Buying in Bulk

We joined Costco last summer. Going there as a dweller of a 1500 square foot urban apartment, featuring a very small freezer at the bottom of my refrigerator, always struck me as a torment Dante should have anticipated for the acquisitive, yet semi-organized. You want what you cannot have. You constantly weigh whether 3 lbs of organic ground beef is a better use of your limited freezer space than a 3-pack of frozen pizzas.

Those days, however, are over now. As a near-rustic suburban dweller, my pantry alone is now the size of my old kitchen. I have not one but several closets. Buying a giant pack of paper towels, and then using them as I need them, is actually an option. And we have more bathrooms that need toilet paper! Adding to the blissed-out factor, when my husband and I ventured on Saturday to the King of Prussia Costco, my mother-in-law was babysitting. So there was no check except overall spending on loading up the cart.

Or shall I say carts. We wound up with two of them, and properly stimulated the eastern Pennsylvania economy. Now, a few days removed from the orgy of bulk-buying, I have been thinking about why we buy what we buy. The lure of the deep discount must provoke a very strong reaction in the human soul. Spending money is profligate. But buying diaper wipes at 25% off — now that’s smart. Because you need them anyway, right?

Except, knowing that we had thousands of diaper wipes at home, I let Jasper and Sammy entertain themselves in the backseat with several wipes during a road trip on Monday. They already have rash-guard shirts, but Costco had several kinds too, and if they’re at Costco they must be cheap… right? The net result of all this is more stuff — more things that must be processed and moved and consumed. Yes, we will drink the milk and eat the yogurt. The peppers, on the other hand, will probably go bad, and as with the wipes, abundance encourages a certain wastefulness. At times that feels nice and at times not so much. I’ve already nixed buying diapers at Costco because I don’t like Huggies (the brand they carry), and if you really want to experience torment, try using a product you don’t like for a month because you bought in bulk and now you have it and have to get rid of it.

I assume that, eventually, my kid-in-a-candy-store buying spree will die down and I will get over the fact that I have space to put stuff. But it is fascinating to see the psychology at play — why we convince ourselves we need bigger cars and bigger houses in order to transport and store all this cheap stuff. When, in reality, the economics would be better if we had smaller houses and smaller cars… and paid full retail price.

Do you buy in bulk?

15 thoughts on “Buying in Bulk

  1. Not a buy-in-bulk fan. Partly because of the temptation to buy things you don’t really need because they are bargains, but also because when you pay today for things you won’t use till October, you are basically floating Costco a loan. If you are using a credit card that doesn’t get paid off every month, you are actually LOSING money, and even if you use cash, you are losing the use of the money for other things right now. Factor in how much of the fresh food you buy in huge quantities (I’m here, anyway…) will end up going to waste because it rots befor eyou eat it, and it’s a losing proposition.

    1. @Susan- I am not sure if Costco actually takes credit cards. We always pay by debit, so no interest involved. And these days, cash in the bank earns less than inflation. You may be better off spending it! I say that partly in jest, of course, but it’s not total BS. The point about produce going bad is one I go back and forth on. I’m trying to increase my (and the rest of the family’s) consumption of fruit and vegetables. When we have them in the house, we eat them. When we don’t, we don’t. So one trick is to overbuy produce, so we’re constantly thinking “geez, I need to eat more of this fruit so it doesn’t go bad.” Yes, some of it will go bad anyway. But if we’ve eaten more of it in the process, well, overspending on produce beats overspending on health care for chronic diseases later on…

  2. I love love love Costco. But, yes, you must be careful when shopping there. We have learned over the years (and from asking our parents), what is a good deal and what isn’t. We love to buy cheese, meat, chicken, lunch meat, coffee, coffee creamer, milk, eggs, yogurt, and frozen stuff. We have a Costco Amex, which offers rewards, and we pay off each month, so no worries there. Also, Costco has great deals on kid’s clothes and seasonal stuff (we outfitted our entire back porch with Costco furniture; people stopped us to tell us they bought that same furniture years ago, and they still love it). Plus, Costco usually has TONS of samples 😉

    1. @Sarah – Sounds like you’ve got a good system figured out. We’re still trying to figure out what is a good deal and what is not. My shopping strategy is all over the map right now, as we also have a Trader Joe’s nearby — which is another of my favorite stores. So what do I buy there, what do I buy at costco, what do I buy at the little supermarket that is half a mile away, and how much time does this take me?

  3. What I have learned is you have to go with a list and buy nothing that is not on that list. Otherwise you’ll actually end up spending more on groceries over time than you would have otherwise. I’m thinking about cancelling our membership once my daughter is out of diapers.

    Also – a lot of other discount places like Target have as good or almost as good prices as the warehouse clubs, with larger quantities available than the regular grocery store, but not the absolutely gigantic quantities at Costco/BJ’s/Sam’s Club.

    1. @Erin – oh, we’ve been discovering the wonder of Target and Wal-Mart as well. It’s amazing, coming from Manhattan, to see the price differentials. On the other hand, given that people spend the bulk of their income on housing and cars, I do think the economics are better to have a smaller house and smaller car, and not stock up on stuff. It takes a lot of times of saving 50 cents per roll of paper towels to equal the additional real estate costs of bigger closets.

  4. I can see how it was exciting for you guys the first time, but shopping at Costco’s is not a great date and spending money isn’t really either at least in my opinion … My husband occasionally has roped me into that as a date Sat. but I do not want to go grocery shopping as a date now that I have kids. Sex, OK. A fancy dinner out OK. A movie out OK b/c I’m sorry but with kids under 3 you are not watching your movies at home even if they are chick flicks or whatever. But grocery shopping? Buying toilet paper? I still say Peapod and grocery delivery is a tremendous deal. Good for your marriage, great for your career!
    For wipes OK and diapers OK it is much much cheaper…but they sell everything in bulk so you spend a lot of money there… I like to buy produce there if I am out and have time… but I can also do OK buying whatever produce is on sale at Peapod.com blueberries right now on there are $2 a pint and I got 6 ears of corn for $1 delivered on Sunday for a cookout …You can search everything on line so no wandering the aisles … I buy organic chocolate milk boxes at Sam’s Club adn they are a LOT cheaper than peapod — probably 40% cheaper, saving us like $10-$20 a month on chocolate milk boxes and o course my time on sippy cups which are the bain of the working mother’s existence.. hate those things. Also I do not think that

  5. Laura,

    When we first moved to the suburbs, I too was in love with Big Box stores. I bought enormous quantities of produce and enough paper towels to last a lifetime. It seemed like a productive use of my time . . . until I calculated how much time it took to go to Sam’s Club for a stock-up trip.

    Now that I’m a seasoned suburbanite, I’ve gone back to my Manhattan ways: I order all my supplies on Amazon and Diapers.com, and all of my groceries online. I think it saves me a huge amount of time (and money, actually). I blogged about my love affair with Amazon Subscribe n’ Save here: http://www.doing-too-much.com/2011/04/saving-time-with-amazon-subscribe-save.html.

    There’s an interesting NYTimes article on the topic here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/05/your-money/05money.html?_r=2&pagewanted=2.

    1. @Nihara- Thanks for sharing these links. We will probably order some things on subscription (like diapers, given that I won’t buy the ones at Costco). Of course there is also a certain element of novelty and entertainment with Costco at the moment. But I’m guessing I’ll get over that soon.

    1. @Theresa- Thanks for the link! Yes, you always run the risk that you re-build your own Sam’s Club in the basement if you’re not careful as you stock up 🙂

  6. When I first entered a Costco, I made a list of items I might purchase and recorded the unit prices, then compared them to my local grocery store. I would weigh the cost savings against the likelihood that I would use up the product to decide what I might purchase. Plus adding in the annual fee of course. Now I don’t find that it’s cost-effective for me (plus I now live in a much smaller space so there really isn’t room to buy in bulk).

    1. @Emily – yes the small space, plus buying for fewer people, makes it less cost effective. As you buy for more people, the economics may change (5-6 people all making a sandwich with 2 slices of bread will pretty much get you through a loaf in a meal).

  7. I keep my BJ’s purchases in check by sticking to my list. I can get my favorite yogurt quarts for $2 less each than at my supermarket. My husband uses frozen blueberries everyday and they are much cheaper per pound too. I have not found that the produce is worth it, but peeled/deveined shrimp are. I go only every 6-8 weeks. My mom, sister-in-law and I all share a membership, so I only pay around $15 a year.

  8. I go to Costco 3-4 times/yr. If you have the space to store stuff (basements are present in most of the midwest), you save time and gas as well as the price differential on the groceries. I usually buy beef (choice grade), frozen chicken breasts, kitchen trash bags, large cans of clams (our favorite clam chowder recipe uses a 51 oz can) and cheese, totalling ~$100-$150.

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