Updated on 09.01.11

Waste Not, Want Not: Strategies for Warehouse Club Shopping

Trent Hamm

One of the big tricks of shopping successfully at a warehouse store (I use Sam’s Club because it’s the only one reasonably close to me) is knowing when to buy something in the bulk sizes available there. It’s not always the best move.

For example, our local Sam’s Club often carries these giant 24 packs of sandwich buns. I’ve learned the hard way that if I buy one of these packs for just my family, we’re either eating nothing but sandwiches for several meals in the near future or they’re going to either get very hard or moldy. On the other hand, if I’m having guests over, is it worth it to buy one of these?

The same thought process repeats itself over and over again as I shop there. Am I going to be able to use all of this before it goes bad?

Flour. Lemon juice. Carrots. Watermelon. Pretzels. Brown sugar. Broccoli. Cherries. The list goes on and on. (Of course, there are the things you can pretty much store forever, like laundry detergent or dishwashing detergent or toilet paper or paper towels.)

To put it simply, if you’re not careful, your cart can quickly fill up at a warehouse club. Warehouse clubs are full of products that you use at a very good price point per unit. A cup of detergent at the warehouse club is almost always cheaper than a cup of detergent at the local grocery store.

Similarly, if you’re not careful, the stuff you buy at a warehouse club can go bad before you use it, wasting your time, your space, and especially your money. Take a pound of grapes. The price per pound at a warehouse club is less than it is at your local grocery store. The problem is that at the warehouse club, you have to buy five pounds of grapes to get that per-unit price. If you don’t use those grapes, then the leftover grapes go to waste and you end up wasting money.

It’s a balancing act, and it’s one that requires you to be in touch with what you actually need, not what you think you need or that you merely want.

Here are some tactics I use for shopping at a warehouse club.

First, I tend to buy the vast majority of my non-perishable items there. Trash bags, paper towels, toilet paper, shampoo, soap, razor blades, light bulbs – these things are almost always far cheaper at a warehouse club than at a grocery store. The only drawback is that you do have to have a place to store this stuff. We store much of our excess in the garage.

For my perishable food items, I rely entirely on my grocery list. Of course, this grocery list is based on a meal plan that accounts for the number of guests we intend to have at each meal throughout the week.

To make it simple, If we’re using the same item multiple times during the week or we’re having a number of guests, then I will buy perishable food items at a warehouse club. Otherwise, I just won’t buy it there. An item is not a bargain if you end up having to throw half of it away because it’s stale, rotten, or otherwise unusable.

My usual shopping plan for the week involves making a “warehouse club” list and making a “regular” list. Items that I’m sure I’ll be able to thoroughly use if I buy in bulk go on the “warehouse club” list. Everything else goes on the “regular” list.

I don’t even take the “regular” list into the warehouse club. Inevitably, if I do, I wind up buying something in bulk that I shouldn’t be buying in bulk. When I buy something in bulk that I shouldn’t be buying in bulk, I often end up wasting the excess and losing money.

To put it simply, I make the bulk-buying decision on each item before I ever go to the store. This way, I’m never caught in the trap of convincing myself to buy something in bulk that will go to waste. This keeps money in my pocket and space in my cupboard.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    Another strategy would be to gather a few friends into a food buying club. With 5 families, 5 lbs. of grapes would not be a problem. I belonged to such a group in the early 80’s. We would get together once a month and decide what we wanted to buy. “Who needs peanut butter, how much?” We would compile a list and one person would shop. Then we would go to that person’s house to collect what we had ordered. The question is, “Is the savings in dollars enough to justify the increased planning, collecting time.”

  2. Carole says:

    I have seen bulk packages of candy and other tempting items at reasonable prices. Of course the wrong people (overweight) are seen buying them. Actually there are no right people who need all those calories unless it’s a restaurant owner or someone else who plans to resell them.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    #2 Carole – Harsh. I gave up policing other people’s shopping basket choices a long time ago. Unless they’re a personal acquaintance of yours, you have no way of knowing why that ‘wrong person’ is buying what they’ve purchased.

  4. Vicky says:

    Agreed with #3 whole-heartedly.

    You never have any idea what someone is doing with that purchase.

    I once bought batteries in bulk at Sam’s and had a customer in line snigger at me as I stood in line… Judging someone based on purchases and appearances won’t get you anywhere.

  5. Laundry Lady says:

    Keep in mind that some perishable food can be preserved if you have the proper storage facilities. Bread products can be frozen, and so can some fruits and vegetables. I know Trent practices meal banking. Buy cheese in bulk and make large batches of homemade macaroni and cheese or ziti to freeze for later meals. We only go to Sam’s Club once a month, but the things we buy in bulk are totally worth it. Dry goods like pasta and peanut butter have a long shelf life. Plus pantry staples like bread and sugar get used up fairly quickly. Personally, I stay away from most name brand items unless they are a great deal. I find that many of the Member Mark store brand items work just fine and are an even larger savings.

  6. chuck says:

    bulk buying food does tend to increase the tendency for overeating. i remember buying a huge bag of popcorn. it stood almost waist high and yes i finished it all. didn’t want to let it go to waste. in the end i decided that was no bargain.

  7. krantcents says:

    Although I use Costco for certain items, I do not bulk buy. I selectively buy because many of the items are cheaper at Target. In addition, I have a Target credit card that gives me 5% back.

  8. LB says:

    I would love to see a breakdown of whether joining a warehouse club is worth it as a way of saving money. How much do you need to buy in order for the small savings per item to add up to more than the cost of the membership? Is it ever economical for a couple with no kids who doesn’t eat much processed food to join a warehouse club?

  9. Maureen says:

    Agree with #3. That individual might have been purchasing for the office, a school function, Hallowe’en or some other holiday or perhaps they were buying for other family members. At our school fair, for example, we had a sucker pull booth and must have gone through hundreds of suckers, which were bought in bulk. Our school also ran a snack program an often bought many cases of granola bars or apples at a time.

    It’s not really anyone else’s business.

  10. AndreaS says:

    I agree with a prior poster that many of the items Trent fears would go to waste can be frozen. My son works for a major bakery, and so he gets a discount at the local bakery thrift store. He buys loaves of whole-grain bread and other bread products for about 50 cents a loaf. He buys up to a couple dozen loaves (or other products) at a time, which goes into our chest freezer. My other adult children buy (or trade him other things) for this bread, so the supply goes quickly.
    A month ago I opened a home-canned quart of pumpkin puree. I used half to make a pie and froze the second half, and this I week thawed it to make two pumpkin breads. Obviously the same principle applies to large cans from the wholesale clubs. Just freeze what you don’t use immediately, and if possible freeze it in quantities that you would likely use in the future.
    Fresh fruits that are going by can be frozen for later desserts or smoothies.
    As for whether or not the savings is worth the membership fee, that depends on what you buy. When I needed to replace my eye glasses, I saved about $150 by going to my wholesale club. I ended up disliking what I ordered (always hard to see what you look like when you can’t see), amazingly they had a satisfaction guarantee and gave me a new set at no charge. Other big ticket items include things like tires.
    I agree that many of the bulk foods offered are junk food, and you save more buy avoiding this stuff altogether. I disagree that having a supply of surplus food in your home leads to obesity. I actually have a problem when a large bag of chocolate chips gets opened, with most not getting used right away. I just make a point to store it some place where I can’t easily access (like in the freezer under a couple of frozen turkeys) or use a twist tie and do about twelve twists to close it.
    I think it is worth it to visit to a local wholesale club to look for items you might by there, note the savings (if any), to determine if a determine a membership makes sense for you. If it is marginal, share a memberships with a family member or friend… get him or her to purchase the few items that are worth it for you. Right now the Sam’s in our area has the best price for dry milk by several dollars per large box. In such a case, it is easy to get a friend to pick up a couple boxes for me.

  11. Johanna says:

    I know this is a fairly radical concept, but I’d argue that even if those “wrong people” (ugh) are eating their bulk bags of candy in a single sitting, that would *still* be nobody else’s business.

  12. Des says:

    I don’t know about Sams (we don’t have that around here), but the biggest “gotcha” I have found with items at Costco is that most of them are cheaper elsewhere. Staples like four, rice, and spices are cheaper in bulk bins at the local discount grocer (which also doesn’t require you to purchase mass quantities). The fruit there is priced about the same as the regular grocer, but is of higher quality. The items I have found to be cheaper are the “specialty” items that are usually only sold in very small quantities – natural peanut butter, organic salsa, artichoke hearts, etc. Bread is decently priced, but still more expensive than the bread thrift store. Cheese was cheaper but barely….etc….You really do need to keep a pricebook to see if it is a good deal.

  13. mary m says:

    I guess even the wrong people deserve to save a few bucks.

  14. Julia says:

    #8 I am single, and I shop at Costco.

    When I got my Costco membership I decided to give them a 1 year try. During the first 3 months I kept track of everything I purchased, and looked up similar items at Safeway or Fred Meyer’s website. I would add what I spent as a negative number, then add what it would have cost at the grocery store (for the same quantity) as a positive number.

    I even included the impulse buys – things I would not have bought if I wasn’t already there – by adding them as negative numbers but not including a comparison price from another store so they were treated as sunk money just like the membership fee.

    In general, there was still a small savings from going to Costco instead of other grocery stores.

    I only did this for 3 months because in the 3rd month I bought a little bottle of alergy pills (300 in the bottle) for the same price I usually spend on 24 at the grocery store. The savings on that one purchase paid for the annual membership and then some.

    I’d say if you use any over-the-counter medication daily, then a warehouse club membership will probably pay for itself, even if your just one or two people on the membership.

  15. Michele says:

    # 8- my husband and I are empty nesters…and we spend $50 a year on a Costco membership. It is well worth it because although we only shop at Costco maybe once or twice a year in person ( It is 76 miles away) we use the online store a lot…and we comparison shop and include shipping before we buy. Oh, yay- it’s well worth it….for just us two!

  16. SwingCheese says:

    We used Costco when we lived near one. I used to make my son’s baby food, and the 5 lbs. of grapes were something we bought often – I’d puree them, and freeze them. In this way, I was able to introduce him to grapes and plums, in addition to apples, bananas, carrots, etc. I still use Sam’s for non-perishables and some perishables. My husband loves pop, and I can get a case of his preferred brand at Sam’s for a huge discount. I also can get yeast and bread flour at a large savings from the grocery store. And not to pile on Carole (#2), but Johanna (#11) is absolutely right: even if the “wrong” person is buying candy, even if they go home and eat the entire box in one sitting, washed down with sugar-laden pop while playing video games and watching reality tv, it isn’t any of my business.

  17. Tizzle says:

    I get my friends to buy my TP there, and that’s about it. I had a membership for a little while (work paid), but only bought 3 things in 3 or 4 trips. Huge warehouses filled with inconsiderate parents fill me with dread. But, I’m single, and I couldn’t possibly spend enough at costco to make it worth my while, no matter how often my friends try to convince me.

    I personally factor in the amount of time it takes to shop there. It’s a huge time sink, although I suppose there’s a learning curve.

  18. Kevin says:

    @Johanna (#11):

    “Even if those “wrong people” (ugh) are eating their bulk bags of candy in a single sitting, that would *still* be nobody else’s business.”

    Sure, as long as you live in a country where people are responsible for paying for their own health care.

    But I live in Canada. The bill for one person’s lifetime of poor eating habits gets spread amongst all of us, including those of us who actually made an effort to take care of ourselves. So then it BECOMES my business. For the same reasons we have seat belt and helmet laws. If you make poor choices, we all have to share the bill.

    So stop making such stupid choices, or pay for your own health care.

  19. Jessica says:

    Food is not the only thing you’ll find at warehouse stores. We bought our daughter’s Serta mattress and boxspring set there at a great price compared to other venues. Diapers are a very good buy.

  20. Gretchen says:

    We used to use BJ’s and some things were very very cheap (allergy meds and charcoal, some types of cheese). Other things not so much, so we did let the membership expire.

  21. Telephus44 says:

    I’ve found warehouse clubs useful in the past, but with our current shopping choices not so much. When DS was little, the savings on formula, diapers, wipes, bread, and milk made up for the cost of membership in one month. We’ve since gotten beyond diapers, found a new place for bread that’s the same price and more convenient, and starting buying our milk from a local farm (more expensive, but worth paying for). However, I think it does make sense to explore the option and see if it works for you. My parents use a lot of OTC medication like Julie #14, and it saves them a lot of money – even though they’re empty nesters.

  22. Geoff Hart says:

    You can also do what my mother often does: Mom belongs to the club (we don’t), and she’ll sometimes buy (say) the 5 lb bag of grapes and share it out among the kids. (We’re all grown up now and live separately.)

    Why not do the same with a few friends or neighbors? Buy the perishables in bulk, and split the goodies and the price with others who need them. If your needs overlap, you can get a lot of stuff this way without worrying about spoilage. You can even share the cost of the gas to get to the store and simultaneously reduce your carbon footprint.

  23. deRuiter says:

    “…absolutely right: even if the “wrong” person is buying candy, even if they go home and eat the entire box in one sitting, washed down with sugar-laden pop while playing video games and watching reality tv, it isn’t any of my business.” It IS my business because my money is used for their food stamps, and their free healthcare, through my higer taxes. You want to eat junk food and be fat and unhealthy? Don’t do it on the backs of the working taxpayers. Get a job and pay for your own food and health care. If you are busy working maybe you won’t spend so much time eating. I don’t even want to hear that “glandular” nonsense. Look at photos of WW II concentration camps and there are no fat inmates. Eat more calories than you burn and the excess is stored as fat. Eat fewer calories than you burn and the excess weight melts off your body. The human body is the world’s most accurate accountant, you can’t cheat!

  24. Johanna says:

    Kevin, that line of thinking puts you on a very slippery slope. There are all kinds of “stupid choices” you can make that will affect your lifetime need for healthcare. But somehow, nobody ever seems to make a big deal out of the ones that don’t involve fat people. I wonder why that is.

    Also, if a person makes “stupid choices” and dies sooner as a result, that could actually save money for the system (healthcare and pensions combined). So you could just as easily argue that we’re actually morally obligated to stuff ourselves with candy to cut down on our life expectancy.

    (For that same reason, I’d question whether seatbelt and helmet laws actually save money on healthcare. If you’re not wearing a seatbelt, and you crash your car and die as a result, that really cuts down your lifetime need for healthcare.)

    And paying for each other’s healthcare? Happens in the United States too. That’s how insurance works.

  25. Johanna says:

    @deRuiter: Nobody’s talking about food stamps here. That was last month’s discussion.

  26. MP3 says:

    We purchase buns and specialty breads at Costco because they are cheaper than anywhere – and then we freeze them and take them out a few buns at a time.

    I generally don’t buy grocery items in bulk for precisely the reasons Trent outlines. The exception is condiments which we’ll buy in bulk at the beginning of the summer because we use them so much in the summer. Mayo has a shelf life so we buy the big jar at the beginning of the summer since I use it in so many summer items like pasta salads, on burgers etc. But once September rolls around, I buy a small jar at the grocery store since that will last through to the spring.

    I do buy cheese in bulk since we use it all the time.

  27. Dee says:

    Another empty nester here. We use an egg beater product and freeze them. I also freeze pastries, cheese, and luncheon meat. Some of their entree products such as pot stickers and ravioli are very good and freeze well. As someone else mentioned, over the counter medications and vitamins are much cheaper. Occasionally we find clothing at a very good price that is well made–not so at a lot of discount stores.

  28. Tanya says:

    Great post! When I lived near CostCo I loved it, but largely what I bought there were books or a few food items I couldn’t get elsewhere. Once in a while I get the urge to go to Sam’s with a friend, and I find myself wandering the aisles thinking how BIG everything is. The sizes and proportions are just too much for my lifestyle. Everyone talks about buying in bulk but for me, it’s not practical. It’s too much stuff for me to use up, and I don’t have room in my apartment to store it all. I’m glad you pointed out that buying big is not always better – it depends on your lifestyle.

  29. TLS says:

    Our Costco membership pays for itself thanks to one item: speciality coffee. My husband insists on drinking a certain kind of coffee, and I can get it far cheaper at Costco than the grocery store.

    Also, I rarely take prescription drugs, and my health insurance does not have any prescription coverage. On the rare occasion I do need something, Costco has saved me tons of money. I needed antibiotics for a sinus infection. Local pharmacy price (for generic): $198. Costco price: $42. The savings there paid for another three years of membership.

  30. valleycat1 says:

    Obviously Costco, et al, meet a need for a lot of people, but I’ve never been in a Costco & don’t plan to start.

    Other than a stash of earthquake/disaster preparedness items, we don’t feel the need to have huge stocks of any item on hand (we do have a small stocked pantry). For big ticket items, we first decide exactly what we want & then my spouse will search out a good deal.

    We are fortunate that our income is more than sufficient for our preferred lifestyle. And we shop usually weekly for groceries we need when we will use them, with a moderate amount of sale/price comparison & limited use of coupons.

  31. Kevin says:

    Re: Freezing bread products

    Don’t you find the bread terribly dry and crumbly when you eventually thaw it? Is there a trick to prevent that?

  32. KCDesi says:

    Another very satisfied Costco customer. I have opted for executive membership and the annual cash back from Costco pays more than $50 which makes our annual contribution around $25..


  33. Tom says:

    Am I going to be able to use all of this before it goes bad?

    Flour. Lemon juice. […]

    Those are the first two things that come to mind?

  34. slccom says:

    Johanna, if the unbelted and helmetless actually died, you would be correct. The problem is that they usually don’t die,and end up costing a fortune. For that matter, so do the mountain bikers, sky divers, extreme sports athletes, and so on.

    deReuiter, Carol, and everyone else. How about we just live our own lives, enjoy them, and let others live theirs? Life is so much more pleasant when we don’t spend psychic energy judging others based on utter ignorance of their lives.

  35. Johanna says:

    @slccom: “Johanna, if the unbelted and helmetless actually died, you would be correct. The problem is that they usually don’t die”

    But sometimes they do. And sometimes people who are wearing seatbelts or helmets still sustain serious injuries that cost a fortune to treat.

    I just don’t think it’s possible to reason from first principles that seatbelt or helmet laws save money on healthcare. So in the absence of any actual data (which I’ve been unable to find, although I haven’t looked very hard), I’m not willing to accept that they do.

  36. Maggie says:

    A friend has a Costco membership and sometimes we go at lunchtime and I can get items that I need. The Costco is so far from my house that I have never gotten a membership but when a BJ’s was built in our neighborhood, I signed up. So far, the only things I have purchased there are TP, tissues and paper towels. The large quantities are way too much for my husband and me. I have only been there twice this year for the items I need because of the huge sizes. I do want to take a look at the frozen items and the meats as fall approaches to see what I can freeze to save going out in the winter. I cannot always find the brands I like at BJ’s and find that Costco has more of them. I am still checking the prices to see if the membership is worth it. Our local grocery stores and Trader Joe’s have good bargains, too and I don’t have to find a place for the bigger sizes.

  37. Anne says:

    Re: #18 Kevin. Sigh. Kevin can always be counted to judge other people – especially under the guise of “it’s my business because I pay part of the bill”. So what about others’ old cars that use more gas or have higher emissions? Or their high stress jobs that contribute to many diseases (and their treatment costs…) I could go on but I think you get the idea.


  38. Georgia says:

    Kevin #31 – Usually when I put bread in the freezer, since I am only one, I empty the wrapper and wrap 4 slices at a time in Press & Seal. I put all those pkgs. back into the freezer and pull out one pack at a time and use it for toast first & a sandwich later. Press & Seal can be reused also. As for other types, I remember when I once brought home 8-10 very large bread wrappers full of fresh rolls from our local high school after a banquet. My son said when they reheated them at school they were hard as rocks. How did mine seem so fresh? My secret – just put what you want on a cookie sheet, cover with a paper towel and sprinkle a little water on the towel. Heat for 5-10 minutes and they are fine.

    I only go to Sam’s 2-3 times a year and I always manage to get back my fee. I go on the OATS bus (saves me gas) and get driven to each store for my needs. We old folks just love this. I buy quite a bit in bulk – chips, nuts, some candies, prunes, olives, peanut butter, printer ink, books, etc., besides the usual tp, paper towels. If it looks like I will not be able to use it in time, I donate it, in plenty of time, to our local food bank or to friends. I always love to give and it is especially good when you can also give more reasonably.

  39. Big-D says:

    I am a single parent, and I can say that costco is worth it for me. I know what to buy, and how to get the biggest bang for the buck. I can see if you like stuff as fresh as can be or don’t purchase other items they have. Things I buy at costco that I have found little competition on prices:

    * Televisions. They are rarely beat on price (even online) and have a heck of a return policy.
    * Bulk Cheese. If you like cheese, they have it cheap.
    * Good lamb. A lamb roast is cheap and always good. I get a lot more of these than beef.
    * Frozen snacks/foods. I love chicken bakes, their talapia, shrimp, salmon burgers, turkey burgers, etc.
    * Paper products
    * Cleaning Supplies
    * Toiletries
    * Gasoline
    * Alcohol. They have a great selection of good stuff and I don’t see it beat unless the local liquor store has a sale.

    I get other things at their website:

    * Video games. They generally have the best price for “newly released” games.
    * DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s

    It is all a matter of what you are looking for. If I buy perishable stuff, I eat it, or freeze it. Bread and stuff can be unfrozen in the toaster and you have toast and would never know it was frozen. Great for sandwiches.

  40. Nancy says:

    We have a Sam’s Club membership mainly for pet food. We have several cats and go through a LOT of Purina Cat Chow. Not only is Sam’s cheaper than discount big box stores, the package is larger than available elsewhere so we have fewer trips to the store. Before our dog passed away, we bought her food there also. We calculated a year of dog food alone would pay for the membership fee. We’ve also gotten great prices on OTC medications.

  41. Annie says:

    I shop at bulk stores like BJ’s wholesale club etc.. for items like laundry detergent, trash bags, toilet paper, Advil (300) count, shampoo, occassionally i will get their frozen fish or veggies. I also will buy my mom coffee powder and rice from there. There are so things that will last and not spoil and waste your money. I find buying these items in bulk frees up a lot of money for me at the end of the month. I am good for these items for 5-6 months.

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