Many folks out there have a love-hate relationship with buying in bulk. On an intellectual level, you know you’re saving money when you go to a place like Costco or Sam’s Club to buy bulk foods – and who can argue with the quality of some of the products? But, battling the crowds, the lines, and the potentially long drive can be a challenge. So, when you do make the trip, you want to stock up on all your favorite items.
Unfortunately, this is where buying in bulk can be a problem. There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of money to stock up on your favorite foods and household goods and then have them go bad or sit unused consuming valuable storage space. Granted, if you have several mouths to feed or if you entertain large groups, then some of these items may make for perfect bulk purchases. But if you’re single or your eyes are bigger than your stomach (or pantry) you could be looking at bulk sizes of spoiled food in a few months.
There’s nothing worse than digging into the back of your cabinets and finding ruined, unused food that was such a “great bargain” you couldn’t pass it up. Remember, it’s only a good deal if you can use it all.
1. Brown Rice and Whole Grains
In most cases, brown rice and whole grains are lightly processed and free of preservatives. They’re also full of natural oils. Certainly, these are wonderful qualities to look for when buying healthy food, but preservative-free products that contain oil can go rancid just like nuts or seeds, and spoil quicker than you may think.
According to EatByDate, unrefrigerated brown rice or wild rice only lasts for six to eight months past the printed expiration date, and oatmeal (both instant and steel-cut) lasts one to two years. Instant oatmeal with flavoring lasts just six to nine months.
Most people think brown rice can keep until the apocalypse comes. It’s rice, after all. Doesn’t that mean it’s non-perishable? Well, no. Brown rice actually has a much shorter shelf life than white rice because it contains more oil, and you may be forced to buy as much as 42 pounds of brown rice if you’re shopping at a savings warehouse. Are you really going to eat all that in six months? Granted, white rice has a much longer shelf life (four to five years) but even eating 10 pounds of rice per year sounds like a challenge.
Oatmeal generally comes in smaller containers, but still, eating 10 pounds of oatmeal over the course of 12 to 24 month could be a stretch. The average serving of oatmeal is a half-cup of rolled oats, or about one ounce, so unless oatmeal is your go-to snack every morning or you have several mouths to feed, it may be best to purchase in smaller bags at the grocery store. Again, keep in mind that just because oatmeal and rice “should” still be good after 12 to 24 months doesn’t mean it will be.
If you aren’t able to store your rice and oatmeal in a cool, dry place, and in an airtight container, you’re better off buying in smaller quantities unless you’re confident you can consume the larger bulk sizes before they go bad.
2. Nuts and Seeds
Did you know that pistachios only last for three months past the expiration date? With that in mind, is purchasing a 2.5-pound bag the best idea if you don’t eat them often? Even a large bag of walnuts might not be the best purchase unless you’re baking cookies or cakes that call for a lot of them. Walnuts last only six months past the expiration date. Other nuts such as macadamias, peanuts, and cashews can last for six to nine months past the printed date.
Nuts are expensive, which makes a bulk buy at Costco very tempting. Unfortunately, if you’re not likely to eat them all within a few months, you’ve wasted your money. Whenever possible, store your seeds and nuts in an airtight container and keep them in a cool, dark place. If you find yourself stuck with nuts that you know may spoil, try freezing them. They can usually keep in your freezer for one to two years. Always give them the sniff test when you unpack them to make sure they’re still good.
3. Liquid Bleach
Bleach starts to lose its effectiveness after six months, and the total shelf life of bleach is 12 months, beginning with the date of manufacture. So unless you have some serious bleaching needs, it pays to buy smaller jugs.
According to Clorox, bleach lasts only one year when it’s kept under “average” storage conditions. If bleach is stored at high temperatures or in the sunlight, it loses its effectiveness even quicker, as the active ingredient, sodium hypochlorite, starts to break down into salt and water – and a supersize jug of salt-water isn’t going to do much to get your whites their whitest.
Another (albeit less significant) consideration when buying bleach in bulk is weight. Can you comfortably lift a two- or three-gallon jug of bleach and pour it into your washer? If your laundry supplies are kept on a high shelf, for example, it might be difficult to store and reach your bleach. You could easily end up pulling a muscle or spilling bleach everywhere while doing the laundry, and if there’s one thing laundry doesn’t need, it’s to become any less fun than it already is.
Who doesn’t want a spice cabinet packed full with jumbo containers of black pepper, cinnamon, sea salt, and oregano? There’s no danger of spices – most of them, at least – going bad, but they do get stale after sitting in the cupboard for too long. And even if they don’t, they can lose their potency after six months to a year.
How often do you cook? It’s important to look at your cooking habits to see what you’re realistically going to use up. For instance, buying bulk cinnamon may be a bad idea if you just don’t use it that often, but if you use red pepper flakes frequently on pastas, pizza, or other savory dishes, they’re a good bargain to buy in bulk. If you’re not a chef, keep in mind that spices can take up valuable real estate in your cabinets that could easily be filled by canned goods, cereals, or other items you would use every day.
A good rule of thumb is to look at your spice cabinet closely. Which spices do you keep up front for easy access? Chances are, these are the spices you’re using most often, which means you can probably safely buy them in bulk for extra savings. You likely shouldn’t be buying in bulk the herbs and spices you keep in the back of your cabinets. For those, one awesome solution is to grow a home garden.
5. Olive Oil
Olive oil is another one of those products that you’d think would have an incredible shelf life. The truth? It doesn’t. Olive oil lasts around six months. If you keep it away from light and heat, it can last a bit longer, but it’s just not going to be as good. Since Costco sells Filippo Berio extra virgin olive oil in three-liter containers, you’ve got to ask yourself if you really plan to use a half-liter every month in your kitchen. If not, the purchase just doesn’t make sense.
Again, it comes back to how often you cook. If you only cook once a week, then chances are you won’t make it through three liters of olive oil in six months. With that said, olive oil is versatile. You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to appreciate it in salad dressings, pasta sauces, soups and stews, and as a healthier alternative to butter when baking or cooking eggs. Make sure you evaluate how quickly you move through your bottles of olive oil before you purchase a larger container.
And always buy olive oil in the darkest colored container you can find. The more light hits the oil, the faster it’s going to break down, so dark green jars and bottles that shield the oil from the light are always best.
Scrambled, poached, boiled, fried. Eggs are the universal comfort food.
Despite the fact that they’re high in cholesterol – which once upon a time led most nutritionists to recommend they be consumed only infrequently – eggs have now found a second life. According to WebMD, “The egg is a powerhouse of disease-fighting nutrients.” And, since they’re low on saturated fat, which has a much more deleterious effect on blood cholesterol, you can feel free to break out the skillet and whip them up in the style of your choice, guilt-free.
But, seriously, how many eggs can anyone eat? Considering they’re only good for three to six weeks after the stamped “best-by” date on the carton, according to EatByDate, you’d have to eat one to two eggs per day to safely finish off a 36-pack bought from a warehouse club. If you have children or you do a lot of breakfast cooking, then eating eggs several times a week shouldn’t be a challenge, but evaluate how many you’re eating before you splurge on three dozen. If you most frequently use eggs on the weekends as part of Sunday brunch, it may be difficult to make it through 36 eggs before they spoil.
Depending on the size of your family, and everyone’s taste for omelettes, it may make more sense to purchase your eggs by the traditional dozen at your local supermarket.
Do you live in Miami, with weekends at the beach a typical occurrence? Or, do you call Seattle home, and spend your days off lazing around the house watching the latest Netflix series? Depending on where you hang your hat, you’re going to have more or less need for sunscreen than other folks do.
The shelf-life of sunscreen is roughly three years. That means, if you get yours in bulk at Sam’s Club – where you can purchase a pack of four 7.5-ounce bottles of Coppertone Sport – you’ve got to use more than one of those bottles every year if you want to get your money’s worth. That may not be too tall an order for some folks, especially if you perspire or swim a lot and find yourself reapplying throughout the day – or you have a gaggle of kids that require a daily slathering.
It’s worth noting that sunscreen actually loses its effectiveness when it’s exposed to very high temperatures. If you leave it out in the sun all day, or keep in your car’s glove compartment, the heat can break down all the active ingredients, after which you’re just lathering yourself up with ineffective lotion loaded with useless chemicals. So, unless you spend tons of time out in the heat of the day, be wary of buying sunscreen in bulk.
8. Canned Vegetables
Who doesn’t love the convenience of canned vegetables? Making a Mexican casserole? Pop open a can of corn and pour it in. Serving a hearty roast chicken in the middle of winter? Try nuking some peas and carrots to go with it.
According to EatByDate, “Because of the high heat process used to can vegetables and the added salt, canned vegetables do enjoy an extended shelf life.” They can actually last one to two years when stored in a dry, cool pantry.
Breaking out a can of beans every two months doesn’t seem like such a tall order – assuming you’ve got the space to store them. The problem is, as with every other bulk purchase you make, you’re likely taking home 12 to 18 cans of each vegetable from a warehouse store like Costco. If you purchase corn, peas, pinto beans, and string beans, that could mean having to store – and eat – 72 cans. That’s a lot, depending on your family’s size.
It’s also worth noting that canned vegetables do lose some of their nutritional value through the canning process. So if a fresh, healthy, nutrient-filled meal is what you’re after, stick to the real deal by visiting the grocery store or – for the freshest offerings – your local farmers market.
Condiments can kick so many meals up to the next level – ketchup, mustard, mayo, relish, the list goes on. However, even buying them in bulk isn’t always the smartest move.
The main reason is that condiments’ shelf-life is pretty short after the container’s been opened. Mayonnaise can keep fresh in the refrigerator for only a couple of months, according to the U.S.D.A.’s FoodKeeper app. Ketchup lasts longer – roughly six months in the fridge – because it’s got high acidity, but be sure to check the expiration dates of any ketchup you buy in bulk, since even I’d be hard-pressed to use that much up before it goes bad.
10. Frozen items
Every time I buy in bulk, I find myself staring at the stacks of frozen fruit and vegetables, dreaming of fresh fruit smoothies every morning. Who wouldn’t want to quickly thaw some haricot vert to go with every roast chicken, or have frozen peas at the ready for every salad? Unfortunately, most everyone’s freezer space is limited, and contrary to popular belief, items stored in a freezer don’t last forever – generally about 8 to 10 months if kept in the freezer. Even if you can eat them before their best by date, there’s freezer burn to consider. Will your items be at their freshest if frozen for so long?
If you’re like me, your freezer has to hold ice, ice cream, ice packs to keep lunches cold when you’re on the road, a chicken or roast that you were saving for later, and an assortment of leftovers that you knew you couldn’t eat before they spoiled. How much room do you really have for bulk bags of fruits and veggies, or gigantic gallons of ice cream? Unfortunately, more than a few bulk frozen items can quickly fill a regular sized freezer, so it’s best to purchase most frozen items at your regular grocery store, or at a Target or Walmart where bag sizes are smaller.
11. Plastic or Paper Plates, Utensils, and Cups
If you’re having a family picnic or are headed to the beach with a big group, a giant sleeve of plastic cups and an enormous stack of paper plates may be the perfect solution to keeping everyone fed and not having to borrow “real” dishes or spend the entire time washing up. However, when stored year-round, these items can take up a lot of valuable real estate in a cabinet or pantry. If you have limited storage space, do you really want to fill it with cheap plastic cups and plates?
Certainly, these items are a good deal when bought in bulk, so you may be temped to stock up, but unless you’re literally feeding 100 people, resist the urge. Disposable plates and cups aren’t that much more expensive when purchased in smaller quantities at a Target or Walmart, and when you buy them there, you have the benefit of being able to purchase closer to the amount you need. If your storage space is at a premium, then do yourself a favor and don’t fill it with $0.10 plastic cups.
When you do venture to a warehouse club, you’re probably going to come away with a steep tab. Even though it’s a money-saving move, it can be a big hit to your checking account every few months.
To make your purchases count for as much as possible, be sure you use the right credit card. If you’re a frequent traveler, try out one of the many travel rewards credit cards on the market. If you prefer simple cash back, go with a card that offers that. But, be careful. Often, cash back credit cards restrict rewards to non-warehouse club purchases only, meaning that Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club may not net you any benefits.
Also, although Sam’s Club accepts American Express, MasterCard, and Visa, Costco only accepts Visa if you’re shopping in-store. However, if you’re shopping online at Costco.com, all major credit cards are accepted. If you’re a bulk shopping warrior, it may be worth applying for your warehouse club’s dedicated credit card instead – just make sure the rewards stack up to other cards’ offerings.
What do you buy in bulk?