Bulk Bins vs. Bulk Stores

As minimalists, Angie and I struggle with where to place the line between self-sufficiency and having too much food stuff. Most folks trying to achieve a self-sustained lifestyle want to see a freezer full of food at the end of the summer and a fully stocked pantry going into winter. I, on the other hand, feel conflicted about this. Is having 12 jars of homemade jelly, 6 jars of honey, and two cases of salsa excessive if you eat those things nearly every day? Is wanting to “hoard” the bounties of summer for winter enjoyment actually hoarding? I know the answer is “no” but sometimes my mind tells me things like, “you live next door to the store, why do you need 10 quarts of berries and 5 dozen ears of corn in the freezer? Why do you even have a freezer in the first place? Walmart has a whole row of them!”

I’m learning not to listen to that voice. Besides, food is a great source of joy for us. Making it, eating it, sharing it…all of these things make us happy. And as Marie Kondo might say, if it sparks joy, it’s not clutter, right?

What started this most recent session on my internal debate is that it is time for our quarterly trip to Sam’s Club and we are finally out of pinto beans. Over a year ago, we bought a 12-pound bag of pintos, along with a 25-pound box of rice. As I sit here typing this, the last of the beans are in the crock pot, making the base for what is starting to smell like a delicious vegetarian chili. The beans cost around $7 at the time, making them about 58 cents a pound. I believe the price is now closer to $8 at Sam’s and the weight of the bag is now 10 pounds instead of 12 (or about 80 cents a pound). My inner self is wondering, do we buy another giant bag of beans or do we simply get what we need from the bulk aisle as we need it? Bulk beans are 99 cents a pound at Kroger.

Along with the price, there’s storage to consider. But, for as much as I hated finding space for a 12-pound bag of beans, I can’t count the number of times having them saved me over the past year. When I needed a cheap meal – beans and rice. When I needed a meal that could last the whole weekend – homemade chili. When I needed a meal to take to a potluck – a simple pot of beans.

Trying to rationalize our bean purchase has got me thinking about the pros and cons of shopping the bulk bins versus shopping the bulk stores (i.e. Sam’s Club, Costco, BJ’s, etc.) and here’s what I’ve come up with:

Shopping Bulk Bins

Pros: You can buy only the amount you need, thus reducing food waste. The prices are usually cheaper than the same item packaged on the shelf. You can bring your own container in most stores, which keeps a plastic bag out of landfill.

Cons: Some areas have a very limited number of stores that offer bulk bins and the selection in those bins can be limited as well. In our area, we have only one store with a bulk aisle. Freshness can be an issue if the bins are not properly rotated. Just recently we bought a ¼ pound of almonds that started to mold within a week. Forgetting to bring a bag can present a dilemma. Though we keep some in the car, we rarely remember to bring them in and Angie often has to run back out to get them. Not everything is cheaper, especially if the store is having a sale on items like granola, cereal, and rice.

Shopping Warehouse Stores

Pros: You can find a warehouse store almost anywhere in the US. They are huge and filled with a variety of both grocery and household goods. For items you use all the time, buying a large quantity can save trips to the store (reducing gas usage and time spent away from other pursuits) and money. And if you go on the weekend, you can sample your way to a free lunch (sorry, I just had to throw that in).

Cons: The membership fee! We are included on Angie’s parents’ business account, so our annual membership is free. If we had to pay though, I wouldn’t be writing this because we would not be shopping at Sam’s. (Yes, we really are that cheap!) The package sizes are huge. It took 13 months to work our way through the pinto beans and we’re still only half way through the box of rice. With such large quantities, food waste can become an issue, as items can go bad (or you might simply get tired of eating it) before you reach the bottom of the bag. Not to mention storage! We live in a 1-bedroom apartment with fairly few kitchen items and yet, it’s still hard to find a place to keep 10 pounds of beans. Not everything is cheaper, especially condiments and canned goods. While there are some bulk pantry staples, like flour and rice, there are a lot more processed foods at warehouse stores. And then there’s the packaging. Some items are double or triple layered in packaging, most of which cannot be recycled.

You might be wondering, what do we buy at Sam’s? Mostly, we buy coffee supplies for my mom. We buy generic Zyrtec (though it’s actually cheaper at Walmart, they never seem to have any in stock). We buy Crunchmaster multi-seed crackers and Nature’s Bakery fig bars because they are delicious and you get 4 times as many for half the price of the grocery store. We buy vinegar and occasionally, rice and beans.

Deciding where to shop is as personal as deciding what to shop for. We’re not all the same, and that’s okay. Our priority is equal parts saving money and saving the environment, which means that we spend a good bit of time weighing out options like this all the time – often while we’re standing in the store. Sometimes the bulk bins win and sometimes it’s the box of oats from the shelf. Yes, this means that we’re not 100% zero waste when it comes to packaging, but we do try to limit our package purchases where we can to items that can be reused or recycled.

So which side wins the bean debate? At this point, I’m leaning toward the bulk bin. Though the cost per pound is 19 cents higher, I can buy a smaller quantity (say 3 or 4 pounds) which will easily fit into my jars. And, for as much as I hate to say it, should a “bean emergency” ever arise and I find myself without this particular meal option, we do live next door to a grocery store.

Do you shop in bulk? Do you prefer bulk bins or bulk stores? What are your favorite things to buy from each? Does having too much food stuff make you feel cluttered?

3rd Quarter Progress to Goals

Before I dive right into a recap of our progress for this quarter, I wanted to catch everyone up on a few items (possibly) of interest. First, on Monday (10/1), our refrigerator finally arrived. We now have a complete set of matching appliances in our apartment. It only took 3 months to get them, but they are here now and that’s all that matters. The new fridge is huge (in comparison to the old one) so we should be able to make a few more meals ahead of time now. Yay!

Next up, my mom’s bathroom disaster is finally fixed. Angie and I decided to take charge of solving this problem and after much prayerful consideration, we opted to have the brand new floor replaced. We contacted some folks we met a few weeks earlier when we were looking for flooring. They were already aware of what was going on and gave us an estimate that fit within our budget. The new floor was installed in less than 2 hours, with no seams, no rips, and no pieces of missing plywood. In other words, they did the job right. Yay, again!

Not everything has been good news though. In the midst of all of this, my mom fractured her back again. She was opening the oven drawer and heard a pop in her lower back. An X-ray confirmed that she has 5 compression fractures of the lumbar and sacral regions. Needless to say, this has made her even more upset about not being able to do the things she wants to do. One of those things was a trip we had just planned to North Carolina to see her sister later this month. We have an appointment today that will determine whether she should travel. I’m hoping, for her sake, that the outcome is positive – even it means we have to postpone our trip for a few weeks.

With all of those things going on, you might think this has been a less than stellar quarter. In some ways, it has, but in other ways, we knocked it out of the park. I’m happy to report our progress toward our Better Me, Better World goals for this quarter.

Better Me

Goal: Live simply. Prove that we can live a happy, healthy, and prosperous life with less. 

Set a budget and stick to it. Strive for no unplanned spending.

July was a true no-spend month. We didn’t exactly plan for this but we did decide ahead of time to only spend money what was already allocated to various spending categories and the result – we didn’t have any out of category spending. I can’t say the same for August or September though. We averaged $220 in extra spending for those months, most of which went toward padding to our grocery budget and purchasing few tools for our woodworking projects.

Buy used when possible.

We’ve been shopping a lot of yard sales lately. Not only is it a fun way to spend an hour or so on Saturday morning, we’ve found a lot of great bargains on things that we had on our “need to buy” list anyway. For example, we’ve had sun shirts on our list for more than a year. I’m not sure if that’s what they are called but they are the lightweight, quick dry, long-sleeved shirts with SPF protection that you wear when paddling or swimming. We priced them at $30+ each at Dick’s Sporting Goods and decided we didn’t need them that bad. We found 2 at a church rummage sale on Saturday for 50 cents each. Score! We also picked up several glass jars to help with our transition to a plastic-free kitchen and some puzzles and yarn for those days this winter when it will be too cold to play outside.

Eat a mostly plant-based diet, with no more than 10% of meals containing meat.

We had 82 completely meatless days (out of 92). Though we tried, it was hard to avoid meat completely during our Grit, Grace, and Grub tour of the town. In total 11% of our meals contained meat.

Do something active 3 times a week.

We walked/hiked a total of 28.9 miles. I would say that was pitiful, except that it doesn’t count all of our walks to the grocery store and dumpster, the countless miles we’ve walked at the various festivals we attended this summer, or the handful of letterboxes we’ve traipsed through the weeds to get. I blame this miscalculation on the untimely death of my fake Fitbit. God rest its soul! We also went on 3 kayaking trips, went swimming 4 times, tended the garden, and practiced our woodworking skills. Dead Fitbit aside, this category is still very much a work in progress.

Better World

Goal: Zero-food-waste. Prove that one couple can have an impact in reducing global food waste.

Plan meals.

My mom recently asked, after seeing our calendar, if we ever got bored with planning meals. My answer – nope. I love knowing what we are having for dinner every night. It saves hours of conversations that go like this: “What do you want for dinner? I don’t know, what do you want? I don’t know and I asked you first.” We did really well with this again and even started something new – pizza club. On lawn mowing day (usually Tuesdays) we have a pizza for dinner. The rules of pizza club are simple – it doesn’t matter where the pizza comes from (restaurant, store, or homemade) but it can’t be the same toppings as the week before. I would tell you more but what happens in pizza club stays in pizza club.

Continue food rescue.

Our dumpster diving efforts were stifled by the summer heat. Food tends to rot more quickly when it’s 100 degrees outside (and probably 110 degrees inside the metal dumpster).  We did manage to rescue 14.8 pounds of food from the dumpster and 46 pounds from the Farmer’s Market, which was donated to the Nashville Rescue Mission.

Shop reduced-to-clear/quick-sale items first when grocery shopping.

Still doing good here too. I would guesstimate that 75-80% of the fruit we buy comes from the reduced-to-clear bins at Kroger. We have also found that our favorite dairy-free So Delicious yogurts often get reduced for quick sale. Just last night we lucked up on 4 of them at half-price.

Buy local foods.

I’m happy to say that we shopped local all summer long. All of our fresh produce came from our CSA basket or the Farmer’s Market. Though our CSA is over for the year and the Farmer’s Market is winding down, we continue to try to source as much local food as possible to can or freeze for winter. We recently attended the Tennessee Honey Festival to stock up on our honey needs for the upcoming hot tea season. We also added a nice selection of local jams to our pantry and several dozen ears of corn, a 1/2 bushel of peppers, and a 1/4 bushel okra to the freezer.

Grow a garden.

For a small garden, we had a lot of produce this year. The 3 pepper plants we picked up for free yielded over 100 peppers – jalapenos and Sweetie Pies. Our yellow squash was still producing up until a week ago when the rains rotted the last of the blooms. The cow peas (another of our freebies) are in their second season. The first produced 2 1/2 quarts of dried peas and snaps. Our tomatoes did well and we actually had enough blackberries this year to freeze 3 pints. We still have radishes, peppers, and peas to pick this month. Another thing that did well in the garden was Angie’s flowers. She had sunflowers over 10 feet tall and some of the prettiest bi-color zinnias I’ve ever seen.

Compost year-round.

Our composting efforts are still going strong, though sadly, Angie’s worms all escaped from the worm bin. A few days ago, I saw a post from the Tennessee Environmental Council for a program called Come Post Your Compost. It’s a yearlong program aimed at reducing food waste in TN by encouraging people to compost. We joined and if you live in TN, you can too! It’s free and if saving the world isn’t prize enough, there are monthly drawings for gift cards. Check it out at https://www.tectn.org/comepostyourcompost.html.

How did you do this quarter? Did you reach your goals? We’re there any surprises or setbacks?