Buy More, Spend Less: How Buying in Bulk Helps You Save Money on Groceries
Why pay $5.99 for one small box of cereal when you could buy four times more for $10?
Buying in bulk can pay off, and big-box warehouse clubs like Sam's Club and Costco, are just one option for bulk purchasing.
For example, many neighborhood grocery stores will offer discounts for buying in bulk, though they typically don't advertise this fact (see below for specifics on how to get the best deals from your local grocer). And “buying clubs,” where friends and family members go in together to cut out the middleman, can help you get great deals directly from farmers and other suppliers.
Ready to bulk up your pantry -- and your bank account?
Why Buy in Bulk?
Buying in bulk is environmentally friendly and cuts out packaging waste. If Americans bought in bulk for many household staples, there would be tens of millions fewer pounds of trash in the landfills each year, according to Portland State researchers.
Buying bulk goods doesn't always mean you have to buy more. Purchasing from bulk bins is a great way to purchase as much or as little as you'd like, and it's a great way to experiment with new ingredients. You can pick up just a pinch of a new spice or a handful of bulgur or millet to try in a recipe. If your experiment is a bust, or if it's a rarely-used item, you're not left with half a bag of it rotting in your cupboard.
While buying in bulk often offers great deals, sometimes bulk items are even more expensive than packaged items, according to research. Spices and coffee are often good deals, with discounts up to 77% in a Portland State study. However, nuts and seeds are typically more expensive in the bulk aisle, and almonds could even be twice the packaged price.
Be sure to compare per-unit prices (per ounce, etc.) to see if you're actually getting a great deal or if you're paying more than you need to. Sometimes a regular store's sale price will be better than a big-box store's deal.
What Should You Buy in Bulk?
What shouldn’t you buy? Don’t give into the temptation of the 144-pack of popsicles, unless of course you're running a summer day camp.
Be sure you're not buying items you don't need (or more than you need), and make sure you have places to store your purchases, especially perishable items. If you get a great deal but half of it rots before you can eat it, you're not saving any money and you’re wasting food.
Read the Labels
Beware of the nutritional content in some packaged and processed bulk foods. Be sure to evaluate fat, calories and sodium in any pre-packaged prepared foods that you might buy, including canned items, mixes and more.
Registered dietician Elaine Magee evaluates some of the best and worst Sam's Club deals in terms of nutrition in this WebMD article.
Ask Your Grocer for Bulk Discounts
While they don't typically advertise this, many grocery stores will offer you a discount if you buy in bulk. At Winco, you can sometimes qualify for a 5% discount when purchasing bulk foods if you pre-order a full case or sack of the item.
Whole Foods also offers discounts on bulk items. If you buy a case of an item, you can get 10% off. Also, if you buy three or more pounds of meat, it’s considered a bulk purchase and you can save 50 cents per pound.
Consider asking your neighborhood grocery store if they'll extend you a discount for purchasing in bulk. You never know if you don't ask.
How to Store Your Bulk Purchases
If you plan and pay for bulk food, make sure you have ways to properly store and preserve the items. You’ll need airtight storage containers (consider investing in a good set or thrifting these items), and a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight to store your goods.
Grains are hard to keep for a long time because of pests. Freezing can help preserve them, and some experts recommend freezing grains for several days a week before storing them in a dark, dry, 60-degree or cooler location (though others say going straight to the dark, cool place is just fine). Five-gallon plastic buckets or Mason jars with tight lids are good storage options.
Consider having a canning bee with friends to preserve fruits and veggies, or blanch and freeze them. Most fruits and vegetables can be frozen for 18 months or so, if properly packaged. Dehydrating is also a good option. If you have large quantities of root vegetables to store, consider constructing your own outdoor root cellar.
Buying meat directly from a farmer can yield huge savings if you purchase a whole or half animal. But make sure you have enough freezer space before you commit.
A good rule of thumb is that one cubic foot of freezer space can hold 30 to 35 pounds of beef. A typical cow produces 450 pounds of meat from the whole animal, or 225 pounds if you buy half a cow. A 250-pound hog will typically equal 144 pounds of cut meat, so plan accordingly.
If you plan on purchasing foods that need freezer space, look into buying a used chest freezer from garage sales, Craigslist or FreeCycle.
Be sure to mark each container with the contents, purchase date and expiration date. Consider making a master list of what you have, when you got it, and when it expires to help with meal planning and to reduce waste.
Cut Out the Middleman With a Buying Club
Another option is to consider joining (or creating) a buying club. These clubs cut out retailers by helping you purchase food directly from farmers or suppliers.
These types of clubs can save participants up to 37% on beef, 57% on russet potatoes, 55% on dried organic pinto beans, and more. Many produce items, including tomatoes, green peppers and blackberries, can be more than 60% off.
Typically, buying clubs will make a bulk purchase once or twice a month, often through a single wholesaler. Distributors generally require a purchase of $500 or more. Typically, the more people in your buying club, then better: it means you can purchase a bigger quantity and get a better deal.
Ready to organize a buying club? Delegate responsibilities such as ordering, scheduling deliveries, sending out reminders, coordinating distribution and other tasks to different group members. You’ll also need a treasurer to collect funds, pay bills and make sure everything is running smoothly. Often, people who take on these duties receive a higher discount within the club for their service.
You'll need a secure location for the supplier to drop off the food, preferably with refrigeration. Someone will typically need to be there to sign off on the delivery and ensure the order is accurate. Some clubs pool resources such as shared freezers and scales for splitting up orders.
A few wholesale distributors that sell to buying clubs throughout the U.S. include Azure Standard, Frontier Natural Products Co-Op and United Buying Clubs. For a more comprehensive directory, check out these resources from Mother Earth News.
Your Turn: Do you buy in bulk? Have you participated in a buying club, or do you stick to the grocery store’s bulk bins?
Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.