When to buy in bulk

Strategies for warehouse club shopping

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
A shopper buys paper towels at Costco in Mountain View, Calif. Buy paper towels and other nonperishable items in bulk; save perishables for your regular grocery store .

One of the big tricks of shopping successfully at a warehouse store (I use Sam’s Club because it’s the only one reasonably close to me) is knowing when to buy something in the bulk sizes available there. It’s not always the best move.

For example, our local Sam’s Club often carries these giant 24 packs of sandwich buns. I’ve learned the hard way that if I buy one of these packs for just my family, we’re either eating nothing but sandwiches for several meals in the near future or they’re going to either get very hard or moldy. On the other hand, if I’m having guests over, is it worth it to buy one of these?

The same thought process repeats itself over and over again as I shop there. Am I going to be able to use all of this before it goes bad?

Flour. Lemon juice. Carrots. Watermelon. Pretzels. Brown sugar. Broccoli. Cherries. The list goes on and on. (Of course, there are the things you can pretty much store forever, like laundry detergent or dishwashing detergent or toilet paper or paper towels.)

To put it simply, if you’re not careful, your cart can quickly fill up at a warehouse club. Warehouse clubs are full of products that you use at a very good price point per unit. A cup of detergent at the warehouse club is almost always cheaper than a cup of detergent at the local grocery store.

Similarly, if you’re not careful, the stuff you buy at a warehouse club can go bad before you use it, wasting your time, your space, and especially your money. Take a pound of grapes. The price per pound at a warehouse club is less than it is at your local grocery store. The problem is that at the warehouse club, you have to buy five pounds of grapes to get that per-unit price. If you don’t use those grapes, then the leftover grapes go to waste and you end up wasting money.

It’s a balancing act, and it’s one that requires you to be in touch with what you actually need, not what you think you need or that you merely want.

Here are some tactics I use for shopping at a warehouse club.

First, I tend to buy the vast majority of my non-perishable items there. Trash bags, paper towels, toilet paper, shampoo, soap, razor blades, light bulbs – these things are almost always far cheaper at a warehouse club than at a grocery store. The only drawback is that you do have to have a place to store this stuff. We store much of our excess in the garage.

For my perishable food items, I rely entirely on my grocery list. Of course, this grocery list is based on a meal plan that accounts for the number of guests we intend to have at each meal throughout the week.

To make it simple, If we’re using the same item multiple times during the week or we’re having a number of guests, then I will buy perishable food items at a warehouse club. Otherwise, I just won’t buy it there. An item is not a bargain if you end up having to throw half of it away because it’s stale, rotten, or otherwise unusable.

My usual shopping plan for the week involves making a “warehouse club” list and making a “regular” list. Items that I’m sure I’ll be able to thoroughly use if I buy in bulk go on the “warehouse club” list. Everything else goes on the “regular” list.

I don’t even take the “regular” list into the warehouse club. Inevitably, if I do, I wind up buying something in bulk that I shouldn’t be buying in bulk. When I buy something in bulk that I shouldn’t be buying in bulk, I often end up wasting the excess and losing money.

To put it simply, I make the bulk-buying decision on each item before I ever go to the store. This way, I’m never caught in the trap of convincing myself to buy something in bulk that will go to waste. This keeps money in my pocket and space in my cupboard.

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