The Case Against Buying in Bulk

·5 min read
Shopper pushing cart at wholesale grocery store with face mask on
Shopper pushing cart at wholesale grocery store with face mask on

Recently, I learned a very important lesson: buying four 50-lb. bags of white rice is not a good idea. My household consists of two adults, two children under eighteen, and one dog, and we eat a lot of rice. At least four times a week, as a matter of fact. That may sound extreme, but certainly not uncommon amongst Asian American and Hispanic households.

When word of looming quarantine began to spread in March 2020, my husband and I went out and purchased four bags of long grain jasmine rice. Like other purchases made out of fear of scarcity, we got in line at the Asian supermarket and began to stockpile several items that we deemed “household essentials.” We mistakenly thought we’d finish all that rice before the quarantine was over. We were wrong.

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It was a sad moment when I had to physically dump out 30 lbs. of rice; we’d already eaten 20 of them when we realized the bag wasn’t good anymore. I gave it a rice funeral and covered up my misdeeds with the lid of my garbage bin.

The big business of bulk buying

The bulk buying industry accounts for $500 billion in revenue as of early 2022, its two main players being Costco and Sam’s Club (the latter of which is owned by Walmart). Data published by Statista indicates that from 2011 to 2021, Costco has brought in $192.1 billion in sales globally by 2021. This is astonishing, but not entirely surprising.

Walk along the tall, looming aisles at your local Costco and you’ll find endless pallets of dry goods, household products, clothes, outdoor products, electronics—practically everything you can imagine, for a lower price than your local stores can offer. The membership price you pay at the start of each year can offset some of the savings you get from purchasing these bulk wholesale items. However, the true “savings” can sometimes occur not at the moment you purchase an item, but in the way you use it.

Should you bulk buy groceries?

When I Googled the best items to buy in bulk, my search led me to an Instagram post from The Financial Gym, a personal finance advice service. None of the items listed were food products, only dry goods such as trash bags, paper products, and diapers. The idea seems to be that while food can go bad, these items virtually never will.

If that’s the case, then what the Financial Gym fails to take into account is that these dry goods can have a “shelf life” just as perishables can. Sure, bulk diapers can save you money, but what if your baby outgrows that size faster than you can use them all? (I speak from personal experience.) What if you buy a 75-lb. bag of kibble only for your dog’s diet to change? What if you buy 15 bars of soap and then discover that you’re allergic to its ingredients? (Also speaking from experience.)

Even nonperishable pantry items such as flour, sugar, rice,, and pastas have slight variations in shelf life. According to Martha Stewart, queen of domesticity, flour should last “anywhere from three to eight months,” sugar keeps (almost) forever, pastas should last about two years, and white rice “should last indefinitely in the pantry if stored well.”

This last point is disputed. Other sources claim that white rice generally keeps up to two years—and it’s worth noting that the phrase “keeps up to two years” can indicate something different from “keeps for two years.” Even if you’re someone who takes serious precautions with your shelf-stable goods (storing them in a dry, dark place and monitoring for any opening where bugs could get in, for example), there is still a chance that the item may not last as long as it’s “supposed” to, depending on the environment or storage method, or the quality of the product itself.

The key to bulk buying dry goods

There’s no question that buying in bulk can give you some savings, especially if you do it in a community-oriented way, but it all depends on your circumstances, food preferences, and diets, as well as your financial situation. Buying in bulk is an upfront cost that may or may not pan out.

“It’s important to remember that bulk-buying is an investment, and in order to maximize your return you have to actually be able to use everything you buy,” wrote Jeff Somers for Lifehacker. Having appropriate storage space plays an important role in whether we actually use the items or throw them away. Unfortunately, Americans produce nearly one pound of food waste per person per day, a number that is almost as astounding as the number of items purchased at warehouse clubs itself.

Whenever you’re at a Costco, Sam’s Club, or similar bulk shopping situation, ask yourself: What’s really worth my time, space, and money? As Epicurious says, it’s as simple as not buying what you won’t use. For me, that means I’ll still buy some items in bulk, just not in excess bulk. No more coming home with a collective 200 lbs. of rice. No more letting fear motivate purchases more than logic. From now on, I’m sticking with one bag at a time.