You’d think because I write about smart shopping, I wouldn’t have a price club “problem.” Yet as a new member, it took several visits to get my bulk shopping under control. Enough olive oil to bathe in? A lifetime supply of cheese puffs? C’mon, how can you stop yourself? But you should, in fact, stop yourself. Buying in bulk can be a cost-effective way to stock up on essentials, but there are pitfalls.
High levels of debt, for instance, can hurt your wallet and your credit scores. (You can how credit card balances are currently affecting your credit by viewing two of your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.)
Here are some rules of thumb when shopping at price clubs.
1. Consider Your Spending Habits
Wholesale price clubs aren’t for everyone. Before joining, compare the membership fee with how often you might shop there, how much you might save and your personal circumstances. Shoppers who are able to plan menus in advance or who are buying for a large family can get a lot out of a price club membership, whereas single people who eat out a lot probably won’t.
2. Pay Attention to Price
To avoid overspending or buying things that spoil before you get through the box, make sure you are a, only buying what you need, b, buying things you will genuinely use and c, buying something that’s a great deal. Also, while most items purchased in bulk are well-priced, be mindful of unit prices so you can make informed decisions when shopping at your price club rather than other retailers.
3. Remember the ‘House’ Brand
Don’t turn your nose up at the “house” brand. In some cases, the products really measure up.
4. Shop During Off-Peak Hours
To dodge crowds and lines at the register, try to avoid going on weekends (unless you show up right when they open the doors) and in the afternoon and evening hours before a holiday weekend or a storm.
Deciding What to Buy — & What to Skip
Liquid detergents and soaps tend to become less effective over time, so buy them in smaller containers at the grocery or big box store instead of in bulk. Powdered cleaning products typically have an unlimited shelf life, however, so if you like powder, go for it.
Before investing in 400 soft gels of fish oil, take a moment to calculate how long it will take you to get through them all before the expiration date on the bottle.
New parents: try to avoid going overboard at the price club. Forty dollars for 180 diapers seems like a great deal until your baby grows out of them halfway through the lot. Wipes will eventually dry out, so you may also want to refrain from buying a box of 1,100 when potty training is right around the corner. With baby formula, remember that your baby will start eating solid foods soon enough, so all that formula could end up expiring before your baby drinks it all.
If more than one person in the family uses a particular item or you go through the item quickly, like body lotion, shower gel or hair conditioner, a bulk purchase can be a smart purchase. However, if the night cream that only you use is available in a 32 o.z. vat … maybe not. Face creams are really at their best when used within a three to six month period, and that’s a lot of cream to slather on in such a short period. For sun products, SPF is most effective if used in a year so. If the whole family is using that oversized pump bottle all summer, great. Just you? Maybe wait to get it at the drugstore.
The beauty product rule also applies to fresh produce. If the whole family loves red seedless grapes, by all means, get the 7-pound bag. But if they’re just for you? It’s a good idea to skip it.
They might be cheaper in bulk, but unless you’re having a party tonight or tomorrow, these pretzels, chips or cheese puffs can go stale before you get through the bag.
Unless you have a large family or a kid who puts ketchup on everything, that humungous squeeze bottle of ketchup could possibly last at least a year. Best to go for the smaller bottle at the grocery store so what you’re spreading on your burger is fresh.
Cereal, Bread, Soda, Canned Goods, Eggs & Milk
These items are generally similar to those at your local grocery store, so compare prices, factoring in any coupons, and think hard about how quickly you might go through the item.
Sundry Food Items
Brown rice has a shelf life of about six months. Are you going to get through that gazillion-pound bag in time? Spices last six to 12 months, so consider that before you throw a 32 o.z. jar of cumin in your cart. Same goes for olive oil, whose shelf life is about six months.
This category is hit or miss. While the prices on basic office supplies are usually better at your price club, you can find deep seasonal discounts at office supply and big box stores. Also, do you need 36 pens?
More Money-Saving Reads: