Buying in bulk can be so tempting, even if there are only a few people in your family. When you do the math, it seems so much cheaper to buy that enormous vat of ketchup over a single bottle, or to pick up 18 rolls of bathroom tissue instead of four.
Bulk buying can be a complicated equation. Will you really use all of that ketchup? Do you have a place to store that pallet of toilet paper? Balancing need, space considerations, food preferences and product expiration dates, all while standing there in the freezer aisle of a warehouse store, can leave you confused. If you want to capture the savings, but avoid the problems that come with miscalculating, consider this list of 10 items that are ideal to buy in bulk — and 10 that aren’t, starting with those that are worst.
Bad choices for buying in bulk:
Even if you really, really like making cinnamon rolls, will you actually use that enormous shaker of cinnamon? Because while ground spices don’t technically go bad, they can definitely lose flavor after 12 months or more of sitting in your pantry. (Spice maker McCormick & Company notes that you can check spice freshness by crushing a little in your hand — if you still get a fresh aroma, you’re probably okay.) Even if your spices last for a couple of years, it’s just doubtful that you’re going to use bulk quantities, unless you’re whipping up the entire troop’s allotment of Girl Scout cookies yourself.
Fruits and vegetables vary in how quickly they go bad, but overall you’re better off buying it fresh as you need it. Corn on the cob, for one, is best eaten within just one or two days of being picked. And some types of produce, such as cucumbers, lettuce and radishes, just don’t freeze well. Buy only what you need, and you won’t find yourself in a jam.
3. Brown rice
Brown rice is nutty, flavorful and healthy, but don’t stock up. Its sister grain, white rice, can be stored in your cupboard almost forever. But brown rice isn’t as long-lived. The Whole Grains Council says whole brown rice should only be kept for six months in your pantry, though if you freeze it, you can extend that to one year.
4. Skin care products
No one wants to rub expired cream on their skin. Facial and other skin care products sold in giant jugs may look like a great deal, but don’t risk keeping it too long.
Ever smelled a rotten egg? It doesn’t exactly crack you up. Your carton of eggs should come with an expiration date, and the American Egg Board says the little shelled marvels can be safely eaten for a few weeks after that. But unless it’s Easter, can you really go through five dozen eggs before they’ve passed their use-by date? And since eggshells are so delicate, cramming too many of them into your fridge can be a scramble.
I scream, you scream, we all may scream without … sunscreen! Yes, we’ve come a long way from smearing coconut oil on our bodies and lying in the sun with tinfoil shields, just inviting sunburn (and its resulting skin damage) to come and get us. We’ve learned the risks, so it’s tempting to buy sunscreen in bulk. But hold on just a hot minute. Once opened, sunscreen can degrade and lose its effectiveness, which could lead to an unwelcome fry-day.
Bread may be the staff of life, but its shelf life is not exactly stupendous. Baked goods do freeze nicely, with some exceptions (frosted goods can pose a gooey problem when they thaw). And freezer burn inevitably seems to creep into bagged bread when you freeze it, no matter how tightly you think you’ve sealed the bag. Overall, buy bread when you need it, or bake it yourself if you can. You’ll serve up fresher, better-tasting sandwiches and snacks if you do.
Don’t go nuts in the mixed-nuts aisle. The delicious and crunchy snack might seem like something you’ll want a lot of, but it’s not a good idea to load up on it in bulk. Thanks to their fat content, nuts can quickly go rancid, even when stored in airtight containers out of the heat and light. You can freeze them — unlike some items on this list, they thaw nicely — but even then, a year is the max.
Flour is such a staple, you’d think a big bag of it would be a smart buy. But because this essential item attracts moisture, it can turn rancid. Regular all-purpose flour can last up to a year, but whole-grain and nut flours go bad even sooner than that.
10. Cooking oil
It’d sure be nice if oil could last as long as, say, vinegar, which is practically eternal. It’s a handy kitchen staple, and it would be nice to be able to buy a giant vat and forget about it. But as you probably know, oils have a limited shelf life — approximately three to six months — before they begin to go rancid. If you know you’re about to go on a doughnut-frying spree, of course, all bets are off.
Good products to buy in bulk:
1. Paper products
Paper towels and bathroom tissue are among the best items you can buy in bulk. They won’t go bad or out of style, and it’s not like you’ll get sick of the flavor any time soon. The main issues when it comes to bulking up on paper products? Make sure you have storage space in your home, and room to haul it there in your car. And check the prices to make sure it’s a good deal.
You can meat up with some great deals buying chicken, pork and beef in bulk — if you have a giant freezer, that is. Sort it, label and date it, then freeze it — and make sure you keep track of what you’ve frozen. Meat can stay frozen for months, but, that old enemy, freezer burn, eventually will make its way in, and that’s a big missed-steak. If you don’t have a large freezer, just buy enough for the week and use it up before buying more.
3. White rice
As mentioned previously, brown rice has a relatively short shelf life. But don’t get confused: The same isn’t true for white rice. White rice contains much less oil than brown, and a decent-sized sack can serve your family for four or five years. Rice, rice, baby!
Sure, you may have a fancy electric toothbrush, but it’s smart to keep a few inexpensive toothbrushes on hand. Overnight guests might need one, they can be useful for travel, and sometimes that fancy brush isn’t charged, or needs a replacement brush head. And that’s the whole tooth.
>5. Boxed mac and cheese
Bless you, whoever invented boxed macaroni and cheese. Easy to make, simple to store, delicious to eat, and beloved by kids of all ages. Warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club are perfect places to load up on cases of mac and cheese, and you can often choose from different brands and flavors.
6. Paper and plastic bags
Most of us are trying to use less plastic, but individual paper and plastic bags can be a lifesaver. Whether for school lunches, dog walks or leftovers, these bags are a prime bulk purchase, and unlike some of the larger items on this list, they’re fairly simple to store. The same goes for rolled wrap products, such as waxed paper or cling wrap.
See a good price on a big box of batteries? Jump on it! They’re small and easy to store, and vital for so many devices in our homes, from headphones to television remotes. Yet we often forget to stock up. One late-night Christmas Eve spent assembling toys that need double-A when all you have is triple-A will ensure you put batteries top of your bulk-shopping list.
8. Pet food
Fido and Fluffy will appreciate it if you consider their needs when buying in bulk. A giant bag of dog or cat food (not to mention kitty litter) usually saves quite a bit of money over a small bag. And since the pets are always hungry, you know the demand will always be there. No pet owner wants to face the fur-ocious anger of a four-legged friend whose dish is sitting empty. And they’ll be especially grateful in the case of a winter blizzard, earthquake or anything else that leaves you stranded and unable to shop.
Oh, baby! If you use disposable diapers and can find a great price on them, buying in bulk can be a smart parental saving move. After all, baby’s got a long way to go until Minions underwear replaces diapers (but it will happen, I promise). Don’t forget, though: Your little one is growing. So unless another little one is coming along to use the diapers up, going overboard with bulk purchases may leave you holding cartons of too-small nappies.
10. Canned goods
If you’ve got the shelf space, canned goods are an excellent bulk purchase, and for obvious reasons. Canned soups and sauces will stay good inside their protective little homes for years. They make for great last-minute meal ingredients, and are ideal for any weather emergencies or natural disasters that might keep you stuck at home. But one tip: Don’t necessarily go for the “I run an entire day care” can size. Unless you actually do run an entire day care, it’s difficult to use up an entire giant-sized can in one go. Stick to the regular-person-sized offerings.
What’s your rule for buying in bulk? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.