Too Much of a Good Thing
While the frugal part of me cringes to admit this, not all things are great to buy in bulk. The truth is that some items go bad too quickly, take up too much space in your house or actually cost less to buy individually. Here are some tips you should know when considering what you should and shouldn’t buy in bulk, as well as our list of products that you should generally stick to buying in small doses. Obviously, prices on these items do vary from store to store, but keep these examples in mind. Also, we each consume products differently. If you live in a house with 10 other people, you might want to skip reading this and spend your time looking at apartment listings instead.
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We all know that it’s usually not a smart idea to buy perishable products like eggs or milk in bulk, but there are plenty of other things out there that people tend to store indefinitely without realizing they expire within six months to a year. Case in point: brown rice. In general, we tend to think of rice as something that just lasts and lasts, but brown rice (which happens to be better for you than white rice) has a much shorter shelf life because it contains more oil. So, buy in moderation and make sure to store it in a refrigerator if you plan to keep it for long periods of time.
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One key rule of buying in bulk is that you should beware of purchasing guilty pleasures like candy and other junk food. Otherwise, bulk buying can turn into bulk eating. One consumer put it best on Savingadvice.com: “If I go to my local store and but 2 candy bars for $1 a piece, I spend $2 and they will last a week. I buy a box at Costco of 24 candy bars for $12, they still will be gone in a week. Even though the unit price is less, I end up spending more.”
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It may sound like a good idea at first. Paper towels are not perishable and they do tend to cost less when you buy them in bulk (which is why they made it onto our list of the best stuff to buy in bulk based on price comparisons.) But according to Joshua Thomas, a spokesperson for Target, there is a downside to buying rolls and rolls of paper towels. “Paper towels may be more evergreen but before you buy them in bulk, you need to think about how much space you have in your home,” he said. And the last thing you want is to have paper towels taking up space you could use for other necessities. Just because some bulk items are lighter on your wallet doesn’t mean they won’t weigh down your life in other ways.
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Just like with paper towels, you don’t want to go overboard purchasing toilet paper. Yes, we all dread that moment when we go to the bathroom only to find there’s no toilet paper left, but at the same time, you don’t want to have your cabinets and shelves overflowing with rolls of Charmin.
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In general, you should try to avoid buying nuts in bulk, unless you’re the kind of person who munches on them throughout the day. They may be more affordable in bulk (which earned them a spot on our list of stuff you should buy in bulk based solely on price), but nuts usually expire within one to two months. “The high fat content in nuts (particularly in peanuts, pecans, and walnuts) causes them to go rancid rather quickly,” said Alejandra Ramos, home-cooking expert and creator of the site AlwaysOrderDessert.com. “If you must buy them in large quantities, remember that roasted nuts last longer than raw ones, and shelled ones last the longest. Light, heat, and moisture also affect the quality and they have the tendency to absorb smells so always store nuts in the fridge or freezer. This also goes for seeds and nuts like sesame seeds, flaxseeds, and pine nuts.”
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Mayo (and other Condiments)
Ramos also recommends shoppers avoid buying condiments like mayo, ketchup and salad dressing in bulk “unless you’ll be using them right away at a large party or event.” These items, she said, tend to only last six months to a year and “take much longer to get through than you’d expect.”
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Vitamins and Nutritional Supplements
Even stuff that’s good for you may end up being a bad investment. Several consumers wrote to us about why it’s not worth buying vitamins and other supplements in bulk and the experts agree. “Unless you are absolutely certain that you won't mind drinking the same flavor of protein shake every day for the rest of the year, avoid buying the jumbo containers of soy-isolate. Even the most hardcore fitness enthusiasts need variety, and these products do eventually expire,” said Linsey Knerl, better known as The Dealista. “The same can be said for vitamins. Unless you are certain that you'll tolerate them well, don't stock up. Sample a smaller size of packaging for a few weeks, note any side effects, and only proceed with an ‘economy-size’ package if it agrees with you.”
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Knerl also urges parents to refrain from buying diapers in bulk when their children are entering a growth spurt. "I've run into problems when I purchase a large case right before baby grows,” she said. “While you can squeeze some kiddos into a smaller size for a time, it can be a hassle to have purchased a large case and then have them go to the next size - with over 150 diapers in the old size still hanging around.”
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Bleach is another item that you might be inclined to buy in bulk but unfortunately it goes bad over time. According to The Scripps Research Institute, bleach has a shelf life of six months and then “starts to degrade.” Each year you keep the bleach around, it loses 20% of its effectiveness, and you lose that much more of the money you put into it originally.
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I’ll be honest, when I first started cooking in college, I thought it would be a good idea to buy a bunch of spices and pretend like I was a real chef with a fully-stocked kitchen. Of course, by the end of the year, I still had most of my turmeric and paprika left over. Even if you do cook fairly regularly, it might not be a good idea to buy spices in bulk.
Lisa Brisch, a personal chef, wrote to us that you shouldn’t do it “unless you cook ALL THE TIME.” According to Brisch, spices lose their potency in six months to a year. “I cook for a living and rarely buy spices from a warehouse store except whole spices like peppercorns,” she said.
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Unless you like the texture of hard, stale bread, I suggest you don’t buy too many loaves at once. And according to Alejandra Ramos, the cuisine expert, shoppers should not purchase baking powder or yeast (aka leaveners) in bulk. They have a lifespan of about four to six months, so don’t buy more than you would reasonably need in that time.
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Kimberly Peterson is a CostCo lover who admits to going several times a week and runs a Web site called AddictedToCostCo.com. For the past two years, she’s done an extensive price comparison between CostCo and several other stores including Wal-Mart, HEB Grocery and Safeway. In general, she’s found CostCo’s bulk items to be a better deal for the money than buying the same things individually at these stores, but there have been a few exceptions, and one of them is tilapia, specifically the farm-raised variety. When she did the math, she found that consumers could actually get this item for $1 less per unit at Wal-Mart ($4.88 each) than buying it in bulk at CostCo.
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We all know it’s a bad idea to load your fridge with eggs, but if you needed more of a reason not to get them in bulk, consider the price difference. According to Coupons.com, when you do the math, a dozen eggs at CostCo cost $1.49, whereas a dozen eggs at Safeway cost just 99 cents when purchased individually.
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Frozen Foods and Meats
It’s often a great deal for the money to buy a ton of food and meat that you intend to freeze, but as with paper towels and toilet paper, it’s important to assess just how much space you have for your buys. According to Knerl, The Dealista, consumers need to “look realistically at what you can store for long periods of time in the freezer, and weigh the savings against the possibility that you won’t be able to store anything else in there while you use it up.”
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One area where grocery stores sometimes have a leg up on places like CostCo is with store-brand items. According to the price comparison on AddictedToCostco.com, it is actually cheaper to buy the store-brand apple juice at HEB Grocery ($1.79 each) than to buy CostCo’s store-brand apple juice in bulk ($2.33 each.)
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Don’t let your kids sucker you into buying a ton of Lucky Charms or Coco Puffs just because they happen to love it at that moment. “Will the kids want to eat three boxes of their ‘favorite’ cereal in a row? Probably not,” said Jeanette Pavini, Household Savings Expert at Coupons.com. “Pretty soon it won't be their favorite and they will be bored with the same items over and over.”
If you’re going to buy cereal in bulk, try to vary it up a bit.
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Always Bring A Shopping List
Finally, it’s worth noting that, just like when you shop for groceries normally, you should bring a prepared shopping list, because the stakes are even higher when you bulk buy. You could end up being stuck with a crate of some product that is nothing more than an impulse purchase. GetRichSlowly cautions against buying something you don’t actually need just because it’s cheaper in bulk. After all, it doesn’t really count as saving money if you buy a lot of something that you never really needed in the first place.
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