Why I don’t always buy in bulk

I want my groceries to be as high-quality as possible, but I also want them to be as cheap as possible. Since you usually can’t optimize with respect to two different metrics, you have to pick some kind of compromise: I tend to go for “as cheap as possible given a certain minimum quality,” and this usually means buying in bulk. (You could pick a different compromise—I heard a story of someone who resolved never to buy a bottle of wine costing more than $10, which I think is clever for other reasons.) But sometimes I break my rule, and don’t go for the bigger, cheaper version, and you might be surprised why.
lettuce-1517239_1280
When I was in grad school, I wanted to start eating healthier. No, that didn’t mean eating more of the vegetables I already liked, that meant… salad! Because healthy people eat salad. So I shopped around at the nearest Wegman’s and found that the cheapest way to buy romaine was to get three whole unwashed romaine heads in one bag. So that’s what I bought. And that’s what stayed in my fridge until it went bad and I replaced it. This did not work as an eat-more-salad strategy.

The problem was that at any given moment, it was more work to prepare the lettuce (breaking it up, washing it, drying it, tearing it into bits) than I was willing to spend on a food I didn’t even like. The cost-versus-quality tradeoff doesn’t take into account a third and equally important dimension, difficulty of use:

lettuce1

What I wish I had done, if I really wanted to become a salad-eater, was find the easiest possible way of eating salad—say, getting bags of pre-washed and cut lettuce, or just ready-made with toppings and everything, depending on how expensive I was willing to go—and do that until eating salad became normal for me. Then I could gradually move up the frugality scale, letting each additional step of salad preparation become an ordinary job, until I was willing to put in the work of making it from whole lettuce heads (or even growing it myself!).

lettuce2

In the language of keystone habits and token actions, buying the whole heads of lettuce was a token action meant to affirm my identity — “I am healthy and thrifty because thrifty healthy people buy whole heads of lettuce” — whereas getting the more expensive but easier to use option would have been a keystone habit I could build on — “I’m not yet a salad eater but this is something I can commit to which will help me become one.”

Note that it sounds more expensive to go this route: even basic pre-made salads can be pretty pricey. But consider these two points in favor of making the extra expense:

  1. The idea is to gradually work your way up to the cheap option anyway, so it’s really more of a one-time cost. Suppose the extra I’d pay over the course of this process, compared to just getting the bulk lettuce from the start, was $50. If I could plunk down $50 in exchange for become someone who regularly eats salad for the rest of my life, I would absolutely take the deal.
  2. Buying food and letting it go bad is not exactly thrifty either. Wastefulness aside, the hidden cost of buying the cheaper lettuce is that instead of eating it, I was using up my other food faster.

Since I’ve had this realization, that it can be better and cheaper in the long run to go with more expensive options that require less commitment, I’ve applied it to other areas with great success. Instead of going straight for the 48-pack of store brand toilet paper, I’ll get a small package first just to make sure it’s something I can live with. And after trying and loving Minneapolis’s Nice Ride bikeshare program, Clara and I are using the pay-for-a-month-at-a-time option to make sure it’s something we’ll use for enough of the year to justify a longer-term membership.

Here are my questions for you:

  1. Have you ever gotten stuck with a bulk purchase you had trouble using? What did you do when you were finally done with it?
  2. This post is about the tradeoff between cost and ease of use, but I imagine that something similar could arise for other tradeoffs. Does anything like that come to mind?

3 thoughts on “Why I don’t always buy in bulk

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever had trouble going through household goods I’ve bought in bulk… but I have had times where other non-perishable items I bought in large quantities get tossed during a move because they aren’t worth carting around (I’m not sure how I ended up with HUNDREDS of paperclips but they were NOT getting used…)
    We find similar thoughtfulness necessary when it comes to planning meals. Not because we don’t want to eat salads per say but because time and exhaustion play such a factor. We also consider how hard it will be to get the toddler to eat a certain kind of food or if the recipes we envision with that food can be made easily allergy friendly for everyone or if we will have to make a bunch of variations or separate meals based on those needs. I’d say one of our BIGGEST deciding factors for buying bulk isn’t ease of use so much as how long it will stay good- if we have to put a recipe we intended to make off for three days or even a week will the food spoil? Or will it be ok to be flexible until we get to a day when I’m feeling good or Dan is off work?

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    1. Haha, for us it was staples! We had thousands of staples when we unpacked our office supplies—how much stuff are we seriously going to need to staple? Clara thinks it’s because when you go to an office supply store, the bigger boxes are such a CLEARLY better deal that it’s really hard to buy only what you need.

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