Consumer Comeback Blog

The art and science of buying in bulk

Buying in bulk is an essential skill of the frugal mindset. In many cases, bulk discounts are a great way to save money on everyday items and other disposable purchases. But it can also become a consumer trap. A trick that gets you to buy more of something you didn’t need, causes you to consume more/faster, or (in some cases) isn’t even a discount.

The following guide breaks down the art and science of taking advantage of bulk discounts for your frugal lifestyle. Simple concepts, that when applied to your own life and shopping habits, can save you a bunch of cash.

Confirm the discount

This study found that only 86% of food items were cheaper at bulk stores. Never assume that buying in bulk is cheaper, because sometimes it just isn’t. Bring a calculator with you if you have to, but do the math before you make any bulk purchase.

This also means you might have to do some research and comparison shopping. Before going to any bulk store, make sure you have a good idea of what you regularly pay for the items you’re shopping for. That way you’ll be able to fully optimize your shopping budget and find what items you save on the most by buying in bulk.

Don’t let it change your consumption habits

This goes especially for food, but not exclusively. The trap here is having so much of a single item sometimes causes you to simply consume more or become wasteful. As a result, you go through them faster, therefore spending more than you normally would. There’s a number of reasons why this happens and there are items you may want to avoid (depending on the person) to prevent it from happening, but it all comes down to self control.

Soda and snacks are a prime example. They tend to be expensive when purchased in smaller amounts, but in bulk are a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately having so much causes you to drink more soda and/or snack more. So not only does it become unhealthy, but it makes your bulk purchase more expensive than the alternative. This doesn’t mean you can’t buy soda or snacks in bulk, it just means be conscious of your consumption so that you’re actually saving money. Or simply be honest with yourself and avoid items that cause you to consume more.

Also, don’t buy things you normally wouldn’t just because it’s a great deal. If it turns out to be something you don’t like or won’t use you’re stuck with them further contributing to waste. Changing your consumption habits based on sales is another consumer trap.

Focus on items you go through the fastest

And things you can’t go without, like toilet paper. Those staples of your home and everyday lifestyle. Certain items, brands, and/or flavors that you run out of the quickest forcing you to make a quick run to the store. Focusing on these items first is going to be the best way to optimize your savings. It’s why even though you can save $1.00 per bottle of ketchup and only $0.25 per package of hot-dogs. If you don’t use up the ketchup by the time you’ve finished 4 packages of hot dogs, the hot-dogs are actually the better deal.

Using this and the first two suggestions, you can apply a formula to determine the best deals based on your own consumption and local prices:

First, calculate savings per item:

b [price/item (bulk)] – i [price per item (individual)] = s [savings/item]

Then, estimate item consumption per year and multiply by s

y [items/year] * s [savings/item] = Yearly savings

This formula is great for finding the best items to buy in bulk, but it’s especially useful for determining which items are specifically NOT.

Group purchases expand the possibilities

For the most part, bulk purchases should be generally limited to non-perishables, but if you can find a group or another family (perhaps) to split the cost, everybody wins! But that’s not the only advantage of group purchasing. You could also split fees, take turns shopping, and if you’re neighbors walk next store when you run out (in a pinch).

All that aside, still perhaps the biggest advantage of group purchases goes right down to the very premise of why bulk purchases are advantageous in the first place: Getting the best price.  In theory, the more you buy, the better the deal.

More bulk shopping tips:

  • Take bulk store “membership fees” into consideration – especially when calculating your savings…split the fees with someone else, if possible, or just avoid those stores all together.
  • Take advantage of overstock sales – stores looking to clear shelf room for other items often put special prices for when you buy more than one. (e.g. two-for-one deals)
  • Buy Generic – generic brands tend to be cheaper anyways, but bulk savings for these items is also usually better. Strongly consider this when bulk shopping.
  • Avoid the taste trap – avoid items that you enjoy a variety of (like salad dressings) or that you could grow sick of (like a specific flavor of food) don’t make your life bland for petty savings.
  • Note expiration dates – especially on canned foods, get too much and you’ll be forced to throw away your savings.