How to Make Costco Work For You

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One of our very favorite family outings in a trip to Costco. We love it for the samples, for the buck fifty hot dog and soda, for the gourmet food at lower prices, and for regular old grocery shopping. It’s a place that FishPapa and I have shopped at for over sixteen years.

Awhile ago Tammy posted an excellent treatise on how Costco can be a frugal (and delicious) option. She was “spot on” about her pricing and her quality analysis, particularly which are the best things to buy at Costco.

We have always found Costco to be a great resource. In the rare event that something hasn’t been quite right, we’ve taken it back, no questions asked. That’s their policy.

Some people make the faulty assumption that if Costco sells it, it must be a screaming deal. Au contraire. You can’t just go in there, fill your cart, and come out with great deals. It doesn’t work that way.

But, there are a few tricks to making Costco work for you.

1. Know Your Prices – If you know the going rate for groceries at regular grocery stores and what the current sale prices are, you will be able to make sound, educated decisions. Unless you don’t want to make another stop, avoid buying something that you know costs more at the warehouse.

For instance I know that I will find fresh blueberries for as low as $0.69/pound this summer at my local health food store. So, to buy fresh blueberries at Costco for $2.50/pound or frozen for $1.50/pound, just doesn’t make cents – unless I absolutely have to have them, today.

However, I know that milk at the grocery store will be around $3 a gallon. Compared to Costco’s hormone-free milk price of $1.90 per gallon, I know I’m going to opt for Costco’s milk every time. These are sold in pairs, so I usually buy two boxes to last us about a week. (Readers were correct a few weeks ago in saying that the hormone-free marking is on the box, not on the bottle. Thanks for pointing that out!)

2. Stretch Your Bulk Purchases – One of the defining characteristics of Costco is the bulk packaging. Unless you truly are feeding an army every day, you’ll want to break these larger packages into smaller, easily stored sizes. Repackage bulk hamburger into one-pound chubs or precook it and freeze. Portion out the monster jar of pesto and freeze.

I buy the 3-pound block of cream cheese, cut it into 6 portions, wrap each portion in plastic wrap and freeze those that I won’t use within the week. A 5-pound bag of shredded cheese is portioned into meal size bags for pizza and taco nights.

3. Don’t Buy Too Much at One Time – It can be so tempting to fill your cart with all the truly great Costco deals. But, be prepared for a heart attack when you see the bill. Buying in bulk can result in a good case of sticker shock. Try to rotate your stocking up.

For instance, this week I bought 2 large bottles of olive oil. They are huge. And $20 for olive oil seems like a lot, but these bottles will last me 3-4 months. A large package of organic pasta runs about $8 or $9. But, it lasts about two months. I try to spread out my purchases so that I’m not restocking our shelves with everything at one time.

Overall, we love Costco. Do I sometimes pay a little more for something? Sometimes. But usually that’s because I don’t want to make a trip elsewhere for that one thing. Costco definitely works for us.

Do warehouse club stores like Costco or Sam’s work for your family?

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  1. We don’t have a Costco, but I was just blogging about this the other day. I had a local friend email me asking how I was saving money using Sams because her budget is always blown at Sams. You definitely have to be budget aware and know your prices! I went in before my monthly shopping trip with paper and pen. I wrote down the cost of the items we normally use and compared them with SALES/COUPON prices from other stores- WalMart, Publix, Kroger- and went from there. If it was automatically cheaper at Sams (whether I had a coupon/sale or not) and we used it monthly, I bought. Yeast, goldfish, T.P., eggs, cheese, etc. was automatically cheaper and I have those things for a month or two. 🙂 Great post! I will send my friend to this blog post!

  2. I have three littles (barely three and under), and I’ve been looking into ways to streamline our grocery shopping. We’ve had a Costco membership, and I’ve always been a fan of Costco for toilet paper, dairy, and baby formula. I’ve been able to find better deals at our local grocery store by combining sales and coupons, but I’m finding that I just don’t have the energy to scour the ads weekly. In doing some price comparing recently, I’m finding that Costco can beat sales+coupons on many more everyday items than I thought. I’m finding myself shopping more frequently at Costco for the basics I used to buy with coupons. And really, the $1.50 hot dogs just about seal the deal for me.

    Thank you for the tip on cream cheese, by the way; I’ve wondered if it was freezable!

    And thanks for the tip

  3. We don’t have Costco in our nect of the woods, but I’ve been a Sam’s shopper for years. If you know your prices and know what you want to buy, Sam’s has a convenient service called “Click n’ pull”. Go online and place your order today, they will pull the items and have them waiting for you by the next morning. All you have to do is go in and pay and pick up your order. I think this is an ideal feature for a busy family.

  4. I LOVE Costco! I do most of my grocery shopping there. I also recently started filling prescriptions and was pretty amazed at the savings. One thing I almost always pick is a huge rotisserie chicken for about $4.99. I can make several meals out of it. My 2 year old’s fav: Yummy chicken patties (no yucky stuff). Costco rocks!

  5. I didn’t see anyone mention Costco’s DOG FOOD… (Sorry if you did and I missed it.) But, it is excellent quality dog food , and easily half what I used to pay at the pet store. I believe it’s $22 for 40 pounds.

    And then there’s the chocolate chips which cost much less than I can find at other stores, and that go into more things than I can count. My 13 year old loves to put a sprinkle into cheerios 😉 I try to hold most of them back for baking….

  6. One thing that we always buy at Sam’s Club is chicken and beef buillion cubes and Hidden Valley Ranch mix. The buillion cubes are great for using in recipes that call for chicken or beef broth, and since they can be stored, it makes sense to pay a few dollars for an industrial size spice container of cubes as opposed to a few dollars for a small jar in the store. I also keep a perpetual container of ranch dip in the fridge to go with our perpetual bag of vegetable sticks in the crisper drawer. I could pay around $1.50 per envelope of mix (which only makes one 16 oz container) at the grocery store, or I can pay between $6 and $7 for a large canister of it at Sam’s that will make, oh, I’ve never counted them, but probably at least a dozen 16 oz containers. And I have several recipes that call for ranch mix, so it’s handy to have the canister around.:)

  7. I had to let my Sam’s Club membership lapse, due to lack of funds, but I was recently given a Sam’s Club gift card, and so I went back to stock up on a few things.

    As I noted prices again, I couldn’t help but notice how many things were still cheaper per ounce there than I am seeing elsewhere for “really great sales” with coupons and sales combined. Things like mozarella cheese for $1.97 a pound (not $1.49 for an 8 ounce block) are much better buys. I think that I will be shoping more often at Sam’s Club, once we’re not longer in living from teh pantry mode.

    A #10 can of tomato sauce (Contadina brand) is $2.47. It’s 6lbs, 9 oz. (or 105 oz.). That last my family for 2-3 meals of homemade spaghetti sauce or pizza sauce. I could buy 2 28 oz. cans for 1 1/2 meals at Walmart for a little under $2. This is such a better buy, and with a family of 8, I can see the day where I’ll make the whole can for one meal (when my children are bigger).

    Pasta is .88 a pound there–everyday. The everyday price of brown sugar is cheaper than holiday prices. The flours are great buys and I bake a lot, so I love them. I can buy 50 pounds of popcorn for around $17, which means popcorn for a year for us (talk about some inexpensive snacks!)

    We have Coscto RIGHT by us, and Sam’s Club a little further, but I have a Sam’s Club membership. Like Michelle, I went through both stores and compared what I bought, along with the lowest prices per ounce at other stores in town (the lowest sales prices). I found that on a large number of things, Sam’s Club was the cheapest buy for me (the price of balsamic vinegar at Sam’s Club is more than half the price that it is at Costco; it is $4.97 for a 1 liter bottle at Sam’s and close to $11 at Costco).

    I have a regular list of things that I buy at Sam’s Club. I keep it organized in the way I walk through the store. When it’s time to go shopping, I just highlight the things that we are low on in our pantry, and off I go!

  8. We have six children and buy a number of things at Costco that are much better deals than at the grocery store. These include milk, eggs, cheese, lettuce, carrots, tp, laundry and dishwasher soap, diaper wipes, bananas, watermelon, corn dogs, burritoes, popcorn, peanut butter, nonstick spray, chocolate chips, flour, brown sugar, powdered sugar, string cheese, catsup, mustard. We find nice gifts there as well. The trick is sticking to your list because they have so many wonderful things! I find that I can get some things cheaper on sale at the grocery store: meat, canned goods, boxed goods.

  9. I have had a Sam’s card for years, and recently got a Costco card (thru dh’s job). I always do my contact lenses at Sam’s – which easily recoups my membership cost in just that one item.

    It is easy to “go crazy” in those places; you have to know what you want to buy and stick to it. I was VERY impressed with all of the organic stuff at Costco – I got organic carrots for 0.69 a pound.

    I will now need to figure out what things are better at Sam’s and which are better at Costco.

    A huge benefit for me in buying in bulk, is that it keeps me out of the grocery store, or makes those trips MUCH faster (which is great when you are shopping with the kiddos). For example, I buy laundry detergent at Sam’s 2x a year, garbage bags 3-4x a year, you get the picture.

    This was a great post – I really enjoyed it.

  10. I spent an entire afternoon once walking through CostCo just to write the size and price of every item I’ve ever purchased there. I then went to Aldi to do the same and was surprised to find that 90% of the items were cheaper per unit at CostCo than Aldi. And the added bonus of CostCo is that you can get national brands, not just the house brand (Aldi is all house brand).
    I compiled this list and use it as my “base price” for any item. This is the price I know I can get it at CostCo with no coupons. If something looks like a good deal at the supermarket sales I check my base price. If I find that the supermarket has something non-sale priced better than CostCo I update my base price list to that and the name of the store.
    As others have said, some things are cheaper at CostCo, but some are not, so just keep track! A little bit of time can save lots of money!

  11. We just moved to South Orange County and live near a Costco for the first time. We have been doing the “grocery tour” as we call it, trying to get a feel of prices and where to shop. We are just a family of 3, so I am not sure how beneficial it is to shop in bulk–and we don’t have a ton of extra storage.
    Thanks for the helpful information! We’ll have to check Costco out!

  12. I am not opposed to buying in bulk @ a place like costco, it just isn’t practical for me. We are a BUSY, 1-car family & it takes everything I have to line up my price matches, coupons, & get the car to go to 1 store (occasionally 2), let alone take the time to drive & shop somewhere else. When there’s a good deal at the grocery store I do stock up. For example today I got 10 packages of beef sausage for $1.49 each (regularly $2.50 each)…

  13. We have a Sam’s membership (although I want to look into a Costco one when this expires as they seem to have more organic foods). It works very well for us! I do not buy most my groceries there as many things are cheaper elsewhere, but the things I do buy save us quite a bit. I bake a lot of bread, and I calculated once that I save the cost of membership per year just in yeast. If we lived closer, I’d buy all my gas there, which would make it work even better for me.

  14. which milk do you get? because when we get it, i think it’s much closer to $2.50 per gallon at costco. Maybe slightly less, but definitely not $1.90. I think 2 gal is just under $5 for us.

    (we mostly shop at the morena costco, although i may switch to mission valley because they have a larger store & variety.)

  15. Shopping at any warehouse club requires knowledge about prices and a bit of strategy. I shop at Sam’s about once a month and I know exactly what is cheaper there. With our large family, the bulk is an added bonus for me, but sometimes the big packages are illusional. We think because it comes in a big box that it must be cheaper per unit. This is not the case!!

    I find that many cereals are significantly cheaper at Sam’s, about 12-15 cents per oz! That’s a great buy! Additionally, I find that their meat is reasonable priced.

    Another item to consider and ask yourself is this….are you saving enough to recoup the cost of the membership? Ouch! Until you save at least the membership fee, you haven’t saved anything yet.

  16. We are also a small family, and don’t use Costco for stocking up on food items. We primarily have used our membership for things like diapers and wipes, shredded cheese (I also portion it out and freeze it) and some of the fruit snacks/granola bars (but only if I know it’s a good price – some of them are great, others not so much).

  17. Yum to carmalized onions! What do u do afterwards, freeze
    ?? We do a lot of our shopping there. Happy to see that they are adding more and more organics. I have to be careful with how much produce I buy or it spoils before we can eat it (and we don’t have extra frreezer room for frozen. We also buy other stuff there- tires, glasses and soon- Two Brenda plantation shutters! Yay. Also bought our stone kitchen countertops. 😉

  18. i live alone and don’t have a costco membership but i go along with my mom maybe once a month. i usually get meat (better quality than anywhere else around here), toilet paper, contact solution and maybe some snacky items like popchips and stuff like maple syrup, vanilla, and yeast when i need them because they’re so much cheaper at costco than anywhere else

  19. I frequent Sam’s, mainly because its a lot closer to me than Costco. Being a two person family in a pretty small household, I don’t do a ton of bulk shopping, because of storage issues. They can have great prices and there are several things I buy there on a regular basis. Sometimes I think some of the best deals there aren’t on food, but on electronics, books and other things. Earlier this summer, I found a compost bin at Sam’s that I’d had my eye on at Lowe’s, but the Sam’s price was $30 less. Same with a camera my daughter wanted for Christmas, we’d done our research, it was a Consumer Reports Best Buy, and I’d shopped around. The lowest I found it anywhere was for $250, then I found it at Sam’s for $175. And just this week, my daughter had saved her money to buy the Elipse Movie Companion book, it was $20 at the bookstore…but $12 at Sam’s, so we got it there. None of those things were a result of a specific trip there to get that specific item. Although they were all planned purchases (meaning they were budgeted in, but I was still shopping around) I just knew the general prices of the items, and checked those sections while I was there anyway. The end result being that I got the three items for a total of $113 less than I would have paid elsewhere. The warehouse stores can be a GREAT resource if you know your prices.