Can Shopping at Costco Really Save You Money?

updated Jun 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

I’ve been a Costco shopper for over 20 years. I’m not sure if that makes me really old or simply infatuated with grocery shopping in bulk. Either way, I really loved Emma’s tour of Costco with her mom — I can totally relate! As a longtime Costco shopper, I know she’s right on the money with her recommendations of great products. I buy the same pasta, jam, and salad mixes. I also have some tried-and-true reasons for continuing to give Costco my business.

But can shopping at Costco (and other club stores) really save you money?

Clearly, I love Costco, but I’ve heard folks grumble about the expense. My sister was the most recent critic, her text reading, “I’m not sure getting a Costco membership was the best thing to do. Just spent a lot of money. I suppose we saved money on Ella’s glasses, so there’s that.”

It’s true that a trip to Costco can add up to a big chunk of change at the register, particularly because there are so many great deals and fun discoveries — and, of course, samples. I propose that Costco, or another club warehouse, can save you money if you do the following things:

1. Stick to a list of things you truly need.

As with all grocery shopping trips, don’t go unarmed. Make a list of the things you need so you actually go home with them, but also so you have parameters.

Limit your splurges and stick to the list.

2. Compare prices.

Buying in bulk is not always a bargain. You need to know your prices. Only buy what you know is cheapest at the club. For me that would include cheese, milk, eggs, and other dairy products; pasta, bread, bagels, tortillas; ground beef; and canned tuna.

Costco’s prices are regularly the lowest on milk and eggs — two things that can skyrocket in my neck of the woods.

3. Look for quality.

I agree with Emma’s mom; fresh produce is hit or miss. It’s not always a good deal to buy apples if they turn out to be mealy. The plus side is that Costco has a no-questions-asked return policy.

I can get great deals if I keep my eyes open for quality and don’t just throw things willy-nilly in my cart.

4. Like the things you’re buying.

Speaking of the return policy … it’s no bargain if you buy a huge package of something you don’t like! I bought a different kind of canned tuna once, one that was cheaper than our regular one; it tasted awful, so fishy that none of my family members cared for it. I took it back for a full refund.

I can take a risk on a ginormous package of some new-to-us item if I’m willing to come back and return it if it’s not a good fit for us.

5. Take advantage of all the perks.

A Costco membership currently costs $55 ($110 for executive, where you get 2 percent back on all purchases). If you start with the base package, you need to save a little more than $1/week on things you would be buying normally.

For my household, all I need to do is buy my gas, eggs, and milk there; that right there would pay for itself.

Also, consider all the other benefits Costco provides, including discounts on eyeware, electronics, cell phone packages, photo printing, gas, car loans, water delivery, identity protection, and mortgages. They’ve got an unbelievable array of member services that are worth pricing out.

6. Don’t get distracted by all the sparkly stuff.

The club warehouse can be a treasure trove of fun things, from computers and TVs to gourmet cheeses and wine. It’s easy to get distracted by things you don’t really need, particularly when there’s a free sample of something being handed to you.

Splurge selectively and you can enjoy some of the extras as well as save money on your regular purchases.

Obviously, your mileage may vary depending on where you live and what other shopping options you have available. As for us here in Southern California, the gas savings alone justify our membership. We just have to watch out for the sparkly temptations.

So what do you think? Yay or nay on the Costco or other club warehouse experience?