The Costco Conundrum

Packing up our house and simplifying our life in order to prepare for this next year of basically living out of a suitcase has been a good reminder for how little material things we need.  Things that we like and make life easier are great, don’t get me wrong.  But in terms of need, that list has narrowed significantly.

Which brings me to a topic that has long bothered me.  And that topic is Costco.  Or Sam’s.  Or just buying things in bulk in general.

To my understanding, there are only two reasons to go to a “buy in bulk” place:

  1. You need to throw a party/gathering/social function for a large group of people.
  2. You have a very large family.

(I guess very large family could be extended to, “you have many house guests for an extended period of time”.)

Outside of being in a situation where the immediate demand for a certain (food) item is great, it does not make sense to buy in bulk because demand will always increase to fit the supply.  I don’t believe this is something we do on purpose necessarily, it just happens.  I do this too.  Oh, I’ll buy the giant thing of shampoo and then use a ton every time I wash my hair because I have a lot.   And then I realize now that two of us have managed to survive with 2 little hotel shampoo bottles for two weeks somehow.   The idea that one will “save money” by buying in bulk is a false promise because you’ll just use more to offset what savings you might have had.

If you buy more, you’ll use more.  Otherwise, you’ll waste it.  And then you definitely won’t be saving money.

So, go to Costco if you like to buy things or you use a lot of something, but don’t go to Costco to save money.   If you really want to save money, use less.

I’m reminded of this fact when I travel, like  when I see how others conserve items.  Have you ever seen two girls split a napkin in half?  The Costco solution would have been to just go buy 20,000 napkins in bulk for cheaper.  But then I guarantee you, with knowledge of the lurking napkin goldmine, no one would have felt the  need to split any napkins in half to use less.

Do you go to Costco or the like regularly?  Do you see things differently?


18 thoughts on “The Costco Conundrum

  1. Love this post! So true. No, I hate Costco and other stores like it. Yuck. I don’t even know where they are (and I live in a very crowded suburb of NYC) Yuck, double yuck on these places. You can add the stupid big store Baby stores, Buy Buy Baby, Babies R Us, Toys R Us onto this list. They are horrid and dreadful and make children and their parents neurotic.

    We buy local. We walk to our corner stores and only drive to a locally owned grocery store so, so often.

    Besides making one waste money these stores make you want things you really don’t need or (want once you have to clean the stuff up or throw it out!)

    However, we do go to CVS for basics. We buy: formula, diapers, vaseline and soft soap and cotton balls there. And try to be nothing else.

    I have managed to avoid shopping my head off because good people have given Baby Adorable all the clothes she will need until she is nearly 3.

    One thing I am annoyed about myself is, I have become accustomed to having paper towels and paper napkins around! My husband grew up on them! They always run out and they annoying to store and expensive. But, now my germ phobe-self rationalizes having them.


    When I was a missionary I would have to move to different cities. I always had to leave behind the stuff I accumulated. It was GREAT! To this day, I am so thankful that I have this framework in my past. I need to draw on it on a more regular basis.

    Stuff just makes one less able to be free, in the moment, and fully present to others.

    Keep these postings a’comin. I adore your wisdom.

  2. We don’t have big box stores in Chicago, though there are some in the ‘burbs, I guess.
    I hate shopping anywhere, anytime, so big box stores are a definite no in my life.

  3. There are a few things that we’ve managed to purchase there without increasing our usage, but really not enough to make it worth the membership. We renewed ours in January ($50) and have yet to go there at all this year, simply because we ran out of things to buy in bulk. Food we certainly can’t do, unless it’s nonperishable items, because we just can’t eat it before it goes bad. I agree with you, unless your day-to-day need is that great, it’s sure not worth it.

    And I am also going to cut down on my daily shampoo usage now too. :)

  4. I can’t say that I have ever shopped at Costco or any other “bulk” store, but I can say that I feel I have benefitted from buying a few things in bulk. We have a huge kitchen (while we are house sitting) and have plenty of room to store nonperishable items so we bought a big sack of rice that has lasted us quite a long time. We also buy some things in bulk from farmers and such. We get pounds of celtic sea salt and then use it over a year or so (it’s healthy and prescribed for me so the more I use the better and I don’t think I’ll over salt – yuck) and we have bought a 1/4 cow and used the meat over the course of a year. This encourages us to eat less popular but healthy cuts like liver and we know and support the farmer. And I don’t think we eat more meat because of it – I just have to shop less

  5. Thank You for blogging on this subject. I have only been to COSTO or similar big stores may be five times and each time I came out overwhelmed. You are so right, when I buy paper towel in bulk it seem like I tend to use more of it knowing that I have plenty stored away. I have no membership and don’t plan to get one, no point for a two person household.

  6. we don’t but I am considering it because I discovered freezer cooking. The idea of cooking enough meals to last you a month in just one day and then freezing them so that they are basically ready when I am sounds great. I am not sure the savings will be worth the membership fee, though.

  7. I love shopping at Sam’s club! ;) I buy the basics, qtips, razors, soap, sandwich bags, iced tea bags, toilet paper, paper towels, coffee, chips are cheaper and you get more….etc…I also buy the big thing of shampoo 2 liters for $20 at sec.ret and it takes me 8 months to use them. I think it’s cheaper, but I don’t like OTC shampoo either. ;(

    I buy most my meat and produce from the farmer, celtic salt in bulk because I’m addicted, most gluten free flour online etc…

    I don’t feel like we use more because we buy in bulk…..Those are the things we use a lot of….But then I like being stocked up…. ;) My dream is to have a warehouse up in my attic stacked full of non-perishable items! hahahahaha ;)

  8. I used to shop at Sams but found that their prices weren’t cheaper on most things than what I found at my local grocery store chain. So… we stopped shopping there.

  9. You definitely make a good point here, Alison! You’re absolutely.

    I agree with a few of the commenters, though — some things are worth buying in bulk. Stuff that you can’t really overuse, like flour, yeast, rice, etc. The other benefit to bulk is the decrease in packaging. If I buy an enormous can of yeast and then store it in the freezer, I don’t have to keep buying little jars or packets of it and then throw away the packaging. It also means fewer trips to the grocery store, thereby conserving gas. But in general, I agree – bulk encourages waste. Good point!

  10. I never shop there, although we do have a Sam’s Club membership for diapers and formula (although I’ve never got them there because they don’t have the preemie formula she uses). And I know for sure those are definitely two things that we won’t increase our usage of just because we have them in bulk :)

    When it comes to everything else though, even if it would be cheaper to buy in bulk over time (and you make great points of why it isn’t), I just don’t have enough money in my bi-weekly grocery budget to afford the bulk prices.

  11. These comments are great! I do think that the things you use every day (like flour, sugar, rice) are probably good things to buy in bulk to, so I guess I do stand corrected :) Maybe some other things too if you’re extremely disciplined! ha!

  12. We had a Sam’s Club membership when we had our house (and the storage room). Our biggest reason for buying in bulk is my husband’s metabolism – he can (and needs to) eat a lot. It is easier and cheaper to buy the giant thing of oatmeal once a month than to buy it every week.

    I think someone else already said it, but razor blades and some things are cheaper that way too.

    We just try to only buy what we are going to need and to keep our waste to a minimum (like we don’t buy fresh produce or things that will go to waste in bulk).

  13. Echoing what a couple others posted, we do use our membership (to BJ’s in our case) in part because it allows me to shop less often for staples like toilet paper and diapers. The savings is probably only in time and we have started to talk about whether it is worth renewing as slightly smaller places like Target become more competitive and we go down to one income.

  14. Yes – we (a little family of 2) use Sam’s for: Toilet paper, shampoo, nuts, much used spices (garlic powder, onion powder & oregano), cheeses, ground turkey, laundry & dish washing detergent, & red/yellow red peppers.

    I do notice a difference. I run an extremely tight budget (and have for the 8+ years of my marriage) so I know exactly where money is going and where it is saved (or not). All meat (we buy in bulk at another place) is broken down into ¾ lb. bags and my menu is just as annoyingly strict as my budget is – so no overuse there (FYI: we eat meatless 2 times a week, 2 poultry, etc.). With the nuts, my husband and I eat low-carb so 1/3 cup is a part of our everyday lunch. The nuts are MUCH cheaper at Sam’s (3lb bag of whole almonds is about $10 versus a 1 lb bag at the store for $8) but the big benefit is that they do not contain salt like the mixed nuts you buy in the store so I can make my own “no-salt” mix that is healthier and the nuts last forever. And cheese is ridiculously cheap comparatively. For a low-carber, protein, nuts, and cheese are a big deals even without the other stuff.

    Your points are valid and it really does depend on what you buy and if you are conscientious of your use. I’m going to embarrass myself here, but with the laundry detergent, I write on the bottle when I purchased it with a black marker. That bottle has to last me 3 ½ months. That’s the only item I saw that I was overusing and that was my measure to keep my eye on it.

  15. Great post and great comments! I would consider a membership if/when our family is large enough, but not now. I do see how it encourages waste. For example, my husband’s family has always bought their paper towels at Sam’s Club and they will use several towels just to dry their hands (as opposed to a dish towel) and another 3-4 to kill a tiny bug! That said, I would like to be able to just have those non-perishables on hand and not have to buy them so often.

    As for the food, I find that I am way too tempted to buy massive quantities of junk food at those places. I won’t buy a gigantic thing of fruit because it’ll go bad too fast, but a gigantic thing of chips or brownie mix? Sure!

  16. I think that you are right that excess encourages waste. For things like paper towels I found that the only way for us to not use an excessive amount is to not have them in the house. So sometimes we end up using a tissue when paper towel might work better, but we don’t waste nearly so much.

    I don’t shop at Costco etc. because I have not found it to be cheaper, but whenever I do find something deeply discounted I like to buy more. With some things (cheese) this means we end up eating more than we otherwise would. But then we may go without it for a month or two. And I smiled at Kathleen’s comment because yeast is one of those things that I have to buy in bulk because it is *so* much cheaper and there is a lot less waste.

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