Who doesn’t like strolling the aisles at Costco, picking up a jumbo pack of toilet paper for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere, an entire case of water for $3, or two outdoor throw pillows for $14.99? Bonus points for the $1.50 hot dog and soda. While buying in bulk can certainly save you money in the long run, it all depends on how smart you are as a bulk shopper.
How Much Buying in Bulk Saves You
While the amount you save depends on the item, research has shown that buying in bulk saves money. When looking at the average across all grocery product categories, a 10% larger package translates to a 5% decrease in the unit price.
The number one thing to keep in mind when buying bulk is that it's not the price of the item, it’s the price per unit (or ounce) that matters. Use the calculator on your phone or bring your own when bulk shopping. Other bulk shopping strategies that may be helpful include bringing a list (and sticking to it) when you go shopping, splitting the cost of a membership with a family member or friend, and splitting items to a more manageable size.
While stockpiling items may not always be a wise financial decision, if it’s something you or your family use every day, and it’s cheaper per unit at a bulk store, then go for it. Also, it may be smart to stockpile things like non-perishable food and other toiletries if your income changes month-to-month.
What to Buy in Bulk
Meats, ready-to-eat meals, canned items, and any non-perishable, shelf-stable items are a good bulk buy. Paper products like toilet paper, paper towels, and paper plates are smart purchases, as well as laundry and dish detergent, garbage bags, coffee (if you drink a lot), and even dog food or treats.
If you’re a parent, buying diapers and wipes at Costco, Sam’s, BJ's, or other bulk stores will also save you big. When we had our son, we did the calculations on diapers: at Target, Pampers Swaddlers cost $0.25/diaper; at Sam’s, it was $0.21. Our son went through about 12 diapers a day, so buying them in bulk saved us about $0.48 per day. While it doesn’t seem like much, that was roughly $175 per year.
Don’t forget to factor in the cost of membership when calculating your yearly savings. For Sam’s, you’ll pay $45; for BJ’s, $55; and for Costco, $60, though many clubs offer different levels of membership. If you’re a serious bulk shopper, you may want to consider opting for a higher membership. Costco’s Executive Membership, for example, costs $120 but offers you 2% cashback on purchases, as well as other perks like discounted home, auto, and dental insurance.
What to Skip
To begin, skip food items that will go bad before you have time to eat them. While the jumbo packages of strawberries or avocados are cheaper per unit than your grocery store, that’s only a good deal if you actually eat them all. Most bulk packages of fresh produce or perishable food are only smart buys for those with larger families, or who plan to serve it at a large family gathering or other parties.
Another reason why many avoid buying in bulk is that when you have a lot of something, you’re more likely to eat more of it, or not feel bad about being wasteful. So be sure that if you buy in bulk, you continue to be a smart consumer of your purchases.
Other Things to Consider
Are you planning a long trip out of town? How much freezer space do you have? What about a pantry? Are you planning on moving soon? You should consider all of these questions before buying in bulk.
That 24-roll pack of paper towels might be an epic deal, but you may not have anywhere to put them. If you have a basement with ample storage, you can store it there, and it’s safe to take the leap, but if you live in a one-bedroom apartment with limited closet space, you may want to reconsider.
Also, consider what you or your family will eat. That family size pack of pasta sauce is only a good deal if your family will actually eat it; the same goes for frozen meats, bulk snacks, fruit, and any other perishable foods that may be a good deal at a discount big box store. If you are planning on leaving town for a while, or may even move in the near future, think twice before you load your freezer with frozen food since transporting the food can be complicated and costly.