Buying in Bulk: A Common Misconception of Frugality


A note on “buying in bulk”: It’s a great idea, and I do it myself, selectively, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Growing up in a home with a severely limited budget for anything, including food, buying large amounts of any one item, regardless of the long-term savings, would have meant no budget for any other foods. I still run into this issue with the “big box” stores.

You Can’t Eat Toilet Paper

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Saving 50% on giant bags of beans, rice (or toilet paper) is great, but if it takes half of my weekly budget to buy those 3 items, it’s just not a reasonable option. A lot of folks are on such a ridiculously small budget, that it becomes a cash-flow issue, and the only option is to find the best deals on the amount they need THIS week, and, believe me, I get that.

In this situation, I recommend trying to set aside a small portion of the budget towards these items, even just a couple of dollars a week. When you’ve saved enough to buy that 50lb bag of beans, do it! Then, start saving for the next bulk item.

This is not to speak of the “bulk food” section, which is exactly the opposite situation, in that you can purchase as much, or as little, as you need.

As we talked about in “The Home Chef: Transforming the American Kitchen”, you can add a lot of variety to your meal planning, for very little money (and save on storage space), by sometimes just buying the exact amount of a dry-good or spice, that you need for that recipe.

This is especially true of ingredients that you’re not likely to use up in a timely manner.

Food You Don’t Eat Costs More

This is a trap that many of us fall in to, including me, and it’s the main reason I stopped buying produce at Costco, unless I was using it all at one time.

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Let’s say I buy 4lbs of grapes at the box store for $6.00 ($1.50/lb), and they’re $1.99 per pound at the produce store. In theory, I just saved two bucks, right?

Woo-Hoo, good job me!

However, if I get through the first 2lbs, and then the grapes get pushed to the back of the fridge, or I leave for the weekend and forget about them, or I just eat them slower than I thought I would, and the next thing I know, my beautiful bargain grapes have grown soft and fuzzy.

I paid $1.50 a pound for the whole container, but I paid $3.00 a pound for the grapes that I actually ate. Which means I paid 33% MORE for the bulk container than I would have by just buying a pound or two at the produce store!

Have a Plan!

This is why the most important element of saving $$$ with bulk foods is to Have a Plan!

Plan your meals and snacks, before you shop (or let us do it for you), and stick to that plan! Food waste is at epidemic proportions in America, driving up the cost of our groceries, wasting our resources, and filling our landfills. Be part of the solution.

Bulk1And finally, make a list…and stick to it! The bulk food section is a cornucopia of new ingredients, and the imaginative home chef can quickly fill their basket (and empty their wallet) in the excitement of trying new things. Guilty as charged! The most proactive step you can take to keep your inner “Iron Chef” on a leash, is knowing what you’re going to buy before you walk through the doors, and buy ONLY what’s on your list.

Am I saying don’t experiment with new foods? Of course, I’m not (I think you know me better than that!)

I’m a sucker for a new shape of pasta, and a variety of beans I’ve never tried, of some exotic style of rice, and I encourage you to be as well. BUT (and I always have a big butt…) make them part of your plan!

When I find something that’s looks interesting, and that I want to try, I jot a note down on my list to add it to my NEXT shopping trip. This ensures:

  • I’ll have a chance to research the item, and learn more about it, and if the price a good value.
  • I’ll have a chance to make sure I have ROOM for it at home.
  • I can find a recipe or two using it and make it part of my PLAN.
  • I stay on budget.

By the way, I have a great printable grocery shopping list in PDF, here. Print a few copies and stick them to the fridge so you can make a quick note when you find you’re running low, or are out of one of your staples.

So, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the bulk food section is the golden ticket to frugality. The savvy home chef knows how to use their tools, and when to (or not to.)

Bulk shopping can be a great way to save money on our food budgets, or they can be a cupboard (and landfill) stuffing money pit.

It’s up to us.

~Chef Perry

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5 thoughts on “Buying in Bulk: A Common Misconception of Frugality

  1. Excellent! I would add that having a price book -or a phenomenal memory- as a reference is on my list of essentials for frugal shopping. I am willing to substitute a pantry meal or eat breakfast for dinner if it affords me a little flexibility when I come across a “stock up” price. After 25 years of meal-prep, I know how much I am willing to pay for milk, eggs, chicken, ground beef, etc.I know that stocking up is a luxury not afforded to all, but it is more attainable with planning and a price book.

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