One of the first rules of saving money at the grocery store is to buy big. Larger quantities equal less packaging and less waste, which means spending less money, right? That's true sometimes but not always. You can definitely save big by buying groceries in bulk, but you can also get burned.
When you're cruising the aisles of a warehouse club or supermarket, it's easy to get excited by a good deal. But if you jump on every amazing price you see, you could end up with a whole lot of something you don't really need -- or have room to store. Sure, you might save 10 bucks, but is it worth having a gallon vat of olive oil sitting in your living room for months on end? Bulk buying is an art, and it might take a little time to learn how to maximize your savings and actually use everything you buy.
And is it even worth the annual fee to join a warehouse club? Probably, if you'll go there more than a few times a year (or if you think you'll make a big purchase, like a HDTV or computer). But should you do all your shopping at Sam's, BJ's or Costco? Perhaps not, unless you have a lot of kids or are feeding a small army every day. Don't ignore your local grocery store -- you can also buy some things in bulk there, and you might get an even better deal.
Much of buying in bulk is based on personal tastes and what your family uses, but there are some tips that everyone can use. Here's our advice on how to buy groceries in bulk.
Join a Warehouse Club
When you think "bulk buying," you probably envision a warehouse club, with its sky-high shelves stocked with industrial-size bottles of laundry detergent, enormous tubs of mayonnaise and 36-roll packs of toilet paper. Yes, there are amazing deals -- especially on dairy, meat, alcohol, prescription medications and electronics -- but at the same time, don't let a good deal trump common sense. If you have a large family, you might be able to use a 12-pack of salsa. If you live alone, probably not.
But Don't Count Out Grocery Stores
We do recommend warehouse club memberships, but you shouldn't think that they're the be-all, end-all. It doesn't always pay to buy in bulk, especially when you can combine coupons and sale prices at the supermarket, on soda and household paper products in particular. So keep a close eye on coupons, store circulars and weekly promotions to grab these items at a discount when you can.
Check Unit Prices
If you're in the bulk-shopping mindset, you might start thinking that bigger is automatically better. But that's not always true. If you check unit prices in the soda aisle, for example, you might discover that it's cheaper to buy a case of cans than a few liter bottles. One word of caution, though: Unit prices aren't always based on the same measurement, so it's easy to get tripped up if you're not comparing apples to apples (or ounces to ounces). There's no shame in whipping out a calculator to make sure -- in fact, we encourage double-checking prices.
Know What to Buy
There aren't too many hard-and-fast rules about what's best to buy in bulk -- a lot of it has to do with what your family uses the most. Everyday nonfood items like paper towels, toilet paper, toothpaste and shampoo are usually good bets, as are your favorite foods (as long as they freeze well and don't spoil easily). If you see a great deal on something you're confident you'll use -- or you know you can store -- go for it.
Know What Not to Buy
As we said, it all comes down to what you're going to use -- and what you have room to store. That 16-roll pack of paper towels isn't a good deal if you don't have anywhere to put it. Pay a little more for a three-pack that'll actually fit in your pantry.
Frozen foods are another area where would-be bulk buyers can get more than they bargained for. You'll squander your savings pretty quickly on a gigantic bag of frozen chicken that won't fit in your freezer. Remember, a good deal isn't a truly good deal unless you actually use the things you buy.
Dollar stores — where most items cost just a buck — always seem to make money. HowStuffWorks finds out how they do it.
- Bulk is Green. "Bulk Food Facts." (Nov. 7, 2011) http://www.bulkisgreen.org/bulk-food-facts_5070_ct.aspx
- Christiansen, Emma. "Which Foods to Buy in Bulk." The Kitchn. Oct. 2, 2008. (Nov. 7, 2011) http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/conscientious-cook/conscientious-cook-which-foods-to-buy-in-bulk-064937
- Grant, Kelli B. "The Best and Worst Warehouse Club Deals." Smart Money. Sept. 17, 2008. (Nov. 11, 2011) http://www.smartmoney.com/spend/family-money/warehouse-club-shopping-guide/
- Heller, Laura. "What Not to Buy in Bulk." Forbes. June 15, 2011. (Nov. 7, 2011) http://www.forbes.com/sites/lauraheller/2011/06/15/what-not-to-buy-in-bulk/
- Jacobs, Ashley. "10 Things You Should Always Buy in Bulk." U.S. News & World Report. June 20, 2011. (Nov. 7, 2011) http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/my-money/2011/06/20/11-things-you-should-always-buy-in-bulk
- Mint. "Best Foods to Buy in Bulk." Aug. 24, 2011. (Nov. 7, 2011) http://www.mint.com/blog/saving/best-foods-to-buy-in-bulk-082011/
- Theriault, Mischa. "Bulk Buying 101." Wise Bread. Oct. 14, 2007. (Nov. 7, 2011) http://www.wisebread.com/bulk-buying-101