What should I buy in bulk? Or not? And where?
January 16, 2019 11:03 PM   Subscribe

I have a probably unhealthy fascination with large containers of things. Sometimes I save a bunch of time and money, and sometimes I find out why people are willing to pay more per unit for a smaller package. E.g., 32 lbs of canola oil is working out pretty well. 35 lbs of cream cheese, didn't so much. What have you bought in bulk? And how did that work out for you?
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Shopping (41 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Dry goods. Food that does not need to be refrigerated. Food that can be sub divided and frozen.

All else in smaller supply
posted by AugustWest at 11:13 PM on January 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

The only things I buy in bulk are things I’m 100% sure I will definitely want to use until I run out. Paper towels, toilet paper, a certain kind of face wash I’ve been using forever, the kind of coffee I like, sugar, etc. I used to get entranced by the big packages at Costco too but I also took way too many risks before I knew what I was doing. No personal fads.
posted by bleep at 11:31 PM on January 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

If you're already making your decisions based on unit cost, you're probably doing great. It's not uncommon to see a lower unit cost in smaller packages. It defies logic and economics, but it's a thing. Target is especially guilty of this (e.g. single can of shaving cream for $2.49, twin-pack for $5.29)

Sometimes I find it helpful to quantify the savings in different ways. For example, based on the unit cost difference, and your rate of consumption of the product, how much are you saving over how much time? If you're only saving a dollar over several months, it's probably not worth it.
posted by reeddavid at 11:55 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Epsom salts. The 25kg bag of magnesium sulphate heptahydrate fertilizer from the farm supplies shop costs much, much less per kg than the pretty 250g boxes of Epsom salts from the supermarket; so much less that a really good salted soak is a regular thing for me now instead of an occasional indulgence.
posted by flabdablet at 12:09 AM on January 17, 2019 [12 favorites]

things that go bad faster than you might think and are really not good when they're bad:

- sesame oil
- olive oil
- makeup, especially anything gooey/wet
- paints and inks

things I like buying in bulk that haven't been mentioned:
- hand and dish soaps
- trash bags
- some health supplies, like alcohol swabs and band-aids
posted by bagel at 12:27 AM on January 17, 2019 [8 favorites]

Keep your grocery receipts for a month or two and then cross reference with expiration dates. (And think about storage.)

I get: BIG bag of rice, bulk packs of ramen, larger sizes of things like lotion, larger carton of sugar, and toilet paper (we store TP in each bathroom and in a linen closet.)

We also buy bulk loose leaf tea and paper tea steepers from Simpson and Vail tea (SVtea.com). I'm not kidding when I say I buy actual POUNDS of tea. Usually at least 1 lb each of the ones I go through most. The bulk tea/coffee pricing is SO much cheaper per serving than bags. Not to mention less waste and better quality. (I store the bulk in the bags and use hinge lid jars for everyday tea making.)
posted by Crystalinne at 12:27 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

OH and how could I forget supplements, vitamins, and OTC medication. So much cheaper in larger sizes.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:33 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

In the UK, it seems much less common to shop at Costco etc. - perhaps because people generally have less space? I am half American and have a shared Costco membership but live in a flat, so some stuff I can't buy - for example, I just don't have room to store 500 toilet rolls!

One of the big advantages for me is not having to think about stuff once I've bought bulk. For example:

Bin bags (trash bags) - I haven't had to buy these in 2+ years
Washing Detergent and general cleaner - bought a 5l bottle, haven't had to think about it. I decant the cleaner into a spray bottle and dilute it
Olive oil - bought 5l, decant into a smaller bottle, hasn't gone bad in 1 year+ (although it's kept in a cool dark space)
Soy Sauce - 1l, have had for 1 year+, seems fine. Use this all the time, and it's great not to have to keep getting little bottles
Nuts and chocolate chips - pecans, walnuts, almonds. 2 years. Have decanted into airtight containers from IKEA. Checked and they seem fine, but again they are kept in a pretty cool, dark place. great for baking.

Fresh food selection is great but our household of 2 (and smallish fridge) means we can't get through giant packs. I either split the purchase with a friend (i.e. hummus, cheese, meats) or buy stuff that stays in the freezer (shrimp).

The only thing I bought that went a bit funny was maple syrup (1l)... ?
posted by sedimentary_deer at 1:20 AM on January 17, 2019

Bulk buying LOTS only works when you have a place to store it. 100% does not work in a small apartment. I work for an organization that moves me to a new country every couple of years, and I do a bulk purchase from the US when I move. Here are some things that have worked for me:

Many small containers, purchased together: So like, 16 oz jars of face lotion, but a package of 10 jars--definitely not ever one giant 160 oz jar of lotion. Then I stash the stash somewhere, and take out one container as needed. Stuff that's awesome like this: body products, specialty oils and sauces, salsa, single servings of snacks. Also paper goods like toilet paper, paper towels, etc. This may not satisfy your yearning for large containers.

Large containers: anything that won't go stale or rancid and that can easily be stored in a big container, like laundry detergent, dishwasher pods, cooking oil. Also, rice, flour, sugar, etc.

Stuff that works less well: large containers of anything that goes stale (crackers, cookies, pretzels, whatever).

My favorite bulk purchase ever: a giant 300 yard long roll of kraft paper that I use for everything: covering the table when I craft, paper for the kids to paint on, table clothes for parties, and wrapping paper. I will never regret that purchase, even if I have to cart it around with me for another decade.
posted by asnowballschance at 1:41 AM on January 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

A catering-size roll of plastic wrap (if you use it) lasts a really long time. I only have UK examples, but here an 80-foot roll of wrap costs £1.25, while a 1000-foot roll costs £10.89.
posted by terretu at 2:33 AM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Canned chick peas, black beans, lentils. Canned tomatoes in various formats. Canned fruit in juice.
posted by mareli at 5:12 AM on January 17, 2019

Even dry goods aren’t always good to buy in bulk. Nuts, oils, and flour can go rancid, dried herbs and spices lose their flavor, and have you ever had pantry moths? (Good storage practices help prevent these, though.) As far as food goes, I think a good rule of thumb is to buy no more than what you’ll reasonably use in a year.

Cleaning supplies, paper products, and personal care items, though, go crazy. I have mixed success with things like shampoo and lotion: sometimes I get a product that works for me and that I want to stick with for months and months, sometimes I’m stuck with a quart of something that I don’t love.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:28 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I got an enormous thing of Charlie soap at huge expense and then my boyfriend moved in and started to slowly disintegrate and we determined that he's allergic to something in Charlie soap, possibly coconut. Sad trombone.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:34 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

If there are any spices you run out of often (like, at least once a year), see if you can buy them by the bag at an ethnic grocery. Also get a spice grinder if you don't have one already, and then your bag of whole cumin seeds or whatever can also become ground cumin. The cost savings compared to the little grocery store containers is massive. As a bonus, you'll probably become a better cook (and accelerate how fast you go through the giant bags of spices) because it won't feel madly extravagant to blow multiple tablespoons of coriander on a new weeknight recipe or whatever.
posted by gueneverey at 5:39 AM on January 17, 2019

I buy my favourite shampoo in 4 litre jigs and decant. I like that I'm using at least a little less plastic than I would otherwise.
posted by stray at 5:42 AM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you drink a lot of coffee/tea at home but not a lot of milk, I can strongly recommend buying creamers/Coffee-Mates in bulk.
posted by capricorn at 5:46 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

We have been getting chicken cutlets and breast in bulk at BJs. The big Purdue packages there contain several vacuum packed bags that have 2 breasts or 4-5 cutlets each so the smaller portions are already prepackaged and can just be tossed into the freezer and we can defrost what we need. It’s subtantially cheaper than our local grocery store that way. The filets aren’t individually wrapped, but that would be easy enough to do and freeze.

We also get snacks in bulk - goldfish, pretzels, nilla cookies. I keep a bunch of those in small snack bags I prepare so that I can just grab what I need to assemble a snack for my daughter daily.

I buy a fair amount of produce at BJs but our family of 3 eats a lot of it so we don’t usually have a problem with it spoiling.

I get shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothpaste, razors, tampons, vitamins, and protein bars also.
posted by polkadot at 5:47 AM on January 17, 2019

If you have a separate freezer, more things become possible to buy in bulk. For example, I buy nuts, spices, meat etc. in bulk and store in the freezer. I wouldn't buy large sizes of nuts and spices without that, because nuts become rancid and spices lose potency. Meat I would probably still buy large packages of, but less often.
posted by peacheater at 6:13 AM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Tangentially, you can buy 5 gallon food safe buckets with very tight lids but all of mine were discards from various food businesses. The only thing I bought was an opener like this. I have used them for pasta, rice, sugar, flours (not whole grain which go rancid) and cat kebble. They also work as primary fermentation vessels for homemade booze.
posted by Botanizer at 6:43 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding if you have a chest freezer you can buy meats (packaged into serving sizes), flour, nuts, seeds in bulk and freeze them until you need to use them. Flour is fresh and ready to use straight from the freezer. Some people buy cheese when it's on sale and freeze it, that can be smart if you go through a lot.

My boyfriend sucks at throwing things in our fridge out, so our solution was to get a smaller fridge (that we got for a great price) so that we're forced to clean things out of it when we get new groceries, it's been very eye-opening in terms of the size of condiments and the like versus what we actually use. I've pretty much stopped buying condiments at costco for this reason and I like feeling like we're using up what we buy and things are relatively fresh, I find I'm more likely to use up what we have versus wonder how old the banana peppers are. I'm also more likely to second guess buying a big tub or bottle of something if I'm not sure it'll get used more than once for a recipe, so we've probably saved money that way. I try to buy condiments in glass jars or plastic ones that I'm likely to re-purpose.

Now we use costco for bulk nuts, seeds, garbage bags, dog bones, cat litter, snack products that are individually wrapped, protein powder, coffee beans, frozen foods. I bake with coconut oil and I bake a lot so that's been a great bulk buy.
posted by lafemma at 6:45 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Early on in our relationship, I converted my partner to buying Gatorade powder in bulk, (instead of individual bottles, good grief) and he's never looked back. Also good: waffle and pancake mix, huge tubs of protein powder, Jones' Farm frozen sausage in bulk bags. And if you're buying diapers, those should definitely be in bulk; the unit-cost difference between a small cheap pack and the big box is tragic.

On the other side of things: don't buy bulk batteries unless you're really sure. I've been collecting nice rechargeable ones over the years and it's worked out way better. If you must buy disposable ones, get a cheap voltage meter to test them with when you start wondering if they're still good. Also don't buy huge bags of frozen fruit/vegetables without having a plan for them, or they'll just turn into blocks of frost.
posted by teremala at 7:02 AM on January 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

Even dry goods aren’t always good to buy in bulk. Nuts, oils, and flour can go rancid, dried herbs and spices lose their flavor, and have you ever had pantry moths?

This. Almonds go rancid if you look at them funny. Pecans and walnuts can be stored in the fridge, but they do lose some flavor if you do this. White flour should be OK up to a year, but if you're at all serious about your baking you'll notice it doesn't rise as well towards the end of that (although if you're serious enough about baking to notice that, you may be serious enough to use your flour up before it's an issue). Whole wheat flour will turn rancid in as few as three months. Storing it in the freezer will extend that, but not indefinitely.

And cooking oils, oh boy. I was cooking at my parents' house and asked mom where her oil was. She told me where she had a small bottle she decanted from a bulk container, and when I opened the cabinet it was in the smell was overpowering. I ended up using butter. My wife and I can't even get through the smallest bottle of vegetable oil at Safeway before it goes bad. The last time I had to buy more the next size up was on sale for less than the smallest (in pure dollars, not even counting cost per ounce), and I warily looked at the amount of food waste I knew in advance I was buying before I shrugged and bought it anyway, because that's the way the cost incentives worked. I've had brownies made with rancid oil. They're not good.

On the other hand, hard cheeses, properly stored, are good for extended periods (soft cheeses, not so much). Canned tomatoes. (Most) beans, both dried and canned. Dry pasta, if you have a bug-free way to store it. Cocoa powder doesn't seem to degrade in the time it takes me to go through a package, but even the regular grocery store package lasts a long time so I'd be wary of bulk there. Paper products, cleaning products, some personal care products (hair conditioner may separate if stored too long, but shampoo seems eternal). Randomly, the enormous bag of ice melter from Costco has turned out to be a great purchase, but I had smaller jugs I could decant it into for easier use. I wouldn't want to use the big bag by itself.

And if you have a way to store the bigger boxes, bulk versions of things like aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and parchment paper are much better deals than the regular sizes from the supermarket. That's especially true for parchment paper, but that goes back to the whole question of how serious you are about baking. If you know you need parchment paper at all, bulk parchment paper is probably the way to go. If you've only needed parchment once in your life, don't bother. Buy an overpriced packet of precut sheets and be done with it.
posted by fedward at 7:22 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Menstrual products, if you can find the items you strongly prefer in bulk, are way cheaper per-unit by the case. Costco still has the best deal I can find on enough Zyrtec/cetirizine for two adult humans and two large dogs to take seasonally for a year.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:33 AM on January 17, 2019

As a data point, tinned food is probably inedible after 137 years, but after 58 it's just a bit drier than you'd prefer. So tins are good as long as you're buying for yourself and not your descendents.
posted by Vortisaur at 7:34 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Let's see... flour, granulated sugar, rice. In all of those cases, I usually buy 20-25lb bags and decant into smaller containers for regular use. Brown sugar in moderately large containers (I think 7 lbs is the largest I've ever bought, and that had a ziploc closure so it didn't turn into a brick).

Being able to buy pasta in 20 lb increments (for example, this crate from Amazon) is significantly cheaper than the one-pound boxes.

I do enough baking that I buy butter in minimum increments of four one-pound boxes at a time and keep it in the freezer.

I've bought grapeseed oil in 2L containers and decanted it into a more kitchen-usable bottle. That was fine (and way cheaper than the 375 ml bottles from Trader Joe's). I don't usually buy olive oil in quantities over 1L because of the risk of rancidity.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:35 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

And if you're buying diapers, those should definitely be in bulk; the unit-cost difference between a small cheap pack and the big box is tragic.

Along those same lines, baby wipes are a great thing to buy in bulk (and once you have them, you'll probably find uses for them beyond wiping baby's butt). I might wait a little while before committing because you just don't know your particular baby's sensitivities - but once you do, I'd go ahead and stock up.
posted by peacheater at 7:37 AM on January 17, 2019

I bought a box of 240 dryer sheets 3 years ago that I just replaced last month.

dry goods: paper towels, toilet roll, bath soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent pods, trash bags, OTC medications

food: pretty much only tea and occasionally pasta; for tea it's about 4lbs for the year, and one of those 5lb bags of pasta listed above could last me 3 months. (I can't keep too much of it in the house though bc I stress-eat it raw and fuck up my teeth. lov 2 cromch)
posted by poffin boffin at 7:59 AM on January 17, 2019

I gave up my Costco membership because I didn't think I was saving enough once they stopped offering a lower price on one of my prescriptions (and I switched to contacts they don't carry), but before then, in my tiny apartment:

* Trash bags
* Ziploc bags
* Menstrual products
* Dental floss (you'd be surprised)
* Laundry detergent (bought a big container and decant into an old smaller one)
* Eneloop batteries
* Lotion (if you happen to like any of the brands they offer)
* Boxes of single-size snack products for taking to work
* Packs of grapefruit or other fruit cups (ditto)
* Lap cheong (only a two-pack, and it freezes)
* Pickles (though they broke my heart when they stopped offering the huge jar of Vlasic kosher wholes, they do have McClures now)
* Dried cherries

(Huh. I guess I bought more items there than I thought...)

Self-discipline was easy, as I got there via public transit, which put substantial restrictions on how much weight or even volume (no TP or paper towels, which I otherwise would've) I could carry.
posted by praemunire at 8:16 AM on January 17, 2019

as an aside re: storage, I use these OXO containers for pretty much everything bc leaving bulk food in its original container is a good way to get the entire package contaminated by weevils etc.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:35 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I reserve freezer space for portioned home made soups and spaghetti sauce, some frozen meals, and meats on sale. Hamburger, sirloin tips, chicken thighs. I'll buy the enormous package on sale, portion into sandwich bags, put them all in a freezer bag with the original labels. It's a task, so I've learned to only buy bulk meat of I really have the energy to repackage when I get home.

Rice lasts effectively forever, as do dried beans. Pasta lasts a while, so these are good bulk buys.
posted by theora55 at 8:40 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Toilet paper, paper towels. They'll always get used and there's an allocated space for them in the garage.

That's pretty much it. I suspect storage space is the kicker on most of these; but also consumption rates. 20 lbs of pasta?? That's cool if it works for you; but pasta costs $1/box on sale, and storage in my house is at a very high premium. There's just no way I could justify using the space for a few bucks worth of pasta. Ditto beans. Plus, I remember what pantry moth infestations my dad's house used to have -- I'd much rather avoid that even if it means paying 50 cents more when I need some beans.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:45 AM on January 17, 2019

I received a 50lb bag of popcorn as a gift and snacked like a king for like two years with no noticeable falloff in quality. If you like popcorn, I HIGHLY recommend this.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:14 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Watch out for packaging/storage on things like rice, beans, lentils, popcorn, etc. I would love to buy these things in bulk but we are prone to meal moths and cannot keep more than small amounts that can fit into airtight containers, preferably glass. Those little suckers are insidious and can get into things you wouldn't imagine.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:34 AM on January 17, 2019

The only thing I bought that went a bit funny was maple syrup (1l)... ?

Just an aside to sedimentary deer: maple syrup needs to be refrigerated. I found that out from the producer after the dregs of a 1l bottle went mouldy. I thought there was enough sugar in there to prevent that, but nope.
posted by kate4914 at 11:56 AM on January 17, 2019

Maple syrup can be frozen. Just decant a small amount into a bottle that you can keep in the refrigerator and freeze the rest.

The factors to think about are,

1. Will I save money by buying in bulk? Check the unit pricing on the grocery store shelf label. Usually you save money by buying larger containers, but not always. Sometimes the smaller container is actually the better buy.
2. Will I use all of this?
3. Will this keep until I can use it all?
4. Do I have storage for this?

As a person who lives alone, I buy rice, tissues, toilet paper, and laundry detergent in bulk. I buy white flour in 22 lb/10 kg bags and potatoes in 10 lb bags. I go through a lot of ibuprofen and buy it in the largest bottle they have. I stock up on hair colour whenever it's on sale. With most personal care products I don't buy in bulk, but I do have a "buy one ahead" rule. When I use the last of a bottle of shampoo or a jar of moisturizer or a tube of toothpaste, I get the spare one out of the basket in the linen closet and then put that item on my next week's shopping list. This means I never have to run out and buy things because it can wait until I go grocery shopping on Friday.

Here's what I don't buy in bulk and buy on a just-in-time, as needed basis: Batteries, because they can expire in the drawer. Hair mousse, which doesn't keep. A can of powdered soup stock is cheaper than a box of individually wrapped bouillon cubes, but I found that it doesn't stay powdered so that it can conveniently measured out with a spoon -- it hardens into a granite-like lump that is very difficult to hack into useable bits. I just buy boxes of cubes.
posted by orange swan at 12:21 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Bulk TVP has oils that will go rancid, and it's expensive as well. It's great to get a bit to stretch out vegetarian soups/stews/etc, but don't go for the massive bags - it will go off.
posted by eclectist at 2:11 PM on January 17, 2019

A food animal (or a portion thereof) from a smaller farm, if you have a deep freezer and a vacuum bagging setup (if you don't have a large family and need to re-apportion the portions from a whole food animal).

Nicotine/ "Vape Juice" - I looked into this before "Vape Juice" became a thing; a lot of reagent-grade nicotine (sold in liter-quantities and 90-99% purities, with or without certificates of heavy metal/ pesticides content and their chains-of-custodies) can be had.

Food grade polyethylene glycol and vegetable glycerin is readily available.

Making our own "Vape Juice" was at least a %1000 (10x) profit using the ingredients that we casually sourced that should end up with a FDA/Health Canada "ok" if it was evaluated like any other consumer product.
posted by porpoise at 7:05 PM on January 17, 2019

We don't have a Costco membership right now, but we recently got a vacuum sealer and it means that our frozen meat no longer gets freezer burn! You can probably buy a gigantic package of chicken breasts and vacuum pack in quantities that work for your household's cooking. I recommend placing them in the vacuum bags with enough space between them that they all freeze individually, they will thaw faster that way.
posted by radioamy at 8:31 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Dried legumes. We eat a lot of them, and it's more convenient than scooping them from the bulk bin at the co-op each time, and avoids the plastic waste of buying one-pound bags. (I also think emergency preparedness is important, and like to keep 30 days of food on hand, and dried beans and rice are the most space-efficient ways of doing that.)

Whole wheat flour. I make my own bread so it gets used quickly.

I freeze these all for a couple days to kill off any bugs, and then keep them in my cool basement.
posted by metasarah at 6:50 AM on January 18, 2019

Someone above said Enerloop batteries and I totally agree that pre-charged batteries in the sizes you use most often in big batches make life soooooooo much easier. I basically wait until Amazon Prime Days when they put their Amazon Basics pre-charged batteries on sale (I buy AAs and AAAs) and buy a couple of boxes. They usually come in a very compact box that exactly fits the number of batteries in it that I then put in my tools drawer and I ALWAYS have a charged battery on hand in the most common sizes. Whenever I have a dead battery, it goes straight into the charger, gets charged and then goes back in the drawer. It's amazing.
posted by urbanlenny at 1:59 PM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Goodwill outlet usually has popcorn tins. They're clean, though I do wash them, and perfect for storing rice, pasta, grains, beans safe from moths. I keep bagged flour in big ziplock bags.
posted by theora55 at 12:11 PM on October 10, 2019

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