8 Things to Avoid Buying in Bulk

by Miranda Marquit · 37 comments

One of the rules of frugal grocery shopping is to buy in bulk. Indeed, we’re told to buy larger amounts of the things we like when they are on sale so that we save money in the long run. However, in some cases it’s actually better to forgo buying in bulk. Here are 8 things where this is particular true:

  1. Nuts: You might be able to get a great deal on nuts, but they actually expire in between one and two months. Nuts have a high fat content and can go rancid sooner than you might expect. Seeds (flax, sesame, etc.) can also have the same problem. Before you stock up on these delicious snack, think about how often you really eat them, and make sure you can eat them in the prescribed amount of time.
  2. Cooking oils: It depends on what kinds of oil you are using, and where you store them. Olive oil will keep for about six months in a cool, dark place. Peanut and corn oil can keep for a year unopened, and for six months after being opened. Sesame oil and walnut oil are only good for a couple of months. You can prolong the life of cooking oils in the fridge, but they are likely to thicken in the fridge, so you will have to wait for them to warm to room temperature when you want to use them.
  3. Brown rice: Brown rice does not keep as long as white rice (which is too bad, since brown rice is healthier for you). It lasts only six months to a year, although you can lengthen the shelf life by putting it in the refrigerator.
  4. Condiments: You might be surprised how long it takes you to get through your condiments — and they’re only good for between six months a year. Mayo, mustard and ketchup may all go bad before you use them if you buy in bulk. The same is true of peanut butter and jelly. (And Nutella.)
  5. Cereal: Right now, we have a pantry full of bulk cereal that’s about to expire. We bought it in bulk months ago, and we just aren’t getting through it that fast because we eat other, healthier things for breakfast most mornings. Carefully gauge your cereal needs, and consider slowing down on the bulk buying.
  6. Frozen foods: After a few months, frozen foods will get freezer burn. Even frozen meats won’t last forever. Carefully consider how much space you have, and whether you will get through the frozen foods before they go bad in the freezer. You might find that it’s better to keep a one to two months’ supply at a time, and rotate it.
  7. Spices: After six months to a year, spices start losing their potency. So buying huge bulk containers might not be the way to go — unless you cook a lot. Think about what you use most often, and whether or not you really need that much of each spice.
  8. Nutritional supplements: Whether its a multivitamin, protein shake mix or a bottle of fish oil capsules, be aware of whether you will get through that big container before it expires. This goes for medication as well. My husband and I stopped buying massive bottles of Ibuprofen after we discovered one that was three years past its expiration date.

Part of frugality is buying what you will use, and not buying excess that you throw away. Take stock of your habits, and pay attention to expiration dates. Good food storage is routinely rotated so that you eat things within their expiration date while having some months of food stored up. Making a plan can ensure that you have what you need — and that you aren’t throwing spoiled food out on a regular basis.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Balance Junkie April 13, 2010 at 6:52 am

Thanks for this list. I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of over-stocking at least 7 out of these 8 items. In the end, it probably cost me more than I saved by buying in bulk.

I’m really careful about seasonality too. Sometimes we stock up on BBQ sauce and ketchup during the summer only to have all of it expire over the winter when we cook out less.

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david April 13, 2010 at 7:11 am

You are correct on most of what you have above. The only item that I would question that you have on your list is mustard. While mustard may have an expiration date on it the product almost never goes bad. I have had some specialty mustards for literally years in my fridge and they are still just fine. On spices yes, they do loose thier potency over time, but with some you can compensate by just using more of that spice than the recipe calls for. You do have to determine the math and see which makes most sense. The key think is to take a marker and put a date on each spice when you buy it so you know how long its been on the shelf. On over the counter meds like pain killers many of them are just fine well past the expiry date (this is not as true for prescription meds).

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MoneyNing April 13, 2010 at 12:53 pm

I would caution everyone who takes medicine past the expiration dates. While it may be safe, it’s not necessarily a good idea. Your body does absorb the medicine (and everything else with it) after all.

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Mat April 15, 2010 at 1:15 pm

But it’s not like Ibuprofen sitting on a shelf in my bathroom is going through some kind of chemical change. Ok, maybe after a few years it’d start to oxidize, but I’m not sure that would matter.

Throwing away old, non liquid meds, unless they’re REALLY old (3-5 years past expiration) seems like a waste to me.

David, one thought with mustard that was just talked about on Cook’s County TV show recently is that while mustard doesn’t necessarily go bad with time, it does get weaker in taste, so if you’re a spicy mustard fan you’d probably best to replace it.

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Jen August 5, 2010 at 10:07 am

A caveat: some non-liquid meds do actually expire, especially when commonly stored for convenience in a bathroom cabinet. The humidity actually enhances decomposition. One example: tetracyclines – they can deteriorate into toxic substances. – a chemist

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Emily January 6, 2011 at 6:48 am

He did specify non-prescription meds.

There was a study done a while ago that most pain-killers still have potency years past their expiration date.

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2000/04/02/drug-expiration-part-one.aspx

“Fifteen years ago, the U. S. military decided to find out. Sitting on a $1 billion stockpile of drugs and facing the daunting process of destroying and replacing its supply every two to three years, the military began a testing program to see if it could extend the life of its inventory.

The testing, conducted by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, ultimately covered more than 100 drugs, prescription and over-the-counter. The results, never before reported, show that about 90% of them were safe and effective far past their original expiration date, at least one for 15 years past it.

In light of these results, a former director of the testing program, Francis Flaherty, says he has concluded that expiration dates put on by manufacturers typically have no bearing on whether a drug is usable for longer.

Mr. Flaherty notes that a drug maker is required to prove only that a drug is still good on whatever expiration date the company chooses to set. The expiration date doesn’t mean, or even suggest, that the drug will stop being effective after that, nor that it will become harmful.”

CD Phi April 13, 2010 at 8:38 am

Yes, it is absolutely important to keep the things you buy in mind in terms of expiration date. A good deal is not always a good deal if you end up just throwing it away after a few months of not using it.

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marci357 April 13, 2010 at 8:41 am

Nuts freeze well. A year later, still good.
For meats, vacuum sealed lasts for years in the freezer – get ALL the air out.
OTC meds are usually good after expiration – check online for specifics. Expiration does not mean it cannot be used, only that it is BEST if used prior to that date, and cannot be sold after that date for freshness.
Most condiments freeze well – especially ketchup.
Spices – agree – just use more :) or reconstitute partially with water prior to using.
Cereal – if it goes stale, put it on a cookie sheet in the oven to freshen it back up – or use it for baking.
Brown Rice – I’ve never had an issue with it – even 2 years later. I keep it in an airtight container in a dark cupboard.

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cm April 13, 2010 at 9:29 am

I think most expiration dates are highly exaggerated.

I hope you’re wrong on the nuts, since I just bought 14 lbs of cashews at once and plan on munching them down throughout the next 8 or so months. The can expiration date lists well into next year, so my guess is it will be fine.

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Sce April 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I think that maybe it’s just some types of nuts. I’m currently eating from a can of planters cashews which says Aug2011 on the bottom and it’s April of 2012, and they taste normal to me. I seriously doubt that they could be considered to expire in two months.

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Mrs. Micah April 13, 2010 at 9:45 am

100% right on the nuts, unfortunately. I didn’t buy them in bulk, but I found a lost container and it was not a good thing.

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Max July 15, 2010 at 10:36 am

Thanks a lot for specifying the age of “lost” nuts. Fat lot of help you are.

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JohnnyH April 13, 2010 at 9:53 am

Utterly and totally exaggerated, agreeing with cm.

First of all, I find virtually EVERYTHING outlasts its expiration date by a large amount with proper storage.

*The nuts I buy say the don’t expire for many months.
*Coconut oil is very stable and has a potential shelf life of years, even in hot, humid climates.
*Frozen foods certainly last longer than months, sheesh… Many fruits and vegetables have a protective layer of ice, so that even if they get freezer burned it’s not a big deal… Just yesterday I ate frozen strawberries that were well over a year in my freezer, completely delicious.
*Condiments last many months beyond their expiration. I’ve had Miracle Whip well over a YEAR after expiration -and I am still in the land of the living.
*Spices, even if they lose their potency they still work… My mom has spices from the 80s she still cooks just fine with. Like condiments, they are not the bulk of what you’re eating and a little bit shouldn’t matter even if they are way, way out of date.

The best detectors of spoiled food are built in: smell and taste… Worst case scenario you strengthen your immune system with some increased bacteria. You might get sick following the above, although I certainly have not.

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Jenny July 19, 2010 at 11:07 am

Miracle Whip and regular Mayo have eggs in them. You absolutely should NOT be eating them a year after they’ve been opened.

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Danji July 31, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Hugely agree with JohnnyH – and many of the other comments – expiration dates are essentially liability dates for multinational food companies worried about getting sued. Smell and taste, and some common sense – that’s what’s going to keep you healthy, not blogs telling you to religiously follow mass-produced timestamps.

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marci357 April 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

Nuts freeze for YEARS… well. As long as in air tight container.

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MoneyNing April 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Also keep in mind that your geographical location matters too. If you can essentially suck all the air out when you store it, there’s probably no problem but if not, the quicker things go bad the more humid the area where you live.

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K at Greenshield April 13, 2010 at 1:05 pm

“Part of frugality is buying what you will use, and not buying excess that you throw away. ”

This is a simple, excellent point that is overlooked too often. It can be easy to get carried away in the savings on bulk purchases and not think long term about the waste that you might incur. It is a particularly valuable truth for those in debt, and

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JoeTaxpayer April 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Miranda is right. There’s the date, which is a sell-by, but once opened, the clock really starts. So a can of 6/1 nuts may be ok to open 8/1, but if opened 4/1, they start to lose flavor and risk going bad.
I’ve joked to the mrs that I need a frugal buddy, someone to split that gallon of mustard with.
What I struggle with is the spices that bulk gives you 4X the amount for about 50% more money than the small supermarket container. I buy the big one and date it. If I throw out less than a half full container, I’m ahead of the game.
Chicken and meat – if you put it in a freezer ziplock and suck the air out with a soda straw, you can get a good long time before it goes bad. Date the bag with a sharpie, and keep track of the dates.

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marci357 April 13, 2010 at 1:50 pm

This from Harvard Medical School: Drug Expiration Dates – Do They Mean Anything? http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update1103a.shtml
With a splitting headache you reach into your medicine cabinet for some aspirin only to find the stamped expiration date on the bottle has passed – two years ago. So, do you take it or don’t you? If you decide to take the aspirin will it be a fatal mistake or will you simply continue to suffer from the headache?

This is a dilemma many people face in some way or another. A column published in Pyschopharmacology Today offers some advice.

It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug.

Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

So the expiration date doesn’t really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers. It’s true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years.

Is the expiration date a marketing ploy by drug manufacturers, to keep you restocking your medicine cabinet and their pockets regularly? You can look at it that way. Or you can also look at it this way: The expiration dates are very conservative to ensure you get everything you paid for. And, really, if a drug manufacturer had to do expiration-date testing for longer periods it would slow their ability to bring you new and improved formulations.

The next time you face the drug expiration date dilemma, consider what you’ve learned here. If the expiration date passed a few years ago and it’s important that your drug is absolutely 100% effective, you might want to consider buying a new bottle. And if you have any questions about the safety or effectiveness of any drug, ask your pharmacist. He or she is a great resource when it comes to getting more information about your medications.

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Kate April 13, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Great post Miranda. I was just talking to one of my friends about splitting some stuff from the warehouse club because I didn’t like being wasteful. I never thought about condiments, vitamins and medicine expiring before I am able to use everything.

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Kevin@OutOfYourRut April 13, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Great post Miranda. We’ve been buying cheese in 5 lb blocks, which works sometimes, but other times, it’s more than we can use before it starts getting moldy. There’s a real price advantage to buying in such quantities, but not if it’s more than you can reasonably use.

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marci357 April 13, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Cheese freezes well too.

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Kevin@OutOfYourRut April 13, 2010 at 7:15 pm

I agree, but my family says freezing dries it out.

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basicmoneytips.com April 14, 2010 at 4:25 am

Interest article. I do not buy a lot in bulk anyway, but I did not really think of things like olive oils and nuts.

I think you should probably stick to the non-food items such as paper towels or laundry detergent. The other thing about buying in bulk is you are likely to forget when you actually bought the item

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Jesse April 14, 2010 at 3:04 pm

One thing to keep in mind when dealing with bulk buying is the difference between the “Use by” date and the “Best by” date.

Use by means the product will actually go bad after that date, and may make you sick.

Best by means the product has been rating a certain shelf life, but after the best by date, it can still be used. It just isn’t guaranteed to taste or react the same in the cooking process. Cereals for example can still be eaten after the Best by date, but they may get stale, or taste funny.

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eemusings April 15, 2010 at 3:54 am

Great food for thought. We go through pretty much everything on that list really fast (despite being a two-person household) anyway; not to mention our kitchen is TINY and literally has nowhere to store bulk buys.

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jefft April 15, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Some good; most not. Expiration dates have a lot to do with both regulations and marketing. Frozen things properly packaged usually last up to a year. Nuts airtight in freezer – a long time; condiments air tight in refrig, also a long time. Think yoghurt expires: not. until there’s mold on top, you can eat it. Say a year or more after expiration date. Cheeses too. Just taste them. Puhleeze.

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Aileen April 15, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Great post.. Thank you so much for the list. Once, we used to buy things in bulks (I guess that was one and a half year ago?).. Not thinking about the expiration date of each food, then maybe after five or six mos., some of those are expired.. So, we stopped buying in bulks. But I still think, through buying in bulks, we can save more money, so I decided to search and have come up to this blog. Thanks again. :)

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Abby July 19, 2010 at 11:13 am

We have a colored dot system for tracking how long has before expiration.

A red dot is we can’t find an expiration date but as of a certain date, we had it.
A yellow dot expires this year. A hand written number on it will tell us which month.
A green dot is 2011 or more. If it is a 2011, it is just the month while the others have which month and the last 2 digits of the year.

Just look for the dot.

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Gina July 20, 2010 at 11:12 am

While it is wise not to buy in excess, I agree with the many commenters who are in no hurry to throw out their “expired” goods. This weekend I discovered some frozen mango chunks that were a bit dried out, so they went into a delicious smoothie. Yum.

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Lucy September 8, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Vacuum sealing will lengthen the shelf life. A mason jar, vacuum sealed, will protect crackers, cereals, rice, etc. Meats vacuum sealed will last a lot longer in the freezer. Not all of us live close to stores so we must stock up. We do the FIFO method. (First in, first out.) If products are stored properly the “use by” date doesn’t really mean a whole lot.

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Kae December 2, 2010 at 6:23 am

you can freeze nuts.

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Bob March 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Overall I agree, but frozen foods and rice? I guess if you are buying a HUGE amount then it might be a problem. But a 6-12 month shelf life is a pretty long time. If you can’t use what you have bought in that time then something is wrong.

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Alex July 24, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I try to eat brown rice because as you mention it is healthier, however I recently had a first hand experience of the fact is does not keep as well as white!

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Witty Artist August 16, 2011 at 3:54 am

Great post, Miranda! I don’t like to buy frozen foods because they aren’t healthy and tasty. As for the medicines, it also happened to me once to find a box of expired Nurofen. And since then I always check on expiration dates and try to limit the purchase in bulk.

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Laura August 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Couldn’t disagree with this article more. Expiration dates are for manufacturer’s to make more money. Very few things we eat (or ingest) past their expiration date are dangerous for us (there are some antibiotics that are). Food or meds past their expiration dates may have a decrease in color, nutritional value, or potency, but they are still better than not having them at all. The white horse rider (deception) is already riding. War (middle east), famine and death are next on the prophetic timeline and, I believe, imminent. (See Mathew, chapter 24 and Revelation). If you aren’t stocking up yet, now is the time. “Redeem the time for the days are evil…”

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