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When Buying In Bulk Is More Expensive

by Emily Guy Birken

The last time I cruised through the baby aisle at our local Target, I was thrilled to realize that my son had grown enough to fit into diapers that came in bulk packages. The newborn and size 1 Target brand disposables only come in the normal size pack, while size 2 and above come in 96-pack monsters that will keep us in disposables almost until he’s ready for the next size. (We use cloth diapers at home, so it takes us a while to get through a pack of the disposables). As I was reaching for the bulk package, I noticed the price difference was a little unclear, so I whipped out my handy calculator. Strangely enough, buying 96 diapers in one package was going to cost $0.16 per diaper, while buying 84 diapers in two packages of 42 was going to cost $0.15 per diaper.

This kind of switcheroo has happened to me quite a bit since I started trying to economize our shopping—which is why I always carry a calculator to the store with me. Retailers know that most people assume that bulk items are cheaper, so it pays to figure out the unit price.

is buying in bulk cheaper?

Sometimes buying in bulk is more expensive.

Despite conventional wisdom, buying in bulk can sometimes cost you more money than buying the regular-sized item. Here are some instances when you’ll find bulk might be more expensive:

1. Discount clubs are not necessarily cheaper. If you factor in the cost of the membership to the club and the additional gas money it takes to get there, you might find that your closest warehouse store isn’t a better option than your local supermarket. On top of that, there are some items that you’re simply not going to use all of when you buy them in bulk. Meat, dairy and produce are difficult to go through quickly enough to justify buying in bulk. So unless you have a very large family or a very large freezer, buying perishables in bulk will not save you money. And even buying traditional staples like canned goods and pantry items at discount clubs might not be worth it considering the fact that warehouse stores rarely (if ever) have sales and do not accept coupons. Carefully scanning the circulars of your regular grocery stores and combining sales with coupons will mean you can buy non-perishables in “bulk” for cheaper in less intimidating packages.

2. You have to practice self-control. Even though we use cloth diapers at home, there are days when I find it difficult to get a load of laundry down to the laundry room, and I end up using some of the disposables we’ve bought for traveling and my son’s jaunts to the baby sitter. Guess which days I’m more likely to resort to disposables? When we’ve just bought a new package! Even though I know that I need to save those diapers for other days, it’s very tempting to just use a disposable so I can put off having to do the laundry. Similarly, any time I’ve bought a bulk package of Little Debbies, the treats are generally gone within 48 hours. Not good for our wallets or our waistlines.

3. Impulse buys are more expensive in bulk. Just because you got a deal on that new product you’ve seen advertised doesn’t mean that you’ll like it. Shelling out extra money for a 10 pack of the new item doesn’t make financial sense, but it’s hard to argue with shiny packaging and a (seemingly!) great deal. Even if you do end up liking the new deodorant/razor/facial tissue/whatever, spending that money now means it’s tied up and can’t be used for your other needs. Is buying a lot of a rarely-used item really going to be the best use of your money?

When you shop mindfully with a calculator in hand, buying in bulk can be a great way to help your budget. But it’s important not to be lulled into thinking that bulk always equals bargain.

photo credit: Tammra McCauley


Published or updated May 26, 2011.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 krantcents

Let the buyer beware! I don’t know if it is marketing or just a supermarket trick. I noticed that the bulk stores do this quite often. Stores like Costco will do special packaging and the individual item is more expensive than purchasing it in a store like Target. Although if there is a coupon, that is the time to buy it.

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2 JoeTaxpayer

The answer is pretty simple. Always know the unit price. Price per oz, lb, sq ft, whatever. It doesn’t take long to create a small notebook or spreadsheet that tracks the items you use regularly. For example, I know that when CVS has Kleenex on sale and I have a coupon, I’m at a better price than Costco. But when that stock runs out, I might use a Costco haul to restock. Costco doesn’t take manufacturer’s coupons, but they have a coupon book every 2 months or so. Coffee $2.50/lb. Yes, I’ll buy 6 3lb containers at that price.

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