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Beat Inflation by Buying in Bulk

Just make sure you have the space to store everything

A shopper is pushing a big cart of food and household staples including toilet paper, bottled water, diapers and canned goods outside a Costco warehouse.

Boston Globe / Getty Images

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Your wallet probably knows this even better than the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the agency reports that for the 12 months ended in May, the Consumer Price Index for food at home rose 11.9 percent, the largest 12-month increase in some 43 years. Buying food in bulk can help you fight back, provided you can cover the upfront cost — and you have the space to store it.

Consumers can pay considerably less for food when they buy it in larger quantities and store it in their freezer, pantry or basement. AARP spoke with four bulk food purchasing experts for their tips on what first-time bulk food buyers need to consider before jumping in.

Is this really for me?

Sometimes new things sound intriguing, but then, when you look at the details, you realize they’re really not for you, says Jerlyn Jones, a registered dietitian and owner of the Lifestyle Dietitian in Atlanta. Buying in bulk is one of those things. Ask yourself: Is this really for me? If you like the concept of buying fresh fruits and veggies in bulk but not the reality of preparing and freezing them, don’t do it, she advises. And if going to the warehouse store once or twice monthly to purchase food in bulk sounds a lot more like work than fun, don’t do it.

Buying in bulk also requires taking stock of what you actually eat every month, says Jones. A quart jar of olives is a bargain only if you eat them all. And the initial outlay for buying in bulk can be a bit of a shock. You have to decide how much you are willing to spend and if you have enough money to comfortably cover the initial cost of the bulk purchase.

Best foods to buy in bulk

  • Baking ingredients, such as flour, sugar and cornstarch. Store them in a second fridge, says Trae Bodge, a smart shopping and personal finance expert.
  • Bread. Store it in the freezer, along with the frozen pizza — another good bulk purchase, says Elissa Altman, author of Big Food: Amazing Ways to Cook, Store, Freeze, and Serve Everything You Buy in Bulk.
  • Canned fruit and veggies. They’re easy to store and have a long shelf life.
  • Canned salmon, tuna and sardines. These also have a long shelf life, Jones says.
  • Dried beans and freeze-dried coffee. Store them in the freezer to extend their shelf life.
  • Frozen fruits and veggies. They’re the most freezer-friendly foods for bulk buying, Jones says.
  • Grains, such as rice and quinoa. When properly stored in freezer bags, they’re good for up to three months, Altman says.
  • Nuts. Buy them in the shell to get the longest shelf life.
  • Pasta. Nothing beats bulk items like spaghetti and macaroni, which have a super-long shelf life, Bodge says.
  • Peanut butter. It’s both nutritious and stores well.

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Worst foods to buy in bulk

  • Big containers of junk food. They will inevitably go stale, Bodge says.
  • Cheese. It doesn’t freeze well, advises Bodge.
  • Fresh or frozen fish. It has a very high water content, and freezing it for too long can result in flavor loss, says Altman.
  • Olive oil. It has a limited shelf life.

Don’t buy fresh fruits or vegetables in bulk that you don’t plan to freeze within one week, warns Jones. And unless you eat eggs daily, don’t ever buy eggs in bulk, because they typically expire within three to five weeks.

Some of the best savings from bulk shopping can often be on non-food items. In particular, Bodge suggests, watch out for great deals on paper products like toilet paper, paper towels, tissues and napkins. She’s also a big fan of buying plastic wrap, plastic storage bags and garbage bags in bulk.

Where to buy in bulk

For most folks, says Bodge, it comes down to which warehouse membership store — Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s Wholesale Club — is located closest to you. If it’s too far to the warehouse store, it’s probably not worth getting a membership, she says. If you are not planning to use the warehouse store at least once a month, it’s also probably not worth it. Membership fees for the three clubs are between $50 and $60, but what’s most important is how much you’re saving overall on the bulk purchases. If you’re not saving 20 to 40 percent, it’s probably not worthwhile, she says.

Instead of purchasing a full membership to any warehouse store, Jones strongly suggests seeking a trial membership, which is usually free. This way you can see if you like the store and the warehouse shopping experience. BJ’s, for example, offers one-day shopping passes on its website to nonmembers, and it sometimes offers three-month trial memberships.

Other places to buy in bulk:

Your butcher. The savviest way to buy meat in bulk isn’t at the local warehouse store or via an online delivery service but by striking up a friendship with your neighborhood butcher, says Altman. That means introducing yourself and letting the butcher understand your needs. For regular customers, a butcher is often willing to cut larger pieces of meat into smaller offerings and sell them at a discount. The more you purchase, the larger the discount. If you don’t have a local butcher but you do have a local farmers market where there’s a butcher, you can sometimes strike this same deal. When freezing meat, Altman advises, make sure to double wrap it in plastic and seal it first.

Home delivery. This method of bulk food buying has somewhat limited appeal because of high delivery charges. At FoodServiceDirect.com, shipping fees are waived on orders over $750, says CEO and managing director Mete Gumus. That can mean buying a lot of food. Sometimes families in the same neighborhood combine their bulk orders so that they can meet the minimum purchase for free shipping, he says. His company specializes in specialty products for health-conscious consumers who might, for example, want less sodium in their canned beans.

If you take the bulk food plunge, remember the two most critical rules. Date and label every item you freeze, says Altman. And, says Jones, always place the newer items toward the back of the freezer and the older items toward the front.

Bruce Horovitz is a contributing writer who covers personal finance and caregiving. He previously wrote for The Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY. Horovitz regularly writes for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Investor's Business Daily, AARP Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Kaiser Health News, and PBS' Next Avenue.