This article is part of the Grocery Budget Challenge series. See the Introduction here.
A great way to save money on groceries is to buy in bulk. Typically, larger quantities sold as a single item have a lower per unit price. For example, a 6 pack of tissue boxes will likely cost less per box than a box of tissues sold separately by the same brand. Similarly, grocery stores will price larger packages of fresh meat at a lower price per weight than smaller packages of the exact same meat. That means that you get a better deal and save money over the long term by buying more in one shot. For this reason, purchasing a tub of yogurt is more economical (and environmentally-friendly) than purchasing individual portion-sized yogurt cups.
However, if you’re not careful, you could easily end up going over budget or wasting money and food. I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way and multiple times. I didn’t want to give up on shopping in bulk altogether and I certainly wasn’t willing to give up my Costco membership, so I created some rules for myself. (See my No-Buy List here, for some general grocery shopping rules.)
Rules for Buying Groceries in Bulk
You should purchase a bulk item ONLY if it meets ALL of the following criteria:
- You actually need it. In other words, you will actually use it and it falls under one of the following categories: food, toiletries, cleaning supplies. Drinks do not count as a necessity, because beverages often contain a lot of sugar among other unhealthy ingredients. It doesn’t matter how good the deal is, if you don’t actually need it, then you’d be wasting money on it.
- You don’t already have it or something similar. Make sure that you don’t already have the product (or a suitable alternative) at home and don’t replenish an item until you’ve completely run out of it. For example, I won’t buy tea (no matter what the new flavour is) until I’ve used up every last tea bag that I own. Similarly, I only keep 3 types of dried legumes at one time, so I wouldn’t purchase kidney beans if I already had black beans, red lentils, and split peas. This will prevent food waste, decrease clutter and hence, reduce stress.
- For non-perishable items:
- You can finish it well before the expiration date. If your products go bad before you’re able to use them, then you will end up wasting money. Keeping an eye on the expiration dates of your food will also ensure that you make plans to use them.
- For fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat:
- You can freeze it from fresh or cooked. If you’re purchasing fresh ingredients in bulk, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to finish them all within a week. Even if you can, most people don’t enjoy eating the same thing every day. So choose ingredients that can be frozen or plan to do some batch cooking and make dishes that are freezer friendly. Keep in mind that frozen foods should be consumed within 6 months.
- OR You will use it all before it goes bad. If you’re purchasing fresh ingredients that can’t be frozen, then make sure that you have a plan in place to use them all up before they wilt or expire. Food wasted is money wasted.
- It’s actually a good deal. Just because an item is being sold in bulk, doesn’t mean that it’s a good deal. It’s important to do your homework and know what a truly good price is for the items that you need. When deciding between two similar products, look for or calculate the per unit price (e.g. cost per kg or mL) to see which one costs less. Remember to always keep your budget in mind. Sometimes you have to spend more per unit and buy less in quantity in order to stay within your grocery budget. Staying on budget is often more important than getting a better deal.
- Wait for sales. When possible, wait for sales before buying anything in bulk, so that you can get the best deal. It also helps to know store specific policies and codes. For example, at Costco, not all sales are advertised. If the price of an item ends in .97 that means that the price has been discounted (sometimes the discount is minimal, but other times it’s significant). If the price tag has an * in the upper right hand corner, that means that the item has been discontinued. When seen in combination, it usually means that it’s a good deal. Keep your eyes open for an upcoming post on how to navigate deals.
- It’s healthy. No matter how great of a deal you’re getting financially, consider it a waste of money to buy something that is bad for your health. Try to avoid processed foods in general. If you’re going to buy something that’s processed, be sure to choose wisely by looking at the nutrition label and avoiding products that are high in sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colouring and flavouring.