5 items to buy in bulk (and 4 that aren’t worth it)

Buying ingredients in bulk and opting for the dual-package of peanut butter at Costco instead of the puny jar from the grocery store can save you money, but it may end up costing you more.

The trick is always to price shop (calculate the per-ounce price at each store to see which is in fact cheaper)—and be sure you can finish what you bought before the expiration date. Leaving a store with 96 ounces of peanut butter is a win in our book, but since the average shelf life of PB in an open jar is two to three months, you’d be dumping hard-earned cash down the drain if you have to toss it.

To help you avoid the guilt of wasting food and money (plus a huge stomachache eating all that peanut butter yourself), we consulted a money-saving wizard who shares her tried-and-true secrets of bulk buying.

Buy This in Bulk: 

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5 items you should always buy in bulk
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5 items you should always buy in bulk
Rolled oats

You can find the best prices on rolled oats in the bulk-bin aisles, Economides says. Bring in your own jar or bag to fill. In my local supermarket in NYC, the price difference between bulk oats and prepackaged oats in a canister is nearly 80 cents per pound.

Pro Tip: To limit food waste, consider how long it usually takes you to finish something and compare against its shelf life.

Cheese

Generally, I’d avoid buying a huge block of cheddar at Costco that I couldn’t fathom finishing. That is, until I learned that cheese freezes well. Economides buys a 5-pound bag of cheese from restaurant-supply chain Smart & Final (with many locations in the West), avoiding membership fees at a warehouse store. When she gets home, she opens up the bag and separates the cheese into zippered plastic bags to store in the freezer, then defrosts a pack when she needs it. Cheese lasts up to two months in the freezer.

Rice

Not only is rice cheaper in bigger quantity bags and from bulk bins, but many varieties of hulled rice (white, Arborio, jasmine, basmati) as well as wild rice have an indefinite shelf life—meaning they’ll last a long time. Store the rice properly in a cool, dry place to prolong shelf life. Use a plastic or airtight container to keep moisture out.

Dry beans

Dry beans can last up to two years if stored in a cool, dark and dry area. Load up on packages of black beans and lentils the next time they hit rock-bottom prices.

Pro Tip: While you’re shopping at different stores, it’s immensely helpful to track prices. This will give you have a general idea of what can’t-beat prices for specific items look like in your area. Next time a buy-10-for-$10 sale rolls around, you’ll know if it’s a deal or gimmick. Create a lowest price list so you can stock up on items when they hit their bottom prices. Also keep track of frequently used items such as milk, canned tomatoes and natural cleaning products.

Meat

“The biggest thing about buying in bulk is you need to have freezer space. It’s the No. 1 kitchen tool that will save you money, because you can take advantage of seasonal sales,” Economides says. When items hit their lowest prices, she loads up. Turkey prices plunge every year right before Thanksgiving, so her family gets three or four to roast throughout the winter. “Having a freezer allows you to stock up on meat when it’s at its rock-bottom prices,” she says. (Fresh poultry can last up to a year in the freezer, according to FoodSafety.gov.)

Check out her straight-up genius strategy to save a shocking amount of money on lunch meat. Invest in a meat slicer, which can range from $30 to $200, and start buying 10-pound chubs of meat to slice yourself. “If you go to the service deli, you’re going to buy between $6 and $9 a pound. If you go to the refrigerator case where the precut and packaged brands are, you’re going to spend anywhere from $4 to $7 a pound. If you buy a big chub, you will spend less. We can buy lean turkey at Smart & Final; we pay $2.50 a pound,” she says. After slicing, Economides separates a pound of sliced turkey into zippered plastic bags and freezes them for up to two months.

Buying an inexpensive food scale is helpful, too, if you’re buying in bulk and dividing to store.

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Annette Economides, along with her husband, Steve, and five children, are known as America’s MoneySmart Family. Leading an extremely frugal (and fulfilling) life, they’ve managed to accomplish impressive goals, such as paying off their first home in nine years on an annual income of approximately $35,000. Here are some of the ways she uses bulk buying (and buying in smaller amounts) to shave hundreds of dollars off her monthly grocery bill.

What You Should Buy in Smaller Quantities:

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Never buy this in bulk
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Never buy this in bulk
Brown rice and other whole grains

Because they’re higher in oils than processed grains, brown rice and other whole grains will go bad quicker. Brown rice has a short shelf life of six months on the shelf and up to a year when stored in the refrigerator. Unless you can finish a 12-pound bag within that time frame, stick to smaller quantities to avoid waste. To use up the brown rice you have, try our orange beef lettuce wraps.

Oils

You may be tempted to pick up a 3-liter jug of extra-virgin olive oil because you (a) use it on absolutely everything and (b) want to avoid picking up a new bottle every month. But trust the experts—it’s a bad idea. Oil goes rancid so very easily. An open container of olive oil lasts two to three years (though purists will say six months). It’s one year for an open bottle of vegetable oil and about six months for sesame oil.

Pro Tip: For the best deals, always consider the price-per-unit. Say you’re comparing a 2-ounce bottle of vanilla extract at the grocery store, which sells for $6, and 16-ounce bottle from a warehouse club at $10. The price per ounce of the smaller bottle is $3, while the latter is 63 cents.

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Nut butters

Consider your “burn rate,” or how long it takes you to finish a food, before buying a huge amount of it, Economides says. The optimal shelf life for processed nut butters is typically one year after its manufacturing date, and that’s when still sealed. It’s even shorter for natural nut butters.

Cereal

It’s likely you’ll find better deals on regular-size cereal boxes. “I don’t buy in bulk because the average boxes will go on sale, and if you match them with a coupon it’s a better price,” Economides says. Search for digital and paperless coupons online before you go. Within minutes, I found dollar-off coupons for my favorite cereal brands on the websites for Target, Shoprite and Walgreens. Score!

One final note: Make sure you have adequate storage space before bulk buying. You’d be surprised how much space six months’ worth of toilet paper takes up.

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Happy deal hunting!

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