Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thrifty Cooking: Bargains at the Wholesale Club

Many people know that you can get bargains by buying bulk and most people know that a wholesale club such as BJ's, Sam's Club, or Costco is the best place for bargains. However, the wholesale club can be deceiving if you don't know your prices. Also, many people have difficulty budgeting for wholesale club shopping because a trip there is invariably much more expensive than a similar trip to the grocery store.

Here are some tips I have for making the best of a trip to the wholesale club when your budget is a concern:

Budgeting for Your Trip - Is it right for you? If you're the type that shops once or twice a month or budgets groceries monthly, then the wholesale club is a good option for you. For people who buy groceries on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, it is NOT a good option--although I do have some ideas for you too. Keep reading.

Why? One trip to the wholesale club is generally double or triple the price of a trip to the grocery store for the same items. The reason is that you're buying double or triple of everything. If you have the financial flexibility to do this, it'll save you money in the long run because you'll have stuff "in stock" for a month or more and you'll have gotten a good price on it. If you shop weekly with that week's paycheck, you just plain won't have the cash to buy so much ahead.

One thing I find helpful, if you have the discipline to not abuse it, is to designate one credit card to be used for groceries only (or groceries and gas). It doesn't have to have a good interest rate but a good rewards program is a plus. Use the credit card to visit the wholesale club and the supermarket each month and buy only as much as your monthly grocery budget would normally allow. At the end of the month, pay-off the bill completely with the cash you normally would have used for groceries. Do NOT carry a balance or you'll be paying finance charges on your everyday living expenses, which is never a good thing. The main benefit is that you can buy all your groceries upfront in bulk to save money and actually pay for them at the end of the month once your paychecks have all come in, interest free. If your card has a rewards program, you'll get the added bonus of rewards (cash back, gift cards, etc.) for buying the groceries you were going to buy anyway.

Use Unit Pricing - Comparing Apples to Apples, Literally
Many people don't realize that stores are required by law to post "unit prices" next to the price of the item and that this is for the shopper's benefit. Unit prices are usually located in an orange square next to the regular shelf price. A unit price is the price per common unit (pounds, ounces, dozen, etc.) for that item regardless of the packaging or how many are in one package.

For example, let's say you are looking at a 5 pound bag of apples for $4.99 per bag. In the next display case, there are loose apples at a price of $1.29 per pound. The unit price on the bag of apples should show that that bag works out to 80 cents per pound. Since 80 cents per pound is less than $1.29 per pound, the bag is the better deal.

Unit prices are a Godsend in the wholesale club because you can't always assume that their products are cheaper than the supermarket and it's hard to tell with the large packaging and price tags. If you know the usual unit price of the item at your supermarket (make yourself a list), you can determine quite quickly if you're getting a deal at the wholesale club or not.

Pound for pound, fresh or deli meat is almost always cheaper at the wholesale club because they have to do less work to cut it up. If you're willing to buy a huge piece of beef or a large package of chicken and break it up yourself before freezing it, you can save lots of cash. Just remember to do the cutting that day or your entire meat budget for the month might spoil.

Vegetables Veggies are usually quite inexpensive at the wholesale club, but they come with an inerrant problem. You're usually forced to buy a double or triple sized package. Unless you're feeding a family of 4 to 6 and they eat lots of produce, buying fresh veggies in bulk is probably not a great idea. You'll end-up tossing half of them away. This is, however, a good idea for root veggies (potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic) because they will keep for 1-2 months if properly stored in a cool dry place.

Pantry Items Pantry items such as canned goods, packaged munchies, and cereal are often a toss-up as to whether they're a good deal or not. Make sure you know your unit prices before tossing them into your basket or you may end-up paying more than you would have if you found it on sale at the supermarket. The same goes for beverages (soda, juice, bottled water, etc.) Generally speaking, however, tomato products, vegetable oil, and olive oil are usually a good deal.

Paper Goods
Nothing is more reassuring to me than to know I have a big stash of toilet paper so I won't find myself without at the wrong time. You know what I mean? However, you have to be careful when you try to get a deal at the wholesale club or even the big box discount stores. Why? Because unit pricing has its flaws. For some odd reason, toilet paper and paper towels are priced "per 100 rolls". That'd be useful if every company made the same sized rolls, but they don't.

If you really want a deal on paper goods, you're going to have to drag your trusty calculator to the store and find your own unit price. Every bag of paper towels and toilet papers has the number of feet or square feet of paper written on the package. Divide the price of the package by the number of feet in the package and you'll have the price per foot for that package, which is a much more useful number for price comparison.

Health and Beauty Products
Before you plunk that 10-pack of your favorite toothpaste into your carriage, stop and think about whether you can use it before the expiration date. The same goes for over-the-counter medication. Things like soap and shampoo are okay if you know you're not going to want to change brands or formulas in the next year or so.

Make Sure You Have the Room
One of the biggest mistakes I've made is to buy a huge box or bag of something and then have nowhere to store it. There's just so much you can shove into the three closets in a 800 square foot condo. If you have an available spot in a cool, dry, odor-free basement where you can put a set of shelving, that's awesome. If you have an extra freezer, even better. For those of us who don't, we need to remember to practice moderation and restraint. Don't buy a two-pack of whole roaster chickens if you can't physically cram them into the freezer.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it gives you a few hints and tips that might help you out on your next trip to the wholesale club. Enjoy, and happy eating!


  1. Some wholesale clubs have a free one-day trial membership, cheap summer memberships, or you can snag a guest pass from a friend - great for singles to take advantage of the pricing once in a while.

  2. Thanks for mentioning that, "Anonymous." I meant to bring that up and forgot.

    Free trial periods are also a great way to shop around, also, if you have more than one choice of wholesale club in your area.


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