Smart Spending: 5 tips for buying items in bulk

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) ? Grocery shoppers will tell you that their bills are getting bigger from week to week.

Many are already bargain hunting, buying store brands and using coupons for the best deals. But food prices are expected to rise further ? the USDA estimates that grocery prices will rise 3.5 to 4 percent this year and 3 to 4 percent in 2012.

So what about exploring the option of buying in bulk? It may seem counterintuitive to buy more to save more, but with the right approach you can pocket significant savings. Here are a few tips:

1. Buy what you use

One of the best ways to save money is to only act on deals for items that you would normally buy.

Recognize what your household uses a lot of, maybe toothbrushes or cereal. Those are the best places to start.

Don’t get enticed by the discount. Although you might see a great deal on say, a huge box of candy bars, it’s just an added expense (and added calories) if you don’t normally keep sweets in the house.

The same principle goes for trying new brands. You don’t want to experiment with a bulk purchase. Imagine how that not-so-great smelling shampoo smells when you are working your way through the third mega-sized bottle.

In the long run, wasting food will not help your budget, said Vandana R. Sheth, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Buying staples in bulk can save money.”

2. Buy what keeps

Shopping experts recommend focusing on nonperishable items, like laundry detergent or toilet paper, and foods you’d find stowed in a pantry like beans, flour or beverages as an easy way to save.

However, remember that many items will have an expiration date. Even seemingly non-perishable items like bleach and sunscreen lose effectiveness over time. And some pantry foods don’t keep as long as others. Brown rice, for example, only keeps on the shelf for a month whereas oatmeal will last up to 12 months in the pantry, Sheth said.

Still, there are no absolutes. If your family uses a lot of certain perishable foods, like milk or meat, it’s fine to buy in bulk.

Keep in mind proper storage. Exposure to light, heat and air will decrease the shelf-life of staples bought in bulk. Sheth recommends using air-tight containers and refrigerating to extend shelf-life. Typically, foods that are higher in fat will go rancid faster and not last as long as others. You can also freeze many perishables, such as meat, to help extend their use.

3. Understand cost per unit

Not all goods are created equal: This is what all value-minded shoppers need to remember.

When you’re picking up an item, look at the cost per unit on the shelf tag, often noted just as CPU. This will tell you the cost of the item per ounce, pound or other unit of measurement. No tag? Do the math yourself.

Typically, the bigger the item the better the deal. But this isn’t always the case, said Stephanie Nelson, author of “The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half”. Sometimes by using a coupon or another promotion, a smaller bag of rice will beat out the larger one on a cost per unit basis.

“It’s not a black and white issue,” Nelson said. “The bottom line is what is the cost per unit.”

4. Consider your warehouse and bulk purchase options:

There are also several definitions of “buying bulk”.

There’s the all-so-American “bigger is better” notion of shopping at warehouse clubs such as Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s Wholesale. There are deals to be had there. These stores keep overhead costs low and are able to negotiate with suppliers to offer lower prices given their volume and limited options.

But experts also say you should compare those prices to grocery stores, which have become more competitive with promotions as the economy has continued to struggle.

You can also buy bulk food items ? where food is sold from large bins ? for lower prices because there are no packaging costs. Some estimates are that you can save anywhere from 30 to 60 percent buying foods such as grains, rice, nuts and dried fruits in the bulk food section of a grocery store versus the cost of their packaged counterparts.

Buying at bulk bins also allows you to buy exactly as much as you need. This is helpful for expensive items such as spices, where you may only use a fraction of the amount in sold in a jar. Nelson estimates you can save up to 80 percent on spices by buying them this way.

5. Be a smart shopper:

There are also other options to explore. If you use a lot of a particular item, but simply can’t see yourself taking advantage of the entire package, consider splitting the cost of a bulk purchase with friends or another family.

Large quantities don’t always equal cost-savings, Sheth said. Avoid getting caught up in marketing displays, demonstrations and sampling. Often they are not the best deals or you might not use up the product in bulk.

Another concern with bulk purchasing is that having a large volume of food on hand can sometimes lead to overeating. It is important to continue to keep portion control in mind. A simple tip to avoid this potential hazard is to package food from large bulk-purchase bags into smaller containers at home to encourage more mindful eating.


The AP’s Smart Spending column offers tips and insight on cutting the cost of everyday items as well as special purchases, like jewelry or spa services. Email comments and suggestions to retail(at)