Buying in Bulk for Singles and Small Families

When it comes to controlling the grocery budget, buying in bulk can often make a big difference in overall expenses. But for small households and singles, it’s not always seen as a viable option. Phoenix recently commented (abridged):

Food stores are catering more towards the buying in bulk phenomena. While this can obviously be advantageous to most families, its not always practical for smaller households.

Living in a small apartment with limited pantry and freezer space, I find it difficult (both economically and practically) to purchase smaller amounts of food that I can use efficiently, and have noticed that I have been wasting a surprising amount of ‘uncooked’ food items.

For example, I have practically had to cut bread out of my diet completely. I do not have the room in my freezer to store it and it tends to get stale or moldy long before I even come close to finishing the only size loaves I can find at my local grocery store. The same goes for certain produce like lettuce and melons which are more suited for ‘family size’.

There are a few items I have found in manageable quantities but it is clear that I am paying a lot more and taking up a lot more room for the packaging alone. So, if anyone has any suggestion as to how to better balance the meal cost and waste for a single person living in a small space, I’m sure there are many of us who would like to hear it.

Thanks for the awesome question–I have a few suggestions, one of which will hopefully work in your situation. First, I will say that for most of my life, I have been part of a one or two-eater household, so I can appreciate the dilemmas you face. We know that buying in bulk can be one of the best ways to cut the grocery bill, but when we try to actually put it in practice, things don’t always go so well.

Food goes to waste, cooked or uncooked, you end up going out to eat, and the whole vicious cycle continues because you’re chasing after a good deal on food. So in no particular order, here are things I would suggest:

Stand-Alone Freezer

When refrigeration just isn’t enough, freezing is the best option for preserving food for as long as 6 months to a few years! The problem with most small apartments is that, by the time we stock our freezer with freezer packs, ice cubes, ice cream, and a few other necessities, there’s not too much room left.

That’s why I strongly recommend buying a stand-alone freezer, no matter how small your apartment. The newest models I’ve seen sacrifice footprint for height–the 2-1/2′ by 2′ model sells for about $150, with the 3’x2′ going for $200 (at our local Sam’s Club). Both units are roughly 4 feet in height and look like they could easily hold a nice stockpile of meat, breads, fruits, vegetables, and all the processed food you can stand to eat, while fitting somewhere in the corner of your living space.

I have faith that this would turn out to be a good investment. Anything that you don’t think you’d be able to eat in 4 days or less gets frozen, and eaten at pretty much your own convenience. Things won’t necessarily have the same texture coming out of the freezer, but the taste and nutritional quality is almost the same, so the only challenge becomes finding dishes that can make good use of frozen foods.

The biggest benefit, of course, is that you’d now be able to truly buy in bulk, particularly for meat, frozen fruits, and vegetables.

Reduce Variety

If you’re used to eating something different for every meal of the week, cooking at home could turn out to be problematic. Leftovers will accumulate in the fridge, and after a few days, you’re much less likely to trust them, leading to complete waste. You also won’t be able to go through your raw ingredients fast enough before they go bad.

One solution is to seriously trim your grocery shopping experience. Buy two or three fruits, two or three vegetables, instead of a wide swath of everything in the store. Vary your fresh ingredients from shopping trip to trip instead of creating variety within the same shopping cycle. That ensures that you don’t get bored with your food (critical for avoiding eating out), but keeps your consumption and cooking habits focused. Eating one piece of anything within 2-3 days should not be a huge issue.

The variety rule could also apply to complete dishes, not only their ingredients. I’ve been known to cook a large batch of something on a Monday and have the same thing for dinner 3 nights in a row. It saves time and money. (Planning your meals to accomplish this and cross-use ingredients from the week could also be helpful).

Buying Club

Another idea that I’ve seen successfully implemented is bulk-buying timeshare of sorts. The idea is simple–a few friends or family members share a single membership to the warehouse club, take trips together to buy things they will all eat, and finally split the bill and the groceries (and toiletries, and house supplies) they buy equally. This works especially well if your friend’s food budgets and tastes are similar to yours.

This kind of sharing assures that you get the benefits of bulk pricing without much of the bulk–you hopefully get only as much as you can comfortably handle on your own without generating waste. It’s an outstanding setup for non-grocery items, because these tend to be used more slowly in one and two-family homes, and they require a lot of space to store (think 30 rolls of paper towels, or 75 rolls of toilet paper).

Break Paradigms

As a final word of advice, I would say that what singles and small households are trying to do by buying in bulk has been successfully done before. The only difference is that something in the way they’re doing it is not working well–the key is to lay down all assumptions and find that critical flaw. It’s worth the effort.

Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “Buying in Bulk for Singles and Small Families

  1. Kyra says:

    I gave up my membership to BJ’s because I didn’t use it and didn’t have the room to store bulk items. I still buy in bulk, though. By knowing unit prices at the grocery stores, I can usually beat the prices at BJ’s. Sale prices are cyclical, so I buy enough to last 2-4 months, then I won’t run out or have a storage issue.

    • Wojo says:

      Have you found that local grocery stores are selling more and more stuff in bulk? Our local ones don’t seem to be jumping on the trend.

      • Kyra says:

        Yes, but the bulk items are for convenience only. They are still not the cost effective way of stocking up.

  2. If you have the freezer space (like the stand-alone freezer mentioned), cooking and freezing meals ahead is a great way to shop/prepare food in bulk and maintain a diet that is varied. There are a number of books out there with recipes specifically designed for freezing, with step-by-step instructions on how to freeze so that you’ll get the best tasting food.

  3. YS says:

    We buy things from Costco all the time, however, the saving of money idea is very questionable. Two reasons we still shop there is because (1)their fruits/veggies/meat rotate so quickly that its always very fresh and (2) their return policy (our buying is pretty impulsive). None of these two things are true at BJ’s, so I would not belong to that WHSE.

    When we want to save cash for something, first thing we do is stop going to Costco. I’m yet to get out of that store for under $150 and we are there 3 times a month.

    The paradigm is very familiar to people in CPG (consumer packaged goods) marketing. Selling things in bulk actually increases consumption and waste. Buy a 14oz package of ketchup and track how long it would last. Next time, buy a 20oz package. You will see that it would likely last 10%-15% longer than 14oz bottle, vs. expected 50% based on size.

    Assuming all in costs (manufacturing, distribution, retail margins) on a 20oz bottle is probably only 5%-10% more than 14oz bottles, Heinz can sell a 50% larger bottle at 20% higher price and still collect the same revenue and profit per person per year.

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