But do you really save money at these sorts of stores? Buying in bulk seems to be the latest shopping craze for families of all sizes but between their strange package sizes, the off brands, and the hard to decipher signage, it can be difficult to ensure that you and your family are getting the best savings possible.
Here are a few ways to save money the next time you're at the warehouse store:
The best way to make sure you save money while shopping at any store is to compare prices on products. This does take time and some effort but it will pay off in the long run. And you never know - you might actually get a better price on paper towels at another store than Costco.
The easiest way to start comparing prices is to write down the price of products that you buy every week. These prices can be gleaned from receipts or written down while you're in the store. The important thing is to note how much is in each package – the container's amount in ounces, pounds, or number of sheets, etc. This information allows you to calculate out the per unit price.
This unit price then allows you to compare apples to apples. You'll come to find that the packages at warehouse stores are nowhere near what is sold on your local grocery or discount store. For example, you might find that your local Target sells 40-ct boxes of fabric softener sheets but the super-duper boxes at Costco hold over 100 or 200. Having the unit price allows you to determine how much each sheet costs and if you're really getting the best price possible.
Be wary of the fresh foods and meats
There are two areas of Costco that tend to be more expensive than the sale prices at your local grocery stores: the meat department and the fresh fruit and vegetables.
There have been times that I've walked through Costco watched in amazement as people snatch up bags of apples for two dollars a pound when I know that down at my local grocery store those same apples are on sale for $.89 a pound. This is very pertinent when it comes to seasonal fruit like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. When these are in season, you'll might find a better price at your local store or fruit stand.
The same goes for the meat department. Though the meet and poultry at Costco are some of the best quality in town, there are also some of the most expensive. I can usually find competitively priced cuts of beef on sale at my local grocery store, and best of all, I didn't have to deal with the crowds along lines of Costco to get it.
Your best bet is to watch the grocery store ads. Take note of what fruits, vegetables, and meats are on sale before you go to Costco. That way, you have something to refer to when you're standing in the maze of boxes, pallets, and refrigerated units.
Make a grocery list and stick to it
As you probably found out on your first visit to Costco, it's a pretty big place. It's easy to get distracted and completely forget to pick up the milk or cheese that you needed for tonight's dinner. And still, you always seem to come home with 10 items you didn't mean to buy. To cut back on these impulses buys and make sure you don’t forget anything, come to Costco with a shopping list in hand and resolve to stick to it.
Share the plethora
If you're a small family, a couple, or maybe even single, you may think that a Costco membership is foolish for you to have. I mean, what single guy needs 58 rolls of toilet paper?
The solution to this problem is easy - share what you buy. I don't mean just give it away to anyone but rather split that 58-pack of toilet paper with your neighbor, nearby cousin, or mother, each paying for half. This way, you still get the great savings that Costco provides but without having find a place to store 58 rolls of toilet paper in your one bedroom apartment.
Stay away from the center aisles
Just like in your regular grocery store, you'll usually find the best deals on the perimeter of the store. The middle aisles of your local Costco are filled with all sorts of seasonal items, books, DVDs, music, clothes, and other stuff you never needed until you saw it in the store. If you don't have a lot of money to spend, your best bet is to stay out of those center aisles.
Skip the executive membership
I'm sure that you've been approached at least once or twice by a Costco employee touting the virtues of their executive membership. This membership earns you 2% cash back on most purchases. Just the mere thought of getting money back from Costco gets a lot of people excited.
Of course, this benefit comes with a cost – a $100 membership fee, exactly $50 more than the regular membership. This means that you have to spend at least $5000 each year at Costco to break even on the hundred dollar membership fee. Not a lot of families can do that!
So unless you are a large family or plan to buy a lot of gas, candy, bread, or any of the many other products at Costco, it's probably best to skip the executive membership and keep the extra $50 in your pocket this year.
Go early on the weekday
In my area, Costco is known as the local grocery store for many people. This means that when the local grocery stores are busy, typically the weekends or weekday evenings, it's almost guarantees that Costco will be packed too. The only way get around this is to go either early in the morning when they first open or go in the early afternoon after the lunch rush and before the dinner rush.
You might not think that having a quiet store is that important when you're trying to save money but it really is. When Costco is not busy, you can take your time walking through the aisles, comparing prices, and looking at all the products without feeling rushed or in danger of being run over by one of the large grocery carts. The lines will also be short and you can check prices and watch the register to ensure you are not overcharged.
Eat before you go
Have you ever gone shopping when you're hungry? I bet when you did, you walked out of the store with a lot more than you expected to. This phenomenon is even more dangerous when you go to Costco. It is one thing to buy more at the grocery store where the packages and prices are a lot smaller, but when you go overboard at Costco, you not only overfill your pantry but also drain your wallet much faster.
So make sure you grab something to eat before you go in. The nice thing about Costco, is that there is an affordable snack bar at most stores where you can grab a hotdog, ice cream, or pizza to help quell your hunger before you shop.
Resist all the cool gadgets at the front
No matter where you are in the United States, Costco's are always set up the same way with the electronics, cool gadgets, and TV's at the very front as you enter. The splashy display and cool looking price tags take a lot of people off guard. The next thing they know, they're walking out of the store with a new TV or cell phone.
Don't succumb to this electronic temptress. Walk right by those splashy displays of TVs and head straight for the stuff that you came to Costco to get. When you are ready to buy a TV or cool gadget, do your research first. You might find a better price or more features at an online store or a local merchant.
Make sure you only buy what you're going to use
Last summer, I watch person after person walk out of Costco with those large 5 pound crates of strawberries. I couldn't help but wonder how many of those juicy little berries were going to actually be eaten and how many were going to end up in the trash cans, rotten.
That is one of the downfalls of buying in bulk - you always end up with a lot of product. If that product spoils, your risk losing the money you invested in it. So watch out when you buy fresh produce, dairy, meat, poultry, bread, or any other perishable food items. Make sure that you will actually eat all that you bought.