This article is part of Money's January 2022 digital cover, which features 22 ways to make 2022 the best money year of your life. Browse all 22 articles here.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken consumers on a wild ride.
In the early days, it was a toilet paper shortage. Then it was skyrocketing meat prices, followed by holiday gifts that were as hard to come by as they were expensive.
“The pandemic has turned us all into hoarders,” says shopping expert Lisa Lee Freeman. Now, she says, we’re incentivized to “stock up on what you shouldn’t be stocking up on.”
For all goods, inflation surged to 6.8% year-over-year in November, according to the latest government numbers. At-home food costs spiked 6.4%, fueled largely by meat, poultry, fish and egg prices, which ballooned nearly 13%.
To manage these soaring costs, Freeman is a big proponent of buying in bulk. But only if you’re shopping for items you truly need — and have the space for.
“What makes sense is to stock up when things are on sale,” she says.
Here are 10 items worth buying in bulk if you find them at the right price.
Inflation has disproportionately impacted meat prices, with shoppers seeing double-digit prices increases on certain cuts. If you see a good sale, you might be tempted to get a cartful. But make sure you’re buying the right type of meat and have enough freezer space to store it.
Freeman says to avoid hotdogs, bacon, sausages and lunch meat since those items don’t store well. Frozen hamburgers and fried chicken are all right for about four months, while whole chickens, steaks and roasts last the longest, between six and 12 months.
Supermarkets typically mark the price of nuts down after the holidays, so the start of the year is a good time to buy them in bulk.
Be forewarned, though: Nuts may seem like they’ll last forever in the pantry, but they can actually go rancid after a few months.
“You have to freeze them,” Freemans says. “As long as they're in an airtight container in the freezer, they could last up to two years.”
Ask any new parent and they’ll tell you: Diapers are expensive. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve only gotten costlier — and harder to come by.
If you see a good deal on diapers, buying them in bulk is a no-brainer. There’s no expiration date you have to worry about, so the only concern is storage space.
Here's another alternative: You could give cloth diapers a shot, and over the course of a couple of years, save thousands of dollars.
Canned foods are one of the best things to buy in bulk, and, as a bonus, they’ve largely avoided inflation-related price hikes.
Most canned foods can last indefinitely as long as they are stored in a cool, dry place (not under the sink, above the stove, or in a damp basement or garage), according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).Acidic foods like tomatoes and fruits don’t store quite as long, but they can still last up to 18 months, the USDA says.
Fresh fruits and veggies
Buying fruits and veggies in bulk might sound like an odd strategy, but you can actually store them for quite some time once frozen. Still, it’s not as simple as throwing a banana in the corner of your freezer and calling it a day.
“Unlike meat, with veggies and fruits, you have to know how to freeze them,” Freeman says. “If you bought [fresh] blueberries to freeze and you just stuck them in a big bag, you’re gonna have a big blue glob.”
Likewise, “if you don't blanch things like asparagus before you put them in the freezer,” she says, “they're not going to taste very good when you take them out.”
Herbs and spices
Dried herbs, like rosemary, oregano and basil can last for years.
But the biggest “no brainers,” Freeman says, are vanilla extract and salt, which “virtually last forever.” (Table salt has a shelf life of about five years, but natural salt can, indeed, last forever.)
White rice is another great bulk buy. When stored properly, it can last for decades. Brown rice, on the other hand, will only last about six months.
What’s the difference, exactly? White rice is refined (i.e. processed), so you’re only buying the white kernel. Brown rice still has the bran and germ attached to it, as well as oils that will eventually make it turn rancid, even if it's stored in an airtight container.
Toilet paper and paper towels
Now that panic buying has died down, you can buy a mountain of TP guilt-free.
If you’re willing to forgo some precious closet real estate, buying paper products on sale can pay off. They won’t expire, after all, and you're gonna need them sooner or later.
The USDA categorizes sugar as a “shelf-stable” food, meaning it’s totally nonperishable. Buying it in bulk is another “no brainer,” Freeman says, but make sure you store it in a moisture-proof container for the long haul.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the prices of personal care products have actually been deflating — so now is a good time to stock up on common bathroom items like toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo.
Some of these products may have an expiration date, but they’re usually tied to the item’s effectiveness. Translation: A tube of toothpaste that's a few months past its "use by" date might not make your breath smell as fresh as a new one, but it's not going to poison you.
How to buy in bulk
Bulk buying isn’t a de-facto cost-saving strategy — there’s definitely a “right” way to do it. Here are a few of Freeman’s best tips for saving the most money when buying in bulk.
- Always do the math: When shopping, look at the price-per-unit. If it’s meat, it’s per pound. Toilet paper? Per sheet. That way you can always make an apples-to-apples comparison. And just because you’re shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club doesn’t mean it's a guaranteed deal. Make sure to compare the per-unit costs to those at your local supermarket.
- Skip over certain items: If you see a killer deal, that doesn’t automatically mean you should stock up. When it comes to bulk buying, Freeman says you should skip over coffee, condiments, over-the-counter drugs, dairy products and olive oil. Due to their relatively short shelf lives, they simply don’t make sense in large quantities.
- Know where to shop: The big warehouse retailers like BJs, Costco and Sam’s Club are a given. But you can also find plenty of good deals online on Amazon and Boxed.com. More supermarkets are starting to carry items in bulk these days, Freeman says. So don’t count them out.