Bulk Buying Without Breaking the Bank

Today our cow is ready for pick up: the whole thing, all at once, in lovely little freezer-ready packages… in just one day we spent almost as much money as it takes to feed our family for a month!

ketchup, salsa, green beans, apple butter, applesauce

Ketchup, salsa, green beans, apple butter, and applesauce made from this year's bulk buys.

Last summer it was the same deal, but with produce. We support our local economy, eat only the highest quality food, and shop in season for the best prices. But that means buying and drying, freezing, or canning a year’s worth of strawberries, raspberries, cherries, nectarines, peaches, and finally apples in the brief window they’re available. Same deal with veggies: Want pickles and ketchup with your burger in January at a fraction of the cost? Ferment cucumbers and cook your tomatoes down in August!

If you eat nuts or grains or use alternate flours, great deals are to be had by buying in bulk. If you have to watch out for gluten cross contamination, buying these products in their original package sizes can go a long way toward keeping you safe. But that can mean spending $200 on almonds, or $100 on coconut flour, all at once.

These prices can seem overwhelming! But over the course of a year, we do save money and get higher quality food in the bargain. Unless you’re independently wealthy, though, transitioning to this kind of shopping doesn’t happen overnight. Even if you did try and switch all at once you’d find yourself completely overwhelmed with produce that’s going bad, cabinet doors that won’t close, and an overflowing freezer!

Here’s how to get started with bulk buying without breaking the bank.

Choose One Food

Ideally the food you choose to start with will be something that is:

  • a staple – the savings may not be as dramatic as on specialty items, but you can be sure it will get used up at about the same pace you’d normally use it.
  • already a family favorite – don’t waste your money on getting anything you’re not sure your family will want to eat!
  • easy to preserve or store – if you aren’t sure what to do with quantities of the food you plan to get, you may be in for a lot of work, disappointing results, and wasted money. Try a small batch with whatever food you choose before committing to a purchase. Make sure you account for the extra storage space and time you’ll need to get all that food put up.
  • a good value – it should be less expensive than what you would pay in the store, and higher quality too!
  • locally available at the time you want to buy it – do a little research about what time of year the foods your family likes are available.
  • not too big – if you’ve never bought a cow from a farmer before, get a quarter cow to start with. Get the 25 lb bag of nuts rather than the 50 lb. This will make that first purchase more affordable and help you figure out if this bulk buying thing is really for you.

Affording Your First Bulk Purchase

If you plan to buy foods you normally eat, you will save money in the long run. But that up-front purchase might seem out of reach. If you just don’t have the cash, here are a few strategies for coming up with the money:

  • Take it out of the food budget – you might temporarily buy lower quality food, go crazy with coupons, or skip the splurge items on your list.
  • Take it out of another budget category – is there anything you can do without for a couple months?
  • Take it out of your pay check – whenever you get paid, put a small set amount away before you spend any of it.
  • Borrow it – put it on a credit card or borrow from someone else. Then, put the money you would have spent on that item when grocery shopping back toward the debt each month.

When saving for something like this (or paying it back), the key is not to let your savings slip into the general fund. If you do, it will probably get spent on something else. If you typically use cash for purchases, start a savings jar in the kitchen and put your change in there every day, plus the money you are saving. If you normally use a debit card or checks, transfer the cash to a savings account. If you are paying back a loan, set up an automatic payment so that it never gets forgotten.

UPDATE: We now use YNAB (You Need A Budget). It is the best budgeting tool we’ve ever tried, and it has totally changed our approach to the budget. When I wrote this post we had very little money. Borrowing was a part of life for us due to us both going back to school, as we were underemployed and living off student loans. Fortunately, between our improved income and our new, better budgeting skills, we don’t have to do that any more! When we had no choice but to borrow to eat, borrowing for a bulk purchase that would save us loads of money was a better option than borrowing to pay full price at the store!

Track Your Consumption and Savings

While you are saving up for your bulk buy, try to keep track of how much of that item you currently use. This is important information to have later on. One thing that might happen with bulk shopping is that you start using a lot more of the food you bought in bulk than you would have in the past.

For example, in the summer we buy a lot of fruit to freeze and dry. When I shopped in stores, I didn’t buy a lot of dried fruit because it was so expensive. But having lots of dried fruit on hand makes it an easy, accessible snack! If I’m not careful, I’ll eat way more dried fruit than I ever used to eat… which could result in an average grocery bill even though we spent so much less on the fruit in the first place.

Chicken Feet are a bargain you won't find in the store, but will find from a farmer!

Chicken Feet! A bargain you won't find in the store, but will find from a farmer!

Even if your reason for buying in bulk was to afford more of the food you love or have access to foods you wouldn’t have otherwise, remember to account for increased consumption when you are figuring out whether your purchase made financial sense. If you don’t have the room in your budget to spare, try storing the food someplace less accessible, and only pulling out the regular amount to eat each week.

Once you make your purchase, don’t forget to track your savings. Eating a steak from your pasture-raised, organic beef tonight? Next time you are in the store, see what that cut would have cost you and compare! It feels good to see those savings!

After you’ve used up your first bulk purchase, think about how it worked for you. Did it really save you money? Did you run out sooner than you would like or end up wasting some of it because it didn’t get used or preserved in time? Do you want to make a bigger purchase next time, or try a different food?

What’s Next?

In this series, we’ll give you all the tips you need to ease into farm direct shopping and bulk buying, one step at a time. Here’s some of what’s to come:

  • Finding your farmers
  • Splitting orders
  • Buying Clubs
  • Storing the Bounty
  • What to do when you run out
  • Cost/savings analysis for different foods: Beef

If you’re in the Portland, OR area you can get all your questions answered in person at a Homemade Health Party on Farm Direct Shopping!

What do you buy in bulk? Has it saved you money?

This post is part of Feature Friday Free For All, Friday Food Flicks, Living Well, Freaky Friday, The Ole’ Saturday Homesteading Trading Post, Monday Mania, The Weekend Gourmet, Fat Tuesday, Healthy 2day Wednesdays, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, and Real Food Wednesday, Make Ahead Monday.

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29 comments to Bulk Buying Without Breaking the Bank

  • Thanks for the tips ;) :) I’d like to buy a cow sometime. There’s a place here in California, Morris Grass Fed beef , and you can purchase anywhere from a quarter to a whole cow…and their beef is all grass-fed..I think I’m going to put a little aside each month, so i can afford to do that :) :) Thanks for the ideas :) Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather :)

  • We buy our meat in bulk (1/2 cow, 1/2 pig & a bunch of chickens). At first it was tough to spend all of that money at once– but the quality is SO much better and we did notice a significant monthly savings (which we set aside to pay for the next meat order). Looking forward to the remainder of your series.

  • This is the only way to buy food. These are good transition tips — it can definitely feel overwhelming to shell out a thousand bucks on beef.

    Thanks for sharing this post on Friday Food Flicks. Have a great upcoming week!

    Amanda

  • I so want to buy a cow….my good friend Lisa and I have been talking about splitting one for a while….thanks for re-inspiring me to get on this and make it happen!

  • Pat

    Do you have any links on how to store bulk foods?
    I really want to try this (start with making beans) but I don’t know if I should make as much as I can and then figure out how to store them, or if I have to store them uncooked.
    Any help is good help, thanks.

    • Joy

      Cooked beans freeze really well. You can also pressure can them. They store uncooked so long as they are dry and kept from pests.

      If I were you, I’d make some small batches of the dishes you’d like to store and see how you like them after they’ve been frozen or canned. Then you can decide if doing it in bulk is for you.

      I’ll ask Kelsy about her favorite links and books :)

  • Good tips! I’m slowly working my way there, but I don’t think I’ll be able to effectively buy in bulk until we live ina bigger place (in an apartment right now). I am slowly working up to preserving more (canning, drying, freezing) and more each summer, and right now my plan is to budget a certain amount each week for the farmer’s market or pick-your-own specifically for preservation.

  • I like what you said, for the most part, but can I please say that suggesting that people go into debt to buy bulk is terrible advice? You may think that you’re saving money, but that interest you end up paying on your debt is probably much more than you’d end up saving by bulk buying…
    I wrote a post on how to bulk buy when you have no extra money- it might be relevant to your readers… but please, please don’t recommend going into debt to buy in bulk. Bad, bad idea…
    http://www.pennilessparenting.com/2011/12/bulk-buying-with-no-extra-money.html

    • Joy

      You have a good point. I thought long and hard before including debt as an option. I agree, in general it’s not a great idea. Depending on the amount, the rates, and your discipline paying it back, though, it can pay off, especially if getting higher quality food means being able to get off medications as well.

      Our son, for instance, is allergic to corn. USDA meat is treated with a corn derived citric acid wash. While it doesn’t send him into anaphylactic shock, regularly eating it flares up all his allergies. Buying farm-direct ODA meat that has not had the wash is an up-front investment we couldn’t handle in cash at first, but we were able to pay off. Sourcing products that are not gluten contaminated in the slightest is also obviously a high priority for us for health reasons as well. Both these kinds of products are prohibitively expensive for us when bought week to week.

      When you don’t have the funds but you have health problems it’s a matter of priorities. For us, we decided that less than ideal finances to start with in order to be able to get the quality of ingredients we needed for health reasons was worth it. The cost savings with bulk buying were so great that taking on some initial debt paid for itself very quickly.

      Thanks for your comment. Your caution is well-received, and I hope many people will take it to heart.

  • Great post! We are buying a deep chest freezer with tax return money and then hopefully filling it with some local grass fed beef :)

    • Joy

      Yay! That’s a great use for a tax return :) Our chest freezer paid for itself and has been giving us many happy returns ever since.

      • joanne

        we get lots of beef from my in-laws every year as our christmas gift, so i haven’t bought beef for several years now, however i’m positive they get antibiotics and are grain-fed, i have no clue how the butcher handles the meat.

        i have yet to buddy up with any local farms to buy beef, poultry or pork, but antibiotics are a big deal right now as we’re trying to figure out just what this chronic condition is we’re dealing with which has quit responding to antibiotics.

        i might be stepping on some toes to insist on buying beef elsewhere . . .

        • That’s a hard one, Joanne. On the one hand, you want to accept a gift (especially such a large one!) in the spirit it was given. On the other, it might not be such a gift after all if you need to avoid antibiotics.

          It might be easiest to resell the meat and buy your own cow without telling them. It’s not exactly honest, but sometimes we have to lie to keep the peace. If you do decide to refuse the gift, make sure you let them know you appreciate their generosity, but that your health demands a different kind of meat.

          We have had to deal with just saying no on a much smaller scale. Joy wrote about it in Crazy Diet People, Part 3.

  • This looks like a great series of posts! It can definitely be a heart attack the first time you drop a huge chunk of money on bulk food, but when you do the math long term it really works out. We buy wheat in bulk (150# at a time) and it saves us ridiculous amounts of money over the course of a year.

    We also buy meat in relative bulk (ground beef, chicken, sausage) from our local butcher because the quality and price can’t be beat. One of my favorite parts of the game is that you can save money twice – the item costs less when bought in bulk and you save money on gas when you’re not making a separate stop at the farm/butcher’s/etc. every time you shop! :)

    • Joy

      Hi Jamie,
      Grains are a fantastic candidate for bulk buying because the savings are so great and they store so well. For people who are sensitive to gluten cross contamination in alternate grains, buying whole grains is a much better option because they can be rinsed, sorted, and soaked.

      As for the gas money… Depending on your suppliers it can turn out either way. When we pick up our bulk orders at a nearby drop, it definitely saves us. But we also drive out to the country for some items, which is much further than we’d drive to the grocery store. We haven’t tried calculating it to see if we save on gas or not.

  • I’m working on saving by buying and preserving more things in bulk. This summer, my goal is to can enough tomatoes to get us through to the next summer. I know we’ll save money, and I won’t be supporting the unethical practices of many tomato farmers.

    This post is loaded with useful informations, and I would love for you to come share this recipe at my Make-ahead Monday Link-up over at Raising Isabella!

    http://naturalparentingunnaturalworld.blogspot.com/2012/01/make-ahead-monday-5.html

    Hope to see you there!~
    Sarah

  • Thanks for linking this post up to Healthy 2Day Wednesday – hopefully more people will be inspired to try buying healthy food in bulk!

  • I’ve got a couple more ideas for your Affording Your First Bulk Purchase list. My husband and I made the choice to live frugally on one income. We put save about 1/3 of his paycheck into savings. For things like a side of beef we have the money already set aside.

    To get vegetables and fruit, I work in exchange for produce with a Mennonite truck farmer during the winter in his green houses and cold frames and at a local CSA during the summer. Most CSAs are open to work for food shares, there’s never enough labor during the growing season. It’s mostly easy stuff like weeding and harvesting and washing the produce. I just sent emails to both of these places when we first moved here and got positive responses right away. I put in about 6-9 hours a week. It’s been a wonderful way to get high quality local produce and learn about gardening at the same time.

    We’re expecting our first baby this June and I’m glad that both situations are happy to let me bring the babe and set my own schedule.

    So add using savings and work for food arrangements! You could even consider bartering.

  • Thanks for sharing this post at Make-ahead Monday! I hope to see you again next week!

    Sarah @ Raising Isabella

    http://naturalparentingunnaturalworld.blogspot.com

  • karen

    I live in Arkansas and I am very lucky that there is a local farm here that has a pay-by-the-month meat share. It includes 1/4 cow, 1/4 pig, 24 chickens, and 2 turkeys (in season). We pay $200 down, $75/month for 11 months. Plus if we want to order extra of anything, meat share customers get 10% discount an additional items. :-)

  • Great info. Stocking up is the major way I used to think about buying in bulk. But it also helps to buy from bulk bins (if your able) for cost and space efficiency. Check out my post for more details: http://homemakerhow-tos.blogspot.com/2011/08/buying-in-bulk-great-for-limited-space.html! Hope this helps too! Good way to make some savings for the bigger purchases.

  • Katherine

    It is a shame that families on SNAP and WIC don’t have this option. (Only allotted a certain amount per month, only some states allow “rollover” of funds, and it can only be spent at traditional super markets—although some states now allow farmers market purchases—yay!)
    I think families who have experienced a job list or other catastrophe deserve better, and I hope you consider advocating for WIC and SNAP benefit expansion so all families can have the same opportunity to eat well!

    • Joy

      We agree that WIC and SNAP should be paying for these kinds of foods. We have been on SNAP and WIC in the past, and are actually below the income guidelines now. However, we can not get it because of our erratic, self-employment income. (When I went in before, they refused to consider the COSTS of performing the job that I had income from, or the fact that several months’ work could be paid all at once.)

      In our state (Oregon), benefits do roll over, and most farmer’s markets, many farmers, and some buying clubs do accept SNAP (I don’t know about WIC). We do advocate for an increase in SNAP and improvement in the foods provided by WIC. I agree that improvements in those programs could result in much better accessibility of real food for more people.

  • Esra

    Hi, I have been thinking about buying bulk but have one major concern, the type of beef to buy, there are different types offered in the grassfed farms around and if the one I choose is not palatable for my kids it will be a big waste. they used to love meat that was store bought regular kind ( I could afford nicer cuts of that too), but now whenever I buy grassfed beef except for ground they find it too tough, so I have just been sticking to lamb and chicken. Any advice?
    Another question is, what were the questions you asked the seller. i just saw an ad on craigslist for 1.40/ lb grassfed, but how would I know for sure about antibiotics, hormones and grains? Did you make a visit, and how can I tell anything by just looking at the animal :) sorry for the long and inexperienced questions:)

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