Sunday, January 18, 2009

Buying in Bulk - should we or shouldn't we?

I love going to Costco. I like to idea of getting things cheap and I'm also deeply committed to having a well stocked pantry. I really have to hold myself back when I'm in there! I really like it for getting certain things, but I have learned that somethings are better bought at the regular grocery store.

So how do we decide what things are worth buying in bulk? I have four deciding factors: price per unit, how long the item will keep, do I have space to store it, will my family eat it up?

Price per Unit
This one is pretty elementary but even the best of us sometimes forget. When you are making the decision to buy in bulk, it is really important to do like comparisons. When buying rice you need to make a per pound comparison, not a per package comparison.

Sometimes it is hard to decide what the comparison should be. For instance, when buying granola bars. Do you compare the price per bar? Or do you compare the price per ounce. I was comparing two different brands of granola bars and couldn't decide. One had more bars, but the other bars were bigger so the whole package had more total weight. Since I was buying bars designed to send with my kids as snacks, I decided the small bars with more total bars was the better way to go. We bought a box with 60 bars. If I was buying bars to tide my husband over (who needs to eat more to be "tided") I would have bought the bigger bars. The boxes were approximately the same price, so I got more bars to send with kids with the smaller bars.

(I just re-read that last paragraph and it didn't make all that much sense, even to me! It's late and I'm tired, sorry.)

Shelf-Life of the Item

Certain things just don't store well. Know what I mean? Unless you have some fabulous way of storing them, that is. I used to try to buy a whole ham and store it in meal-sized packages. The ham always tasted funny after a few weeks in the freezer. So I quit buying it. That is, until I got a Food-Saver. Now I vacuum seal the ham and it tastes just fine. Until I got the Food-Saver, it wasn't worth buying ham in bulk - now it is.

Some things that I routinely buy in bulk are: white rice, oatmeal, dry beans, lentils, honey, powdered milk(I buy it sealed in #10 sized cans), Italian sausage (Food-Saver), bacon (Food-Saver), berries (I buy, or pick, them in bulk in the summer and freeze them so we have them all winter), hot chocolate mix (no little envelopes for us!) and pasta. All of these things store for a really, really long time as long as they are kept cool and dry. There are other things that I sometimes buy if there is a good sale.

There are a couple of things that I buy in bulk, but only for a specific purpose. For instance, the hamburger at Costco is fairly cheap and of good quality. But you have to buy it in 6 lb packages! We can't use up 6 lbs before it goes bad so I only buy it when I am going to do some mega-cooking (our subject for next week's Frugal Feasting). When it is cooked and in the freezer it keeps long enough for my family to eat it up.

I love having all these staples on hand. I especially when I know I got them for cheap. I also like knowing that if something happens I can feed my family. A couple of weeks ago, we got hit with a horrible snow storm. Because we aren't used to snow of any kind, the whole city stopped for a few days. We couldn't get out of our house for days. Some people in my neighborhood worked really, really hard to shovel themselves out so they could get to the store. We were quite content, thank you. Years ago my husband was laid off, we used our food storage to keep our food budget rock bottom until he found a new job. This well stocked pantry is my security blanket.

Do I Have the Room to Store It?

I store a lot of my bulk purchases in big 5 gallon buckets. Rice, oatmeal, beans and lentils all live in the big buckets.
Yes, that does say "Chocolate Chips" I forgot to mention that I buy big bags of chocolate chips from Costco. If I get stranded in my house for weeks, I want my chocolate. I mean seriously, get our priorities straight!

I transfer them to Tupperware/Rubbermade containers in my pantry upstairs, as I need them. You could put them in under-the-bed boxes, too.

Somethings might be cheaper in bulk but for me are worth buying in the smaller containers. Flour is cheaper (buy a few pennies a pound) in the 25 lb packages. I buy them in the 10 lb bags because it is easier to store and use. It is worth it to pay the extra few pennies a pound to avoid the hassle of scooping flour from one container to another.

Will My Family Eat it Up?
The final thing to consider when buying in bulk is whether you family will eat it. I never buy something in a bulk container that I haven't tried before. I want to make sure my family will actually like it. I buy it in the smaller containers first and try it out. If it is only available in bulk (like some Costco products) I arrange to split it with someone the first time. It doesn't save me any money if it sits on my shelf forever, or gets thrown out.

Someone I know, who shall remain nameless because she reads this blog, is forever giving my family packages of stuff that she bought for her family that they won't eat. Didn't save her any money if she ends up giving it to me. Saves me money, but I don't think that was the point.

Don't buy 25 lbs of anything or a box of 100 somethings until you know your family will eat it. 'Nuff said.

This week I'm going to be posting recipes for the things that I use my bulk food purchases on. It's going to be great - some really cheap, really yummy recipes. You won't want to miss it!



momstheword said...

We buy our rice in bags of 25 lbs. and we buy about the same in flour. My hubby does all the "transfer" work.

Do you use your powdered milk in your baking as a milk replacement or do you just add it to recipes for more calcium?

Jill said...

I use it for all those things. My kids won't drink it straight but if I mix it with the "real" stuff it stretches the milk a little. I also make it straight to use in baking. And I add it to baking and granola recipes to add calcium and protein. With my vegetarian daughters I'm always trying to get extra protein in them!