Some items are easy to cut when you’re trimming the fat off your budget—your gym membership when you only make it there once a month, the mani-pedi you splurge for every other weekend. But when it comes to saving money on groceries, it’s a bit tougher—you’ve always got to eat!
So, if you want to save on food, you’re going to have to get strategic about it. My recommendation? Buy in bulk. While this may sound counterintuitive, especially if you’re just shopping for one or two, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to buy those things that you always reach for in your cupboards.
Not yet a Costco convert? Here are four steps to get you started on bulk shopping (and saving).
Buy a Bulk Store Membership
Your first step: Get a membership at your nearest bulk store. You don’t need to become an extreme couponer with a warehouse in your basement that would leave you ready for a nuclear fall-out—just visiting once or twice a month can help you save on things you know you’ll use. And yes, these stores charge annual fees, but you’ll likely find that they’re well worth the savings.
I recommend Sam’s Club, where an annual membership is just $40 (and discounts are available for college students and business owners), or Costco, where both the gold membership and the business membership have a $55 annual fee.
Don’t Buy Everything
That said, anyone who’s ever shopped at Costco knows that it’s important to put on your blinders and stick to what you need. If you purchase a five-pound jar of peanut butter, and you don’t remember the last time you ate a PB&J, you’re not likely to ever get good use out of such a large package, no matter how good a deal you got.
Only purchase large quantities of the items that are versatile or staples in your diet. I recommend sticking to meat, pasta and rice, frozen veggies, canned goods, sauces (like pasta sauce, taco sauce, salsa, or soy sauce), paper products, and cleaning supplies. For everything else, pick up what you need during your weekly trip to the grocery store.
Also, be wary of buying too much snack food—researchers at the University of Illinois and INSEAD found that we tend to eat over half of the snack food we buy in bulk within six days.
Stock Up on Storage Containers
So, now that you’re stocked up, how do you store everything? The secret that many overlook when buying in bulk is that you need to portion out your food, so you have it ready in more convenient small sizes when you want it.
Small, plastic containers (I bought a 50-piece Rubbermaid set for $15 at Sam’s Club) are great for divvying up your meat by pound. That way, the exact amount you need for recipes is always ready to go. Divide whatever you won’t use in the next two to three days into small containers, then stick them in the freezer. You can use the rest of the containers to carry leftovers from dinner into the office for lunch or to set aside a quick dinner to reheat after a long day. (For more ideas, check out this list of 25 unique ways to use your Tupperware).
Pick up a few sizes of bags—snack size, sandwich size, and gallon size—then use them to portion out dry goods and snacks, like pasta, rice, chips, and pretzels, into the amounts you normally cook. After bagging up your items, just put them right back in the box for easy storage!
Pick a Day to Prepare, Purchase, and Portion Out
Alright, so when, exactly are you going to do all of this? Yes, a trip to the bulk store might take a couple hours, but it will actually save you time on your weekly trips to the store and nightly meal prep. So, set aside the time and just go. (If you can, go on a Wednesday after work—that’s when the new deals and coupons are out for the week.)
Try keeping three lists on hand: One for your bulk shopping trips, one for your weekly groceries, and one of easy recipes that you can make with your go-to ingredients. (Not exactly skilled in the kitchen? Peruse Real Simple’s round up of no-cook recipes for ideas.) Then, you’ll also save time crafting up shopping lists, too!
There you have it—bulk shopping isn’t just for big families and soccer teams. If you do it the right way, it can be the perfect money-saving (and time-saving!) solution, even when you’re just buying for one.
Tell us! Do you do your shopping in bulk? What do you buy and what do you skip?