The Bulk Buying Debate

As long-time readers of the site know, I’m a big advocate of buying in bulk for many reasons (which I’ll get into below). Yesterday, however, a reader named Terry M. left the following comment on my post about saving money in the bathroom:

Not sure how much I like the idea of stockpiling anything. What is the actual savings here? The extra clutter causes stress, and the space it takes up is valuable real estate. The more stuff you have the harder it is to find what you’re looking for (leading to wasting money to buy duplicate items), and the longer you keep it the more likely it is to go bad or get damaged (even TP can go bad, e.g. due to a water leak). I like to buy stuff like this in packs of 4 – buying singles is too expensive, and I think buying bulk is overkill.

Terry raises some valuable points about bulk buying here, so I felt it might be appropriate to lay out all of the benefits and all of the drawbacks of buying in bulk at once.

Benefits

Less expensive per unit This is the biggest benefit of buying in bulk, and it overshadows everything else. Almost always, when you buy in bulk, you’re saving money per unit, which adds up to a real savings over time. Of course, this isn’t always true – always check the price per unit before buying. Generally, I see this savings in the form of a lower grocery and household supply bill in an average month.

Less repetitive effort If you purchase toilet paper in bulk, it often comes as a bundled set of nine packages of four rolls each. Thus, each time you need toilet paper in the bathroom, instead of going to the store, you just grab another four pack the next time you happen to be near the storage room in your house.

Drawbacks

Storage space If you buy lots of stuff in bulk, you need storage space to maintain it, and this can be a serious issue for some. We currently live in a tiny apartment where we cannot buy many things in bulk, but when we move to a house with about three times the square footage, we’ll have a lot more space for such storage.

Permanence Some items don’t last forever, so buying them in bulk is a poor choice if you’re not going to use them frequently. This is particularly true for many foodstuffs, which simply do not last for a very long time. There’s also potential concern about items in storage facing damage due to environmental concerns, like water damage or freezer burn.

Variety Often, when you buy something in bulk, there is limited variety – you use the same exact thing over and over. While this is fine for utility items, for other items (like many food items) variety is something that’s quite important – and it’s difficult to get variety in bulk.

My Conclusion

Buying in bulk is not the ultimate solution for household shopping. Buying in bulk works for non-perishable items, like toiletries and so forth, and for some staple foods with a long shelf life. However, if you don’t have storage space for it or you’re not highly confident that you can get through the bulk, then you’re probably better off not buying the bulk version and instead buying smaller versions.

A Brief List Of Items I’d Buy In Bulk

Just for comparison’s sake, here are the items that I either already buy in bulk, plan to buy in bulk in the future, or make for myself in bulk. Most of these are items where variety doesn’t add value – these are all truly staples.

Laundry detergent
Laundry softener
Dishwasher detergent
Dish soap
Bar soap
Hand soap
Shampoo and conditioner
Toilet paper
Paper towels
Rice
Meat (yes, directly from the meat locker by buying a portion of an animal and freezing it)
Flour
Mason jars and lids (for canning)
Oats

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  1. Grant says:

    Another benefit of buying in bulk is less packaging waste.

    Trent already mentioned this, but just be sure to compare the “cost per unit” price to make sure that you are actually saving money. Just because something is in a bigger package doesn’t automatically mean that it’s cheaper per item/ounce/whatever.

  2. Anne says:

    You can get the best of both worlds by going in on the purchases with a friend or two. You get the benefits of the reduced price per item without having to store an overwhelming amount of stuff.

  3. Bob says:

    There is an easy way to save yourself more money, right there in your list of things you buy in bulk: Laundry (fabric) softener. Get rid of it outright, it doesn’t do any good, and ruins your clothes over time. I have an allergy to most laundry products (Tide, bleach, etc.) so my family had to switch to or stop using a lot of products. We never found a fabric softener that didn’t cause me to break out, so we stopped using it outright. Over time, we discovered that we weren’t missing anything, and that our clothes didn’t fade out as quickly. So, you save the cost of the fabric softener, and your clothes last longer, saving you replacement costs.

  4. limeade says:

    For the most part I like to buy in bulk, but I realize that it’s only for me and my wife. If it’s going to take you a long time to actually use all of it, you may be better off with the money in a money market fund. There are always two ways to look at finances: overall cost or cashflow. Is it really better to save 2 cents per unit and tie up an extra $20 – $40 in the process? Only you will know.

  5. Kevin in NC says:

    Hey, anyone own stock in Costco?

    Charlie Munger is on the board of directors at the company. Charlie is also Warren Buffet’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway. Charlie goes on and on about what a quality business model is Costco and how impressed he is with the people in charge. Charlie also brags on how the company treats and compensates their employees. Warren Buffett is a shareholder by the way. Is this the only company that WalMart fears?

  6. Dani says:

    We are lucky enough to have a basement, and we store all of our bulk goods there. We shop for fresh food once every two months, but only shop for canned goods and other non-perishables about once a year, or whenever we find an incredible sale. The biggest advantage, even above the savings, is time – it’s a lot faster to “shop” in my basement. I organize the shelves the make things easy to find, and always rotate food (first in, first out) after shopping. Because we do get water down there on occasion, I make a point to keep canned goods on the bottom shelves and items that may get damaged by moisture (toilet paper, rice, pasta) on upper shelves.

  7. GeekMan says:

    Trent, you mentioned canning lids and jars and I was wondering where you get them from. I’ve found that buying cans, tins, bottles and such in bulk from the actual manufacturer (Freund Containers) saves me a ton of money. Literally over 80% cheaper than buying from the Container Store or even Costco. Best of all, even if I order too many for my own needs I’ve been able to sell them individually on the street for 50% off the retail stores and still make money.

  8. Kyle says:

    I buy bulk whenever wherever I can of course cost per unit is the biggest factor If it’s not a deal then why bother? I always start my shopping trip with a quick shot to the discount store. You won’t beleive the deal on bulk toilet paper if you don’t mind it’s not round. Shop carefully at your disco. store don’t buy anything you’re not sure about read labels. I save $100.00 or more a month between bulk purchases and the 20 mins. a week a the discount store.

  9. Ron says:

    A lot depends on your living situation. I generally try to be minimalist and not have lots of things sitting around. Previously I lived in a very small condo with little storage space, so I didn’t bulk buy at all because I just had no extra space for anything. Now I am renting a house with an attic and lots of space that is perfect for bulk storage. So it makes sense. I love not having to go shopping as much, and when I’ve run out of something downstairs I just run up to the attic for some more!

  10. Missy says:

    Trent,

    You mentioned that you would buy detergetn in bulk, does this mean that you no longer make your own detergent? I was reading a post from May (through the MSN website) that you have made your own detergent to save money.

    Just curious.

  11. Sage says:

    Trent alludes to this: another drawback of buying in bulk is overeating – if it’s in your fridge/pantry, and you know it’s going to go to waste, more likely than not, you’re going to eat it! C’mon, does the average consumer really need a TUB of mayonnaise?

  12. I like buying in bulk and stocking up. But I do it around sales now and only stock up freebies. But I buy food in bulk and freeze it too. Right now I have too much stuff.

  13. Lois says:

    Trent,
    I’ve found another bonus of buying in bulk is that I am more able to withstand mother natures surprises. On the occasions that I have gone out when they are calling for storms in our area, I have found the shelves bare. But I have what I need because of my “storage”. (I am not concerned about surprise storms either.) I also save time and money, of course. I have a friend who suddenly lost their job, and found their storage really helped them during a difficult time. Of course , one needs to buy wisely, store carefully, and rotate storage items regularly.
    Thanks for a great column.
    Lois

  14. I love buying in bulk, but have to constantly monitor myself against accumulating things I won’t use. As an environmentalist, one negative is buying in bulk is it paradoxically can use more packaging. Like when you buy a gigunda thing of toilet paper, and then inside they are wrapped in bags of four. I hate that!!
    I am a huge Costco fan, and yes, I bought their stock. Someone up there was interested – here’s my post on why – they’re a very ethical company with excellent labor practices.
    http://moneychangesthings.blogspot.com/2007/02/costco-i-am-fan.html

  15. avlor says:

    My family and I have had to find a balance in buying in bulk and not doing so. We stock up on things like spices (buying them in bulk at food co-op even at the non-member price is cheaper then at the grocery store), frozen juice, and other things Trent mentioned. But somethings I had a hard time tracking and making sure they were used – for example canned goods and large “portions” of meat. Haven’t found a good system for that yet. But perhaps now that I have a better meal planning system that will help and I can try stocking up on canned goods and meats and maybe even try canning foods myself. (My systems are slow in development.)

    I really appreciate your blog. It really helps to have frugal and financial input daily, to keep it in the forefront of my life. I’ve applied several ideas from your posts. I think where your blog helps the most is in the attitude that we do this because we want and can make better use of what we have. Thanks!

  16. Geoff says:

    While I’m a fan of limited bulk buying you really do need to understand the spoilage effect!

    Many of the items out lined (within the article) will spoil with nothing more than moisture … not direct water but moisture from the air. So you need to add the cost of protective storage to your cost.

    Also consider critter invasion … lots of food etc. Your meal (in future) and there’s today. So again protective storage, which adds costs.

    For frozen meat your betting that your power will not go out for longer than 24 hours. If it does you either have one massive party or need to throw out your now defrosted meat.

    So work the bulk buy angle for only those items that will be consumed within the next month to 2/3 months.

  17. Prasanth says:

    I agree with Trent that we can buy most of the consumables like toilet paper in bulk. Apart from these we buy vegetables once a week (We do not eat meat or buy canned stuff).

  18. MVP says:

    We have a freezer and storage cabinet from Sears in our garage, which have proved essential in bulk shopping. I buy meat in large packages and repackage them in Ziploc freezer bags in one-meal quantities. Something I haven’t seen mentioned here: bread and other bakery items. We’re lucky enough to have a discount bread store nearby that stocks name-brand items for DIRT cheap ($1-$2 for a loaf of bread, English muffins, hamburger/hot dog buns or tortillas). I routinely stock up and freeze our favorite goodies. Other items we buy in larger quantities: pet food, cat litter, salsa, dried beans, coffee beans, cereal, cheese, sugar, flour, rice, pasta, white vinegar, Simple Green.

  19. plonkee says:

    Hmmm. Its a good idea to buy in bulk but only if you have the room to store it and then actually use the stuff. I fail on both fronts so I prefer to let the shop act as my bulk storage.

  20. Debbie says:

    Great ideas. But, rice and flour can both get bugs in them. They need to be stored in the fridge or freezer!

  21. Jonathan says:

    The best argument against buying in bulk (in my mind) is the propensity to waste. With large stockpiles in reserve, people often use much more of a product or waste it knowing that they have plenty more stored up.

  22. Amy says:

    I find that I save money buying in bulk by reducing the number of times we run to the store during the week. I have found that diapers cost the same at Costco as Wal Mart, however, if I buy two huge boxes of diapers at Costco, I don’t run to either store for over a month because I’m down to one last diaper.

  23. don says:

    Don’t forget the inflation savings when buying in bulk. Items bought today are likely to cost 3-8% more next year. That is as good as many savings accounts.

  24. Paula says:

    I would love to buy in bulk, and I have the storage space. But I have two teenage sons, and they eat everything before I can even get it out of the car (ok, a little exaggeration. but not much!)

  25. Debbie says:

    Another disadvantage of buying bulk is changing your mind. When I decided to buy all recycled paper items, I still had a bunch of nonrecycled products at home. When I suddenly became allergic to my hair conditioner, I still had two bottles of it. When I found a toothpaste with fewer possible toxins, I still had a tube and a half of my regular stuff. When I decided to buy only chocolate items that were grown sustainably for which the growers were paid decently, I still had a bunch of cocoa on my shelf. I found a cheaper recycled toilet paper just as my other stuff was running out–my timing can’t always be that good!

    That said, we have a million cans of refried beans, low-fat chili, and our favorite soup for casseroles, bought when they were on sale. And we always buy the big packs of toilet paper, laundry detergent, hand soap, dish soap, vitamins, vinegar, and paper towels.

    There are also a few items we buy in “bulk,” meaning hand-scooped out of containers, that we don’t get too much of at one time. One jar’s worth of spices or peanut butter, one cannister’s worth of whole wheat pastry flour, one week’s worth of instant hummus mix, etc., so they don’t go bad.

  26. xgg says:

    We also buy the following items in bulk:
    — Vegetable oil
    — Coffee and related stuff
    — Salt and Sugar
    — Spring Water
    — Napkin

  27. Bill says:

    Once you have a standalone freezer you don’t have to worry about food spoiling in such a short period of time.

    Our chest freezer is filled with both free and bulk-bought food.

    It helps to repackage bulk meat into smaller portions using heavy plastic like with the FoodSaver to avoid freezer burn.

    We put milled grains like flour into it for a couple of days to kill any bugs.

    We have had homemade applesauce, frozen blueberries, pumpkin puree – all of which were fine after spending over a year at -20F.

    There is very little processing needed to prepare foods to be frozen versus canning.

    In our chest freezer, food has remained frozen for more than a day even after the power failed (the same can’t be said for the typical kitchen fridge/freezer combo)

    And chest freezers use so little power a small portable generator would easily keep them functioning.

    >So work the bulk buy angle for only those items that will be consumed within the next month to 2/3 months

  28. Don’t forget dry pasta, dry beans and canned goods you’ll use regularly — I’ve gotten deals on canned diced tomatoes at Costco for as low as 10 or 15 cents a can. It’s well worth setting aside a storage space if you can possibly swing it.

  29. For Bob who said get rid of the fabric softener, I have to disagree. We live in a very dry climate, and if you don’t put some sort of fabric softener in (we use the bounce sheets) then you get EXTREME static build up in your clothes that doesn’t come out. I’ve heard “put a ball of aluminum foil in the dryer”, but that just doesn’t work like the dryer sheets.

    Storage is the biggest problem for us in buying in bulk. We just don’t have the space to store more than a couple things in bulk. We do toilet paper towels and rice. That’s pretty much it.

  30. I buy non-food items in bulk for a few reasons:
    1. I always need hairspray, deodorant, hand soap, shower soap, toilet paper, napkins, etc. every day of the year.
    2. Even in a Walmart Supercenter or Super Target, the food items are separated from the nonperishables.
    3. Working in the funeral industry, neither my partner or I can afford to go a day without showering, shaving, deodorizing and fixing our hair. (People who attend funerals like the staff to smell and look nice!)
    4. I have storage space.
    5. I’ve never noticed the warehouse store prices for these items go down.

  31. Ann says:

    We (2 adults) live in a tiny home (750 square feet) I am a minimalist. The one thing I would like to buy in bulk is toilet tissue. It is just a cost issue with me, I live in a state that produces tp and still the cost is ridiculous. We have no Cotsco in our area and the local Sam’s club is 60 miles away. One local mountain man type uses old t shirts for tp. He has a bucket for “used”, like a diaper pail.

    For fabric softener I use white vinegar (1/2 cup to a load). White vinegar also works for a hair rinse. I make my own laundry detergent, easy to make and a huge savings and no perfume smells left in my clothing.

    As for hair spray and other perfumed grooming aids, people should think about folks who are allergic to all these things. I can’t even walk down the detergent aisle of a store without sneezing. We have a strange idea about what is good grooming, at least in the U.S.

    If you have a baby use cloth diapers. I don’t see how anyone can afford the cost of disposables, and they are so bad for the environment. I work at a nursing home where we use adult disposable diapers (1 dumpster full per shift!) Not only do they smell, fill the earth with waste, they cause diaper rash, even on adults. One lucky resident has cloth diapers, and her skin is in wonderful condition.

    I guess my only bulk items are produced in my garden.

  32. I’m with you on the bulk buying, within reason! My favorite has got to be the non-perishables from good ol’ Costco. I hate the idea of not having backstock of TP in the linen closet. It’s up on a higher shelf and I don’t store it under the sink in the bathrooms – fewer leak hazards (unless, God forbid, the ceiling of the linen closet starts to leak). Learned this the hard way with a leaky sink pipe many years back. :-)

  33. Stella Pedersen says:

    Here’s another way to save. Instead of getting those “poop bags” from the pet shop, my mistress just reuses the plastic bags from the grocery store. The ones for vegies, and other goods. Also, for the bulk TP folks, just save those multipack & 4-pack wrappers. They’re just right for a giant poop in the morning. Remember, reusing it beats recycling it every time. Giant COSTCO bags also make wonderful garbage bags, too!

  34. Maricka says:

    Recently, my husband and I discovered bulk buying as an extremely viable option for saving money. We buy foods that can be divied up into individual or double portions and freeze them for easy defrosting and preparation later. It gets a little monotonous at times, but I’d rather have monotony than empty pockets. Trips to the grocery store are not only time comsuming, but also full of impulse pitfalls! With the ingredients in a well stocked pantry, I can get creative with my meals, save time shopping, and rarely run out of the basic essentials.

    Luckily we don’t have to compromise our health with poor food ingredients and additives since my local Costco carries a great range of all-natural and organic items that fit well with our lifestyle.

  35. d. gasa says:

    Some toiletries are perishable. I had shampoo separate when I found an unbelievable deal and bought more than a year’s supply. A vaccuum sealer is really helpful for protecting grain products and dried fruit from insect and moisture damage. That’s all I can add that other posts haven’t covered. Thanks for sharing!

  36. P says:

    I buy limited things in bulk and we share with friends too. one thing in noticed in your list is fabric softeners,check the chemicals used in fabric softeners and health risks using it. after reading many articles abt it i stopped using fabric softeners. I second Bob abt allergies.
    I use plain baking soda in my wash to reduce static and soften up clothes. only synthetic fabric clothes get static, natural cotton clothes are always fine.
    Now recently i started drying my clothes in a line and now for winter i got a stand and dry it inside home. i get crisp neat dried clothes and reduced my ironing work too. i love this and save $ on fabric softener, electricity on dryer and ironing. i read that we can save 200$ on dryer if line dry.my son’s clothes becomes smaller after many rounds in the dryer. when i line dry they are good. so this works great for me.

  37. 10kiddies says:

    I have been trying to find BULK canning lids on line for years. I gave up and finally ordered my own direct in huge quantities and now I am making them available to others in bulk quantities for what I think is the best online price. I ship VERY fast, same or next day for very reasonable prices. Check it out! http://www.mulberrylanefarm.com I have been canning for over 35 years and would be happy to answer any canning questions you might have. Have a wonderful canning summer! Blessings, Helen

  38. agga40s says:

    I just found this post, but wanted to mention a way to prevent the bug problem in dry items – flour, rice, dry beans, etc. When you buy them, throw them in the freezer for 24 – 48 hours, then repackage either in vacuum sealer bags or food-grade plastic containers. Put a few bay leaves in the container before sealing (2 – 5, depending on the size of your container). Don’t know why, but the bay leaves repel bugs. Even on boxed items like instant potatoes, you need to do the bug prevention. I just found this out yesterday when I opened a new box of instant potatoes with an expiration date in 2010 – they were infested with those itty-bitty bugs you find in items like this. Ditto muffin mixes. I haven’t experienced any infestation in cake mixes for some reason.

  39. April says:

    Not only does buying in bulk save if the cost per unit is cheaper, it also saves in gas consumption, which is a big deal for many people right now. My husband and I are a new family, just getting on our feet, and gas prices as well as economic lows have especially hit us hard (I work in a restaurant on tips, which are down via cost of living being more expensive for many people). We purchased a deep freeze which is small enough for our size and our electrical budget but large enough to accomodate our family of 3. We have found that by doing bulk grocery shopping about once a month for meats and the like, (which is a thirty minute drive away to the nearest bulk facility) and then just buying fresh produce or perishables such as milk locally once every two weeks saves us IMMENSELY on gas consumption.

    We will buy bulk, separate immediately into smaller portions before we freeze, date and rotate stock, and specifically plan our meals according to what is on top (i.e. what needs to be used first).

    As for a tip for what you can save on: it is USUALLY the case that items bought in bulk will be cheaper by the unit price if they are on one larger container than a few smaller ones. (i.e.: 30 snack sized bags of chips will still cost more per ounce if they are individually bagged than one very large bag which, if stored properly (vacuum bagged, etc) can be broken down into snack sized bags for kid lunches or individual portions because you are not paying for all the individual packing) This tends to be true for most products of the like; it tends to make your search easier if you know what to expect to be cheaper by the unit and therefore better in bulk.

  40. April says:

    oh and one more thing: about making space for bulk. Going through Katrina taught me a LOT about space. We are a society of a bad habit of hoarding useless stuff. If you don’t use it THROW IT OUT, donate it, have a yard sale every six months, etc because there are so many better options for that space! Three of us share 700 square feet of living space (and I don’t care what anyone says, a baby takes up more space than an adult any day!) and we have purposely chosen ALL of our furniture for capacities of storing, whether in, around, under, etc. As for clothes, shoes, etc: For every new item that comes in, remove one oldest and least used item in its place that way you never save anything you don’t use. Store less used products in the back and more frequently used items in the front. LABELING the inner doors of your cabinets, dressers, etc always helps to get more use out of your space. For example, if you label your canned food cabinet with all of your staples directly on the inner door, you can store more stuff and you don’t have to worry about not seeing what you have stored. Updating your labels each time you shop helps to keep you better organized. Same thing with closets with odds and ends (i.e. Closet: seasonal decorations/leaf blower/etc) More space means more room and more room means more availability to buy in bulk.

    (PS I should thank my sister for all of these wonderful things she taught me from having her family of four in a 300 sq foot FEMA Camper for a little over a year!)

  41. Helen says:

    http://www.mulberrylanefarm.com sells cases of Ball canning lids and also bulk yeast. Reasonable prices.

  42. Kenneth says:

    I love to buy coffee, but sometimes the prices in Starbucks stores are astronomical. So when I joined Costco, I found that I could buy really good quality beans at great prices. Ideal.

    However, there is one problem with bulk buying coffee: you need to be sure that you can use up the bag of coffee beans quickly enough that the beans don’t lose their flavor.

    So I usually grind my own rather than in store. Otherwise, the flavor dissipates even faster. Still, it’s a challenge to keep the beans flavorful at home. I’m pretty much the only person who drinks coffee there. At work, it’s much easier.

    Still, I don’t regret switching to Bulk buying coffee though I try to add a little variety. So I will intersperse different kinds to avoid monotony!

    Happy Coffee Drinker

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