Buying Bulk Items Not Always Cheap

Saturdays in our household are officially designated as “Laundry Catch-up Day.” A day filled with stripping beds of their linens, separating lights and darks, and folding a seemingly endless pile of clean clothes. In preparation for the weekly event I ventured out to Target yesterday looking to buy a few bulk laundry items in Target’s “wholesale” area – the only area in the store you’ll find a frugal shopper looking for practical buys.

I’ve long joked with my wife that the only thing practical in a Target store is the shopping cart. In Target’s defense, they do occasionally run some good specials on cleaning supplies and paper products.

Buying Bulk Not Necessarily Buying Cheap

Bigger packages don’t necessarily mean cheaper price tags. Since we were kids we’ve been taught that bigger packages are a better value. The popularity of wholesale clubs such as Sams Club and Costco have helped to further this buy in bulk concept.

While warehouse clubs do offer some good deals, not everything in the store is cheaper than its discount store equivalent. Even stores such as Target and Walmart have started reserving shelf space for bulk items where you will see double packs of cereal, juices and paper products.

To compare prices of products in different sizes, calculate the per unit or per use cost of each size. Marketing gurus are a smart bunch. You will rarely find a product in two sizes where the larger size represents exactly twice as much as its smaller counterpart. If this were the case, consumers could simply double the price of the smaller item and decide if the bulk price tag was really a cheap buy.

In fact, these days companies are putting less quantity in the same size packaging, making it even more difficult to tell which is the beter buy.

Product sizing is typically tiered in thirds, making math more difficult on the fly. However, armed with a calculator (or even a cell phone, which usually offers a calculator utility), a frugal shopper can convert prices to unit costs and make an educated buying decision.

Here’s a look at my fabric softener choices yesterday:
$10.99 for 120 loads – $.0916 per load
$6.84 for 90 loads – $0.076 per load

The 1.5 cent difference doesn’t sound like much, but if the larger container was offered in a 90-load size at the same unit price it would cost about $8.24 – a $1.40 premium over the smaller package. Maybe I can take that difference and pay my daughter to fold all the clothes!


  1. I’ve noticed this a disappointing amount of times at places like Sam’s Club. Often, I can buy the exact same thing much cheaper per ounce at Walmart or even a grocery store – and when I add in sales and coupons…

    So at Sam’s I spend a lot of time checking price per unit!

    This is a really good point, though – a lot of us were raised to believe “bulk is cheaper” and the manufacturers have caught on to this and try to take advantage of our assumptions.

    And you reminded me I need to go switch out the laundry! 🙂

  2. I totally agree. We don’t have a Sam’s or Cosco, but we have BJ’s Warehouse club. For our three person family, it doesn’t pay for us to buy in bulk.

    Also, I love the site so much I added you to my blogroll. Thanks


  3. I’m glad I was able to read this. I’ve been thinking of getting a Sam’s Club membership, making that popular assumption that buying in bulk will inevitably be more economical. However, continuing to make Walmart my main source of regular shopping may be my best bet – especially since that’s where I work so shopping is convenient (requiring no more gas too) and I get an employee discount on most items as well.