How To

Buying in Bulk: When Do You Really Save at the Warehouse Club?

Whether you shop at a warehouse club, supermarket or drug store, buying in bulk can save you a lot of money.  But locking in those savings can be tricky – especially if you overstock and end up throwing things away.

Knowing what to stock up on and when to buy large quantities will prevent you from having to do that. It may sound too obvious, but buying perishables in bulk, for example, would also require you to eat them before they go bad – or have enough room in your freezer to store for longer periods of time.

Here’s what it makes sense to buy in bulk – and when you will likely be better off going to the supermarket for a smaller-sized portion.

Meat & Poultry

If you have enough freezer space, buying meat and poultry in bulk can save you a lot of money. Frozen at 0 degrees, those items can last as long as 12 months – and can solve the problem of having to dash out to the store to get dinner. (For more specifics on freezer storage time, check out these USDA’s recommendations based on the type of meat and whether it’s raw or cooked.)

But take note: while the warehouse retailers’ everyday prices are cheaper than those at the local supermarket, if you have the patience and willingness to play the coupon game, you can save more at the grocery store, says Rachel Singer Gordon, author of “Point, Click, and Save: Mashup Mom’s Guide to Saving and Making Money Online.”

Costco and Sam’s Club, for example, don’t take coupons, so if you wait for a sale at the grocery store and buy multiples of the item on sale, you can end up saving more.  It’s best to have an idea of how much meat you can store and how much you go through in a month before buying in bulk — especially if your freezer space is limited.

Fruits, Fresh Veggies & Other Perishables

Meat and poultry can easily be frozen, but storing fruits, fresh veggies and other perishables like milk and eggs for an extended period of time can get dicey. The huge bin of strawberries at Costco may be tantalizing, but if you can’t freeze or eat all of them before they go bad, you may want to think twice about buying in bulk.

“With perishables unless you are having a party or have a large freezer, forget it,” say Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University. “Perishables require more planning or more space.”

Yarrow, who gets paid to study consumer’s refrigerators, says that over and over she has seen people who buy potatoes in bulk and wind up throwing them away — erasing their entire savings.

Not to mention that buying perishables in bulk could bulk up your waistline. After all, you may force down that last baked potato out of guilt.

If you are sure all of the healthy fruits and veggies will get eaten, though, shopping at a warehouse club will save you a lot of money compared to a grocery store.

Non-Perishable Food

Cereal, canned foods and other non-perishable items that have a long shelf life are ideal products to buy in bulk. Yet again, you don’t necessarily need to buy them at Costco or Sam’s Club to save the most. Before you take a trip to the warehouse store to stock up on Cheerios, though, check the supermarket circulars or wait until the cereal goes on sale to really save money, says Singer Gordon.

“You’ll get a better deal at the grocery store if you wait long enough,” says Singer Gordon. She says every ten to 12 weeks the grocery store will sell a product at a deep discount, with the idea that getting the customer in will result in more spending. If you wait until the cereal is on sale and use a coupon for each box, you can end up saving more than buying a pallet of cereal at the warehouse.

Paper Goods

Paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates, q-tips and any other paper goods are the mother of all products to stock up on and the warehouse retailers are the place to get them.

One caveat: you’ll need the space in your house to store a year’s worth of paper towels, not to mention some discipline since having more makes it much easier to use more. “People that live in areas that have larger spaces will definitely save a lot of money,” says Yarrow. “They don’t go bad and they don’t go out of style so [buying in bulk] makes sense.”

Toiletries

Warehouse retailers may place lower price tags on toiletries, but the drug stores often run sales and give discounts that make buying your shampoo or toothpaste a better deal. If you buy multiples of an item at the drug store and combine sales with coupons from the store and manufacturer, you could end up getting toiletries for free. “If you look at the ads, every week something goes on sale and could be nearly free after the money back coupons,” says Singer Gordon.

And buying in bulk may not make sense unless it’s a product you are confident you will use.  “Consumers buy big huge bottles of something they haven’t tried and don’t like it,” says Yarrow. And don’t forget about product expiration dates. Buying a huge tub of facial cream will save you nothing if you end up throwing away half of it after it’s expired.

Baby Products

Since the whole idea of buying in bulk is to save money on things you use all the time, what better item to stock up on than diapers? Diapers, especially if you have a newborn, are unlikely to go to waste. (Unless you overstock on sizes N through 2, that is: the little ones tend to outgrow them too fast!) Same with formula and baby wipes.

With these items, hitting a warehouse retailer, Wal-Mart or Target will save you more than going to the grocery or drug store, though as in many other cases, if you have enough in stock to wait for a sale at the drugstore and you have a coupon, you could save even more.

If you buy a box of size 4 Huggies diapers at Costco (200 count), you can expect to pay 20 to 25 cents a diaper. At Walgreens, the jumbo-size packages would generally have you pay around 35 to 38 cents per diaper. But with a $2.00 coupon and a sale, you could end up paying just 15 cents to 20 cents per diaper, Singer Gordon says.