Don’t Buy This: Buying Food in Bulk Is a Waste of Money

Loading up on burgers, cookies and giant jars of mayonnaise at Costco and Sam’s Club isn’t going to help you save. Here’s how to shop smarter at a warehouse club store.

Jul 30 2018, 3:21pm

Illustration by Maggie Ahearn

Hitting your neighborhood warehouse club can give you the same adrenaline rush as a toddler gets at Disney World. Thirty packs of Oreos for $11.50? Yes, please. A gallon jar of pickles for $5? Sign me up!

While there are amazing deals at Costco and Sam’s Club, it’s easy to go overboard and spend more than you realize. On average, households that shop at club stores spend up to $11 more a month on packaged food than those that don’t, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Marketing Research. That includes everything from a box of 36 Pop-Tarts for $8 to six quarts of almond milk for $9.

As a result, you waste what you can’t eat—the average American throws away a pound of food daily. Rather than slowly eating the entire two pounds of delicious blueberries you bought for $5 at Sam’s Club, for example, you could very well end up throwing out half, along with the $2.50 you spent on them.

Another possibility is that you pig out on everything you bought—the average bulk food shopper eats 3,000 more calories for storable foods and 450 more calories for perishables each month, Ailawadi said. Five pounds of Red Vines licorice for $10 is a steal, but it’s probably not a good idea.

When buying in bulk is more hassle than it’s worth

In some cases, bulk purchases are actually more expensive than their grocery store equivalent. For example, 24 five-ounce hamburger patties cost $85 at Costco, for which works out to about $3.50 each. While that sounds like a hell of a deal, Kroger sells ground beef for $5.50, a pound, which works out to about $1.80 per burger.

Photos by Getty Images

Other food can go bad before you get around to eating it, including bread, coffee, nuts, oil, spices, and cereal. While you can freeze some foods like nuts, other food like frozen cereal or eggs does not freeze well.

Even when you do get a good deal, you’ve got to figure out where to store everything. “I once bought a ton of steaks from a warehouse store, but didn’t have the freezer space to actually store them,” said Michelle Madhok, founder of deals site She Finds. “Then I thought about throwing a party to get rid of them so I wasn’t wasting them, but then I would have ultimately spent even more money in the long run.”

What is worth buying at a warehouse store

So what’s a good deal at warehouse stores? Nonperishable items like trash bags, toilet paper, sunscreen, cleaning supplies, toothpaste, and aluminum foil. Here are a few examples of the savings:

A few other, non-bulk deals include gas, with savings of up to 20 cents a gallon in some places (here are some examples in Norfolk, Virginia at Woodbury, Minnesota.), and movie tickets, which you can buy for up to half off regular box office prices.

Bottom line, “Try to avoid buying perishable items or items you just don’t need in bulk, because this can also be a financial drain,” said Jamie Hopkins, associate professor of taxation at the American College of Financial Services. Shop with a list and don’t divert from your budget. Know your prices and comparison shop.

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