Catherine W. Idzerda" />

Buying in bulk can save you time and money

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
— Call it youthful folly.

Call it the triumph of math over common sense.

Call it what you want, but the WD-40 bulk-buying incident stands out in my mind almost two decades later.

After receiving a free, 1-year membership to one of those warehouse clubs, I bought a deeply discounted six-pack of WD-40. For the next decade, I moved that WD-40 five times, from apartment to apartment and city to city.

In the end, I gave the remaining four and a half cans to a handyman I was dating. I can't recall his name, but I do remember the lessons of my first bulk-buying experience.

These days, everybody is looking for ways to save, but bulk buying isn't always the answer.

Nor are warehouse clubs.

To figure out what's best for your family, you need keen eyes and a calculator.

-- Tip No. 1: Always, always, always do the math.

I'm in one of Janesville's grocery stores, hunting around for cheddar cheese and baked beans, which is what the alleged head of my household likes to eat.

I can get the 1-pound bag of shredded cheddar for $4.99. Or, I can get two, 8-ounce bags for $4. Here's some breaking news: 16 ounces makes a pound.

By not buying the big bag, I saved 99 cents.

But in the canned vegetable aisle, I find a 117-ounce can of Bush's baked beans is 5.5 cents an ounce and the rational, human-being-sized can is 7.8 cents an ounce.

In the cereal aisle, you can have your Cheerios for 22 cents an ounce or 17 cents an ounce. That 5 cents an ounce quickly adds up.

Manufacturers understand consumers equate bulk buying with discounts, but that's not always the case.

So do the math. We can't stress that enough.

-- Tip No. 2: Watch out for those loss leaders.

It's my first time shopping in the enormous, allegedly deeply-discounted grocery/retail center. I'm delighted to discover unsalted butter for less than $2 a pound and a gallon of milk is $1.89.

Then I realize many of the other items I'm buying are between 20 and 50 cents more they are at my usual grocery store.

Every store has loss leaders. Don't base your entire shopping experience on them. The goal is to save money on your whole bill, not just a pound of butter.

-- Tip No. 3: Make sure you're comparing beans to beans and brats to brats.

Some grocery stores list the "unit" price of an item, and that's usually a good measure.

But for paper products, it doesn't work.

For example, a Charmin 9-pack is listed at 1.39 per unit, or roll. The 24-pack is listed at 40.6 cents a roll. But the 9-pack ends up being cheaper because of the square footage in each package.

Sometimes, too, brands make all the difference in the world. The alleged head of my household will only eat Johnsonville brats.

The actual head of my household insists on Tidy Cats brand litter.

-- Tip No. 4: Warehouse clubs aren't always a bargain.

You can buy 40 condoms for $10 and 48 ounces of Craisins for $7.87 cents at a local warehouse club.

Those are both good deals, though there's something appalling about buying condoms in bulk.

But other items, such as soda, Johnsonville brats, laundry, cat food, weren't fabulous deals. A few items actually were more expensive.

Also, warehouse clubs charge a membership fee. If that fee is $40, and items are discounted an average of 10 percent, you'll have to spend $400 to get your fee back.

For large families with a lot of freezer and storage space, warehouse clubs can help them save, but again—and we can't stress this enough—you have to do the math.

-- Tip No. 5: Consider your time.

Do you want to run all over town for the best deal or find decent deals at one store? Not many working parents want to go one place for paper towels, another for milk and a third for baked beans—especially not with an unhappy toddler in tow.

And how much time to you want to spend in the store? How efficient is your shopping experience? And do you want to smell tires while you shop for lettuce?

Have we mentioned it's important to do the math? Those calculations should include your time and gas costs.

Last updated: 10:20 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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