It’s not hard to find single-serve products. Just walk into any convenience store.
You can buy a pack of Ramen noodles, a bag of chips and a bottle of juice that’ll all be gone by the end of your lunch break.
What convenience products don’t have going for them, though, is their value. For the quantity you get, you’re often paying a high price.
On the other end of the spectrum are products you can buy in bulk. If you have a large family, I probably don’t have to tell you about the advantages of buying 25-pound bags of rice or multipack bottles of shampoo at your local warehouse store. But if you’re single or have just a few mouths to feed, you may have avoided buying things in bulk.
If you’re looking to save money, however, it’d be wise to give bulk products a second thought. Buying in bulk isn’t just for minivan-driving families with walk-in pantries. Done right, buying in bulk can help reduce your spending, even if you’re a household of one.
The Benefits of Buying in Bulk
Despite the higher cost at the register, buying bulk products can help you save money because what you purchase is intended to last much longer than buying smaller quantities.
Let’s say a single apple costs 75 cents at the grocery store. A three-pound bag containing six apples costs $3. Purchasing the apples in bulk means you’d be paying 50 cents for each rather than 75 cents.
You’re paying less per unit, which means your dollars stretch further. If you were to buy six of the non-bagged apples, you’d pay $4.50.
In many cases, goods in higher-quantity packages are a better deal because they typically have a lower price per unit. However, that’s not always true.
Check for yourself by comparing the unit price of different sized packages of the same product. Many times, you can find the cost per unit right on the price label. It’s typically written off to the side and in a smaller font.
When comparing two unit prices, make sure the same unit of measurement is being used. It’s not unusual to have the unit price of, say, a one-pound box of spaghetti broken down to price per ounce but the unit price of a four-box package broken down to the cost per box.
Sometimes you’ll have to break out a calculator and do a little math to figure things out yourself. Just divide the total price by the unit of measurement.
In addition to a lower cost per unit, there are other benefits of buying in bulk. Since you’re stocking up on more in one shopping trip, you don’t have to go out to the store as frequently. That means less gas spent driving to the store and fewer opportunities to give in to impulse purchases. You’ll also have more of your free time back.
There’s an additional environmental benefit if your bulk purchases involve less packaging. Also, having more in stock at home means you’re not in dire straits when an emergency hits — whether that’s a bad storm that prevents you from going to the store or a sickness that leaves you unable to get out of bed.
Just be careful: It’s easy to justify big bulk purchases in the moment only to have giant jars of olives gather dust in the pantry.
What Should You Buy In Bulk
When buying in bulk, make sure what you purchase won’t go to waste. Stick with products that have a good shelf life that you like and use on a regular basis.
You don’t want to gamble on a giant box of protein bars that everyone in your household ends up hating.
Here are several items that fare well when purchased in bulk.
Food and Beverages
- Canned vegetables
- Canned fruit
- Rice and grains
- Pasta sauce
- Frozen food
- Gum and mints
- Vanilla and other extracts
- Bottled water
- Baby food and snacks
- Baby formula
- Pet food
- Shaving cream
- Toilet paper
- Paper towels
- Paper plates and bowls
- Plastic flatware
- Coffee filters
- Over-the-counter allergy medicine
- Rubbing alcohol
- Cotton balls, rounds or swabs
- Antibacterial wipes
- Baby wipes
- Dog waste bags
- Kitty litter
- Laundry detergent
- Cleaning supplies
- Air freshener
- Dish detergent
- Trash bags
- Plastic wrap
- Parchment paper
- Plastic storage bags
- School/office supplies
- Wrapping paper
You may want to shy away from buying in bulk items that will go bad before you have the chance to use it all, such as fresh produce, meat, eggs, milk, cheese, condiments and spices. However, if you’re going to freeze meat, can fresh veggies or make multiple casserole dishes for an upcoming dinner party, buying those items in bulk might work for you.
Look at the expiration dates on non-food items too. For example, fabric softener and teeth whitening strips may lose their effectiveness after a year.
Think about how long it’ll take your household to use what you buy before investing in a large quantity of it.
Places to Shop for Bulk Buying
Warehouse stores — like Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s — are likely the first places that come to mind when you think about buying in bulk. These types of stores typically require a membership to be able to shop.
Membership costs at those three warehouse chains range from $45 to $120 annually. If you only shopped there once a month, you’d be paying an extra $3.75 to $10 each trip, but hopefully your savings would surpass that amount.
While warehouse stores have more options for bulk buying, don’t overlook the opportunities available at your regular grocery store. Look at the cost per unit of that family-size package of cookies or that economy-sized bottle of laundry detergent. Pay attention to merchandise located on the bottom or top shelves. Bulk packages aren’t always found where you normally look.
How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Buying in Bulk
Though buying in bulk can be a good way to stretch your money, that’s not to say it doesn’t come with its share of disadvantages.
Buying in bulk means you have to have more money up front, which can be tough if your budget is tight. Don’t feel tempted to charge purchases on a credit card, because you’ll rack up interest if you’re not able to pay it off right away.
Instead, start small by choosing one or two things your household uses often and buying that in bulk rather than converting your entire grocery list to bulk buys. Take advantage of coupons, sales and other special deals to reduce your costs.
Splitting a bulk purchase with a friend or family member is another way to lower that up-front cost. This tactic is also helpful if you are concerned about consuming something before it goes bad or if you lack adequate storage space.
It’s important to consider where you’ll store your haul. Before you go out and purchase an additional freezer or shelving system to store your extra goods, think about unconventional storage, like unused closet space or an area in your garage for the stuff that doesn’t need to stay a certain temperature.
One last tip: Exercise restraint to not use up what you have just because it’s there. For example, if you had only two paper towel rolls at home, you’d probably be more conservative with each sheet than if you had 12 in stock.
Stick to how you’d normally use the item and don’t overindulge.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.