Lately I've been weighing the pros and cons of buying a membership at my local bulk food club. Several of my friends have memberships and brag about snagging good deals on food and basic household supplies. Plus, I always seem to be reaching for the last paper towel or tissue. Perhaps the answer is to buy 12 rolls and boxes at a time at a discount.
I've been holding off on a membership over concerns that shopping in bulk might lead me to excess, rather than savings. While my friends do score bargains at the bulk club, they also tell me about their impulsive, and regretted, purchases.
"I won't get a membership since I'm such an impulse shopper, and the 'treasure hunt' would cost me big bucks," says one mother of two I know. "Also, in some things I don't like bulk since it doesn't fit. Like the mega tinfoil or cereal boxes. Others work better, like dish liquid, toilet paper or rice."
Another friend, who does have a membership, cautions that you need to know your product prices well. "I find a lot of the prices aren't cheaper, but some are much cheaper," he says. "You have to be an educated buyer. For example, cheese and lox and cookies are cheaper, but the fruit and vegetables are not."
Wisebread, an online personal finance forum, recently tried to dispel some of the myths of bulk buying.
Myth number one? Buying a larger package means that the cost per unit is lower.
"It's one of the many reasons people rush to buy bulk, but it isn't always so. Just because a bottle of vitamins has three times the number of pills in it, it won't automatically mean that each of them are cheaper than if you had bought the small bottle."
Wisebread points out that sometimes the best prices happen to come with the smallest packages.
Another common misconception, according to the site, is that you can't find good bulk buys outside of a warehouse club. "I've heard anecdotally that you can do better at No Frills on sale than at Costco every day," says the mom of two.
Other friends have confirmed that they can find a wide variety of bulk products at their grocery store which are priced more competitively than at the bulk club.
Yet, I'm still drawn the bulk food store experience. It seems that as long as I know my prices well and don't lose all sense of discipline in well-stocked aisles, I can save money on some of our most-used household items.
To keep your trips to the bulk club frugal, Wisebread offers the following tips:
"Use it or lose it." If there's little chance of finishing that giant tub of cream cheese before the expiry date, stay away. You should make sure that any perishable items you buy can be used quickly or you're wasting money.
"Out of cart, out of belly." Studies have shown that the more food you buy, the more you will eat. Buying a case of granola bars may be cheaper than buying individual boxes, but you're likely to go through them at a faster rate.
"Bring a list." I never go to the grocery store without a detailed shopping list and it is doubly important at the bulk club. "Bring your list, shop the clubs first, then buy whatever is not available or affordable at your local store," recommends Wisebread. "If you put all your eggs into the warehouse basket, you'll end up with quite the eclectic (and expensive) cart of stuff."
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