When researching an article for another publication on ways to save money in these times of relentless and depressing Brexit-induced inflation, I became absorbed in a bulk-buying website called Eat Big.
In theory, I should love bulk-buying: it saves money and the planet by reducing the surface area of non-recyclable packaging being chucked into landfill. I also have a slightly apocalyptic outlook generally, after having read too much nuclear holocaust fiction as a teenager, and stocking up on tins and cartons goes some way to assuaging this latent sense of doom.
A lot of money bloggers write about the virtues of bulk-buying and I can understand how it can become a bit of an obsession. When I was younger, Mum had a Macro card, and I can clearly remember sharing her sense of achievement when we walked out with 200 cola bottles for £1 and a 1kg tub of cashew nuts.
Three years ago, when pregnant with my second child and nervous about what an impending house move and small baby would do to my cognitive abilities, I bulk bought facial tissues (36 boxes), antiseptic wipes (1,000 packs) and toothpaste (32 tubes) on Amazon. The purchase itself was satisfying; I oozed virtue and condescension towards Ocado shoppers. We are lucky enough to have a good amount of storage space so we didn’t have to live with looking at stacks of boxes. “I could make a habit of this”, I thought.
But the smugness ended when we opened the first box of tissues. The tissues were poor quality and almost evaporated on contact, I chucked half the antiseptic wipes away as we didn’t end up using them and three years later, the packets were starting to turn brown, and the toothpaste – we did use, surprisingly quickly but it wasn’t the nicest taste.
This off-putting experience was a while ago now and given the constant cost pressures of running a family budget and trying to invest a bit too, I felt ready to give the old bulk buy another try.
We spend a ridiculous amount on coffee in our house – it must be approaching £40 a month, and that doesn’t include the takeaway cups, so I was particularly keen to look at what we might save here. Big Eat sells a kilo of Clumsy Goat – its own brand which sounds rather nice – for £13.50, which is £1.35 per 100g. Our usual tipple is Taylors Lazy Sunday, which always has a 10 per cent discount on Ocado. Even with the discount, it costs £1.48 per 100g. If we get through 600g a week, which I reckon we do, the saving by buying Clumsy Goat instead is 78p a week.
One thing you can’t shy away from if you wish to save money in any area of your life is that to do so requires your time
While not life-changing in itself, I thought, if this type of saving was replicated across several different types of product (the types that can be bulk-bought, obviously, not lettuce) in a month, I could surely wipe a good £20 off my shopping bill.
So I started to look at other products on the site that we buy regularly as a family and could be cheaper. A bulk pack of 36 packs of hula hoops costs £9.99 on Eat Big, or 28p a bag. On Ocado, It’s £1.80 for 6 (30p a bag). A saving then, yes. But if you buy a 14 pack for £3.20 on Ocado, you pay 23p a bag – much cheaper than the Eat Big price. I ran this calculation a few times to check.
And this is the problem with bulk buying. For some products, you save loads – one eye-catching one on Big Eat is Shwartz Fajita seasoning – a 530g jar costs £6.39 (or 13p per 100g) compared with 33p per 100g if you buy the standard 46g size jar from a regular supermarket. But this takes me back to the antiseptic wipes – God knows this family loves fajitas, but even I’d be pushing it to beat the use by date on a 530g jar of seasoning. And the cost of the potential waste, while not felt for another 18 months or so, needs to be considered.
The other thing to bear in mind is that when you buy in bulk, you have more of something in the house, and therefore may be tempted to consume it more quickly than you would if the supply was more limited. I know myself – a kilo of coffee in the cupboard could quickly translate into three rather than two cups a day.
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Another option if you don’t wish to bulk buy but do wish to save on your weekly shop is MySupermarket.com. Do your shopping on there and it will compare your basket at the end across different supermarkets, so that you can see clearly whether and how much you can save and where you should buy your shopping. It reckons people save about 30 per cent on average this way. Not to be sniffed at – although I haven’t tried it yet so don’t know if those savings are achieved by replacing Gail’s organic sourdough bloomers from Waitrose with Hovis. That might be the case. I’ll report back.
I am keen, however, not to dismiss bulk buying because it doesn’t always work and am prepared to run the numbers on at least five or six products – like tea and coffee, that we do always like to have in the house and may be cheaper to have bulk bought by a few quid. Items with the lowest potential to end up wasted. In these squeezed times, I think most people would agree that even a few quid is worth it.
One thing you can’t shy away from if you wish to save money in any area of your life is that to do so requires your time. Oodles of it. More than most of us feel we have. Your time researching, shopping around, comparing, calculating, driving to pick up things offered on Freegle or Freecycle, emailing people who are giving stuff away, mending clothes instead of buying new ones, scouring second hand shops for bargains. The reason all of us don’t do all of this stuff all of the time is simply that: time.
When it comes to bulk-buying, as well as comparing the cost with the regular supermarket prices, if you are doing it properly you would also want to run some comparisons across different bulk-buying outlets.
There’s Approved Food, Amazon and Alibaba for non-food items. Some may be cheaper than others for certain items. The way to do it is to compare cost per 100g, in most cases.
One tip, though, for the money-saving, bulk buying crusaders out there: don’t hoik the family in their dirty clothes down to the nearest foodbank to load up the car with cheap donations, as one mum reportedly did. Everyone loves a bargain, but unless you really, genuinely need it, this is taking it too far.
For anyone who wants to minimise the impact of higher living costs on their pockets, bulky can be beautiful, but keep your calculator handy.