7 Tips for Shopping at Costco, According to Professional Organizers

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

Buying your groceries and home goods at a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club can lead to big savings — but you need to be strategic about it. Buying things in bulk just for a deal can leave you with more product than you can use up, leading to jam-packed storage areas or, worse, spoiled food.

To make sure you’re getting the best value and utility from your shopping trip, we reached out to professional organizers to get their tips for buying (just) what you need at a warehouse store.

1. Don’t shop when you’re hungry.

Or tired. Or when you’ve just had a fight with your spouse. “Research around willpower suggests that our willpower is a finite commodity,” says Darla DeMorrow, a certified professional organizer and author of Organizing Your Home with SORT and SUCCEED. “We have more of it during the early part of the day. We have more of it when we have not already been overcome with decision fatigue. And we have more of it when our body is functioning well, with enough sleep and nutrition and low levels of stress.” So have a snack and check your mood before you go to consider whether you’re going to be more vulnerable to the temptations of junk food and impulse buys today.

2. Bring a list.

“Impulse buys are the biggest trap! The fabulous food samples, the product demonstrations, and more — remember that you are in the store to buy what YOU need, not what Costco would like you to buy,” says Cary Prince, a certified professional organizer in Los Angeles. One good way to resist the temptations is to make a list ahead of time, and truly stick to it.

“That takes some planning on your part before you get to the store, but that planning will keep you on track and will keep more money in your pocket,” says DeMorrow. Meal planning can really help here, too, so you’re not just buying things because you’re worried about running out of something — and then end up buying doubles of stuff already in your home.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

3. Pay attention to the price tag.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if an item is a good value just by the sticker price, as the packaging or quantity that’s included can vary. Instead, look at the price per ounce, which you’ll conveniently find in smaller type on the sticker, too. A big box of pre-packaged bags of chips may seem like a good deal — but when compared to buying a single big bag of chips to package up yourself, it may be more expensive than you realize.

And if you’re worried that some cool-seeming item won’t be at Costco next week, look for the asterisk: If you see it, that means an items is in limited supply, so it might be worth taking the plunge. If not, it will probably be there next week, so you have a little time to think about it.

(Image credit: Lisa Freedman)

4. Buy only what you can consume.

“Buying paper products in bulk makes the most sense — you go through them quickly, and it’s nice not to have to run to the store each week to replace what has run out,” says Prince. “But produce and perishables are the trickiest to buy.” If there’s no way you can eat five pounds of apples before they go bad, don’t buy them. Work with a sense of how you eat and what steps you’ll take to preserve your food.

Some of my friends like to buy the huge pack of chicken breasts and divvy them up to freeze, but I have neither the desire nor storage space to freeze a bunch of chicken. I have a friend who refrigerates her bulk bag of avocados and brings them out, one per day, so they’ll be ripe and ready to eat on schedule. My dad will eat a banana that’s way softer than I ever would. Use some self-awareness on fresh goods and only buy what you’ll use up before your next shopping trip.

5. Consider more than just the price.

While the prices of a particular item may be low, the dollar value isn’t the only cost. “Ask yourself: Is this still a good deal if you’re paying to store it, clean it, organize it, and potentially toss it if it gets damaged before you can use it?” says DeMorrow. This theory applies just the same to bags of apples and paper towels as it does to gear like pots and pans (I’ll get these now for when my teenager moves into his own apartment!) or water bottles (A three-pack’s good in case I break or lose one!). Be realistic!

6. Don’t experiment.

The best things to buy in bulk are the things that you know you use regularly, and use up quickly — cereal, if you have teenagers at home, applesauce packs if you have a toddler, for example. Don’t buy things in bulk just because you’ve heard they’re healthy or you think your kids might like them. “Exotic foods you’ve never tried are a no-no. Buy them in smaller units at a traditional grocery store before committing to a case,” says DeMorrow.

(Image credit: a katz)

7. Don’t let the cart trick you.

It may look empty with just five items in it, but remember that anything you buy at the store has to get back, go into your car, get carried into your house, get stored somewhere, get eaten or used up, and then (eventually) be disposed of. You obviously do not have to fill up that cart (even if everyone else around you is!). If you think you’ll be too tempted, skip the cart and load up on only what you can carry.

Did we miss any of your tips? Share them below!