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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