The Cost of Keeping a Well-Stocked House

Someone has to buy the toilet paper—and decide how many rolls they can afford.

Photo credit: Meditations, CC0 Public Domain.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite parts of birthdays and holidays was getting access to my mother’s gift wrap supply. She kept it in a large Tupperware storage bin under her bed, an inconspicuous-looking container that, when opened, was bursting with everything gift-related. There were two shallow holders on the top that held gift tags, ribbons and bows, tissue paper, and those fancy cellophane party bags that were the staple of any kid’s birthday party. Below, there were usually two layers of gift wrap rolls, colorful cheap stuff on the top, and glittery, ornate paper on the bottom. This stash was open to us whenever we had something to wrap, and it was a magical treasure trove, always well stocked for all our gift needs.

My mom’s gift wrap stash reminds me of all the other household items that my childhood home seemed to be in endless supply of. We were almost never lacking in butter, oil, milk, or spices. Whenever a bottle of hand soap ran out, it was usually replaced quickly without fanfare (though sometimes someone would fill the bottle with water when the line of liquid soap was so low that the pump wouldn’t reach it). There were always paper towels and cleaning supplies in the laundry room and paper and pens in the upstairs office area. Most importantly, there were always spare rolls of toilet paper under the bathroom sink, just in case you needed one.

The well-stocked household was something that I was fortunate enough to consider normal when I was growing up—but once I moved out, I realized how hard it was to maintain.

One summer staying at the dorm at NYU, for example, my roommates inexplicably stopped contributing to the supply of toilet paper. No matter how many times I bought a pack, it disappeared without being replaced. After a while, I stopped buying it for the apartment and just kept a roll or two for myself hidden in the closet. I remember feeling bewildered as I watched all the other paper goods in the apartment start to disappear while the toilet paper dispenser in the bathroom remained empty.

One roommate and I used to rent a car every once in a while and drive out to the Target in Paramus, New Jersey, where we’d stock up on big packs of paper towels, hand soap, and cleaning supplies. We would load up the car and come back to our Murray Hill apartment feeling like kings, only to have to do the whole thing again in about a month. After getting stuck in traffic a few times, on a trip that would sometimes take us hours to complete, we started to realize that the money we were saving by driving to Paramus was canceled out by the cost of time and transportation.

Then online retailers started selling bulk household goods that could be delivered right to your door. I took advantage of this with enthusiasm, especially when I lived in a fifth-floor walkup. A 24-pack of toilet paper on Amazon only cost a couple dollars more than the 12-pack at CVS, and I didn’t have to lug it up the stairs myself. I could also buy 90 trash bags on Amazon for 30 percent less than they cost at the drugstore around the corner.

With both the price and the convenience factor, buying in bulk seemed like the obvious way to go when it came to keeping my dwelling spaces well-supplied—and there was no time I was more glad to have a well-stocked home than when I was unemployed. While I was worrying about cutting other expenses, I was lucky to have enough essentials to last me a few months and help hold me over until I found my next job.

But my savings dwindled as my supplies did—and so did my bulk shopping. I didn’t always have $20 to put towards toilet paper all at once, no matter how many rolls it got me, or the $15 to fully take advantage of a sale on two large bottles of mouthwash. When I had more disposable income, whenever I saw a sale on things like a pack of toothbrushes or hand soap, I’d buy some even if I had plenty, just because I knew I would need them eventually.

Now, with less money in the bank, if there’s a two-for-$5 sale on dish soap and I need a bottle, I have to decide if it’s better to pay $5 and take advantage of the sale, or to just buy one at full price but be able to keep a dollar or two. If I won’t run out of dish soap for another month, I should use the spare money for something else—like the shampoo I need today—even if that means another bottle of dish soap will cost me more later. I have to consider if it’s worth investing a few dollars in my future when I need the money to buy what I need now.

Keeping a well-stocked house is not an inexpensive endeavor. It takes money, time, and enough mental space to organize and track the items your home might need. I am only starting to understand the labor my parents put into maintaining their household supply. When I was a kid, this meant many trips to Costco, which I found boring save for free samples and sitting in the oversized shopping carts. As an adult, I’ve accompanied my mom to after-holiday sales where she will buy rolls of wrapping paper and gift tags at half off. That seemingly endless supply of gift wrap was actually a carefully cultivated collection, a result of effort, value-hunting, and investment.

Right now, my effort and investment has to go to other parts of my life. While I accept that it may take a while for me to get back to a financial situation in which I can keep a well-stocked house without weighing the opportunity costs of other expenses, I do aspire to someday get there. I appreciate what it means and the labor and expense it takes to maintain. Having a well-stocked household represents comfort and preparation. It’s one of the things, to me, that can make a house a home.

Kimberly Lew is a playwright and writer living in Brooklyn.

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