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When Buying In Bulk Is a Terrible Idea

When Buying In Bulk Is a Terrible Idea


On the podcast this week, we talk about shopping at Costco

And the bulk-buying siren song begins.


A few years ago, we put our house on the market and mistakenly priced it low so we could move it quickly and not have to negotiate. "Here's what we're willing to sell this for. Somebody just come buy it." We lost thousands of dollars because no one wanted to buy a house at list price, even if the list price was a bargain already. 

We all like a good deal. We love feeling like we're beating the system, but sometimes, the system beats us at our own game. 


Places like Costco are designed to make us buy, to make us think we're saving money and time. While sometimes that's true, mostly we just end up with a pack of Sharpies the size of a couch. 

Here's how to know when buying in bulk is a terrible idea.

1. We assume it's a deal.

I bet it was easier in the olden days. You didn’t have to compare prices and remember which farmer had the best deal on chicken. You just grew your food and bought the rest from your neighbor. Can't we all just be Laura Ingalls? Now, we shop at half a dozen different stores, all the get the best deal. It's an annoying but worthy way to shop; I do it, too. 

The danger of bulk buying is the perceived deal. When I see someone with a case of nine underripe mangos for $12 at Costco, I desperately want to tell them they could get fewer mangos that they’ll actually eat for 80 cents a piece at Aldi. I'm like a hovering mother-in-law. It's an odd burden I carry.

If you don’t know how much the same food costs at different stores, you'll likely spend more than you have to on more than you need. There are complicated ways to keep track of prices - spreadsheets, flipping through newspaper inserts, etc., but let's be Lazy Geniuses about it. Try this: use your phone's Notes app (or something similar) and jot down 5-10 items you commonly buy and the regular price for those items at your go-to stores. You'll notice what's worth shopping around for and when you're assuming it's a deal. It begins with paying attention.

2. We don't look past the price.

If you have no place to store it or no plan to eat, saving money on an item isn't worth it.

Let’s say a bottle of normal-human-sized olive oil costs $10 at Target. CostCo has a gallon of the same oil for $24.99. Yes, that’s cheaper per ounce than the Target bottle, but do you really want a gallon of oil taking up valuable space in your cabinet or counter? Or you might decide to spend another $10 on a small glass bottle to store the oil but get frustrated when it leaks or empties when you're in the craziness of making dinner. The savings of the gallon isn't worth the frustration of the using and storing.

I do this with produce a lot. You can buy five heads of romaine lettuce at costco for $3.99. One head at Aldi or Target costs around $2. Clearly, the deal is real. But here's the kicker: we don’t really eat salad. I take up valuable fridge space with a giant pack of lettuce, most of which goes bad way before we can use it. I paid $4 for trash lettuce when I could have spent $2 on lettuce we ate.

Pay attention to the whole story - the storing and the using - not just the price. 

3. We assume more is better.

Sometimes, I'm secretly jealous of those crazy couponers who have to build a shed to hold of all their deals. Having a CVS in the backyard and a corner grocery in the pantry is a very specific kind of dreams scenario. What a gift to have more than we need at our fingertips at all times!

Or is it?

I have lived with a pantry stocked to the gills. Grownups have stocked pantries, right? When we assume more is better, we no longer notice lack. If we always have everything we need, we might forget the power of waiting for something that matters, being content with a simple meal, or being aware of needs in others. 

There's nothing wrong with having plenty (my pantry currently has no less than 20 boxes of pasta), but when I get caught up in the "more is better" cyclone, I mindlessly buy, don't use what I have, and my budget and emotional health pay the price. Yes, buy in bulk. Yes, stock up on things you love and use. I'm simply encouraging us all to pay attention, to be mindful of our purchases, and to be honest about the power of "more."

Shopping at Costco is a delight, but let's not get sucked into the traps of buying in bulk. (Except for ice cream. I make all the room for ice cream.)

Do you have any tips for smarter bulk buying? I've heard of folks who split purchases with friends but have never done it. Share your ideas in the comments!

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