RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
These days, it's a bit of a dilemma to know where to plant your savings. The interest rates on savings accounts is very close to zero, and definitely does not even keep up with inflation. The stock market? Always a risk. NPR's Uri Berliner has been using some of his savings to explore different investments. In this segment of our series Dollar for Dollar, we find him stocking up now to avoid paying more later.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Mark Cuban is a billionaire who owns an NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks. So it may surprise you he purchases everyday items like razor blades and toothpaste in bulk batches, stuff he knows he'll use. Here's the thinking behind bulk buying: Purchasing goods in volume is cheaper than buying them one at a time.
You save on transaction costs, like driving to the store. If your money in a savings or checking account is losing value to inflation - like it would be right now - why not spend some on items that may be more costly in the future? I emailed Cuban about his strategy. This is what he wrote back: The money you save by investing in bulk will provide a better return on investment than any investment vehicle on the planet.
So I called up Russ Roberts and asked him to meet me at a Costco in Washington, D.C. Roberts is an economist and a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He says: What if inflation starts climbing to, say, 5 percent?
RUSS ROBERTS: Do you have an investment now that pays 5 percent? And the answer is not easily. Your mutual fund might achieve a 5 percent return. The stock market has done well lately, but that's lately. There have been some bad years. Your savings account doesn't pay anything close to that. So it's certainly true that cash - if you can spare to it - to convert your cash into real goods whose price is rising, that's not a bad idea.
BERLINER: Being an economist, Roberts is trained to look for tradeoffs.
ROBERTS: There are some limits to the value of that advice, one being the size of your house.
BERLINER: So with storage capacity and global prices in mind, we set off.
So should we start here with food?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Spinach and cheese ravioli. Like to try one today, sir?
BERLINER: Food prices bounce around a lot. This year, the Agriculture Department predicts they will increase between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half percent. We're looking at stacks of nuts. One argument in their favor: they keep well.
I prefer the pecans to the walnuts, and I think I'm going to go with those. So this is a pretty bag of pecans. It's two pounds for 13.99.
Pecans are an American specialty, and exports to pecan-loving destinations like Hong Kong and Vietnam grew strongly last year. So if demand stays high overseas, prices could jump, and my pecan purchase would be a good deal, as well as a tasty one.
Now, we're over at household supplies, where the trash and lawn bags bulge in surprisingly heavy boxes.
We haven't talked about oil prices yet, and I know they use petroleum in making these bags.
ROBERTS: They're high historically, right now. There's tension in the Middle East that could be the cause. Or it could be world demand and growth. China has been another argument as to why oil prices are high right now. So they could easily come down, in which case this would not be a good bet. But if the Middle East heats up, which of course it can, this could be a good purchase.
BERLINER: Well, that didn't solve anything.
ROBERTS: But I would say the advantage of the trash bag investment is you get 200 - 200. Thirteen bucks, you buy three of these, you've got 600 trash bags. You are set for a long, long time. And they don't take that much room up in your garage.
BERLINER: And this is an item you know you're going to use, right? I mean, this is the whole purpose here, is to buy items you know you will be using, right? And trash happens.
BERLINER: When it comes to bulk buying, there's more than thinking about prices. You can wind up thinking about yourself and the future. That's what's happening in the underwear section now. There's little doubt the two six-packs of T-shirts I'm eyeing are priced right. They're less than $4 per shirt. But buying 12 T-shirts, it's a long-term commitment to staying who you are physically.
Do you think this could be sort of a good behavioral prod for me if I just bought the large in volume, to keep me from going up to the next size, to extra large?
ROBERTS: Yeah, putting down a bond, basically. You're investing to say: If I mess up and don't eat right and exercise insufficiently, I will have thrown away that money.
BERLINER: Now, throwing away money isn't the purpose of this undertaking. I have $5,000 to work with, money that I'm willing to take out of a savings account that's not keeping up with inflation. I'm looking for alternatives that might fare better.
All right, toothpaste, pecans, a big bag of onions - we're getting my items rung up here - Zantac, I missed that. Lounge pants, 9.97. Razor blades, 43.99. T-shirts, 19.99. Total is 303.53.
Three-hundred-and-three dollars and 53 cents - my first investment in this project. How can I tell if it pays off? It pays off if I use what I've bought, and I come back to the store in, say, a year, and the total price tag on my items is higher than it is today.
Uri Berliner, NPR News.