Bulk Buying Basics: What to Buy, How to Store, and Money Saving Tips

By Ashley Marcin on 30 December 2013 (Updated 29 January 2014) 13 comments

When you think about buying foods or other items in bulk, you might picture an underground bunker in some remote area with enough supplies to survive a zombie apocalypse. Bulk buying is no joke, however. If you have the space, stocking up can be an excellent, budget-friendly way to fill your shelves with foods and other items routinely needed in your daily life. (See also: Organize Your Pantry and Save Cash)

As you can imagine, bulk buying is an art. It requires careful planning to achieve the best savings and lower risk for spoilage. When done right, this method of shopping can yield big returns on the investment of both time and money.

Bulk Benefits

If you've ever scanned the unit prices on your favorite grocery items, you've likely noticed that those in larger packaging/quantity typically cost less per unit than their smaller counterparts. In much the same way, those items in the bulk bins — sans packaging — are even less expensive in comparison. If you cook or use certain items more often than not, it's in your best interest to buy and buy big to yield the biggest savings. (See also: 15 Dollar-Wise Winter Staples)

Here are a few more benefits:

  • Less packaging means less waste and is, therefore, a smarter environmental choice.
     
  • Buying more at once saves on time and also gas and other related expenses.
     
  • Without conforming to pre-measured, packaged amounts of food, you are free to choose how much you need for yourself or your family. This scalability is smart for a number of reasons.
     
  • Bulk buying also leads to healthier food choices. Many ingredients in those bins are whole foods, which are fantastic choices nutritionally.

What and Where to Buy

Bulk foods and other goods can be found at your local grocery store, health specialty shops/cooperatives, online, and through bulk buying clubs (not to be confused with big box buying stores). If you haven't ventured into the bulk section in your store before, it's well worth a jaunt to see what's in all those tubs. Many of your favorite basic ingredients are well represented here. (See also: 25 Frugal Items for Your Organic Grocery List)

Pantry Items

  • Rice: white, brown, and just about every other variety
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Oats: instant, rolled, steel-cut
  • Nuts: cashews, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, etc.
  • Nut butters
  • Spices: from cinnamon to curry, nutmeg to smoked paprika
  • Pasta, including couscous
  • Dried fruits: apples, papayas, banana chips, dates, raisins, etc.
  • Dried mushrooms
  • Dried seaweed
  • Sugars: white, brown, coconut, etc.
  • Flours: white, wheat, rye, gluten-free, etc.
  • Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower, poppy, sesame, etc.
  • Confectioneries: chocolate chips, among others
  • Coffee and tea
  • Cereal
  • Maple syrup
  • Oils: olive, canola, vegetable, sesame
  • Vinegar: apple cider, white, etc.
  • Honey
  • Tomatoes: whole, diced, sauces, etc.
  • Beans: kidney, black, chickpeas, etc.
  • Soup stocks and broths
  • Condiments: ketchup, mustard, hot sauce

Note: You can also buy seasonable fruits and vegetables in bulk and then can, freeze, or otherwise preserve them for later consumption. Similarly, you can get great deals on frozen fruits and vegetables. (See also: 25 Ways to Use Frozen Vegetables)

Non-Food Items

  • Aluminum foil
  • Plastic wrap
  • Sandwich bags
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Soaps, toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant
  • Laundry detergent
  • Toilet paper
  • Paper towels
  • Batteries

...basically anything and everything you use on a daily basis that is either shelf stable (or lends well to preserving) can be purchased in bulk. We'd love to hear what types of items you stock on a regular basis, so be sure to leave a comment below!

Oh, and beware of big box stores, which are popular spots to find many of these items — they typically involve more packaging. As well, I did an informal price survey at my local joint, and I wasn't impressed with my findings. And if you haven't heard of those bulk buying clubs I mentioned above, ask around your local farmers market — or start one of your own.

How to Store

If you live in a tiny apartment or are otherwise short on space, you might be wondering about how to house all these items. I live in a modest home and we've found a few creative solutions, including setting up a special pantry shelf in our basement, storing smaller quantities in clear Ball jars on some open kitchen shelving, and stocking frozen items in an upright freezer. (See also: 5 Best Freezers)

Containers

Place items in safe containers. If you order items online or buy them at the store and they come in paper bags, consider switching over to either plastic or glass storage. This will eliminate the chance that the bag could tear or be tampered with (cats, dogs, mice, the neighbor kids). (See also: Where to Find Free or Cheap Mason Jars)

  • Utilize all the options for sound storage. Containers come in all shapes and sizes, but be sure that whatever you use is airtight and uncompromised. The key with storing bulk foods is keeping them as fresh as possible. Protect your investment.
     
  • Look beyond your favorite retailers for deals on storage containers. You can find great deals at discount dollar stores, online, or even at garage sales.
     
  • Use a funnel to swiftly and cleanly transfer goods from larger to smaller containers.
     
  • Use old measuring cups and spoons (tablespoons are particularly handy!) as scoops.

Space

Consider installing a dedicated shelving unit in your kitchen or another room in your house specifically for housing bulk food items. (See also: How to Live Large in a Small Space)

  • Designate one of the kitchen cupboards the "bulk cupboard" and store all your goods in there. Alternatively, create open shelving for storage of clear containers for an easy, grab-n-go experience.
  • Use unique spaces, like under the bed or in the hallway closet, as creative storage when in a pinch. You can even create a stairway pantry with all that unused wall space!
  • Find new uses for old items, like over-the-door shelving for shoes. If it holds stuff, it might be just what you need to organize your bulk empire.
  • If you're lucky enough to have a pantry, clear it out and organize with bulk in mind. Containers should be in clear view, easy to reach, and out of harm's way (off the floor, away from where pets and toddlers can reach, etc.).

Other Bulky Considerations

Now that you've got the basics, here a few more tips to make it all go a little smoother.

Make a Plan (and Stick to It!)

It can be tempting to go overboard when presented with seemingly endless bulk buying options. Keep in mind that the only way you save is if you actually use up what you've bought or it doesn't go to waste do to spoilage. (See also: Recipe Substitutions That Prevent Food Waste)

Bring Your Own (Reusable) Containers for Shopping

Many establishments charge for bulk jars (not so much bags). And while you're at it, be sure to mark the tare weight (that's the weight of the container) on your containers, so you're all set with that information come weigh-time.

Freeze It

To eliminate any possible pests, it's a good practice to freeze foods (especially grains, beans) for a day or two. I don't always follow this rule myself, but someone told me it keeps foods fresher, longer.

Mark Ingredients With Name and Date

All those grains can get confusing without packaging. Be sure to use a permanent marker and some labels/masking tape to stay organized and fresh.

Write Up Cooking Instructions and Stow in the Container

Along these same lines, you will likely forget how to cook black rice versus Israeli couscous — we write instructions on note cards stored in plastic baggies and toss them in with the ingredients for easy reference.

Create a Master List

A danger in buying a lot of something is forgetting you have it. To avoid spoilage or duplicate purchases a simple inventory list can be a lifesaver.

Plan Meals and Cook In

When buying in bulk, it's important to dedicate a certain amount of time into figuring out which recipes/meals they will eventually turn into. With so much fresh, healthy food on hand, you might want to cook more often rather than going out, further escalating the potential savings. All it takes is a little foresight (and a few good cookbooks). (See also: A Month of Frugal Meals)

Evaluate and Tweak as Necessary

It's good to keep those receipts and track your investment wisely. What items did you use up quickly? What ones did you forget? Were any ingredients unusually costly? Is there another place you might want to check out? Continually refining your process will help it work better each shopping trip.

Are you a bulk buyer? What works for you?

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Guest's picture
Meagan

I live alone and don't have much space in my apartment, but I still manage to buy in bulk(usually at Costco).
I buy toilet paper and store it on shelves above my toilet (my stepmother thinks I have a phobia of running out of TP)
I also bought a 2 lb bag of Red Star Yeast 2 years ago that I keep in the fridge. It is still good, I use it for homemade pizza and bread all the time.

Philip Brewer's picture

A few years ago, a big blizzard blew through here. It was forecast well in advance, so everyone knew days ahead that we were facing enough snow to shut the city down.

Our pantry was well-enough stocked, so we didn't rush out to the grocery store to stock up, the way a lot people must have done. Just hours before the storm hit, though, I decided that I wanted to get a few more things that we could eat without cooking, just in case the power was out for a while. What I found at the grocery store was amazing.

The store was completely out of juice, milk, bread, and hamburger (none of which I was going to buy). It had, however, normal quantities of flour, sugar, tea, beans, oats, fresh fruits, fresh vegis, etc. (I remember wondering how a visitor from 1800 would respond to a grocery store stripped bare in anticipation of a storm that still had oranges, bananas, and kiwi fruit, not to mention potatoes, onions, and roasting chickens.)

My point, though, is simply that a few days supply of the stuff you eat everyday can make it unnecessary to rush to the grocery store when there's a threat of something like a blizzard or hurricane. Great when it saves you a trip. Even better when the storm arrives without warning so you had no opportunity to make the trip.

Guest's picture
Lucille

I started bulk buying again after we moved last year. We bought a chest freezer and the area under the stairs made a great pantry. If your looking for storage jars, the big two gallon glass pickle jars work great. We ended up with a few by buying pickles and I got more by asking people I knew that did events where they served food. I also got some through Freecycle by from someone that saved the empties from church functions.

Popcorn was probably the biggest money saver. We bought an air popper and a huge bag of bulk corn. I have to admit the stupidest one was a bulk jug of yellow mustard. That stuff is cheap and now I have this huge jug taking up fridge space.

The other thing we do is buy multiples when on sale. We do this with shampoo and other non food items like laundry soap. They go on sale periodically so we buy as many as I can easily afford and store them. It also helps to be a creature of habit, we use the same soaps, shampoo, toilet paper, laundry soap and cleaners.

Guest's picture

I buy everything I can from the bulk bins these days to avoid plastic waste and excess packaging in general. I take cotton drawstring bags for dry goods and glass jars for anything somewhat wet. Where I shop, we can weigh the containers before we fill them so that the checker will know how much weight to deduct from the total.

More on the store where I shop here:

http://www.fakeplasticfish.com/2007/08/store-report-rainbow-grocery.html.

Guest's picture
sylrayj

Put your bulk grains, such as flour, in the freezer for a day, to deal with any small critters that might have been present. I don't always do this, but when we notice weevils showing up, I remember to freeze things again. It hasn't been a big problem since I've been able to use airtight containers, but the plastic bag full of flour that didn't fit into the bucket is a risk.

I keep my brown sugar in the bag it came home in, squeezing out all the air before resealing with a twist-tie, and then that bag goes into an airtight container. It would get hard when I wasn't diligent about closing and sealing the bag, and it would get hard when I didn't keep it in the plastic bucket, but it's been doing fairly well this way.

Guest's picture
Guest

Tip: If your brown sugar gets hard, place a slice of bread or two in the bag and it will soften up. Try it. It works.

Guest's picture
Guest - ckdurand

I just purchase white sugar and add molasses when I need brown. This way I save money and space, and I always have the exact amount of top quality b. sugar I need. Try it! It's pretty handy.

Guest's picture
Mati

No-one's mentioned bulk-buying meat by buying a side or quarter of an animal from a local farmer. It's the absolute cheapest way to buy organic/grassfed, humanely raised meat - usually $3-4/lb when all's said and done. It's not cheap compared to BOGO sales on factory meat, but do you really want to eat that stuff anyway?

The best part is that you can order it cut and wrapped for the freezer exactly the way you want it. I get good cuts in dinner-sized quantities and ground beef in 1-lb. packs that don't have to be defrosted to cook (unless I want to make patties or add other ingredients) - they just go in the pan to defrost and cook at the same time. Unfortunately it's vacuum-packed, which is a lot of plastic, but there's zero waste because it's all frozen there. The other advantage is that the tough plastic packaging is water-tight, so I can speed-defrost in a tub of cool water.

If you don't have the space or money for a chest freezer, some processors will also store it for you for a fee, which is still a better deal than buying the same quality of meat at Whole Paycheck. You just pick up what will fit in your home freezer when you need it.

Guest's picture
Dave

You can buy groceries in bulk online at www.bulkhome.com

There are no membership fees and shipping is free.

Guest's picture
Guest

Wow! I new to all this and very impress with the information laid out here. My one comment, being from the food industry, would be not to store food in plastic bins from Home Depot unless they are food grade plastic. There is a reason that food processors have to use food grade plastic. Leaving in large plastic containers that are not made for food for long periods of time is not a good idea.

Guest's picture
Guest

I got a stack of 3 gallon buckets and lids (more useful than the larger 5 or 10 gallon and easier to move around) from a local ice cream shop. They had a hundred of them, all washed and sparkling (and, naturally, food grade) -- they begged me to take more!

Guest's picture
Matthew Groff

Speaking of hunters dropping their deer off at the butcher to be processed, you have to watch where you take it to be processed. Why? Sometimes you do not get the meat from deer you dropped off. Some processors will just give you a certain amount of meat based on the weight of the deer. They combine the meat from several deer. Others will give you the meat from the deer you dropped off. I personally think the main reason is the processor is so busy that they do not have the time to individually butcher each deer and then separate the meat into the cuts that the person wants from that specific deer. As an example one processor may handle 100 deer in a week, while another only handles 10 and yet another may only handle 1 or 2. Some processors handle other animals such as pigs, cows, and chickens. While others may only process the deer for just the Deer seasons.

When my dad and then I got our deer we went to a butcher that processed deer on the side during deer season to make extra money. There was one time dad took it to a processor that handles other animals, but they do not give you back the meat from the deer you take to them.

Hunting is a great way to stock up the Freezer. Especially if there is plenty of game around. Some game animals that are good to eat are: squirrels, Rabbits, Pheasants, Turkey, Quail, Dove, Chukar (a type of Partridge), Grouse, Deer, Elk, Moose, Fish, Bison, Boar, Wild Hogs, Antelope and many others. Not all of them are in every state.

Another way to stock up is gardening. Growing you own vegetables and fruits is the best way to feed yourself and your family and to stock up! We like Radishes, Tomatoes, Green Beans, Onions, Zucchini, Cucumbers, Sweet Peppers, and Potatoes. We shred up the Zucchini and freeze it to make Zucchini bread, Zucchini cake, Zucchini Quiche, and other things. Use the Tomatoes to Home-made Tomato sauce, Steak sauce, and chop them up and freeze and then to use in Chili and other dishes. Freeze the beans and peppers to use later. Use the Cucumbers to make Pickles.

Guest's picture
Guest

At the end of the work day if I need to use the restroom but know I could wait until I go home I will go ahead and use it at work that way it's one less flushed toilet, less squares of toilet paper, and less water used for washing hands. Everything adds up!