenience and commands quite a premium. Considering a 101-oz. container of Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil on sale at $12.99 costs the equivalent of $16.51 a gallon, that low-tech spray nozzle and pressurized can is costly alternative to just pouring out a teaspoonful.

Old Spice cologne -- $278 (based on 4.25-oz. bottle) This 67-year-old scent has its loyalists -- especially among older men -- but at this markup, it begs the question: Why not pay twice as much for something a bit more distinctive, and don't apply it by the palmful just because it's cheap?

Tylenol (JNJ: news, chart) Infant Drops -- $1,738 (based on 0.5-oz. container) First-time parents freak out when their newborn or infant spikes a common 104-degree fever, and would pay anything to relieve their delirious baby's condition (Note: Tepid baths help considerably). While store-brand acetaminophen liquid is widely available for older children, it's hard to find for infants. This is a generic pain killer in a suspension fluid for crying out loud.

Afrin nasal spray -- $1,892 (based on a 0.5-oz. container) The inability to breath through one's nose is frightening at worst and frustrating at best. But chronic users might resign themselves to being mouth-breathers, and then splurge in retirement with all the money they'd have saved.

Bausch & Lomb (BOL: news, chart) Renu rewetting drops -- $2,097 (based on a 0.5-oz. container) The cost of hard-contact lenses goes well beyond replacing ones lost. For those for whom it's a remedy, laser surgery should look cheap by comparison.

Rogaine Extra Strength (PFE: news, chart) -- $2,176 ( based on a 2-oz. package) Desperate times call for desperate measures and for balding men, especially single ones, the cost of preserving thinning locks is no object. Forget that many users sprout only peach fuzz or suffer a scorched scalp after extended use. Untold thousands try this product before discovering its failings or coming to accept that their attractiveness is more than follicle deep.

Primatene Mist -- $3,377 (based on a 0.5-oz. dispenser) Not breathing through your nose is one thing, not breathing at all is another matter. That life-threatening situation is just what this product aims to remedy, with an enormous mark-up in the process.

Colgate Simply White Tooth-Whitening Gel (CL: news, chart) -- $5,643 (based on 0.34 ounce bottle.) That's quite a pretty penny to pay for a little bit 'o bleach, specially formulated though it may be. But such is the price of vanity.

Chanel No. 5 perfume -- $46,000 (based on 0.25 ounce bottle) Since 1921, this scent has been the reigning queen of women's high-end perfumes. Suffice to say, at this price, it's a good thing a little goes a fairly long way.

So next time you're muttering profanities under your breath when the gas pump surpasses $40 while filling up your SUV, make a mental note to at least be a conscientious shopper on all other liquids you buy.

It really is worth reading those "per-ounce" price labels on supermarket shelves and not be wedded to items that are themselves essentially commodity products Remember, wealth is often built not by how much you bank, but by how much you don't spend.

Source: Chris Pummer is an assistant managing editor for CBS MarketWatch in San Francisco. Editorial intern Stephen Roberts contributed to this column.  

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