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Monday, 12 November 2007

The Hidden Costs of Buying in Bulk

I'm starting a new, weekly series of posts called "Cheaper isn't always better" and it starts with this one. The goal is to point out money saving myths that can actually end up costing you more. The first myth I intend to bust is the one about buying in bulk.

In college, a few friends and I split the cost of a membership to BJ's so that we could buy our groceries in bulk. Instead of buying the campus meal plan, we did all of our own cooking to save money and eat healthier foods, so a bulk store membership seemed like a good idea. The idea was that we could stock up on basics like pasta and rice and get a lot more for the same amount of money. I have to admit I was a little reluctant to join (there was something about the $40+ membership fee that put me off), but the excitement of my fellow house-mates who'd had memberships in the past finally won me over.

I should have listened to my gut, though. While it is true that per pound, shopping at wholesale stores saves money, do you really need to buy your ground cinnamon by the pound? We ended up buying things we never would have bought just because they were such a good deal. My friends would come home with 3 pounds of Pop Tarts, a 5 pound block of cheese, and a pantry's worth of microwavable Easy Mac. By the end of the week, the Pop Tarts would be gone, the Easy Mac boxes were nearly empty and the block of cheese was basically untouched. In another week the cheese would be moldy and thrown out.

When I went shopping I tried to restrict myself to the basics and buy the smallest quantities available, like we had originally planned, and for the most part I was able to do it. But still, I ended up buying more than we needed and sometimes more than we could eat before the food went bad. As a result, we ended up eating more so that we wouldn't have to throw things away.

Buying in bulk has it's hidden costs. One is that when you have more, you use more. This goes for food, cleaning supplies and toiletries. Where you used to be always looking for ways to cut back, you get comfortable and stop paying attention. If you've got a big box of cereal, you'll pour a little more in your bowl in the morning or even have a second bowl. And when you go to brush your teeth, you'll find yourself squeezing a little extra toothpaste onto your brush because you've got another giant tube in the medicine cabinet.

This backfires in two ways. First, when you use more, you have to buy more. You'll end up buying another giant box of cereal before you know it. Secondly, when you have more food around to eat, you'll find yourself eating more. This can destroy your diet and your health. You might be eating more because you don't want food to go bad and be forced to throw it out. You might be eating more because you bought a giant box of junk food because it was on sale. Either way, when you've got a lot of food in the house, especially unhealthy foods, it's easy to fall into bad habits. And I noticed at BJ's that the foods they carried weren't very healthy. What I remember most is the frozen pizzas, potato chips, 2 gallon tubs of ice cream, hamburger patties, ├ęclairs from the bakery, and super-sized bags of M&Ms - and I've always been a healthy eater inclined to ignore such foods. Maybe Sam's Club is different, but I doubt it.

In the end, we stopped going to BJ's all together. The store was in an inconvenient location and the money we were spending driving back and forth and the kinds of foods we ended up buying when we were there finally persuaded us to see past the allure of bulk purchasing. Actually, most of the time we had been buying our groceries at the local grocery store, which was within walking distance, anyway because it was more convenient and allowed us to get something we needed right away (we weren't very good meal planners back then). When all was said and done we probably did save enough money on our wholesale purchases to pay for the membership fee, but I'm certain that we actually ended up spending more than we would have otherwise. And I'm positive that we would have been eating much healthier and we would have saved ourselves the hours at the gym we spent working off the mistake.

To me, this is a myth busted. Maybe for the very diligent shopper with a gigantic freezer and lots of mouths to feed wholesale clubs are a blessing, but for most of us, rarely does buying in bulk pay off. We either end up throwing food away or simply eating more.

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1 comment:

Alison @ This Wasn't in the Plan said...

You bring out some very important points!
I get a membership to Costco for free through my father's work, so I don't need to factor membership cost into whether or not shopping in bulk pays off for me. I've done lots of comparison shopping to find out what is worth the cost. A lot of stuff isn't for the reasons you pointed out, but I've found a few things that are cost effective for me. It is hard to not get sucked into buying a ten pound bag of brownie mix though!