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7 Frugal Ways to Save Money at Costco

Costco

It seems as every time I go to Costco it’s exceedingly difficult to shop with a frugal mindset. I love shopping there but it can be hard at times not to overspend. As a frugal shopper I am always on the lookout for deals, and Costco often offers good ones. The problem is that if you don’t go in with a frugal mindset or a list to follow, you find yourself with an increasingly full cart. A trip to Costco can be difficult for those wanting to stay to a budget as so many products are over $10 and thus add up quickly. Not wanting to shop with reckless abandon, I have found time-tested frugal ways to shop at Costco, stay within my budget, and be happy at the same time.

Avoid the Samples

 

I know, I said it. I love the samples at Costco just like you. The problem with indulging in the samples is they tempt you to buy something you might not have planned for. Being a frugal shopper means knowing that Costco’s samples are best enjoyed in the store. Those serving the samples have numbers to reach and it benefits them if you buy them. If you go shopping when you’re hungry, wait to load up your cart until after you’ve curbed your hunger with samples. With a full stomach and a frugal head, you can get what you came for and not make unplanned purchases.

Buy Per Unit

 

This is key when shopping at Costco. Everything can seem like a good deal, but is not always the case. If you do your main grocery shopping elsewhere, be frugal by doing some per unit comparison shopping. That’s the easiest way to compare apples to apples, and see if it really is a deal. One example is macaroni and cheese, (which is a staple is our home with our 5 and 3 year old) as the per unit cost is half of what it is at the grocery store. The other thing to think of in regards to buying per unit is comparing Amazon vs Walmart to see if either of those might be a better option for you and your family.

Mind Your Payment Method

 

We almost always use cash when shopping at Costco, as opposed to using one of the credit cards they accept. This benefits us in multiple ways as it helps us stay within our budget and we know exactly what we can get. If we do find something we like that is beyond our cash allowance, then it gives us separation which can help us determine if we really need the product in mind. Since our groceries are part of our envelope budgeting, it’s very natural to use cash while shopping at Costco.

Be Frugal-Avoid the Executive Membership

 

We commonly get the Executive Membership hawked at us when we’re at Costco. With the membership you get a 2% reward back of most of your purchases at the end of the year, and is capped at $750. The cost is an additional $55 in addition to the base $55 membership. This may sound like a good deal, but let’s do the math. You would have to spend about $250 per month to get more money back than what you put in. If you typically do not spend that level at Costco then you’re either losing money as you won’t get the extra $55 back, or have to spend beyond your budget to get it back. If you are going to receive what you gave them or less, you’re just floating Costco a $55 loan at zero interest for a year. That’s like overpaying on your taxes; in either situation, whether it’s Uncle Sam or Costco, it doesn’t add up to give someone sitting on so much money some of yours at no interest.

Ask for Coupons

 

Frugal shoppers love coupons. It may seem contradictory to Costco’s business model, but they do offer coupons. Many times they’re mailed out to members, but if not ask at the customer service desk and they’ll give them to you if they have any at the time.

Think Frugal

 

The problem with warehouse stores like Costco, is that we shoppers think everything is a deal. But, do you really need a 10 pound drum of pickles? I know I don’t. What comes to my mind is a Seinfeld episode in which Kramer feeds the horse to his handsome cab Beefareeno. In the end, just because we think it’s a good deal doesn’t mean we need that 20 gallon barrel of grape jelly.

Save Your Food

 

In general you’re not going to find single serving perishable items to buy at Costco. So, my wife and I will buy their ground beef, for example, and cut it up in to one pound cubes and freeze it. This allows us to have single servings and prolong the usability of the product in question, while also allowing us to further stretch our grocery budget.

Shopping at a warehouse store like Costco can be expensive and can bust your budget. But, with a few frugal mindsets you can shop there and still leave happy.

How do you avoid overspending at big box stores like Costco?

Photo courtesy of: Aiminglow

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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and would love to help out if you have the need. If you're wanting to grow your blog, check out my blog coaching services to see how I can help you take your site to the next level.

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37 Comments

  • I have fallen into the sample trap before. They had pesto tilapia filets on sample and I ended up walking away with a box.
    Sean @ One Smart Dollar recently posted…Investing in Value FundsMy Profile

  • I would also avoid using a cart. That just gives you reason to put things in it. I always find when we use a cart at Costco we come out with more.
    Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter recently posted…5 Signs That You Need a ChangeMy Profile

    • John says:

      That’s a great point! If I or my wife go on our own, we usually try to do that and we’re able to make it out with less. However, that can be a bit more difficult when we take our three kids though. ;)

  • Jason @ WSL says:

    We don’t have a Costco membership and I’m fairly glad that we don’t. I always hear how great of a deal it is, but I am simply not a fan of buying in large bulk quantities. We keep our food budget fairly limited and if it was way out of whack then I think we’d look to do something differently. As we plan all of our meals (and grocery list accordingly) and buy mostly store-brand items, we’re able to keep our grocery expenses in check.
    Jason @ WSL recently posted…Recipe: Vegetarian EnchiladasMy Profile

    • John says:

      I hear ya Jason. I am not a fan of buying a lot of stuff in bulk either. There are very few things we’ll do that with, as long as the price is good. We buy mostly store brands when we shop as well, there are very few things we buy brand name.

  • A family friend used to go to Costco between games at hockey tournaments… that way they got a lovely variety of delicious snacks. Her dad usually picked up something slightly more substantial for the team, like a box of granola bars.
    Anne @ Unique Gifter recently posted…Guest Post: Thinking Up Gift IdeasMy Profile

  • Costco has some great deals!!! They also have some that aren’t deals at all. It helps to figure out the actual cost per pound/unit, etc. Then I can see if it is really a good deal after all!!! =)
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted…Why Saving Money Feels as Good as Spending DoesMy Profile

    • John says:

      You’re exactly right Holly. My wife loves that I can do the math on the phone and let her know if it’s a good deal or not. Even if it’s not, it can be hard to resist…which is why we’ll go with cash. :)

  • Buying per unit is the way to go! You really don’t know what you’re getting until you break it down into a consistent measurement system like that.

    I know I shouldn’t eat the free samples, but they are just too darn good! I love all that free stuff!
    My Money Design recently posted…My Dividend Paying Stocks Income Report – September 2012My Profile

    • John says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Breaking it down to that level really helps you make the best decision.

      I completely agree with the samples. It does take some discipline to avoid them.

  • Veronica @ Pelican on Money says:

    To this day I still can’t get over the idea of paying for membership card. I don’t buy enough bulk product from stores similar to costco to justify membership cost.
    Veronica @ Pelican on Money recently posted…Make Your Credit Cards Work for YouMy Profile

  • I don’t shop at Costco, but some of this is definitely applicable to other stores. Thanks for sharing!
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted…How to Make Money on YouTubeMy Profile

  • John says:

    No problem DC. Many of these tips can be applied across shopping in general, or grocery shopping for that matter.

  • We gave up out membership and rather go with the in-laws once and a while. Not having a membership ourselves and relying on other people prevents us from just ‘dropping in’ (which we use to love to do) and spending money we didn’t want/need to. We also get to know the prices of regularly bought items so we have a good budget idea in mind before we set foot in the store!
    mrsplungedindebt recently posted…Saving While In DebtMy Profile

  • John says:

    I can totally understand doing that. You get to go and get what you need without the temptation of unplanned spending. Costco can definitely be a problematic with unplanned purchases. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Edward Antrobus says:

    I’ve never actually been to a Costco (nearest one from where I live is about 50 miles away), but I’ve had the chance to shop at Sam’s Club a couple times. I don’t see bulk food stores to be any different than any other grocery store. You make a list and you stick to it, regardless of what tasty morsels or flashy advertising you find.

    Back in college, a bunch of us would go to Sam’s together, load up on the samples as a free meal, and then walk out with only our planned purchase, cases of Ramen!
    Edward Antrobus recently posted…Pinterest for Business: Book ReviewMy Profile

  • John says:

    You’re completely right, in principal, that it’s just like shopping at the grocery store. You make a list and stick to it. I think a big thing with Costco, or any warehouse club for that matter, is the issue of buying in bulk. If you don’t think about what you’re doing, you can end up buying something that really isn’t the deal you’d expect to get at a warehouse club store.

  • Great post and I totally do the ground beef thing, portion it out and freeze it. Basically me and the BF just buy non-perishables and frozen foods because we are only two people and can only eat so much food! Frickin’ love Costco.

  • John says:

    Thanks. That makes total sense. We tend to stick the same things as well. We really like some of the fruit they have, especially at the price, but it can be very difficult to eat it all before it starts to go bad.

  • I’ve actually never lived anywhere that had a Costco, so I may be the only person on the planet who has never been in one. We did have a Sam’s membership once, but never really got the value out of it. If you are buying diapers or formula, it would probably be a good deal, but I’d rather get food at the grocery store. It wasn’t a good deal for us if it sat around for years.
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  • John says:

    I actually know a number of people who’ve never been to Costco. They can be good for things like diapers or formula, we usually spend quite a bit on that stuff at Costco with our three little ones running around. :)

  • Elle P. says:

    Great post…I agree with you on everything except for the executive membership bit. If you get the executive membership coupled with the Costco American Express you get 4% back. Plus deals on mortgage rates, better coupon books, and a little magazine.

    Also, even if you don’t spend enough to pay off your exec membership in the first year, they will reimburse you back so you’re only paying for the normal membership. For example, if my 2% is only 20 dollars, but my executive membership is $55, but the gold member is $30, they’ll give me five bucks back.

    So for the first year, at least, you have nothing to lose!
    Elle P. recently posted…Settling for a not-so-great-job? Psh. Yea right!My Profile

    • Elle P. says:

      i suck at math, they’ll give me ten bucks back.
      Elle P. recently posted…Settling for a not-so-great-job? Psh. Yea right!My Profile

    • John says:

      Thanks Elle. I knew about the American Express card, but not the additional benefits they give along with it. I just learned about the refunding of the membership recently, but did not know it applies only to the first year.

      I hear you on having nothing to lose, it’s just a principal thing for me. I know it’s a small amount, but I’d rather not give them the extra cash. I know that I’d be tempted to spend more just to get more money back.

  • Jason Clayton | frugal habits says:

    John, totally agree on using cash.

    I try to use cash as much as possible for one simple fact you point out above – it is an amazing way to stay “on budget”. Once the cash is gone, you know you’re in the red. In Costco this is even more important, as it is easy to overspend in that store (same with Sam’s Club).
    Jason Clayton | frugal habits recently posted…5 Reasons I Love Having a Health Savings Account (HSA)My Profile

    • John says:

      Exactly Jason. I love to be able to have grocery cash left over at the end of the month. I hate the feeling of getting close to being in the red on it, so that’s another motivation to watch what we spend.

  • CF says:

    I’ve recently discovered that my workplace offers a Costco card for borrowing. I’m looking forward to using it and most likely I’ll be using some of those tips as well.
    CF recently posted…Managing your debt with consolidated creditMy Profile

  • Shop at Costco as you would shot anywhere else: have a shopping list and buy only what is on the list. As noted, watch the unit price. We make shopping at Costco a special trip, planned in advance and with definite purchases in mind.
    Rod J. Rogers (@FreeAgentRogers) recently posted…What Tom Brady taught me about attitude.My Profile

  • Good article. I force my wife to do the shopping there 8 times out of 10. I love the store for the deals but the people seem to llose all common sense and courtesy when in that store. Maybe it is the free samples going to their brain but oh my god, get out of my way people, its not lunch time. Anyways, good tips. Our Costco doesn’t seem to need us to bring coupons, they scan them regardless if we provide them or not which is nice.
    Alan@escapingmydebt recently posted…Winter TricksMy Profile

    • John says:

      Thanks Alan! Lol, I feel the same way about the samples. You’d think people have not seen food for weeks. We used to enjoy them, but we don’t get them anymore as it’s just not worth it to fight people for a bite of something we don’t need anyway.

  • Conni says:

    We have been approached at Costco MANY times about getting an executive membership. My husband loves to ‘teach’ the employee that we do not want the ‘upgrade’ because of the psychology behind the offer: if each purchase potentially adds to your ‘bonus/return check’ at the end of the year, the temptation is to buy items there that you most likely could find less expensively elsewhere.
    Gotta spread the frugal message any way we can!

    • John says:

      We get the same thing Conni. We know someone who works for them that said they don’t get a bonus for signups, but it’s encouraged during their reviews. I do the same basic thing when asked and 90% of the time it goes completely over their head.

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