Buying in bulk can be a smart shopping strategy to save time and money. Especially in these pandemic times, when shopping trips should be limited, stocking up on staples makes sense. “A customer who might normally balk at 24 rolls of toilet paper or three pounds of coffee will instead find them attractive,” says Roger Dooley, marketing expert and author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing. “A well-stocked pantry and home reduce consumer stress in uncertain times.”
Even pre-pandemic, it had its advantages. “Buying in bulk can be quite a bit cheaper,” says shopping expert Trae Bodge. “So in many cases, it’s a great way to stay on budget.”
Just not in all cases. Some seemingly good buy-in-bulk deals may offer lower per-unit prices, but they can still be a big waste, especially if you can’t use everything you purchase before your supply starts to turn. That might seem like common sense, but the oodles of items with expiration dates you have to watch out for may surprise you. “There are some items that degrade or lose their efficacy over time,” Bodge says. “So unless you have many people living under one roof, it’s probably best to avoid” them.
Be sure to think twice about the following eight items before buying them in bulk.
Bodge notes that skin care products containing SPF lose their protective powers over time. So even when the pandemic is nudging us all outdoors, resist the urge to go overboard with your supply of sunscreen.
First, check the expiration date. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that all over-the-counter medications, including sunscreen, be marked with an expiration date unless the product is proven to maintain its full effectiveness for at least three years. If you don’t think your household can use it all by that deadline, skip it. Stretching the shelf life past that date could prove hazardous to your health, as the weakened sunscreen leaves you more vulnerable to sunburns, sun damage and skin cancer.
You might even consider tossing a bottle earlier than expected. Open bottles of sunscreen (as well as some other lotions, face creams and personal hygiene products) are at risk of bacterial contamination — and the risk increases the longer they’re open. Plus, exposure to sun and heat weakens SPF faster. So, many skin care experts recommend throwing away open bottles after a year. (Also, store unopened bottles in a cool place.)
2. Liquid detergents and cleaners
The pandemic may have boosted your hygienic habits and need for disinfectants and other supplies. But before you hoard all the cleaning products, remember that certain kinds lose their sanitizing strength over time. Liquid laundry detergent, for example, is best if used within six months of opening it or nine months to a year of purchasing it, according to lifestyle site The Spruce. Powdered detergents, including OxiClean and Clorox Oxi Magic, should be good for the long haul, as long as you literally keep your powder dry. In fact, both liquid and powder detergents ought to be stored in a dry, cool place in order to maximize shelf life.
Other Clorox products, including disinfecting wipes and bleach, typically have a shelf life of a year, according to the company’s website. But The Spruce recommends discarding chlorine bleach after six months. Lysol disinfectant wipes and sprays begin to lose their efficacy after two years, according to Good Housekeeping. Multi-surface cleaners also work best within two years. (Hand sanitizers typically expire within two or three years, too.) If not stored properly — in a cool, dry place, out of direct sunlight — all these products are likely to degrade even faster.
3. Over-the-counter medicine
Budgeting expert Andrea Woroch recommends skipping bulk sizes of over-the-counter medicine. “It has an expiration date, and you only take it as needed,” she says.
Many properly stored, unopened meds may last far beyond their date stamps. In fact, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Defense established a Shelf-Life Extension Program (SLEP) to more accurately identify how long pharmaceuticals remain effective. One SLEP study found that 88 percent of 122 drugs, stored under ideal conditions, should extend their expiration dates by 5.5 years, on average.
Still, experts say your safest bet is to mind the expiration dates in your own medicine cabinet, especially when dealing with more serious ailments, to help ensure that the drugs work as intended. Past its prime, a medication may lose its strength or even cause unintended side effects, according to the FDA. Plus, once opened, certain products — particularly things like eye drops, nasal sprays or children’s medications that are administered by dosing syringe — are more prone to contamination and may need to be discarded long before their expiration dates. For example, the American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests tossing eye drops three months after opening, regardless of the date stamp.
Plus, those bulk bottles may not even save you any money. “Stick with generic from a local pharmacy instead or a big-box store like Walmart for the best price,” Woroch says.
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Even if you’re still into the pandemic baking trend, make sure you don’t overstock your flour supply. The baking staple does spoil and, past its prime, it can make your baked goods taste bad, though at least it’s not likely to make you sick. Regular all-purpose flour, along with other white flours such as self-rising, white-bread and white-cake flour, has a shelf life of one year at room temperature and two years if stored in the fridge or freezer, according to Women’s Health magazine. Whole-wheat, oat and other whole-grain flours start to turn sooner — within three months at room temperature and a year in the fridge or freezer. Almond, coconut and other nut flours are also good for only three months at room temperature, and keep in the fridge or freezer only for six months.
5. Cooking oil
Now that you’ve been eating at home a whole lot more, you might actually need a bigger bottle of cooking oil. Just be aware that it does spoil over time, Bodge says. How much time you have depends on the type of oil, and shelf lives vary greatly. For example, olive and vegetable oils are good for three to five months after opening, according to FoodSafety.gov, while coconut oil can stay fresh for three years. Vegetable oil sprays last up to a year after opening. Unopened bottles of most olive oils can keep up to two years; extra virgin olive oil has less time, up to 18 months.
A little flavor can go a long way in a dish, but probably not for as long as you think. While properly stored ground spices can keep for two to three years after opening, according to FoodSafety.gov, experts say they can start losing their flavor much sooner. “So it’s important to make sure that you can use all of that cumin within several months, for example,” Bodge says.
7. Canned goods
Don’t worry about clearing out your bunker; canned foods really are built to last. They typically get stamped with a “best by” date that suggests a shelf life of at least two years, but they can retain their safety and nutritional value for far longer. According to the Canned Food Alliance, even cans as old as 100 years have been found in shipwrecks and still proven safe to eat. Experts suggest only tossing cans if they’re leaking or swollen.
In reality, it’s not longevity that argues against buying canned goods in bulk but rather price. Supermarkets frequently discount both store brands and national brands, and those sales can be combined with manufacturer’s coupons for prices that can undercut the per-can cost of a case purchased from a warehouse club. And remember that neither Costco nor Sam’s Club accepts manufacturer’s coupons.
Then, of course, there’s variety. Combining grocery store sales with coupons affords the luxury of mixing up your canned goods instead of committing to, say, an entire case of lima beans.
8. Fresh fruits and veggies
Finally, the obvious: “If you overbuy perishable food, some of it could end up in the trash if your family doesn’t eat it all before it goes bad,” Woroch says. “This is probably the biggest downside” to buying in bulk.
So you have to know how much your household can typically stomach of a certain perishable food in the short time you have before it turns. That goes for fresh fruits and veggies, as well as other perishables such as bread, milk and eggs. Smart meal planning can help circumvent this spoiling problem. “Instead of buying several fruits and veggies in bulk, stick with just one or two, and use those in several meals you make that week,” Woroch says. “Or stick with nonperishables and those perishables that you consume a lot of like milk and eggs in bulk, but buy smaller containers of fruits and vegetables from your local grocer to reduce waste. That’s usually what I do.”
More food for thought
Nonperishables can also prove too much if you don’t have enough proper storage space. One way around this buy-in-bulk challenge: Buddy up. “Split bulk items with a friend or another family,” Woroch says. “This is a great way to get the value when you have limited room in your home to stock up on household items and grocery goods.”
Bottom line: You need a plan. Just like with all your shopping and spending (and many other actions), buying in bulk with some forethought helps ensure you make the most of it. “As long as you plan out your trip and take some time to think about what you need, you can shop effectively, saving both time and money as well as reducing your exposure with multiple store outings,” Woroch says.