Is Buying In Bulk Always The Cheapest Option?

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2012-05-0610

Are you frugal? If so, you’re probably conditioned to visit a shopping warehouse like Costco or Sam’s Club in order to try to save on groceries. But before you go on a money saving trip to these stores, check out some of the exceptions to the rule that supports buying in bulk. Apparently, bulk buying is not always the most frugal option. Here are some of those interesting exceptions I’ve explored.

10 Things Not To Buy In Bulk

  • Brown rice – because it’s perishable, with a shorter shelf life than white rice.
  • Candy – it’s not good to buy a lot at once, for the simple reason that it may lead to bulk eating, which isn’t healthy. You have a tendency to buy more, eat more then buy more again, which sucks you into an unhealthy cycle.
  • Paper towels – too much can take up space that you can use for other things.
  • Tower towels – see paper towels.
  • Mayonnaise and other condiments – these are not high consumption items and they don’t store forever.
  • Vitamins and supplements – this can turn out to be a waste if you’re not careful. Plus they’re generally expensive. Buying them in bulk and consuming your entire stash requires commitment.
  • Disposable diapers – babies grow fast!
  • Bleach – goes bad over time.
  • Spices – they lose their potency at some point.
  • Bread – imagine stale, old bread, if you’re unable to consume it in time.

Well that’s a sampling of what you shouldn’t be hoarding without careful thought. In general, I find the list somewhat counter-intuitive (it was initially proposed in an MSN Money article) since many of the items here lend itself to storage and deferred use. In my case, I tend to make larger volume purchases on non-perishables that I know we’ll be needing for the month. I think that it’s alright to “bulk buy” in general if you set a time limit for how much you’ll consume, and then plan on your purchases with that timeline in mind. Stocking up on goods may not necessarily save you money unless you have a plan for consuming those goods within a specific period of time (and you can guarantee their ultimate consumption). Now some savvier shoppers may decide to go ahead and make large purchases anyway when such items go on sale, even though they expect to incur some level of waste in the future. They may feel that even with the waste accounted for, they could still come out ahead. Not necessarily good for the environment, but some people may feel that any savings they incur should justify their shopping habits.

Then there’s the issue of pricing. You want to scrutinize those price tags closely. When you’re out shopping, scour the shelves well to see if you’re really getting the deal you think you’re actually getting. Just take a look at this photo snapped at a Target store. Buying several single items can actually be cheaper than purchasing the same things in packs. Pretty misleading eh?

buying in bulk, Target
Image from a Reddit thread

On that note, you can also check out Free Money Finance’s post that explains how bundling doesn’t always save you money.

So which items do you buy in bulk?

Created September 8, 2010. Updated May 6, 2012. Copyright © 2012 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

KP September 9, 2010 at 5:56 am

I agree that buying in bulk does not always mean a bargain and can be wasteful depending on your usage of the item. Something else to consider is your household. When I was single I bought a large package of one of my favorite breakfast items from Sam’s, because the bulk price was sooo cheap. However, I was tired of eating the “same ‘ole thing” and ended up wasting a large portion of the box. Worst of all, I cannot even eat it again till this day.

Great tip on uncovering the misleading fact that bigger/family size is not always the cheapest. I discuss this in my How to Save on Groceries blog post.

Cathy September 9, 2010 at 6:37 am

Absolutely disagree with you about diapers in bulk. Yes, babies grow fast but they are in diapers for a LONG time, and you go through them VERY quickly. There is a large range of sizes, and each size has a generous overlap of weight range.

True, it probably doesn’t make sense to buy a 250 pack of size one diapers for newborns, but we bought size 3 and 4 diapers for months and months and months. Figure a large package at Costco has about 225 (size 3) diapers and a kid goes through 6-10 a day. Add in multiple sites to provide diapers for (daycare, home) and that “bulk” package will last 3-5 weeks – an average child will be in a 16-28# range diaper for a lot longer than those few weeks.


Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers September 9, 2010 at 6:59 am

Don’t get me started on Target. I sometimes wonder if they intentionally “mess up” unit pricing to maximize profit.

The biggest multi-pack of toilet paper is rarely the lowest per unit – even when it’s on sale. How many people blindly grab the biggest, assuming it’s a the best deal? Probably a lot. I’m not a fan of companies that make commerce a game in which they try to trick their customers. There should be a level of trust.

And it’s not just the TP. I used to take Ranitidine (Zantac) for acid reflux (before eventually being “upgraded” to Prilosec). Again, the biggest bottle of store brand ranitidine was never the lowest per unit. Of course, a lot of times they didn’t have any in stock. At one point, there was a 2 month stretch with bare shelves (not an exaggeration). When I pointed this out, I was informed that the local store had absolutely no control over the stock – they’d just get a truck filled with stuff. Sometimes they needed the stuff, sometimes they didn’t. I wasn’t going to pay the extra for the name brand, so I just went to Wal-Mart instead.

A while ago, we shifted to generic diapers for our baby son. Much cheaper to get the store brand. (Oh, and, once again, the unit pricing for the diapers can be screwy). For our 3 year old, we considered making the jump from Easy Ups (Pampers alternative to Pull Ups) to Target brand … except that they are consistently more expensive that the Easy Ups. I guess Dora is going to hang around for a while.

It seems that I find myself thinking “WTF?” at least once during every trip to Target.

My wife loves Target, though.

Michael Haren September 9, 2010 at 7:31 am

To be fair to other stores, Target is pretty much the only place I regular see prices increase for bulk purchases like that.

Silicon Valley Blogger September 9, 2010 at 8:37 am

The thing about pricing like this — it makes the whole shopping experience unpredictable. As consumers, we go by some basic rules to try to save money, but stores can and do take a monkey wrench to those rules quite often. The lesson here is that we need to be vigilant if we care about the savings.

I like Costco and Target in general. But I do remember losing out on too many diapers when my kids outgrew them. So I gave them away.

FrugalGuy September 11, 2010 at 6:47 pm

I also agree with comments on buying bulk diapers! The only time I would suggest not buying bulk is when they are at the stage of switching from diapers to pull-ups.

Diana September 11, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I disagree on the brown rice part. I have been eating rice all my life, and I have never seen or heard that any kind of uncooked rice “gone bad”. Perhaps it takes 10 yrs to get there, but I think that is another problem if you buy something and don’t use it in 10 yrs.

John May 6, 2012 at 9:42 am

The newer houses being built today now boast more storage space than ever before. I went house hunting recently and some of the pantries I’ve seen can fit supplies for large families that can last for years! I guess that’s the trend with housing these days, since “extra space” is always a valuable aspect of any living area.

krantcents May 6, 2012 at 10:56 am

I think you have to do your homework! Just because you are in a big box store does not mean you are getting the lowest prices. In addition, storage is an issue and do you really want to tie up a lot of funds in products that will take months to use.

Deacon May 7, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Great catch on the Energizer lights. yeah, my wife and I used to shop at Costco, but it seemed like we would have a lot of excess and that it was hard to get everything we wanted there. Now we stick to the local grocery store and use coupons when we can.

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