Household Word: Grossly Inexpensive
I just went grocery shopping, spent $224.17, but there’s still nothing for dinner.

That’s because I am a member of one of those wholesale clubs – a mammoth warehouse that sells everything from cashmere sweaters to sides of beef. It’s not really a club – anyone who pays the annual $40 fee can shop there. If it was an actual club, they’d have a lounge with leather couches and a full bar for the high rollers like me. But maybe it’s enough of a privilege to be able to buy tampons by the kilo.

The idea behind these places is that you save money because the club is “no frills.” That means that there are no ceilings or shelves or clerks to unpack the crate of 8-oz. paper cups you need for the fourth-grade class party. Late at night, tractor trailers unload cubits of Pop-Tarts® and 20-gallon drums of ketchup directly into the warehouse, where incredible savings occur each time a club member walks down an aisle and thinks: “Yes, I do need 5 gallons of pickle spears!”

I’m not sure if I’m saving money by shopping at this place, because calculating the price per unit requires math. But, there’s an illusion of thrift because the experience is so unpleasant. The lighting is bad, there are piles of snow tires right next to the bakery section and everything is sold by the gross, so it must be cheaper.

Warehouse stores aren’t for everyone. You really have to be an optimist to shop here: When you invest in 50 pounds of dry dog food, you’ve got to believe that your pet is going to live long enough to eat it.

And there’s some risk in buying bulk: When my youngest child was a toddler, I stocked up on disposable diapers. The kid turned out to be a potty genius and I’m still using those Pampers® to mop up spilled juice, dust furniture and wrap birthday gifts. At this rate, they’ll last until my incontinent golden years. What a bargain!

Grocery shopping with kids is never a good idea, and these behemoth stores are really no place for a youngster. They could easily get lost, be crushed by a case of Fruit by the Foot® or accidentally wander into the furniture aisle and convince you to spend $500 on new bunk beds. But my kids love shopping at the food club. They enjoy the free samples and so do I. I figure that if I eat enough, I can mitigate the $40 annual membership fee. The truth is, without the bits of kielbasa skewered on toothpicks, the tiny paper cups of canned fruit salad and bite-sized squares of microwaveable cheese Danish, club members wouldn’t have the strength to push the oversized carts or lift 64-packs of Go-GURTS® from the shelf. Besides, free samples always taste better than food at home.

My 10-year-old son, the pickiest eater at home, will wolf down anything from strangers in the store.

“Mom, can you buy these?” he pleads through a mouthful of cheese ravioli. “I’ll eat ’em every night.”

“You’d have to,” I say. “There’s 500 ravioli in each box, and we can’t fit them into our freezer.”

Hey, we’re really saving money now!

When I leave the store, a bouncer-type guy checks my photo ID and examines my register tape. It makes me want to defend my purchases. I want to tell him that I’m donating the gross of disposable razors to needy orphans, that I’m sending Cracker Jacks® to the troops in Iraq and that I am delivering holiday meals to puppies at the animal shelter. But I’m not. I’m just spending $224.17 on stuff for my family, even though I’ll still have to stop on the way home to buy something for dinner.

Carol Band writes from her home in Arlington, MA, where the pantry is well- stocked with snacks of questionable nutritional value. Write to her at

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From United Parenting Publications, November, 2003.