Trash Frugal Living by Buying in Bulk

by David Ning · 20 comments

Bigger is always better. Or so they say.

We love to hear about a better deal, but these incredible offers usually trick us into spending more money than we should. Case in point – buy bulk. Don’t agree? Answer these three questions.

  1. How many times do you grab a can of soda because you just bought a huge case?
  2. How many times do you drink when you don’t have any in the fridge?
  3. How often do you eat more because your plate had more food?


Sometimes, you end up consuming what wasn’t needed, and other times, you end up wasting it because of expiration dates. Let me give you a few more examples of what I mean.

  • Painkillers – Looking at our medicine cabinet the other day made me feel so weak because we had SO MANY DIFFERENT bottles of pills. You’d think we are just being careful and stocking up, but that idea went out the door when I realized that 90% of every bottle expired.
  • Milk, Soy milk, Cheese – Remember the college days when your friends (you) got sick because you drank half a bottle of expired milk? How often do you try to finish off these diary products because the expiration date is approaching?
  • Paper – I used to buy the biggest boxes of paper that I could find because the per unit cost was cheaper and I figured that I will eventually use it all up. Instead, knowing I had so much supply just made me more wasteful. These days, I stopped buying pieces of paper all together. Sometimes, it’s a scramble to find a usable sheet but I try to reuse them by printing on both sides. I bet someone found it weird when I sent in a rebate check with instructions of installing a printer on the other side, but I got my check anyway.
  • Everything Prepaid – I still have several prepaid golf driving range cards. One had $30 on it, another had $40 and one more had $84. I will use them eventually right? Maybe, but it’s already been five years since I bought those and I haven’t used any of them in over three years.
  • Checks – I mistakenly thought that I can always use them as long as I keep my account open so I ordered quite a few boxes of checks, again thinking I’m saving. As I’m getting ready to move, I realized that all my checks will be invalid because they have the old addresses printed on them.
  • CDs – I still have a bunch of blank CDs from the box of 100 I purchased in Canada a decade ago (that’s ten whole years folks).
  • Business Cards – See, I was smart with these. My business is online, so there’s no address here. But I like to improve things, so I change designs and order more. Even if I start a MoneyNing business card museum, I’d only need one of them each. What am I going to do with the rest?

Sure, these are the little things, and they don’t really make a huge difference. But what about buying the bigger house that you didn’t need because it’s the “better deal”? How about all those unlimited plans you bought because you will make your money back by using it just two or three times?

The only time it makes sense to take advantage of a deal to buy big is when you were going to buy big in the first place. Otherwise, it’s just clever advertising, meaning more money for some corporation, less money for us.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • TheInfamousJ says:

    One thing I’ve learned is that when there is a buy-one-get-one-free deal going on at your grocery store, that if you only buy one of them, you get it half off. That way you can still get the savings without the bulk and stuff.

  • Andrew @ Financial Services says:

    Bulk is probably not advisable for food stuff, but for cleaning chemicals, soaps and shampoos anything which doesn’t have an expiry date is a good idea. Then again some people tend to be a bit wasteful when they know they have a lot of it.

  • 444 says:

    You make a few points that I can agree with. I can admit to throwing out some things that expired because I bought too much/too many of them. And I can admit to consuming some food that would normally be too “expensive” for me but it seemed less expensive when presented at the warehouse store in a large quantity.

    But even after accounting for all of this, we’ve found that warehouse shopping definitely saves us a significant amount of money over shopping at even the cheapest supermarkets (with the caveat that there are select items that are only practical to buy at the supermarket for quantity reasons – we don’t want a years’ supply of yeast for baking bread, for example, or five years’ worth of razor blades. Or for the reason that the warehouse store simply doesn’t stock some items.)

    The difference her probably is due to you and your readership most likely being primarily comprised of singles or couples or very small families, whereas we have six people in our family – two adults and four kids, three of the kids being teenagers over 100 lbs. each – you can only imagine the amount of food consumed here.

  • Wilson Pon says:

    David, it seems that we both having the same problem, as I also love to pill up many stuffs in my house, especially the painkillers (Gosh, my head starting to pain, when I saw all the expired painkillers in the cabinets)…

  • Robert says:

    Very true. Just because there’s MORE of something doesn’t make it a better deal. We consume more of it when there’s a ton. When there’s less, we ration ourselves. Great post.

  • Lee says:

    Good point, David. Perhaps a better wording would be to “consider” buying in bulk for certain items where a guaranteed saving can be had. I don’t drink soda, but I do drink an awful lot of coffee… so when I see “buy one get one free” or similar, I do tend to buy then.

  • You have to consider the counter-argument, tho. I have a friend who never buys 24 packs of soda. I do. We both drink it nearly daily or at least every other day. My cans end up costing something like .30, sometimes closer to a quarter. Instead he goes to the gas station and spend $1.50 on a soda.

    Then again I might have just proved your point – Only buy in bulk when you were already planning on it (as I usually “plan” on drinking one soda a day).

  • Alex Burda says:

    In Australia the major supermarkets now have unit measurements on their price tags so that consumers can easily work out what they are paying per unit. Packaging thesedays can be very deceptive as products vary in weight so the packaging does not always provide an easy way to verify a good deal.
    For example we now have products that display the cost per 1oo grams. This way it make it more simple to compare a similar product in weight terms without having to use a calculator everytime a product is purchased.
    http://www

    .financeloans.quoteplease.net/

  • Jen says:

    Another classic example of buying in bulk and wastage is grocery shopping. While most people think that buying in bulk saves them a whole lot of cash, they end up buying more than they can consume, and this leads to wastage. Some people, including myself, are so anxious to get their grocery shopping done, that they purchase things that they already have. I have lost count of the number of bottles of vanilla essence I have stored in my pantry.

  • David – excellent post. You cite perfect examples of the wastes (muda) of inventory that people create. I am sure to quote a few of these in a future post on my blog.

    Wastes of inventory, time, motion, rework, over production, processing and transportation are the 7 sins to Living a Lean Lifestyle.

    The pills hit close to home. While on a trip recently, my wife informed me that she cleaned out our vanity. There were hundreds of dollars of old make up and personal care stuff some of which was very old. It was painful to even think about.

    Keep up the great work.

  • Lee says:

    I actually experimented with this when I was finding my financial feet, and found NOT buying in bulk, worked out cheaper for ME (I acknowledge everyone is different though…).

    I buy what I need, with the shortest possible shelf-life (for cooking in batch and picking up on the cheap), and then freeze. That way I don’t end up buried under mountains of ‘stuff’ that may or may not use before it goes out of date, and usually pay significantly less due to the price reduction than even if I’d bought under “buy one get one free” or similar.

  • Kim says:

    In this thread, there are very faint echoes of “I would normally not buy this, but it was on sale.”

  • Charlie@PayLessForFood says:

    Great topic Dave.

    I’m actually in the middle of writing a blog post called When Less is More about how bulk purchasing in the grocery store can be anti-frugal. One of the biggest culprits are those sales.

    I make the mistake of buying extra bunches of bananas when they go on sale for 45 cents a pound. Usually I end up the next week with a bunch of brown, mushy bananas sitting on the kitchen counter top. The same thing happens when I buy that extra gallon of milk or those extra bag of grapes that go on sale for a super cheap price.

    It seems like you’re saving money at first until you throw what you bought in the garbage because its spoiled or gone bad.

  • Eric J. Nisall says:

    I have to agree with Craig about the specific products that are worth buying in bulk, especially if you are getting together with others to split it with. In that case, it does make financial as well as practical sense. I never understood what anyone would do with a gallon of mayo, except maybe throw half of it away becasue it expired before being consumed.

    These days, if you go into many supermarkets, they give you the price per unit on the price label, and I’m almost willing to bet that if you made a comparison you will find that most “regular sized” packages will compare favorable anyway. I know at my local supermarket I have seen much better deals than what I have heard about at warehouse clubs, and (at least in my opinion) the food is of a much higher quality.

    Getting back to David’s list though, I have to disagree with some points. Prepaying is a good idea for utilities or regularly-used items. I have prepaid my web hosting for my 3 sites, as well as my Vonage service. Since I know that these will be ongoing costs, I don’t view it as a waste, and actually save by paying in advance. And, I definitely disagree about buying business cards in bulk. It is never a bad thing to have something to hand people with your information, even if it is for an online venture, such as your blog. There are still people who are very tactile and need to have a business card in their hand or to keep in their wallet. Even if there isn’t a physical address, you have the web addresses, e-mail address, and perhaps your logo and slogan. There doesn’t need to be a whole lot of info, just enough for people to be able to find your business. Plus, if you use a company like Office Depot where you can use the printable coupons as well as the rewards program, the per-item cost is negligible, while the return can be significant.

    • MoneyNing says:

      Speaking about supermarkets, I wonder if they provide the “per unit cost” for consumers so they will actually get the bigger bottle, knowing that on average, people would end up buying more. Of course, I would have no idea of verifying this so it’s just a thought…

      I think you can always find examples of how prepaying has helped, but locking yourself in one service for months/years may not be the wisest move in every case. Your sites may expand and you may want to switch to a different hosting company a few months down the road. As to Vonage, have you tried magicJack? I have no experience with it but those commercials say it’s only $19.95 a year for unlimited calling. What if you tried it and you found that it was a better option? If you prepaid, you are pretty much stuck, even though you thought you were getting a better deal by paying up front.

      • Eric J. Nisall says:

        That Magic Jack (at least to me) is a scam. It’s one of those “too good to be true” type deals, and I doubt that they provide anything along the lines of what any other phone provider can offer in terms of services that tie in to having a phone line. Of course, you are absolutely correct regarding prepayments, but in my personal situation, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. My storage and bandwidth are so much higher than my usage that I can’t anticipate outgrowing them unless somewhat of a miracle occurs, and in that case I would not complain one bit about losing the small amount that was invested.

        Funny thing about the unit cost comparisons, I have been using them as a guide when shopping, and found that in some cases, the cost per unit is lower on smaller quantities. That isn’t really how most people would think about things, but on some of the items I have seen, that seems to be the case.

  • Craig says:

    Buying in bulk works with certain items. For me it’s more bathroom and households items such as paper towels, toilet papers, cleaning supplies and things on that level. With food I don’t like doing it.

    • MoneyNing says:

      I know everyone is different, but I find that the first half of the toilet paper usually goes more quickly than the last half of every roll. Whenever the bottle of detergent is bigger with a bigger “mouth”, I pour more on every use. At least for me, even essentials may not be worth the cost even if it seems cheaper at the time of purchase.

  • Thanks for this.

    I hate buying in bulk because I dislike having lots of extra stuff around, I dislike supporting big box stores, and I know I won’t resist eating that extra “cookie” that Financial Samurai mentioned. But I’ve always felt a little guilty that I was missing out on saving money and time by NOT buying bulk.

    This post made some of that guilt subside. I’m happy to know that other personal finance writers aren’t wild about buying in bulk either. Curious to see how others out there respond…

  • David, unfortunately, I’m VERY against buying in bulk. I’m a big believer in buying variably i.e. buying only when you need something, with short shelf lives of consumption.

    I guess I approach this from a business viewpoint. Part of the reason why Costco is so wildly successful is because they can take advantage of consumer who think “buy one, get one half off.”

    Bulk buying is part of the reason why there is so much more clutter.

    Nobody can ever resist eating another cookie from the cookie jar either.

    Financial Samurai

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