When my wife and I moved from a 600-square-foot apartment into our 1,000-square-foot house (with garage!), I was particularly excited about a few things: 1) having my very own washer and dryer, and being able to leave shit in them as long as I damn well pleased; 2) being able to more easily justify power-tool purchases; and 3) Costco.
We lived for five years with a less than full-sized fridge and a comically small amount of cabinet space, so walking into a Costco for the first time as a homeowner, I pretty much felt like Quaid must’ve felt at the end of Total Recall, when he starts the reactor just before getting sucked out of the airlock, so he’s out on Mars (or still strapped to a chair at Rekall, whatever) all trying real hard to breathe, but he can’t, but then that oxygen volcano erupts, and the skies turn blue? Pretty much like that.
But like most warehouse-store novitiates, I had to learn several hard lessons—including one involving an impressively thorough weevil infestation—about purchasing food in bulk before I settled into my new life. A life with storage space.
The Very Basics
A Costco individual membership costs $55; a BJ’s Wholesale Club personal membership is $50, and a Sam’s Club savings membership is $45. At a bare minimum, you’ll want to recoup this cost, and nonperishable goods are where you’ll make your nut. Paper towels, diapers, laundry detergent, Sonicare replacement heads, etc. But since this stuff doesn’t go bad, there’s not too many lessons to impart. Do you have room to store 96 rolls of toilet paper? Great! Moving on.
One lesson that applies to all goods, nonperishable and otherwise: Don’t buy anything in bulk that you haven’t bought before and liked. You don’t want to buy 96 rolls of some unknown brand of TP only to discover that it’s like wiping your ass with an asphalt shingle.
The Economics of Bulk
If I had to come up with a fundamental theorem of buying in bulk, it would be this: You only save money if you don’t waste anything.
Let’s say you’re the kind of person who drinks beer. Generally speaking, if you buy beer, you will drink all of the beer you buy. When you are cleaning out your fridge, it’s unlikely that you will ever find a few expired beers hidden behind the sauerkraut. And If that were to occur, you’d still drink the beers, masking any skunkiness with, say, Bloody Mary mix—or by dint of sheer willpower. In other words, beer will not go to waste in your home.
If this describes you or your significant other, you should always buy beer in bulk. You save money buying large quantities because you keep per-unit cost low, and you’ll use all of it. Costco’s selection isn’t great, but they do stock several decent brands by the case.
If you do buy in bulk, you also need to be careful not to accelerate the rate at which you consume a product, elsewise you might wind up costing yourself money. That’s why buying kegs of beer for non-rager situations might not be so hot an idea. The thing about kegs is they don’t dole out controlled portion sizes, so you might consume more beer per day than you would otherwise—i.e., now you’re drinking one or three pints instead of one or three 12-ounce bottles. Plus there’s the cost of the kegerator to recoup, and you could run the risk of not finishing the beer before it spoils. Not to mention the fact that the per-unit costs you can realize from buying bottles/cans is often equal to or better than that of a keg. (Note: Some beers can last much longer than six to eight weeks. High-alcohol dark beers can last a year or more, etc. Kegs, however, are generally always worse once they’ve been tapped.)
All of which is to say, if you can treat all of your perishables like you treat beer, the doors to the world of savings will be blown off the goddamn hinges! Bar-sized jars of pickles! Three-gallon tubs of ice cream like the ones at Baskin Robbins, but in your house! You can have the pantry you dreamed of having as a 10-year-old, and all while saving money if you keep your per-unit cost to a minimum, only buy what you can reasonably consume before it goes bad, and don’t accelerate your consumption just because you have more on hand.
Storage containers: One place you can realize major savings at Costco is by purchasing enormous fucking sacks of dry goods such as beans, rice, pasta, sugar, and the like. Fifty pounds of white rice for $17.49, 25 pounds of granulated sugar for $11.89, and so on. Most of these products will keep for years if stored properly; both white rice and sugar will stay good indefinitely in the pantry. (Stilltasty.com is remarkably not a mature porn site, but rather a great reference on shelf life.) But you’re going to need containers more substantial than a paper sack or plastic bag, because bugs and rodents like this stuff, too. My receptacles of choice are screw-top dog-food storage containers. LIFE HACK: They can also be used for human food! It’s true. They’re airtight, stackable, and have wide mouths so you can easily scoop out what you need.
Vacuum sealer: I have yet to meet the person who has bought a vacuum sealer and regretted it. Not only is it hands-down the most fun kitchen appliance to use (and I own a deli slicer), but it’s your VIP wristband into the rarified world of bulk meat.
Chest Freezer: This is the big one. You’re probably aware that you can freeze all types of foods to keep them from spoiling. But the scant cubic footage in a kitchen combo is just not adequate for the average household’s needs.
Again, this is mainly about meat, but you can freeze other stuff like spices, milled grains, and bread. It gives you plenty of room to store prepped meals, if that’s your thing. Plus, if you’re in your mid-thirties like me and still trying to do sports, you’ll surely appreciate all the extra space for ice packs. The world is yours, basically. (Another staple you might want to freeze is brown rice. The higher oil content means it will spoil much faster than its pale counterpart.)
But one of the best things having extra freezer space allows you to do is take advantage of sales (on meat) and stock up (on meat) when you see a bargain. Like most grocers, warehouse clubs have sales—and coupons—and sometimes those sales/coupons are for meat. To use a personal example, I recently picked up a few three-pound bags of tilapia filets for $2.99/pound, when I normally would have paid $4.67/pound. If I didn’t have my trusty chest freezer in the garage, I probably would’ve had to settle for a single bag like a buster. Chest freezers are great, and if/when you start poking around on food-storage blogs, you’ll realize how many things you’ve been storing the wrong way your whole life.
What To Buy
We’ve already covered nonperishables, beer, and dry goods. Buy that stuff.
Meat: I’m not going to front like I’m some expert on meat quality. I know Costco carries both USDA Choice and USDA Prime beef—plus some organic cuts as well, if that’s a thing you care about. (According to Costco, every store carries organic ground beef, but beyond that the selection varies by location.) They carry organic chicken, too, but not pork. The general consensus online seems to be that Costco meat is good quality and cheap, though I have read complaints about the butchering being kind of amateurish ... if that’s a thing you care about. But I buy most all of my meat at Costco and I love it—not least because it affords me a chance to use my vacuum sealer.
Pork chops and most steaks come in family packs of eight or 10, and as the families they have in mind are obviously much larger than my own, I break them down and seal them two or four to a bag. Costco also stocks some fairly large hunks of meat that you might want to try butchering down yourself, such as their python-sized pork loins that can be quickly divided into roasts or boneless chops. For butchery skills that go beyond the meat equivalent of slicing a baguette, there are plenty of video tutorials available on YouTube. You could also take a class. Not only do you net even greater savings by taking on some extra labor yourself, but if you’re like me, you might find butchering meat to be both fun and rewarding. It’s one of those skills—like carpentry and making crazy, scary-ass masks—that is useful now and will continue to be so once society inevitably descends into dystopian chaos.
Bread: Most of what you’ll find at warehouse stores is double loaves or four-packs, which isn’t a totally insane amount of bread to buy even for a single, lonely loser, since, as I mentioned, bread can be frozen. In fact, the freezer might be the best place to store bread. A bread box is just a decorative mold incubator, and the refrigerator actually hastens staling, so save some room in that chest freezer.
Hard alcohol: Unless you’re a Popov/Crystal Palace/Black Booster-level—let’s not mince words—alcoholic, you’ll most likely save by shopping at warehouse stores. A handle of perfectly decent spirit and top-ranked hipster housewarming gift Bulleit bourbon is 16 dollars cheaper at Costco than BevMo—$53 versus $37. I’m personally not a believer in premium vodka, but if you insist: A handle of Ketel is $31.50 versus $47. They even stock handles of Louis XIII for the unbeatable price of $6,500. Don’t tell me you’re still paying $3,499 for 750 ml at BevMo! That’s how Hammer went broke, son.
Nonalcoholic drinks: For drinking when you’re not drinking alcohol—or for mixing with alcohol. Same principle as beer applies here.
Pirate’s Booty Aged White Cheddar Snacks: If you go to Costco and don’t come back with a bag of these, your wife will most likely kill you. (Love you, babe!)
Emergency rations: It’s only a matter of time before Obama fulfills the Prophecy of Xan ul-Daak and reveals his true nature, at which point the oceans will boil, the sky will become as ash, and the Mad Lord will judge all from his throne of blood. The only question is: Will you have stocked enough freeze-dried chili mac to survive until the great wyrm is stirred from his slumber, and bores from the Earth’s heart to bathe the world in cleansing fire? If not, get on that.
Pete Keeley is a writer (sometimes) and editor (mostly) who lives in Los Angeles.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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