thoughts on groceries: buying in bulk

We are big fans of buying in bulk.

I lived half an hour from the nearest grocery store during my teenage years, and my parents bought nearly everything in bulk. We had two or three freezers full of meat, bread, and milk. The pantry was full of canned goods bought by the caseload during good sales. We even had a root cellar laden with six months’ or a year’s supplies of onions, potatoes, and carrots.

The benefits of having a lot of food on hand are far-reaching. Lots of ingredients means lots of supplies available for many types of meals. Having enough food to last a family for a month or two means that groceries take care of themselves if there is an unexpected shortage of time or money to buy more food. And perhaps most importantly, it means having the freedom to buy in bulk when the price is right.

Keith and I have used this same mentality in our years of marriage. In the college years, it meant something more akin to buying Mountain Dew and Shin Ramen in bulk. (Seriously!) Now that we live more than an hour from our grocery stores of choice, it means buying most of our nonperishables in bulk, and even some perishables as our family grows in size and in appetite. There are some extra considerations, though, and I’m going to delve into those a little bit here.

Costco is a fantastic source for cheap prices on many bulk items. Salsa, toilet paper, sundried tomatoes, hummus, onions, pesto, dried cranberries, frozen chicken, fruit leather, almonds, yeast, tomato sauce, dry noodles, spices, salmon patties, and plain yogurt are some of our favorite things to get from Costco. I think the savings in toilet paper alone probably makes our yearly membership worth the cost. The trick, though, is that not everything is cheaper at Costco. The salad mixes are a great deal, and so are a few other vegetables, but most of the fresh produce can be found elsewhere for a lot less. Lesson #1: Just because a store has a lot of cheap bulk items doesn’t mean that all of their bulk items are cheap.

Another consideration for us in our current living quarters is that we just don’t have that much space. This makes buying in bulk a lot more tricky. A two-month’s supply of feta cheese can fit easily in our freezer, but a three-month’s supply of chicken broth requires a bit more planning. We have to make sure that the amount we save on the items bought in bulk will make up for the fact that it will take up a large segment of our storage space. Otherwise, we would either end up with groceries spilling into our living space, or we would have to cut back on buying something else in bulk which would actually save us more money. Lesson #2: Don’t buy in bulk just to save a few cents, unless you have a lot of room for it.

A third consideration is whether having a certain item in bulk is a good idea. We can buy pesto in large containers, freeze it, and have it last a while because we only have pesto noodles once every other week or so. But what about something like ice cream? The last time I went to Costco (on a hot August day!), I very nearly bought a case full of delicious-looking chocolate-and-almond-coated ice cream bars. My rationale at the moment was that it would save us money on ice cream. But we usually only buy one quart of ice cream every few weeks. Had I brought home ice cream in bulk, we would have gone through it much more quickly, rather than reserving it for a special treat, thus costing us more. It is for this same reason that I don’t buy chocolate chips in bulk. I adore chocolate chips, and I will quickly eat through a ten-pound bag of them all by myself in one month. Tasty, but a big extra expense. And that’s not even to mention what it does to my waistline. Lesson #3: If buying an item in bulk causes you to consume it more quickly, it may not be worth buying in bulk.

There are exceptions to this, of course. When we buy broccoli or snap peas in bulk, we go through them more quickly than we would otherwise, because we want to eat them all before they go bad. This just means that we rotate these foods in and out of our diet. When we get sick of broccoli because we had to consume a bunch of it just before it went bad, then we don’t buy broccoli next time. I think it works out. The important thing with buying fresh stuff in bulk, though, is making sure we do consume it all before it goes bad; otherwise, it wasn’t worth the extra cost. Lesson #4: Don’t buy in bulk unless you will use all of the item before it is no longer useable.

I’ve mentioned Costco several times in this post, but only because it is our bulk store of choice. You can always buy in bulk at other stores when they have good sales. I tend to buy several pounds worth of items like tomatoes and avocados from Fred Meyer, because their daily low prices are lower than the daily low prices of Costco. Combining coupons with sales at Fred Meyer often results in much lower prices than I have found anywhere else. I have raised more than a few eyebrows by piling dozens of cartons of Pacific Foods soups in my cart when they are on sale, but the long-lasting value of great deals is well worth it. Lesson #5: When something you need is on sale, consider getting a lot more of it!

Some of our favorite things to buy in bulk are listed in this post, as well as some things which we purposefully choose not to buy in bulk. What about you? What are some of your favorite things to buy in bulk? What are some things which you have regretted buying in bulk?

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Published in: on August 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post! I totally agree that costco CAN be cheaper, but isn’t always! I always regret buying their big thing of organic mixed greens, because it always goes bad before we can get through it. I think my favorite things to buy in bulk are rolled oats, spices, and good flours (from AzureStandard.com). Costco for almonds, craisins, cheese sticks, cheese, organic frozen veggies, and toilet paper is the way to go, though!

  2. I also love Costco although, I had to decide that I would NOT buy something that wasn’t on my list otherwise I end up spending money that I didn’t want to.
    Something that I have been doing when I buy more fresh than we are able to eat is puree or freeze some for later…especially right now because we are getting lots of fruit and veggies given to us or excess from ours and the CSA garden.
    The top ramen and mountain dew comment was funny by the way, it reminded me of my first year at prairie with microwave popcorn and iced tea and dice with the girls on so many late nights!


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