It's a money-saving proposition that is hard to pass up: buying groceries and other staples in bulk so that you pay less for those items in the long run. And it's true that you can rack up some serious savings through shopping for bulk items at warehouse club stores, or stocking up when items go on sale at regular retail destinations. Warehouse clubs like Costco maintain profit margins of about 8 to 14 percent, as opposed to the 20 to 40 percent margins of traditional grocery chains [source: Warehouse Club Focus]. But there are some good rules of thumb to keep in mind when bulk shopping, to make sure that you don't end up wasting money, instead of saving it.
- Be mindful of storage concerns. That killer deal you just got on a case of toilet paper may not seem so convenient when you can't find room for it in your closet.
- If you spend money on something you don't normally use, or don't really need, you're not saving money by buying it in bulk. It doesn't make sense to buy a 12-pack of Dijon mustard, even if it's extremely cheap, if you've had the same bottle sitting in your fridge for a year.
- Don't buy a particular brand or variety of a product in bulk if you're not familiar with it. If it turns out that it doesn't stack up to your favorite brand, that's money down the drain.
- Perishable foods are generally bad investments for bulk purchases. Unless you have a huge family, have houseguests coming into town or just have a serious craving for bananas, you may not be able to go through your stock before it goes bad.
- Be certain that you're actually paying less. Comparison shopping at warehouse stores can be difficult, so think about carrying a list of prices from your usual grocery store with you, just to make sure you pay less per unit.
On the next page, we'll list some specific items that might seem like a good investment for bulk purchases, but carry some unexpected drawbacks.
Specific Items You Shouldn't Buy In Bulk
These bulk items might seem like good investments at the time, but won't add up to as much long-term value as you would think.
- Nuts: You might think that nuts could sit in the pantry for months and even years at a time without going bad. But nuts are actually very high in oil. And although those oils make nuts a healthy source of unsaturated fats, they also mean that nuts will go rancid within four months (six months if they are in their shells) [source: Shelf Life Advice].
- Brown rice: Like nuts, brown rice has high oil content because, unlike white rice, brown rice still has the germ attached. That's what makes it brown and generally healthier than its white counterpart, but also more perishable. Don't buy more brown rice than you can use in about six months [source: Shelf Life Advice].
- Cooking oil: If nuts and brown rice spoil quickly because of their high oil content, you can bet that pure oil will go bad quickly for the same reason. Cooking oil goes bad within one to three months of being opened [source: Shelf Life Advice]. So, gallon jugs of oil may be a good investment if you plan to do a lot of deep frying, but otherwise, stay away.
- Spices: Little jars of spices can be expensive, while large tubs can be dirt cheap by comparison. But those bulk spices are really only worth buying for restaurants or food service professionals. Because spices lose their flavor over time, you'll have to refresh them in about six months [source: Fiegerman].
- Bleach: Bleach loses potency in only about six months, so most households probably won't use more than the typical gallon before its cleaning power is gone [source: Lieberman].
- Bread: Unless you have a huge family, or you're carbo loading for a big marathon, you're making more of an investment in mold than in cheap lunches.
- Candy: Even if you find deals on candy and other snack foods in bulk, having so many on hand can increase the temptation to overeat.
Read on for more information and tips on how to improve your shopping habits.
Related How Stuff Works Articles
More Great Links
- All Recipes.com. "Buying In Bulk." (Oct. 8, 2010)http://allrecipes.com//HowTo/buying-in-bulk/Detail.aspx
- Beattie, Andrew. "The Dark Side of Bulk Buying." Investopedia. (Oct. 4, 2010)http://www.investopedia.com/articles/pf/07/bulk_buying.asp
- Consumer Reports "Warehouse Club Savings." October 2009. (Oct. 13, 2009)http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/shopping/november-2009/stock-up-and-save/how-much-warehouse-stores-can-save-you/index.htm
- Consumer's Union of the United States. "Costco vs. Sam's Club. New Reasons to Join or Switch." Consumer Reports. May 2007. (Oct 8, 2010)http://www.warehouseclubfocus.com/news/2007_05_consumer_reports.pdf
- Fiegerman, Seth. "Best Stuff NOT to Buy in Bulk." Mainstreet.com. March 29, 2010. (Oct. 9, 2010)http://www.mainstreet.com/slideshow/smart-spending/best-stuff-not-buy-bulk
- Hamm, Trent. "Ten Ways to Really Save at a Warehouse Club." Christian Science Monitor. March 8, 2010. (Oct. 13, 2010)http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/The-Simple-Dollar/2010/0308/Ten-ways-to-really-save-at-a-warehouse-club
- Jacobs, Elizabeth. "What to Buy in Bulk: Money Saving Tips for the Frugal Shopper." LearnVest.com. Aug. 5, 2010. (Oct. 12, 2010)http://blog.learnvest.com/living-frugally/what-to-buy-in-bulk-money-saving-tips-for-the-frugal-shopper/
- Jae, Jodi. "The Top 6 Grocery Store Myths." Mint.com. Sept. 9, 2010. (Oct. 12, 2010)http://www.mint.com/blog/saving/grocery-coupons-09092010/
- Lieberman, Janice. "How to Save Money When Buying in Bulk." Reader's Digest. (Oct. 8, 2010)http://www.rd.com/home-garden/how-to-save-money-when-buying-in-bulk/article183283.html
- Martha Stewart.com "Tips for Buying and Keeping Bulk Foods." Martha Stewart Living. November 2004. (Oct. 5, 2010)http://www.marthastewart.com/article/buying-and-keeping-bulk-foods
- McCann, Sarah More. "Warehouse Shoppers: Do You Save Enough to Justify the Trip." The Christian Science Monitor. Aug. 4, 2008. (Oct. 8, 2010)http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/2008/0804/p13s01-wmgn.html
- Shelf Life Advice. "Cooking Oils." June 16, 2009. (Oct. 8, 2010)http://shelflifeadvice.com/cooking-ingredients/liquid/cooking-oils
- Shelf Life Advice. "Herbs and Spices." Feb. 26, 2010. (Oct. 8, 2010)http://shelflifeadvice.com/condiments-herbs-spices-spreads/herbs-and-spices
- Shelf Life Advice. "Nuts." Dec. 17, 2009. (Oct. 8, 2010)http://shelflifeadvice.com/munchies/nuts
- Shelf Life Advice. "Rice." June 23, 2009. (Oct. 8, 2010)http://shelflifeadvice.com/grains-pasta-and-cereal/grains-and-pasta/rice
- Stripling, Sherry. "Buying Bargains in Bulk, Without Breaking the Bank." March 8, 2005. (Oct. 7 2010)http://www.warehouseclubfocus.com/news/2005_0308_seattle_times.pdf
- Warehouse Club Focus. "What is a Warehouse Club?" 2010. (Oct. 7, 2010)http://www.warehouseclubfocus.com/warehouse_club_industry/2010_guide_what_is.pdf