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?