One of the most basic ways to save money, according to every personal finance book and website you’ve encountered in the past two decades, is to buy in bulk. Not only will you save money by snagging a lower per-unit price on the larger product, they all claim—you’ll also reduce your number of trips to the store for replacements or refills.
That’s a great idea, until you become one of those people from Extreme Couponing who has an entire garage full of economy-sized jugs of shampoo for your household of three. Or as Josh Barro writes for New York Magazine, until you mess up. And it’s far too easy to mess up when you’re buying bulk.
A couple of common missteps Barro mentions, much to the embarrassment of any of us who have committed these shopping sins:
You buy far too much of one thing than you really need. The product is bound to expire before you need it, or you decide you hate the look/smell/taste of it before you work through your stockpile.
You set up a subscription refill service, but get the timing wrong. (Ask me how I ended up with 75 replacement blades for my razor before figuring out I could skip deliveries for the subscription I signed up for years ago.)
You don’t have the proper storage and the item goes bad before you can use it (think meat, pantry staples.)
On top of your best intentions gone wrong, unit pricing can be inconsistent. This is a big one: Looking at unit pricing is supposed to help you determine a good bulk deal from a bad one. But as Barro points out, not every product is measured by the same unit (think paper towel rolls with varying sheet sizes) and if you're buying online, it may be from an international jurisdiction where there's no requirement to display unit pricing.
Instead of getting tripped up by the alleged benefits of buying in bulk, ask yourself how quickly you will reasonably use the item in its larger format. If you will be trapped with that item for longer than your average relationship, for instance, that’s probably too long. (Also, yikes to both.) If you know you’re going to move to a new apartment in six months, it’s probably not worth buying truckloads of anything.
Being bulk-sceptic doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of good prices on larger items. But if your household or your physical house are small, you’ve got to be strategic. Because if you’re buying more than you actually need regularly, you’re just wasting money. And wasn’t the point in the first place to save?