Bulk Buying Basics: What to Buy, How to Store, and Money Saving Tips
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.
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)
- Rice: white, brown, and just about every other variety
- 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
- Maple syrup
- Oils: olive, canola, vegetable, sesame
- Vinegar: apple cider, white, etc.
- 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)
- Aluminum foil
- Plastic wrap
- Sandwich bags
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Soaps, toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant
- Laundry detergent
- Toilet paper
- Paper towels
...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)
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.
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.
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?