10 Ways to Be a Smarter Bulk Shopper

Avoid Bulk Buyers' Remorse (or BBR) by implementing these thrifty rules on your next trip to the big-box store.

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Find the Line Between Thrifty and Wasteful

When it comes to stocking up for a big bash or bringing home supplies in serious quantity, we do love our price clubs and big-box stores. We also love those huge supermarkets with their wide aisles and their awesome sales, and we get fierce when pushing the big cart. But there's a fine line between thrifty and wasteful. As we unpack in the calm realities of our homes, we sometimes find ourselves re-examining some of our purchases. "What did I think I was going to do with 128 ounces of gherkins?" might be the kind of question that floats through your mind as you wedge the pickles into a pantry cabinet only slightly larger than the jar itself. To avoid BBR, read these tips and we'll all be better shoppers.

Calculate Cost Per Ounce or Unit

It's not easy to determine whether that 2-liter bottle of olive oil at $20.99 is a better buy than the 17-ounce bottle at $7.20. Much of the time, supermarkets and even price clubs will include a unit cost on the tag beneath the item, so you can see that one olive oil is 31 cents per ounce, while the other is 43 cents per ounce; you can figure out which is the better buy. You may choose to pay more for a brand you like, but at least you can see cost in an apples-to-apples way.

Explore the House Brand

These days, many stores offer high-quality house brands that rival costlier name-brand equivalents. In fact, many house brands now offer "white label products," which are items produced by the same manufacturers that make the name-brand items you know and like. Because the store is buying these items in large quantities, they can save money in the manufacturing and pass on the savings to the customer — i.e., you! Try one or two store-brand items, maybe the mustard and the pancake mix, and if you can't tell the difference between those and the brand-name items you usually buy, keep exploring, as most markets with their own packaged foods have quite a variety of offerings.

Be Realistic About Your Storage Space

That 30-roll pack of toilet paper might be a thrifty buy, but it's not a good buy if it takes up half your linen closet. The same goes for all other large items, such as paper products, cereal, coffee and large cans, including tomatoes and beans.

Do the Math on Perishables

This is critical. A twin pack of milk gallons makes sense only if you're going to use it all. Tossing out expired milk is hardly economical — it's frustrating!

Think Critically About Nonperishables

Saving 75 cents on paper towels because you are buying a three-month supply versus a two-month supply may not be worth your while (see tip No. 3 about storage space). While the hoarder in many of us gets excited about the biggest available package, the realist in us knows that, for most of us, having eight rolls of paper towels on hand satisfies the need to stock up, without resulting in a slightly overwhelming supply.

Don't Experiment in Large Quantities

Even though it's highly commendable to keep changing things up and trying new things, cookbook author and food personality Katie Chin reminds  us, "Never buy something in bulk you've never tried before." From breakfast cereal to ice cream, find a way to give it a shot in a manageable size before you commit for the long haul. Most of the products sold in bulk are also available in traditional markets in smaller sizes, so start there.

Don't Become a Sampling Chump

Wandering the aisles in a price club on a Saturday morning may reward you with all kinds of new foods to snack on (we spent many a weekend day there when our kids were young, grazing away), but that doesn't mean you have to take all of them home! Stick to your shopping plans, and maybe succumb to the lure of one extra item that really speaks to you as you sample your way through the store. But ask yourself: When you get home, will you still be that intrigued by the 3-pound tub of eggplant bruschetta topping?

Think About Car Space

This may sound super silly, but I can tell you from experience that driving home from a price club with a three pack of 64-ounce cans of tomatoes on your lap isn't a great experience. Paper goods and canned goods and beverages can take up a lot of space.

Consider Your Fridge and Freezer

Have you ever had to ask your neighbors if they would hold onto a family-size package of chicken breasts and a few frozen boxes of taquitos? I have. If you have friendly neighbors with sparsely filled refrigerators and freezers, by all means, make the most of it. If not, be sensible; an overstuffed fridge or freezer doesn't cool things properly or evenly anyway. You might end up with frostbitten lettuce, for instance, and another side effect of overstuffing the fridge is that it's really quite hard to find what you're looking for.

Remember Sometimes Less Is More

Take a stroll down the bulk-foods aisle in your supermarket (many specialty stores, ethnic stores and supermarkets, including Whole Foods, have these), and think about how you would want to customize the quantities of your purchases. Melissa d'Arabian says: "Buying large quantities is only half the bulk-aisle story. Buying in small quantities is a great advantage of the bulk aisle. Need pecans for a great spinach salad? Buy only a handful in the bulk aisle. Even herbs and spices are often sold in bulk — what a great savings to buy only a teaspoon or two of an exotic spice you don't use often."

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