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Buying in Bulk: Saving by Stocking Up

'Bulking up' on regularly purchased items like groceries can be an excellent way to spend less over time, but actually saving money through buying in bulk requires some effort and thought. Bulking up normally makes the most sense with groceries (e.g., food, paper goods, cleaning supplies), but they can also be helpful with other items. Remember that bulking up isn't just a way to save money; it can also be a great way to save time because you avoid having to buy the item again for a while.

Below are steps you should consider taking to really save by bulking up, along with some cautions to be mindful of with this approach.

How to Bulk Up for Savings

1. You must know prices.

There's just no substitute for this. If you don't know whether those paper towels that a store has on sale are actually a good deal, you're at risk of either bulking up when the price isn't good or passing up a fantastic deal. You don't need to remember the exact prices of every item you buy, but you should at least have a good idea of what would be a low price. Writing these down in a little pocket notebook that you take with when you shop or recording them on your phone can be helpful. This will take some time at first, but you'll probably be surprised at how quickly your memory of prices will improve.

And don't assume that all the prices at warehouse club store like Costco or Sam's Club are great. Sometimes they are, but they often aren't (see examples here and here). We have a Costco membership, but we've found that we can often buy items for significantly less elsewhere.

2. Only bulk up on items that you know you'll use.

It does you no good to buy a dozen jars of spaghetti sauce at a fantastic price if you never eat them. But if you do make this mistake, at least donate the items while they're still usable. Don't try to fool yourself into thinking that you'll eventually consume them only to eventually throw them away due to spoilage.

3. Consider 'best by' dates.

This is often less of an issue than most people believe it to be, but it's something to be think about it. The 'best by' date printed on most food items is the latest date that the manufacturer or a government agency says the product will still be at optimal quality. With the exception of infant formula, the date printed on food items in the U.S. is NOT an expiration date. Many food items are still perfectly good to eat beyond the 'best by' date, and foods like fresh meat can be frozen right up to the 'best by' date, kept for months, and then thawed and cooked without any issue. Canned foods, in particular, are safe to eat pretty much indefinitely as long as the can itself is fine.

However, you need to be aware of how much you typically consume of something before bulking up on it. Most non-perishable foods will retain their quality for months at least. Bulking up on fresh vegetables probably isn't a good strategy (unless you're going to use them to make a big pot of soup that you'll then freeze), but fresh meat can be frozen for many months.

4. Consider your storage space.

You obviously need to have somewhere to put your deals. This is especially important for items that need to be refrigerated or frozen.

5. Bulk up on screaming deals!

When most people see an item that they buy on sale, even a very good one, they might buy one or two more of it than they typically would. This makes no sense! When you come across a great price on an item, buy as much of it as you can consume before it spoils and space allows!

My favorite cereal is Honey Bunches of Oats with almonds. The typical price for a 12 oz. box at our local grocery store is $3.99. But about every two months, it goes on sale for $1.99 and sometimes as low as $1.69, and when it does, we buy at least two months' worth, enough to last until the next sale.

When the 93% lean ground beef that we prefer, normally priced at $12-$15 for a three pound pack, goes on sale for $8.97, we buy as much as we have space for in our upright freezer and separate it into one pound quantities placed into plastic bags before freezing it.

many stacks of toilet paper

Earlier this year, we were shopping at a Fred Meyer, a superstore owned by Kroger, and noticed that six-packs of our preferred toilet paper, Quilted Northern, were on a closeout sale for $2.99 (the actual price we paid was lower, as noted below, but we didn't check our receipt, which you should always do). Previously, $4.99 was the best sale price we had seen for it, so we bought six packs. As soon as we got home, we realized that we should have bought much more of it. However, the Fred Meyer location near us that we regularly shop at didn't offer the same deal, so we chalked it up as a lesson learned.

When we happened to visit the location where we got the great deal about two weeks later, we noticed that it was still on sale for the same $2.99. But when we bought it, we discovered that it was part of another sale, and the price was actually an incredible $1.99! That's only 33 cents per mega roll! We asked the staff if there was any limit on how much we could buy (following the great toilet paper run of 2020, they had limits for quite a while on how much you could buy), and they said no. Altogether, we bought 66 of these six-packs, nearly 400 rolls! We stored it using part of the space in the closet in our guest bedroom and estimate that it we won't need to buy more for nearly four years. The typical price is currently $6.99, and it's often higher than that.

Many might think that we're crazy for buying almost 400 rolls of toilet paper, but my retort would be why? It's not going to spoil, we had the space to store it, and unless we die first, we'll surely use it all. Why would we pay $4.99, $6.99, or more rather than $1.99? I estimate that we saved at least $250, possibly more given that inflation is rampant these days. And we don't have to even think about buying toilet paper again for years.

But Don't Consume Your Savings!

Bulking up can be a very effective means of reducing your spending, but you need to be mindful of an important aspect of consumption: humans tend to consume more of something that they believe they have a lot of. This applies to everything from money to mayonnaise to macaroni. One study of over 6,000 people found that they consumed 12-29% more food when they were exposed to large rather than small packages. This additional consumption could easily offset the savings from bulking up, never mind the negative health effects of eating too much. Being consciously aware of this tendency may help to reduce it. But bulking up on items that we know we're liable to overconsume (we know better than too buy many bags of Chex Mix Muddy Buddies!) is probably not wise, even if we would save money by doing so.

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