How To Not Suck… At Buying In Bulk

Like most folks, we here at Consumerist love a good deal. The problem is that sometimes stuff that appears to be a big money-saver is actually a big money-waster.

Enter the case of bulk purchases.

Conventional wisdom says if you buy more of something in one shot, you’ll get a discount. In many cases, it’s absolutely true. But in others, well, you’re sucked in to sucking at buying in bulk.

Here’s what you need to know.

Actually compare prices
You can’t just assume that a batch of products packaged together — a bulk buy — is cheaper than buying the items individually. It just ain’t so, and Consumerist readers have seen the fuzzy math time and time again, especially at Target, though it’s a problem at other retailers, too.

If you want to be a bulk purchaser, you need to invest time in research. Yes, research. Boots on the ground research.

Sure, it’s time-consuming, but you should spend a day surveying prices at the stores where you might buy bulk items rather than make assumptions.

Make a list of the items you might buy in bulk, or the ones you know you’ve seen at your favorite retailers, and visit each store to compare. Write down the prices for the bulk buys, and also write down the cost of buying the same item as a single. Then, do the same search online, and make sure to take shipping costs into account.

Do the math
My math capabilities aren’t stellar, but this one is simple. Divide the price of the bulk package by the number of individual items in the package. For example, if there are 12 paper towel rolls for $9.99, each one comes to a smidge over 83 cents a roll. (Admission: I used my calculator to be sure. No shame in that, she told herself.)

The bulk math is a tool you can use for any kind of purchase.

Then take that $.83 figure and compare it to what you’d pay for a single roll.

Then do the math for a three-pack or a six-pack of the same item, and bingo — you know if bulk pricing for that item, from that store, or which bulk item from which store, is worth your while.

If you have a coupon for the item, remember you’ll save more per unit if you use the coupon for a non-bulk purchase.

Be realistic about storage
No matter how great a deal is on any product, you first need to make sure you have space to store the items.

If you’re in a small apartment, you might want to keep your bulk buying to a minimum — unless you have other small apartment friends who want to split the bargain with you. Or, get creative. No one says you can’t store extra toilet paper next to your dishes in the kitchen cabinets if you have the space.

If you have a larger home with a basement or a garage, or even a second freezer, buy away if the price is right.

Be realistic about expiration dates
We know that misunderstanding “use-by” dates and plain-old expiration dates leads to lots of waste.

But still, bulk food can go bad, so use common sense when you buy. Those delicious looking loaves of bread that you can get three-for-one and those half-priced veggies aren’t worth the extra money if you can’t eat it all before it spoils.

There are times when bulk perishables make sense. If you buy a gazillion tomatoes, for example, and you plan to head home to make a few jumbo pots of sauce that you can freeze, that’s great. We don’t advise trying to freeze the tomatoes. Okay, well, you can freeze tomatoes, but that’s one bulk buy on which I’ll take a pass.

Bulk Specifics
So what is a good deal? Like we said, you have to shop around and do the math. Here’s the lowdown on some common items sold in bulk packaging.

Meat: When all that uncooked protein is on sale, you can save a bundle. Just make sure you have a plan to prepare it, or you have a very large freezer. But you can’t just chuck the meat in the freezer in the supermarket’s packaging. Take some time to store your mass meat the right way.

Paper products: It’s one of the most commonly bulk-packaged products, and it all depends on the math. Just don’t count on the bulk packaging as a promise of lower per-unit pricing.

Diapers: The pricing gods don’t seem to have fuzzy math when it comes to caring for a baby’s bottom. These are almost always cheaper when you buy in bulk, but we repeat: do the math.

Alcohol: When you’re done changing those diapers, you may want an adult beverage. And the pricing gods do have some sympathy, it seems, because alcohol is another slam dunk when you buy in bulk, and when you do it at a warehouse store, the store’s big buying power translates into even bigger discounts for customers.

Condoms: If the diapers haven’t scared you away from sex, or if the alcohol has made you more open to some, you can get a deal on condoms when you buy in bulk. For example, a pack of three Trojan-Enz condoms sells for about $5.99, or about $1.99 per condom, but a 36-pack of the same brand can be found on Amazon.com for only $11.95, or about 33 cents per condom. And expiration dates are usually four or five years out, so we’ll let you be the judge on whether yours will go bad or not.

Prescriptions: If you take any regular prescriptions, ask your doctor for a prescription for a 90-day supply rather than just 30 days. You’ll save on co-pays, and you’ll find some pharmacies have a cheaper per-pill price for bulk buys. Also, note that you don’t need to be a member of Costco nor Sam’s Club to get prescriptions filled at their pharmacies.

Big-ticket items: If you’re traveling and need train or plane tickets, or if you’re buying seats for a sporting event or Broadway (or other) show, you can find group discounts. Hotels will do the same. You can save 15 percent or more.

Insurance: It’s a different form of bulk pricing. If you insure your home and your car with the same company, you’ll get a discount.

Some Closing Thoughts
If you go bulk, just make sure you don’t buy big for an item you’ve never tried before. It really would suck to have six sticks of a deodorant that doesn’t work for you.

And if and when you choose to buy in bulk, just be prepared for occasional funny looks from your checkout clerk.

Have a topic you’d like to see covered in How To Not Suck? Or maybe you’re an expert who would like to share your insight with Consumerist readers? Send us a note at notsuck@consumerist.com.

You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at NJ.com, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.

PREVIOUSLY ON HOW TO NOT SUCK:
How To Not Suck At Planning Your Wedding, Part 5: Spending Your Wedding Cash
How To Not Suck At Planning Your Wedding, Part 4: The Honeymoon
How To Not Suck At Planning Your Wedding, Part 3: The Costly Little Extras
How To Not Suck At Planning Your Wedding, Part 2: The Stuff People Pay Too Much For
How To Not Suck At Planning Your Wedding, Part 1: The Most Expensive Steps
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How To Not Suck… At Merging Your Money When You Marry
How To Not Suck… At Borrowing For College
How To Not Suck… At Saving For College
How To Not Suck… At Pre-Paying For Your Funeral
How To Not Suck… At Making Financial New Year’s Resolutions
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How To Not Suck… At Saving For The Holidays
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How To Not Suck… At Home Inspections
How To Not Suck… At Understanding Credit Card Rewards
How To Not Suck… At Getting Ready For Tax Season
How To Not Suck… At Picking A Retirement Plan
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How To Not Suck… At Getting Out Of Debt
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  1. theoriginalcatastrophegirl says:

    - keep a list and actually check things off it/check what you have on hand before you go shopping – i recently gave away some extra worcestershire sauce because i didn’t realize i had bought two 2-packs a couple of weeks apart. it’s easy to forget what you are getting when you load up a cart and i didn’t check it off my list so when i was at the store again, it went in the cart again. not that my friend minded free groceries!

    - rotate! if you have a large food storage area, or you keep things in weird places (cans under the bed or the top shelf of the guest room closet for example) make sure you follow the FIFO rule. first in, first out. don’t keep pushing cans of tomato sauce in front of the old cans or you will eventually find yourself with a can of 6 year old tomato sauce that just kept getting missed and is probably still good, but makes you cringe to think about.

  2. SingleMaltGeek says:

    Good advice, but I wouldn’t use rolls as the unit for paper towels, as the size of the rolls can vary greatly from brand to brand, or even within brands. In my experience they all have the square inches/feet per roll on the packaging, so as long as you have your calculator out, give it a few more taps and calculate the area per package, then divide the price by that number instead.

    • theoriginalcatastrophegirl says:

      yes! exactly this. and for myself, i also am ok with paying a few cents more per roll to get the half sized sheets because that’s all i usually need and the roll lasts much longer for me that way. i still end up saving money because i less square footage per use.

      • SingleMaltGeek says:

        Oh, definitely! We love the smaller sheets in our household…

        …in fact, I’m so cheap frugal that I often tear just the corner off of a sheet for just a drop of something, or hang the sheet over something to dry to be used again if it was just used for wiping up water on the counter. :)

  3. Cara says:

    It’s not specifically mentioned in the article above, but over-the-counter medicines are also a great deal at Costco.

    A 45-count box of Zyrtec costs about $18 at Walmart, or $.40 a pill. The Kirkland generic is the same price… but you get 365 pills (a full year’s supply), which breaks down to about $.05 a pill.

    Claritin is about $20 for a 70 count supply ($.28 a pill). At Costco, it’s $10 for a 365 pill supply ($.03 a pill).

    For something like allergy pills, where you know you are going to take them frequently (generally once a day), you are going to use them before they expire. They routinely push coupons for each of those, making it even cheaper.

    Their other medicines – ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen, vitamins, etc., are all just as cheap. I’ve found the Kirkland generics to be cheaper than any other generics by far.

    • Mapache says:

      Yeah I agree with buying generic (kirckland) it’s pretty good specially on apaer products.
      Also movie tickets, costco sells a pack of 2 for 16 bucks (regal and AMC), ticket prices at the theater are 11 dollars (in FL).
      Condoms are sooo more cheaper at costco but they only have durex if you like trjoans you need to go to Sam’s club problem witht he condoms is that is a variety pack and more often than not you get about 10 of the ones that are not well liked.