The pitfalls of buying in bulk

This is a guest post from Sierra Black, a long-time GRS reader and the author of ChildWild, a blog where she writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale. Previously at Get Rich Slowly, Black told us about sweating the big stuff.

Buying in bulk is great, right? You get the things you want and need, and pay less for them. As an added bonus, you don't have to shop as often (at least, this is a bonus for me, since I hate shopping).

Because I hate shopping and love discounts, I buy most everything in bulk: toilet paper, frozen foods, light bulbs, even toys. But bulk buying has its risks too, and after years of practicing it, I'm learning to see them.

For me, the three key dangers in bulk buying are:

Making a bad investment in a good product that you need or love.

I love a particular brand of gel pen, and I use them daily. They cost about $1 per pen in packs of ten, and about $0.50 per pen in packs of 100. I was at the store the other day, trying to decide how many pens to buy. The decision was made for me by the fact that I am on a cash diet at the moment and had only ten dollars in my purse. Yes, I'm paying more per pen. But the 100-pack of pens is an investment. It ties my dollars up in pens, and prevents me from earning interest on them in a savings account.

Here's a Wall Street Journal article that makes this point about Forever Stamps (which are also a bad investment, but a fine purchase if you use a lot of stamps).

Buying something you might use but don't need in bulk.

My kids love Puffins cereal, so when I got the chance to buy an entire case of it on sale, I did so. This was in January. We just finished the last box of Puffins. Let me tell you, there have been some scenes around the breakfast table in the past six months.

It turns out no one likes Puffins that much. Buying the cereal in bulk might have saved me a few dollars, but it made my kids unhappy about breakfast. That did not improve our quality of life, which is what frugal living is all about for me.

This bulk-buying hazard is the one I fall for most, because I do “save money” doing it. But it creates a sunk cost. I now have 12 boxes of cereal in my cupboard, and I have to eat them or throw away the money I spent. If I'd “saved money” by buying one box and banking the rest of my dollars, I'd have more money available to buy food the kids and I really want to eat, instead of stoically plowing through another box of Puffins.

Buying things you don't need or want, simply because they are cheap.

The other day, I was biking past Harvard when I noticed a book sale going on in the Yard. I happened to have $20 in my pocket, and was strongly tempted to stop and buy $20 worth of books from their table.

Instead, I decided to take my $20 to a bookstore and buy one book from my 30-day list. I got a book I'd been waiting to buy and knew I would read and continue to use for reference, rather than going for the cheaper books I could buy in bulk. I got fewer books, but more value (and less clutter).

Costco, Target and the other big box stores know that people will buy things just because they're cheap. When you walk into Target the first thing you see is a large section of items for $1. I used to have a habit of tossing $5 – $10 worth of stuff into my cart: novelty socks, pens, candles, stickers.

When I had a buying mindset, all of these things seemed like great deals. I was getting more stuff for less money. Now I try to avoid getting more Stuff, even when it's cheap. I buy less in bulk — just like I buy less in boutiques — and I'm watching my savings grow because of it.

J.D.'s note: I'm stupid about buying things just because they're cheap. Or free. I'm always dragging home free Stuff that becomes clutter. Also, Kris just reminded me that I bought a case of my favorite pens last spring. Photo by Listener42.

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Lesley
Lesley
11 years ago

Another issue that she didn’t touch on is storage. Every time you bulk buy, you have to find a place to keep it, and not only that, it has to be a place you will REMEMBER that you have it. Otherwise (particularly with a small item like pens) you will lose track of them and buy again before you have finished what you previously bought.

Rebecca
Rebecca
11 years ago

I have fallen into the bulk buying hazard a time or two myself. If the kids won’t eat the cereal, there is some value in donating it to a food bank. I would not consider that throwing away the money you spent. I often pick up an extra of a staple to have on hand for those times when we are asked to make an unexpected donation outside of our normal giving. Just something to ponder. Since starting to read Get Rich Slowly early this year I am learning to look at my money differently, this is just one of… Read more »

Generation Y Investor
Generation Y Investor
11 years ago

I agree… storage is one of the biggest concerns I have with buying in bulk. I can’t stand having 30 rolls of paper towels stacked up in my house.

Andrea
Andrea
11 years ago

I sometimes buy in larger quantities. I did just buy 10 boxes of Nabisco crackers at 1.38 a box before the $10 rebate(and I mailed it in as soon as I bought the crackers). I will also buy 8 to 12 boxes of certain brand cereals or granola type bars(usually it is Kelloggs or Nature Valley- but many types/flavors) when they are on special at Safeway- at 4 for $6 and with coupons, it can cost me $.75 a box or even less. With my husband and an adult son, it all gets eaten.

Paul in cAshburn
Paul in cAshburn
11 years ago

I believe buying in bulk is a great idea for non-perishables you will definitely buy in the future (TP, paper towels, napkins, etc.) because you save money and don’t have to make as many trips to the store. But, buying in bulk can be a bad idea for perishables you wouldn’t otherwise buy (2 gallons of mayonnaise, a year’s supply of Puffins, etc.) So – as with any purchase – stop, think, and carefully evaluate whether or not you’d really be purchasing that much of the product anyway (and that it has more than enough shelf life for your normal… Read more »

Mark Wolfinger
Mark Wolfinger
11 years ago

Puh-leeze. At today’s interest rates, you earn zero interest by banking the difference between buying 10 pens and 100 pens. If you are using cash and no credit cards, then that’s a different story.

Forever stamps are not that bad as an investment – when compared with earning interest on a savings account. But I’m not playing that game.

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
11 years ago

These are all great points. It makes me wonder – is there actually a net benefit to belonging to a superstore? We love going to Costco – but when you take all the arguments into account against buying in bulk, our “reason” for going there becomes the food. Which is yummy but not always inexpensive.

Anthony
Anthony
11 years ago

It’s a shock to hear that you would consider buying 100 pens.

I don’t remember the last time I bought a pen. Usually, work provides them or I grab one from a hotel or shows/conventions pass them out.

Also, I must not use pens that much. Because each one lasts me for months, if not for a full year. I tend to lose them before they run dry.

Allison
Allison
11 years ago

I chuckled about the Puffins cereal! Last year our grocery store had a case lot sale. I bought Cheerios, canned green beans, canned tomatoes, toilet paper and paper towels in bulk at half off. About two months later I gave away half the cereal and all of the green beans because I just couldn’t eat that much(Sierra, you may just want to give your Puffins away to a friend or neighbor if your kids won’t eat that much). A year later I still have some of those canned tomatoes left, but the TP and paper towels I definitely used up.… Read more »

Alexandra
Alexandra
11 years ago

I too stick mainly to non-perishable items when buying in bulk. My mainstays when shopping at Costco are paper towels, toilet paper, kleenex, mouthwash, tampons, shampoo and conditioner. I do buy cereal in bulk as well, but I hide away several of the boxes and make sure to intersperse them with a smaller box of cereal bought on sale at my local grocery store. This way my husband never tires of eating the same one. I have a lot of storage which makes this possible. We bought the excecutive Costco membership in Canada which has some kind of money-back program.… Read more »

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren
11 years ago

I’ll echo the sentiment over storage space. The more thing you buy in bulk, the more more space you have to have to store them and the more space you have, the greater your mortgage probably is.

How great of a deal is that 100-pack of lint rollers now?

As for the forever stamps, I don’t care how much money I “lose” on them. I will always buy them because I hate the post office and shirk at the thought of going back there just to pick up a few 1 cent stamps!

Little House
Little House
11 years ago

These are good points. Especially the point about buying too much stuff, that doesn’t necessarily equate to frugality.

Also, some comments mentioned storage. You have to find a place to store all those items for many months, this is sometimes difficult if you lack storage space.

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

Great points! One thing I’d add though is that when you have a lot of something, you tend to go through it faster. I’m willing to bet Sierra will keep a closer eye on those 10 pens than she would if she had 100.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Anthony (#8)
I use pens all the time. A lot of my writing is done longhand. I bought a case of my favorite pen last spring (Bic Cristal) and am happy to have 120 pens at my disposal. (Though I shudder to think of the packaging involved for these 120 pens.)

KC
KC
11 years ago

Don’t just blame the kids. I fell in love with Pirate Booty – a white cheddar puff snack. It is expensive at the store and so I bought a 12 bag case off amazon at a savings of $1/bag. I tore through the first 5 bags or so – mmmm….mmmmm…. good. Then I kinda got tired of it. I think I still have one or two bags in the pantry. It’ll get eaten, but I dont’ think I’ll buy that much of one thing ever again. I also use a lot of blue Sharpies – fine point. Found some for… Read more »

Neal Frankle
Neal Frankle
11 years ago

I was talking about this (with myself) the other day.

My biggest problem is that when we buy in bulk…I eat more of it (if it’s food). That translates into more time working it off – or trying to.

Not a good path. It’s actually cheaper for me to buy a scoop at Baskin Robbins once in awhile than to have a gallon of chocolate chip mint at home…believe me…

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
11 years ago

Our problem with buying bulk is we forget what we have already. This leads to us having 4 giant refills of hand soap, 9 tubes of toothpaste, etc. Some of this stuff will last till we die!

rachel
rachel
11 years ago

My biggest problem is the storage…if you can store it (and it won’t go off before you can use it, and you can justify the initial outlay…) go for it!

I generally stick to middle-of-the-road (i.e. don’t buy single-serving things but likewise probably wouldn’t fork out on a conference-sized pack of anything…)

Also check your unit price – bulk (weirdly!) isn’t always cheaper!

mike
mike
11 years ago

BUY IN BULK THE SMART WAY! Overcome all JDs issues plus the storage issue, of course it will take you more time. Supermarket and Drug stores sell things at a sale price on a rotational basis, the unit price often being as low or lower than the warehouse environments. The beauty of buying here is you have more control over the variety and the quantity of what you want while still maintaining a cost advantage. The key though is coupons. You have to match them to the sale rotations as well as any other special deals going on, eg., buy… Read more »

Chessa
Chessa
11 years ago

We tend to like to buy in bulk because of cutting down on packaging AND it being cheaper, etc. HOWEVER, one point to make is to check your prices! I don’t know why I ever assumed that bulk automatically equals cheaper, but I did. I used to buy laundry detergent in bulk at the health food store (Country Save brand). Then one day, I turned around and compared the price/lb of both the bulk and the box of detergent on the shelf…and the box on the shelf was CHEAPER!!! What the heck?! And it’s a recyclable cardboard box, so I’m… Read more »

Avistew
Avistew
11 years ago

Buying in bulk also as the risk of losing it if it’s perishable and you don’t use it up fast enough. And even if it’s not perishable, what if you don’t need it anymore by the time you’ve used half? Sometimes it’s better getting together with friends and splitting a bulk pack of something to help with these two issues. And of course, there is the room issue. A friend of mine lives in 100 square feet, needless to say, she can’t buy bulk (or family packs, usually. She needs to buy units of everything for it to fit in… Read more »

Ross Williams
Ross Williams
11 years ago

I am doubtful that buying large quantities saves trips. The things you need that you didn’t buy in bulk will still require a trip to the store. You stock up on cereal, but you still need to buy milk. Once you are in a store, adding that box of cereal to the cart is not really a problem.

One thing that catches a lot of people is when the “large economy size” is actually more expensive.

Craig
Craig
11 years ago

Buying in bulk is great depending on what you buy. I like it for things like cleaning supplies or kitchen things that I can use over time, not for food.

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov
11 years ago

Hey Sierra, If you focus only on the big wins when buying in bulk (stuff you need, not what you want), you save time and money while eliminating unnecessary possessions. Like with anything in life, buying in bulk definitely isn’t black or white. You simply figure out things that you use no matter what, and buy them in bulk. Examples: toilet paper, toothpaste, soap. The behind-the-scenes stuff that you use for its functionality, not for fun, taste, etc. You’ll never stop wiping your butt, so you’ll always need toilet paper. By buying those items in bulk, you save time and… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
11 years ago

As a single person in a tiny condo, I can barely use even normal size purchases quickly. I buy everything in small sizes (ie a tiny bag of flour) and it lasts forever. Perishables are hard – I end up throwing lots away because I can’t buy them small enough. I need to change the way I do things. I could buy lettuce in non-bag form and I already buy fruit one at a time.

Craig
Craig
11 years ago

The other factors are cost of storage and risk of loss. Storage is hard to look at in terms of day to day expenses–you either got a place with a basement or you didn’t–but risk is always worth thinking about. What are the odds your basement will flood in the next five years? Or you’ll lose power in a hurricane and won’t be able to get a block of dry ice in the deep freeze before that 50 lbs. of pot roast meat goes bad? ‘Sworth thinking about. I generally limit myself to buying no more than one year’s worth… Read more »

E
E
11 years ago

I love Costco but we almost never go there. There are only 2 of us so not much call for huge volumes of food. I used to buy 6packs of Pacific chicken stock, until Trader Joes started carrying concentrated soup base – way lighter and less packaging, and also cheaper per cup of soup. We bought their giant bag of dog food once but it gave our old dog the runs, so we haven’t bought it for the new dogs. I would love to buy bulk toilet paper, but they don’t carry any recycled brands. I’ve bought water filters, which… Read more »

Paul in cAshburn
Paul in cAshburn
11 years ago

@Ross #20: “I am doubtful that buying large quantities saves trips. The things you need that you didn’t buy in bulk will still require a trip to the store.” Ok, but if I only buy TP or paper towels or toothpaste in small quantities, and then run low, off I go to the store for more (more often) because when you need TP, you need it sooner rather than later. 🙂 So, I agree that I’ll still be going to the store regularly, but being low on TP or paper towels or toothpaste won’t cause the trip (and I thereby… Read more »

mimms
mimms
11 years ago

This is a terrific reminder! I’d like to offer a contrasting viewpoint on buying bulk perishables, though. I and a coworker both have 2 person families, and we both shop at Costco. She’s a vegetarian, and I eat a LOT of fruits and veggies during the week (for example, today’s lunch has a salad, two kiwi, two oranges, and a plum). In the quantities that we eat fresh foods, Costco can be significantly less expensive here. We were both having spoilage problems (you do NOT understand how far 6 heads of romaine will go until you try to eat it… Read more »

Shirley Law
Shirley Law
11 years ago

I have 6 children. I have done a lot of price comparing and have found that it is still usually cheaper to stay away from the warehouse stores and by the generic elsewhere. I am not brand loyal. If I was then it would matter. If you are a brand person the warehouse shopping would save you money, but I can always find the generics cheaper then warehouse store labels at the other big box stores Even between WalMart and Sams, Walmart usually will be cheaper and you can use coupons, which I very rarely use, at Walmart. I very… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

I have slowly weaned myself away from buying everything in bulk…such as 25 pound sacks of sugar and flour….but I can’t wean myself away from Costco….the produce is so much better than in the local store and I don’t mind at all that my kiddos can eat 4 pounds of grapes in a week! I love Costco because it is such a pleasant shopping environment. I love Trader Joe’s for the same reason. There are very few instances where the prices are lower than my military grocery store but I don’t need a cocktail after I shop at Costco or… Read more »

Sierra Black
Sierra Black
11 years ago

J.D. – your note reminds me of my husband’s sidewalk shopping habit. Our entire house is furnished almost exclusively with trash-picked items. We have plenty of nice stuff, but he can’t resist a good find. Living in a college town provides a lot of those. At one point we had three or four “free” stereo systems cluttering up our house, when all we really needed was one.

Brent
Brent
11 years ago

For me its about consistency. I get some things at costco that makes the trip worth it. tortillas, bread, canned tomatoes, pickles, eggs, cheese, salsa, TP, paper towels, beer, OJ, bacon, lunchmeat, soaps/detergents, cleaning supplies. I will eventually use it all, never have waste and I’ve checked the unit price against the grocery store. The grocery might get cheaper if I’m willing to switch brands, hunt around for coupons/rebates, accept some substitute or get a weird quantity. With bulk you really have to know yourself and your family. If there is a chance of waste (lettuce heads) it gets a… Read more »

Lesley
Lesley
11 years ago

I love Sam’s – but I have learned to strictly limit exactly what I will buy there. At the grocery and drug stores, I do “investment” shopping, meaning that I buy what’s on sale and nothing else (except for fresh produce and dairy). I match the current sales with coupons, so I typically save between 50 percent and 80 percent a month on groceries, health and beauty, and cleaning supplies. But even with those deals, there are still some great bargains to be had at Sam’s for certain items – and especially for those that I never want to run… Read more »

First Step
First Step
11 years ago

For those of you who have food that you think you won’t eat, please check with local charities and food banks to see what they will accept. Some groups have strict requirements, while others will take whatever you give.

Also, if the items are unopened, you can offer them on freecycle.

There are lots of ways to clear some space and help others at the same time!

chacha1
chacha1
11 years ago

Someone wrote about waiting to buy meat until it’s about to go off sale … eww. That’s not smart buying. If you can’t afford fresh meat, switch to beans! I used to “bulk buy” cheap plastic beads for art and jewelry. Over time I got more and more selective. Ended up giving away most of the plastic beads and now I am more apt to buy unique handmade or rare vintage items, fewer for the money but they make more of an impact in the art and, oh yes, take up a lot less space. I don’t buy anything in… Read more »

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

It is more worth my time to put in an extra hour at work during the week than clip coupons and hunt for the *best* deals for that hour. I keep specific coupons for things we go through routinely, but I make enough that it isn’t worth the time and energy. Especially since when there IS a good sale I typically have to get rain checks because I can’t get to the store until everyone else has already cleared the shelves. I shop typically once per week from my list. I will scan the ads before I go to roughly… Read more »

ebyt
ebyt
11 years ago

Back when I used to live with my boyfriend, he had a COSTCO membership and we would go every month or so. I found that we spent a LOT more money for these reasons: -We’d buy stuff that we would not usually buy (we’d always use it), but we bought it because it was a good deal. -We would have to go to the regular grocery store anyway. COSTCO has a lot of things, but unless you eat mostly processed foods or can go thru 15 bell peppers a week, you have to go to your regular grocery store too.… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416
11 years ago

I’m laughing at comment 17’s “Some of this stuff will last till we die!” I can picture sons and heirs falling over huge vats of mayonnaise and cartons of batteries of every shape and size in the basement. We gave up our Costco membership a couple of years ago and haven’t missed it. There are only two of us, so the savings on toilet paper and olive oil aren’t worth the lack of other types of products, the wasted time or the stress of the awful environment (fighting for parking, crowds, noise, unruly kids). We also found the range of… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
11 years ago

Good article — it reminded me of all the similar reasons we didn’t rejoin Costco or join Sam’s Club when we moved. We used to call Costco “The $200 Store”, because we couldn’t get out of there for less than that, with the “must have” surprises we’d find.

Like many above, I find that we spend less money overall if I stock up on sales at my usual grocery stores and the farmer’s market. I find that the grocery store megapack 12 rolls of TP is usually enough to have on hand. 🙂

Jessie
Jessie
11 years ago

Buying in bulk is great – but you’re right that it’s not with out it’s risk.

Kerensky97
Kerensky97
11 years ago

It’s funny I learned alot of these lessons in better shopping through a 1950’s public service video being riffed by Rifftrax.

Shop from a planned list not on whim, buy bulk only if it doesn’t goto waste, etc.

I find it amazing that good ideas like this are so obvious they’ve been around forever but we still lose sight of them regularly. Sometimes you need a reminder to be frugal and to shop wisely.

http://www.rifftrax.com/shorts/buying-food

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

I buy in the other kind of bulk–unpackaged. Oatmeal, raisins, peanuts, peanut butter, rice, beans, lentils, quinoa, etc., and spices (if you need half a teaspoon, why spend $4 on a whole jar?). Saves money and packaging (I reuse quart yogurt jars for storage).

Sheila
Sheila
11 years ago

I’ve been the recipient of other people’s bulk buying mistakes at Costco. We have enough (free) toothpaste to last us a few years because neither my son nor his girlfriend’s father liked that brand after they bought it. Hopefully, toothpaste doesn’t expire. I also received a couple of bottles of a mouthwash-like product recommended by my dentist because my son ended up not liking the taste.

Noadi
Noadi
11 years ago

Living in a rural area buying in bulk can be a life saver in terms of less traveling to shop. My family gets meat in bulk because we have a large chest freezer that can hold half a cow. Staple foods like flour, pasta, rice, beans, canned tomatoes, etc. also get bought in bulk. We don’t buy anything perishable in bulk that doesn’t freeze well.

Do it with a list and get nothing not on the list is a good idea for any shopping.

Sunandshine
Sunandshine
11 years ago

The only things we buy in bulk are Bounty, Naked Juice, Basmati Rice and Ziplocks from Sams.

Christine
Christine
11 years ago

I have a 4 person household (self, husband, 2 kids). I buy nearly all of my meat at Costco, take it home & repackage it into freezer bags to freeze. It is substantially cheaper, and very high quality. I also buy a lot of our produce at Costco — it is also of excellent quality. The thing that I have noticed about doing the majority of my food buying at Costco is that we eat higher quality food. I stay away from the processed food, and can buy nearly everything at Costco except for the finishing ingredients (curry paste, salad… Read more »

Patty - Why Not Start Now?
Patty - Why Not Start Now?
11 years ago

Wow, Susan, a pleasant shopping experience at Costco? Mine is just the opposite. I have to steal myself to go in there. But Trader Joe’s, yes, that is a lovely place and I’ve found that since we now have one closer, I’d much rather skip the crowds and bulk buying at Costco and frequent TJs more often. So maybe the quality of the experience has something to do with it. It’s simpler for me to just get what I need when I need it, and have a stress free, happy experience to boot.

Karen
Karen
11 years ago

Another thing to watch for when buying in bulk: liquid hand soap.

The bulk version comes in a bottle without the narrow nozzle you need to help you refill your vanity pump without spilling it everywhere. I actually had to buy a regular size refill and then re-fill the refill bottle before I could use the bulk soap! Yup, stupid.

I’ve also noticed that the bulk shampoo/creme rinse is also sold in bottles that have HUGE nozzles. So you end up using more than you would otherwise because 1 squirt is a lot larger now.

Karen
Karen
11 years ago

Another thing to look out for at warehouse stores: our Sam’s club where I live sells bulk food that should be “unperishable” but ALWAYS it is sold *at* the sell-by date.

For example, canned beans, tomato paste, pasta sauce, even cold cereal. All kind of “off” in color or stale even if you eat it right away. No way would you want to eat that 1 year after buying it!

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