I hate shopping in stores. Every time I step inside one, it feels like crossing the threshold into a Vegas casino. These spaces have been specifically designed to suck you in, make you lose track of time, while somehow subliminally messaging you the idea that emptying your bank account will inversely fill the imagined void in your already overstuffed life.  But unlike Vegas, there’s not even a remote chance that you’ll walk out with more money than when you walked in.

I know this for a fact because my first job out of college was working for a mega-department store corporation, in the very division responsible for engineering the shopping experience to promote longer stays and more purchases. You would not believe the metrics we tracked and how detailed we got about product placement, lighting, art work, and even the smells permeating the shopping environment.  The proximity of the racks and shelves is orchestrated in advance on floor plan layouts, and continuously updated, to ensure that each time you turn around, you notice something you might otherwise have missed.

Not wanting to be duped by tricks I knew all too well, for years it has been my habit to shop at a few select stores, to memorize their basic layout, and identify the approximate location of the items I might buy.  Then I speed shop – run in, get what I need, and get the heck out.

About four times a year, my favorite stores rearrange aisles and relocate my required goods. Even non-chains, my staples of sanity for necessary shopping, do this. When it happens, I take a deep breath, remind myself that I am on a budget and no matter how exciting and new something seems, it’s never going to make me any happier than I already am, and then I set about re-acclimating to the new order of things.

And this strategy generally works, except in the case of bulk good stores. At Costco, Sam’s, etc. the trouble starts at the door, when an id-checker, positioned in front of towers of promoted goods, stops you to make sure you are, in fact, a member.  This reinforces the pretense of exclusivity while also subtly reminding you that you paid to be here and therefore must buy enough to get your money’s worth.  If you think I am being cynical, keep in mind that you can’t check out without producing your card so this act is entirely redundant otherwise.

Next, the seasonally appropriate warm or cold blast of air that hits you as you walk in makes you instantly more comfortable than you were outside. Then you are forced to forge a path through the barrage of TVs that are being advertised by their prominent position near the door, and advertising to you by showing you commercials in high-definition, before you can get to the food and paper good items you presumably came to buy.  Having navigated those landmines, you are then offered samples of prepared foods by smiling product demonstrators who conveniently have stacks of theirs, and other key ingredients, immediately at hand.

Don’t get me wrong.  Bulk stores are awesome!  Where else can you get mega-jars of organic almond butter for only $8 or a year supply of toilet paper for less than the cost of a month’s supply at the regular grocery store?  But the sheer number of fantastic deals, coupled with the even more effective salesmanship efforts than your standard department store,  is a perfect recipe for overspending.

The goal in buying in bulk is usually to save money over time, not to overspend at one time.  So, before I leave home, I make a game plan for my purchases.

Paper and disposable goods are an easy place to start because there is no expiration date.  A roll of bulk plastic wrap can last us three years and costs about 1/10th the price of buying small rolls at the grocery store.  Toilet paper, tissue, foil, and paper towels usually make our list at one point or another.

Cleaning supplies are another easy choice.  My grocery store only carries small containers of the environmentally friendly laundry soap.  It’s more expensive than buying in bulk and produces a lot more waste.  Bulk quantities of dish soap, sponges, cotton cleaning towels, baking soda and white vinegar almost always make sense from a price and use perspective.

Personal hygiene goods are one I tend to steer clear of. Usually the brands carried are less environmentally conscious than I like and lotion or shampoo in bulk sizes degrade in quality before we use them up.  But if you have a large family, bulk supplies of this kind might be worthwhile.

Medical or health supplies sometimes make sense.  We give our dog glucosamine and chondroitin and it is much cheaper to buy in bulk than at the pet or vitamin store. Also, daily supplements like Vitamin D or Magnesium are cheaper too.

One time purchases, like electronics or shelving units, might be cheaper at bulk stores. However, for expensive purchases or items expected to last awhile, reading reviews and deciding on the exact brand and model before buying produces a better result. Once you know what you want, then check around for the best prices.

Pet products sometimes make sense.  It depends on how much your pets eat and if they actually favor the brands on offer.  Cat liter is usually a winner though, and if you give your animals treats such as for training purposes, these are also good bets.

Human food items are the easiest to overspend on and take the most thought to make bulk buying beneficial.  But this is also where you can make the biggest dent in your budget and in some cases improve the quality of your diet with bulk products.  With a little leg work in advance, you can avoid overspending.

  1. Figure out what you actually use in bulk before you buy in bulk.  It’s easy to get carried away buying dry goods like beans, rice, and other grains.  But many of these items degrade within weeks to months of opening or are subject to insect damage like pantry moths in your rice or mites in your flour if you store them too long.
  2. Compare apples to apples and  ounces to ounces.  Bulk packaging means you have to do math to compare costs, but it is worth doing.  The two and a half pound bag of Starbucks French Roast for $21 seems like a good deal on the surface.  But in fact, when I buy the 12 ounce bags on sale the grocery store, my price per ounce is lower and smaller bags stay fresher longer.
  3. Upgrade to organic, fair trade, sustainable, etc.  This is where bulk stores, particularly Costco, can really shine.  They tend to have a good variety of organic products that are significantly cheaper than your grocery store variations.  If you already buy organic, then load up.  But if not, you may be able to upgrade to organic sugar, honey, agave, rice, grains, peanut butter, coffee, flour, pasta, jams, etc. for the same prices as the non-organic varieties purchased at the supermarket.  It’s not a net win to upgrade, but it cuts your chemical exposure and lets you vote for better quality food with your grocery budget.
  4. Beware of refrigerated produce. It has a short shelf life and is often packaged in quantities too large to be useful before spoilage.  If you are having  a party, go for it, but otherwise, stick to the long-storing goods like onions and potatoes.  Instead, buy from local farmers for best taste,quality, and to cut the carbon quotient in your food.

As a final strategy, since I don’t bulk shop enough to memorize the store layout, I like to make a pass through the aisles without a cart, smart phone in hand, and do price comparisons.  I cross off any items on my list that don’t add up before I start loading my cart.  I walk fast, and come prepared with my  normal grocery store prices per ounce so that it only takes a few minutes to do a price check.  As  a bonus, since I already walked the store to start, I can speed shop, in my usual fashion, and am less likely to be sucked in by a supposed steal when I am pushing a cart.

Incidentally, the header photo is from a bulk delivery I received today. That’s fifteen yards of composted cow manure that will be used to enrich our edible landscape so that we can shop less and grow more.  Buying bulk soil amendments  is one kind of shopping that may deplete your bank account initially, but absolutely helps fill voids in your life through productive gardening and better nutrition.