Friday, April 25, 2008

Bulk Buying

All right, that’s it. I just read the umpteenth item about people rushing out to bulk buy everything from rice to peanuts, and I’m afraid we’re going to have results similar to the tremendous waste of beef during the beef shortage back in the 70s – it was caused by people buying unfamiliar cuts in attempts to still have their beef in spite of skyrocketing costs. “Hey, this has all these weird bones in it…and is it supposed to taste like liver?!”

I’m going to do my wee little part to help here. You want to buy bulk? Keep the following in mind:

Price book: A Bulk Buyers Best Friend

A price book is a simple tool that can really help you figure out whether a deal is awesome!, or smoke & mirrors!. You do not have to keep track of every single item in the entire store. Only things you buy frequently, with special attention paid to items you buy in varying sizes in an attempt to save money.

Let’s take cocoa powder for an example. Who has the best deal on cocoa powder? Is that sale price actually your ‘best possible’ price? Is the bulk purchase best?

StoreItemDateUnitsPriceCost / Unit
SafewayScharffen Bergerpowder Cocoa4/25/20086$8.54$1.42
SafewayHershey's Cocoa Powder3/24/20088$4.35$0.54
Penzey's SpicesDutch Process Cocoa Powder4/25/200816$7.90$0.49
Safeway (Sale) Hershey's Cocoa Powder4/25/20088$3.50$0.44
Penzey's SpicesNatural Cocoa Powder4/25/200816$6.80$0.43
www.BulkFoods.comNatural Cocoa Powder4/25/200880$11.25$0.14
www.BulkFoods.comNatural Cocoa Powder4/25/2008400$53.15$0.13
www.BulkFoods.comNatural Cocoa Powder4/25/2008800$87.78$0.11

Note that by calculating it by units, you level the playing field. It can be hard to compare a six ounce container to a one pound container – but by calling that one pound bag a sixteen ounce bag instead and figuring the price out in ounces rather than by the bag, you have a better chance of figuring out whether or not you’re getting a great price.

Looking at a price tag of almost ninety bucks is enough to make you just say, “Uh, no, that’s too expensive!” on face value. But look at that price-per-ounce! A third the price of the supermarket sale price!

Where’s it gonna go?

If you’re going to buy bulk, think about storage before you get home with a 50 pound sack of flour. You can’t open that bag, then stick it out in the garage and hope for the best. Moisture will make it rot, weevils will infest it, you will be very, very sorry. You need a dry, cool storage space and air-tight containers. If you have concerns about weevils or other varmints, put the food into your freezer for 24 to 48 hours.

Personally, I use food-grade containers like these. Mine are square, though, which I find stack with more stability and also make best use of my (ahem) square garage cupboards.

Check them regularly. I keep a smaller Tupperware in the kitchen, and each time I refill it I make sure I stir up the contents of the larger containers. Sometimes, varmints and wetness (and the mold it can cause, ew!) will gather only on the bottom, with seemingly innocent and clean stuff on top. Giving the stock a good deep stirring will expose any nastiness that might be happening.

If you use the stuff briskly you won’t have this problem. I go through that 50 pound sack of flour each and every month – sometimes, in less than a month. I haven’t seen a weevil in my flour buckets in years. But if you’re buying a two-year supply of rice this weekend? Make sure you keep an eye on it.


Before you buy, check the ‘use by’ dates. Yes, many things will actually survive long past their technical expiration date – but some things don’t, and sometimes the bulk items have been languishing longer than you might expect. There could be several months difference between the use by on the cases at the front of the shelf, and the back.

The freezer does not equal suspended animation

The freezer will significantly extend the life of things. But it is not, NOT, NOT!, equivalent to a complete halt of the decaying process. Things will lose moisture and texture over time, and honestly if you’ve got a self-defrosting freezer – they may desiccate faster than you expect.

As a general rule of thumb, your vegetables will last about 3 to 6 months, depending on what they are and how they are prepared. Nuts will keep about 6 months. Meats…meats are tricky. The larger the cut, the longer it lasts – up to a year for large roasts. Ground meats 3 to 6 months. I’ve had really rotten luck with really thin things like deli ham, no more than a month before I’ve found it just doesn’t taste right.

Does this mean they will have to be thrown away? No. Not at all. I actually do use vegetables that are way past their prime in stocks, and sometimes will take meat that not even the dog would eat (well, if we had a dog, anyway…) due to texture and/or appearance and use it in soups. But if you were planning to grill those luscious steaks you bought last year when they were on sale?

They…uh…may not be the same filets you knew and loved.

Know What You’re Buying!!!!

Read the label very, very carefully. Take my cocoa powder up there: I’m buying natural processed powder. It is not like Hershey’s! It is like the difference between semi-sweet (Hershey’s) and unsweetened (natural process). If I use it in recipes without acknowledging this, whatever I make will come out on the ‘bittersweet’ side. (This is perfectly OK by me, actually – but not everybody likes chocolate that kind of bites you back!)

If you pay $80 for a box of cocoa powder you then despise, well, you haven’t actually saved money unless you force yourself to choke it down anyway.

Invest a little money in a smaller package if you can. As fresh milk prices continue to rise, it may well come to pass that dry milk will become economical again. Right now, a gallon of fresh 1% milk is $2.99 (actually, it’s $3.59 a gallon, but two for $5.99). The cost to make a gallon of nonfat is $3.50 if bought in extreme bulk.

If the price of a gallon of milk crept over about $3.75 around here, I’d consider buying the milk powder. But before I ran out and got three cases of #10 (enough for roughly 86 gallons of milk) cans of the stuff for the best price-break, I’d “waste” money (paying about $4 a gallon) on a single can to try it. If I loathe the brand, if it adds a nasty taste to my breads or I can’t get a white sauce to set using it – I’m not going to spend $300 only to find out it is not going to work for me!

Got Friends?

I know. We all live on little islands, we talk to nobody, we know nobody, and the last thing we want to do is go to the neighbors (who are, like, not from around here? And also they dress funny? Plus I think they might be {Catholic, Hindu, Baptist, Unitarians, Satanists} or some junk?) and say, “Heyyyyyy…wanna buy some beef with me?!”

But I think we’re going to have to get over that. Normal people simply aren’t going to be able to use an entire cow in six months.

But four families just might – and each family will enjoy the tremendous cost savings associated with going direct to the ranch and buying an entire steer. (The rancher will be happy too, because in spite of giving you a price as much as 50% less than the Costco price he still makes more selling directly to you!)

If you can force yourself to take that tremendous risk and get to know your neighbors, all sorts of things become possible. Their backyard garden has zucchini, tomatoes and lettuce…you’re growing corn, sunflowers and broccoli. Let’s make a deal!

You couldn’t possibly use 50 pounds of flour in your lifetime…but if five neighbors each take ten pounds, well. Ten pounds at my supermarket would cost $6. Fifty pounds is (was last time, anyway) $14.50 - $3 per ten pounds, or half price.

You’re brilliant at sewing, I can bake. Say, could you put a new zipper in Eldest’s dress? I’ll give you four loaves of bread for it…dude, mow my front lawn for me and I’ll give you a fresh apple pie (you would not believe how strong a motivator apple pie can be for red-blooded young men)!

You can even divvy up the cost of the club warehouse this way. Everybody puts in their requests, one person has the membership and does the shopping in bulk, and the members of the neighborhood club pay the shopper when they pick up their stuff.

The benefits of bulk pricing, without the pain of throwing away the food you just didn’t manage to eat in time – and possibly the even greater benefits of putting together a group with a wide variety of talents to offer.


Science PhD Mom said...

I just bought my first 25 lb sack of flour. It is being portioned out and excess is being frozen. I am trying out your bread recipe soon to use up some of that flour--with bread prices so crazy I figure I can work my way through making good sandwich bread. The frugal craze continues, yee ha!

Lydee said...

oh man, I've been so wrapped up with work, I've barely paid attention to the news. Thanks for being the voice of reason amidst the chaos! Good tips I will take to heart.

PipneyJane said...

As usual, Tama, your timing is perfect. DH and I are off to Wing-Yip tomorrow to check out their rice and flour prices (remember my Wing-Yip is Evil post? []) I'm taking DH so that he can provide the muscle. :o)

I normally buy rice in 10kg sacks, when it's on special at 2 for £10, and store it in Lock-n-Lock Boxes. I haven't bulk-purchased flour yet, but that's because I haven't had the opportunity. After a year of thinking about it, I reckon that we use enough flour to justify one 10kg bag (approximately 25lb) a year.

- Pam

Olga said...

I could hear the Tightwad Gazette in your voice! I still have Y2K stuff from 2000, not to excited to go out and buy a bunch of stuff again. Funny how real food is so expensive and pop is like 88Cents

Marty52 said...

Great post! Thanks for the info. Since it's just the two of us, we don't buy much in bulk anymore, but when we had three teenage boys it was another story!