How to Maximize Your Meal Planning Dollars with Bulk Buying

Sammi writes in:

I really loved your article about meal planning for busy families. My husband and I have adopted this strategy and have been using it for about two months and our food costs have gone down a lot!

The only challenge we have is how to incorporate bulk buying into it. The closest grocery store to where we live is a Costco and it is the only one within walking distance so naturally we want to use it, but your meal planning strategy doesn’t use bulk buying at all.

How do you use Costco with your meal planning?

Sarah and I actually do use a warehouse club – Sam’s Club, in our case, as it’s the only one reasonably close to our home – to supplement our regular grocery shopping. The use of that warehouse club is actually integrated throughout our meal planning routine, so let’s talk about that.

First of all, our meal planning routine – as outlined in the earlier post – consists of six steps, taking us from the vague notion of “we need to buy groceries” to having a full meal plan and the groceries to match in our house.

Step 1: Get a Flyer
Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List

So, how do warehouse clubs affect each of these steps. How do they come together with the use of Costco and/or Sam’s Club and/or BJ’s?

For starters, we try to focus on the strengths of warehouse clubs. Warehouse clubs are good for purchasing non-perishable goods that you’ll actually use on a consistent basis. They are poor at perishable goods as you usually wind up with more than you need.

So, the first step is to figure out what non-perishable items you use on a regular basis. Naturally, you have your household supplies – things like garbage bags and deodorant and toothpaste. You also have non-perishable foods, or foods with long shelf lives – things like flour or dried spices or pasta. You want to focus on the things that you actually use regularly. Do you buy these at the store at least once a year? If you buy less frequently than that, even non-perishable goods shouldn’t be purchased in bulk. Nothing lasts forever – focus on the things that you actually use.

On the other hand, you should never buy perishable items at a warehouse club unless you’re absolutely sure you can use it all before it goes bad or you’re willing to freeze it and then thaw it at a later date. Buying fruit, for example, might be less expensive per pound, but unless you can knock back four pounds of grapes in the next few days, you’re going to be throwing them out in a week. There are some perishable items that you can freeze – like meats and some fruits and vegetables – but some things simply don’t freeze well.

The next step is to know what the prices are at your local warehouse club on those nonperishable items you use frequently. This is where the websites really help. You can use them as a price check on almost everything on sale there. I use the Sam’s Club website quite often, checking for the cost of non-perishable items. On many of the most common items, I’ve reached a point where I intuitively know which items are going to be cheaper at the warehouse club than at the grocery stores I shop at. I do keep a short list of these items, but I wouldn’t have ever known if I hadn’t done some price comparisons.

Here’s a big secret: it’s not always cheaper at the warehouse clubs. I would say that warehouse clubs are cheaper on most non-perishable items, but certainly nowhere near all non-perishable items. If you want to minimize your food costs, you need to compare.

So, how do we do all of that in our meal planning routine? Let’s walk through step by step.

Step 1: Get a Flyer

The first step in building a cost-effective meal plan is to grab the latest flyer from your local grocery store. I typically do this online, since the two main local grocers I use have online flyers. You can just visit the website of your preferred grocer and download them. For me, that means visiting the websites for Fareway and HyVee (and I’ll sometimes check out Wheatsfield, our local food co-op, which is expensive but sometimes has unusual ingredients).

Warehouse clubs do offer flyers, too, and they’re certainly worth a look, but I rarely find deals in it that make me want to make additional purchases. I’ll sometimes check on the status of household supplies when checking the warehouse flyers.

The purpose of a grocery store flyer is to get shoppers in the door, so they usually include a handful of sharp bargains and a lot of mediocre bargains. It’s often hard to tell which is which until you’re very familiar with prices, so I really don’t worry about it too much.

Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients

Mostly, what I look for in grocery store flyers are sales on fresh ingredients. What fruits, vegetables, and meats are on sale this week? Those are the real focus for me, as my non-perishable food purchases are generally there only to complement these fresh items.

As I mentioned above, I generally don’t buy fresh items from warehouse clubs because my family often struggles to use all of it before it goes bad. Fresh items are usually pretty rare in warehouse club flyers anyway, so this is a minor issue. I might buy one fresh item a month at the warehouse club, and when I do, the logic of the next few steps applies to these sales, too.

I usually sit there making a list as I go through the flyers. Hey, Fareway has a sale on cabbage. Could I do something with cabbage? I’ll write down “cabbage” on my list. Hmm… there’s also a sale on green onions. I’ll write that down, too. It’s just a list of ingredients on sale, nothing more, nothing less.

My goal is to find five or so interesting fresh items that are on sale this week that I can use as the backbone for meals for the following week. Usually, anything fresh and on sale that won’t completely alienate my children (they do not like Brussels sprouts, for example) is good enough to make the cut.

Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research

Once I’ve identified a few fresh ingredients that are on sale this week and that I believe I can use in interesting meals over the next week or so, I start researching recipes.

I actually use Paprika to manage this step, along with the next few steps. It does everything – it allows you to do recipe research, lets you store those recipes (and others you want to enter yourself by hand), assembles grocery lists from these recipes with just a few clicks, and lets you create meal plans with just a click or two. It just does all of it.

What I usually do is search through our stored database of recipes that our family likes. I save recipes that we like and that we want to try in the near future, and I delete recipes that we don’t like. (If you’re a Paprika user, I mark the “old favorites” with a star rating and the new ones I want to try have no rating; if we like it, I’ll rate the recipe, but otherwise I just delete it.) Thus, our saved recipes are ones that I can rely on (particularly ones with a rating). I know I can use them without a second thought.

I search by ingredient, of course. I’ll just type in each ingredient that I’ve noted from the sales flyers and I’ll see what recipes match it. If I can come up with six or seven recipes that match (and aren’t items we’ve had really recently), then I’m good to go.

This happens about half the time. The rest of the time, I have to find recipes that match the sale ingredients. Paprika uses a web browser to do this, so I just visit a few of my favorite food sites, like Vegetarian Times and VegWeb (your mileage may vary, of course). As I’m doing that, I usually stumble upon two or three new and interesting recipes to add to our database with the intent to try one of them this week and the rest of them down the road.

An aside: whenever I get a new cookbook, I tend to pore through it, looking for recipes that make sense, and I’ll enter the ones that seem compelling into Paprika. Since I usually receive a cookbook or two each Christmas, this is practically a post-Christmas tradition for me.

Anyway, I’ll usually wind up with a set of recipes that all use the fresh ingredients that are on sale this week. I usually try to find 50% more recipes than I have slots available, so if I need to plan seven meals, I try to find ten or eleven recipes of different prep times and so on.

Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan

Once I have those recipes, I make up a meal plan, which consists of figuring out which recipe matches each evening as best as possible and penciling them in.

This isn’t an automatic process. Some evenings are more flexible than others in terms of preparing meals. For example, Thursday nights are almost always very difficult for us, as we have at least two different events in different towns each week after work on those days. Thus, we often pencil in a slow cooker meal on Thursdays.

I do this while looking at our family’s calendar, for which we use Google Calendar. I want to make sure that I’m not scheduling in complicated meals on days where we’re going to be really busy. I like to make good meals that require serious prep work, but they’re just bad ideas on busy days. On the busy days, I’ll rely on the slow cooker or on meals that can be prepared in half an hour or less.

Our meal plan is recorded in two ways: in Paprika and on a white messageboard that hangs on the wall in our entry way. I usually plan it in Paprika and then copy it over once I’m sure.

(Our white messageboard is basically a weekly calendar that lists all meals and activities for the week. It sits in our entryway and is updated by both Sarah and myself, and usually undergoes a refresh each weekend. It’s very helpful for both of us to see what needs to be done at a glance.)

Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan

This, right here, is where the warehouse club becomes really important, so I’m going to walk through this step by step.

The first thing I do is add all of the items for all of the recipes to a tentative grocery list. I know that some of those items won’t be necessary, but that’s okay.

Next, I actually take that tentative grocery list around our kitchen. I look in the pantry and see how much flour we have or how much pasta sauce we have. I look in the refrigerator and see how much cheese we have. You get the idea.

I’m mostly focused on crossing things off my list. If I have milk, I don’t need to buy milk. If I have cheese, I don’t need to buy cheese. If I have onions, I don’t need to buy onions.

I also usually assess food items for breakfasts and snacks when I’m doing this. Our breakfasts and snacks are pretty straightforward – fresh fruits, oatmeal, cereal, eggs, and the like, so I just assess those items as I’m going through my grocery list. Do we have oatmeal? Do we have eggs? At the same time, I check on the level of common household items – I’ll stop in the bathroom and check on razor blades and soap and toothpaste and I’ll check under the sink for garbage bags and paper towels and so on. This usually results in a few things being added to the list.

Once I have that final list in place, a list of the things I need, then I split the list into purchases from different stores. I tend to buy nonperishable foods and household supplies at the warehouse clubs and the fresh foods and sale items at the grocery store. I usually run back through the grocery flyer at this point to mark any sale items that I might want to buy at the grocery store instead of the warehouse club.

I do keep a short list of items that are less expensive at Fareway than at Sam’s Club. There are a handful of items that qualify here and if I have those on my warehouse list, I make sure that they’re on my grocery list instead. This is a pretty short list and most weeks I don’t actually have anything that qualifies, but being aware of it can save a few more bucks. I keep this list stored in Evernote and refer to it when needed.

Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List

At this point, I have two grocery lists – one for the warehouse club, which is usually a pretty short one with just a handful of items on it, and one for the grocery store. Since everything at the warehouse club is a nonperishable item, I go there first and buy everything on my list, then I head to the grocery store and empty out my grocery store list.

The warehouse club list is usually pretty short, but the items on it end up being the ones that really extract the most value from a warehouse club. They’re items that we use up all the time and won’t go bad in the process.

The key, above all else, is to trust the list and stick to it like gospel. You’ve spent this time preparing your grocery list so that it will guide you to the stuff you actually need at the best prices. Trust it. There is no need to add anything to your shopping cart that isn’t on your list. If you’re tempted to buy something else, just write it down somewhere so you can retrieve it later.


I don’t really have a coupon strategy, to be honest. Using a robust coupon strategy that can actually save me significant money beyond these steps takes a lot of time and time is the biggest premium in my day-to-day life. I am quite sure that I could save some money on household supplies with a strong couponing strategy if I wanted to devote the time to it, but it’s generally not worth it.

That being said, if I have some extra time after preparing a grocery list, I will certainly see if I can quickly find coupons on some of the items already on the list. Google is usually a great helper in this regard as it will often quickly point me toward coupons on specific items. I’ll often spend ten minutes or so finding coupons and printing them (or saving them on my phone) before shopping.

I typically don’t purchase a Sunday paper, but if I do, I’ll usually go through the coupon section and remove anything I think we might potentially buy. I keep these in an envelope and then I’ll just compare them to our grocery lists. If I see a match, I’ll snag the coupon; otherwise, I’ll leave it sit. If I see an expired coupon, I just toss it.

I’ll also print relevant coupons out of our electronic grocery store flyer. I consider these to be “sales that require you to bring the flyer,” though, rather than coupons.

Final Thoughts

In a typical week, I would estimate that I save about $10 by stopping at the warehouse club for the five or six items on my warehouse club shopping list instead of just buying everything at the grocery store. Considering that it adds minimal time to my grocery trip and considering I usually buy discounted gas at Sam’s Club, too, it ends up being well worth it over the course of a year. We pay for our membership and more.

In the end, it all comes down to having a system that builds a grocery list that you can completely trust. For us, this system creates two grocery lists, one for each store we’ll shop at, and the list contains items that are on sale at each store or has a lower price at that particular store or complements a recipe we intend to make. I trust that list.

Because I trust that list so thoroughly, I have little need to grab other items in the store. Is it on my list? If yes, I put it in the cart. If no, I don’t put it in the cart. If it seems really worthwhile, I might take note of it, but it doesn’t go in the cart.

The end result is cheaper grocery bills. We spend less per month on food now with a nine year old and a seven year old and a four year old at home than we did back before we started doing this.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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