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Buying in Bulk: Making Warehouse Club Shopping Worth the Trip

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Is warehouse club shopping worth it to you? Here's how to get the most out of it.

My mom hates shopping at the warehouse clubs. It’s become quite the joke in our family, because she’s offended by their very existence.  If you were to bring up your Sam’s Club or Costco Membership to my mom, here’s how the conversation would go:

Mom: I hate those places.

You: Why?

Mom: Why?? First of all, you have to pay them for the “privilege” of shopping there. What is that??  Second, they don’t even bother to offer you bags for your stuff, and third, they frisk you like a common criminal on your way out! No, thank you!!

We always tease mom about her annoyed stance concerning warehouse shopping clubs, but it does seem to be the case with most people regarding warehouse clubs that they either love ’em or hate ’em.

Truth be told, these clubs are not for everyone, and not everything they sell is sold at a cost savings. Warehouse club shopping really can be a drain on your cash without a plan and without purposeful shopping.

However, when done right, a warehouse club membership can save you tons of cash. Just on dairy products alone, our family saves a good 30-40 percent off of regular Walmart grocery store prices when we buy at the warehouse club instead.

Here’s how to tell if a warehouse club membership is right for you, and how to get the most out of your warehouse club experience.

Is a Warehouse Club For You?

 

A warehouse club membership could be beneficial to you if you:

Have one in close proximity to your other shopping venues:  Otherwise, the savings you earn could be negated by the cost of gasoline to get there and back.

Have a larger family:  Before Rick and I had kids, it wasn’t really worth it for us to belong to a warehouse club. BK (before kids) a 16-pack of canned tomatoes would’ve lasted us about 10 years. Now, we’ll use that up in a few months. Warehouse clubs are the most beneficial to those needing to do LOTS of shopping for their families or food-related businesses. This could also mean that you might want to look at Amazon Prime vs Walmart to see if one of those options might be a better savings for you and your family.

Know your food prices:  In order to determine what’s a great buy and what’s not at a warehouse club, you need to have a rough idea of the typical grocery store prices in your area.

Making the Most of Buying in Bulk

 

Here are some ways you can save the most money and therefore get the best benefit out of your warehouse club membership:

Know which items truly do cost less:  Due to meticulous budgeting, I can tell you off the top of my head that a loaf of bread costs $1.18, the 48 oz. box of macaroni costs $2.83, and the organic 1/2 gallon of skim milk costs $3.58 at our local Walmart grocery store.  Whether by way of list, memorization or even with your iPhone, knowing what the prices are on what you buy will help you determine quickly whether or not the bulk price you’re seeing on a particular item really is a good deal.

Accumulate a list of which “great deal” warehouse club products you use regularly:  In our particular case, I know that during our once-a-month shopping trip, we will get at our Sam’s Club: cheese, eggs, sour cream, butter and coffee. That list never changes, and then we have our occasional items such as flour, rice, pasta and oatmeal, which we buy in bigger bags, so we need to buy less often. Having this list of things that we buy regularly and that are always a great deal allows me to not only get the most out of our warehouse club membership, but it makes for a much quicker trip in and out of the club as well.

Be careful about deviating from your list:  What is it about buying in large quantities that is so appealing to the American public? The giant plastic jar of cheese puff balls is a huge seller at our local club, and I can only deduce from this that we really are enticed by the marketing scheme of “bigger is better” in America.

If you're on the fence about warehouse club shopping, here's how to make the trip (and price of membership) worth it.

This is where warehouse club memberships can really be a hindrance to your budget. It’s important when shopping  at your warehouse club that you get your head out of the clouds and really analyze what you need vs. what you want. If that giant container of hummus is going to end up being thrown away after you’ve eaten a quarter of it, you’ve just wasted five bucks. And who wants 2-year-old Ritz crackers served at the next Christmas party because somebody was drawn to the allure of “BIG” at Sam’s Club a couple of summers ago and is now looking to get rid of those 5 boxes of stale old crackers?

Warehouse club memberships can be a blessing or a curse to your budget, depending on whether or not you know what you’re really saving, or not saving, as the case may be.

 

Do you have a warehouse club membership? How does it save you money, or doesn’t it?

 

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Laurie is a wife, mother to 4, and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom, and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

51 Comments

  • Matt Becker says:

    When we were evaluating whether or not to get a Costco membership it was as simple as looking at the cost of diapers and wipes. With that alone we come out ahead. But we have a relatively small list of other things we buy there regularly as well, mixed in with the stuff we get from target. If you do it purposefully it can definitely be a big savings.

  • We don’t and it’s pretty much exactly for the reasons that you describe – they are not on our beaten paths, we know the prices elsewhere and shop pretty well, and with only two of us it’s hard to go through that much food before it spoils or we get sick of it.

    Also I hate Costco because they lied to us and tried to ding Mr PoP’s credit report 4 years ago. Apparently I still hold that grudge.

    • Shame on you, Costco!! LOL, we still have the same grudge with Dodge from 18 years ago, so don’t feel bad. 🙂 Yeah, the warehouse clubs definitely are not for everybody, but if you can make it work, they can save you some cash, that’s for sure.

  • That’s great, Matt, that you’ve been saving so much on diapers and wipes – they can be super expensive if you’re not shopping around. We have a semi-limited list of stuff we get there too, but the savings more than pay for the membership. I have a feeling that, as your family grows, you’ll be shopping there more. 🙂

  • I don’t go to warehouse clubs currently, but my parents used to go when all of us were still at home. I think deviating from the list is a huge risk, especially if you bring kids with! I would always see 100 things that I thought we should get, and I’m pretty sure each time I convinced my parents on at least a few of them.

  • Great Tips, Laurie….lessons I’ve learned as well. Another piece of advice would be to go to the club store as few times in a month as possible. We like to go once at the beginning of the month, and stock up on the items that are cheaper there that are high use items (like chicken, cereal, etc). The less temptation there is to go off road from the list the better!

  • I don’t really buy food In bulk anymore…because I have thrown stuff away in the past. I don’t mind buying non-food items in bulk, though. You never have to throw away extra toiler paper, paper towels, trash bags, etc.!

    • LOL, isn’t that the truth! We always try and stick to the items we know we’ll use, and that works out really well for us. Dairy foods for a family of six can get spendy real quick, and we save huge amounts of cash by buying this stuff in bulk, and we always go through it.

      • Scott N says:

        Plenty of good finds at Sam’s between detergents, cleaners, paper towels, coffee, frozen foods, office supplies and electronics. Anything non perishable that would be used is worth getting but bulk items and huge cans we will not buy. Pet food and supplies also very good and the pharmacy can be a huge savings especially if you don’t have insurance or good coverage.

  • Kathy says:

    I’m with your mom on this one. I HATE that they check you basket after you’ve checked out. Like there’s anything for me to steal between the checkout lanes and the door. Plus, since it’s just my hubby and me at home, buying in bulk doesn’t work as well for us now as it did when our son was at home. And I can frequently find things on sale at the grocery store for a price better than the warehouse clubs.

  • Knowing which items really cost less is crucial. My ex and I used to belong to a Sam’s club and miraculously we made it pretty worthwhile just between the two of us. Paper products, greek yogurt, and massive blocks of cheese and fruit were always my favorite pick ups.

  • I’ve never had a club membership, but my mom has one and we go with her every once in awhile (every couple of years) to Costco. I’ve purchased plastic wrap, tinfoil, ketchup and olive oil through Costco when I go, and I have saved a lot of money on those things, but not all things are cheaper.

  • Alexa says:

    I just started shopping at Sams Club this year and I love it. I stock up on kid’s shampoo and save close to 30% I also stock up on laundry detergent, drinks, and granola bars. I actually might take a trip this weekend. I love Sam’s.

  • anna says:

    We don’t have one since it’s only two of us and parking is usually a nightmare, but perhaps we’ll explore it once we start a family. I like Costco’s philosophy with how they treat their employees, so that makes me more inclined to go there down the line.

    • Hey, Anna! I’ve heard Costco is great, and we always talk about checking them out when we head into the Cities. I agree that a club might not be beneficial for a smaller family. All depends on what you use and what you can find there, I guess. 🙂

  • Money Beagle says:

    We do and we follow the tips that you listed to keep things in check. We always match up coupons that they have, and for a lot of items, we’ve even noticed patterns so that we can often predict when a coupon will be available for a particular item, which can guide us to wait until next month. We also have a running list of items for which we do a quick walkaround to see if we need.

    One strategy that we haven’t yet adopted but heard about is to limit yourself to one non-list item per trip.

  • Costco is not for me.. yet. We are preparing meals for just two of us so we don’t need that much. When there is a particular item we want from Costco we ask the in-laws to pick it up for us, and we pay them back. Maybe when we have a larger family..

  • We do have a Costco membership but like you – it’s not the only place we shop. For those items where bulk makes sense or I get a better place than my normal grocery store or Target, it’s great. But you do have to watch yourself. It’s very easy to ditch the list and just put things in your cart!

    • So true, Shannon! We watch ourselves very careful there, as it’s easy to fall into the habit of picking up “a few extra things”, but at warehouse clubs, it tends to hit the pocketbook harder when you do that. 🙂

  • I don’t like Costco. It’s always so crazy in there. We like to buy just enough for the week. We don’t buy frozen food. We don’t have storage. It’s just not a good fit for us.
    I guess for people big houses, it’s probably a cheaper way to consume a lot of stuff.

    • For us it works well because of our larger family. We have a smaller house, but we keep our chest freezer in the garage, and just run out when we need to get stuff. We make most of our food from scratch, so buying in bulk saves us a ton of money on basics like flour, rice, beans and butter. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Sicorra says:

    We have been shopping at Costco for a number of years. We have a regular list of things that we buy there and usually go once a month. Paper products are high on our list, as well as some cleaning supplies. I like some, not all, of their produce and I like their selection of frozen fruits and veggies too.

  • There is a Costco down the street from our work, so gas cost is not a consideration. We go to costco about once every two or three months. It is basically when toilet paper starts to run low. I always take a list, but we almost never make it out of Costco for less than $200. It’s mostly non perishable stuff, but I also almost always pick up some frozen food items. My work pays for my membership.

  • We are only a family of two but we buy most of our fresh food at Costco in addition to paper products and such. We are just very selective about what we buy and know what we can and can’t get through before it goes bad!

    One thing you didn’t mention is the discounts on big-ticket items. We’ve found that about every year we buy a big-ticket item at Costco that is so heavily discounted that it “pays for” our membership for the year. So even without the groceries being less expensive, we would still pay for the membership.

  • Tre says:

    We use Costco for the staples (pasta, cereal) that are less expensive. I prefer to go once a month so there is little risk of overspending. My husband likes to go once a week and wander around. He quickly realized that he was spending too much money. We’ve settled on twice a month, but no deviating from the list. It’s amazing how quickly your purchases add up!

  • Adam Kamerer says:

    With just the two of us, the only products we buy in bulk tend to be nonperishables. We don’t have a Costco nearby, but we do have a Sam’s Club. A while back, we decided not to renew our Sam’s membership and started buying our bulk goods online. An Amazon account doesn’t require a membership fee, you can usually snag free shipping, and I’ve found that the prices of bulk goods on Amazon tend to do as well as Sam’s, if not better.

    • Hey, Adam! We use Amazon Subscribe and Save as well, and get great deals on things like toilet paper. You’re right, it can be more difficult to reap the savings a warehouse club offers if you’re a smaller family, but it can be done, provided they sell items you want and use often. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  • I am a Costo shopper and I love it. I hit it up about once a month and I have my standard list. I too am always buying dairy and food related items on every trip. My irregulars are paper products and kitchen oriented needs.

  • Although we have a Costco membership, there are only two of us, so after a couple of trips, I’m beginning to think it’s not worth it for us. Aside from people with large families,I also feel it’s really worth it for people who own eating establishments. Everything in the store is restaurant sized. The only time I found Costco to be quite useful was when we would have a lot of people over and would purchase a lot of meat and salads in bulk for the occasion. I personally think there is too much hype in bulk warehouse club shopping. But that’s just me. 🙂

    • I can see where it wouldn’t be beneficial to a household of two. That’s the thing about warehouse clubs; you’ve really got to know if you’re going to use the super-sized bag of whatever and buy it on a regular basis. Otherwise, you could end up wasting lots of cash.

  • Ron says:

    I remember when I was a child my parents would shop at Costco. I personally have never been a member of any shopping club. Right now, being a warehouse club member would not be beneficial but instead be a waste of money. I am sure once I have kids it’ll be a different story!

  • We love Costco. But we have two kids and save money on diapers and wipes. We work right next to one.

    Plus, other than grocery and drug stores, we don’t have a lot of options. No Walmart or Target.

  • Syed says:

    Costco is great for us since it’s close by and has much better prices on dairy products than the other grocery stores in the area. The samples are awesome too it’s almost enough for lunch for our 1 year old!

  • Sabrina says:

    We shop at Costco 1-2 times a month. Along with the items already mentioned (from garbage bags to olive oil) I purchase over the counter meds (you just have to price compare very carefully), contacts from the optical dept) and refill my printer cartridges (huge savings).

    I also used Costco for a huge sheet cake for a school function–really easy and good and inexpensive.

  • beebeefox says:

    We have a BJs membership. It’s about 15 miles away and we only go about once a month or so. We only get certain things there as well. Frozen organic non gmo veggies and fruit, organic onions and garlic, dates, rice, coconut oil, chia seeds, flax meal and almond milk. I’m very pleased to see that they are getting with the program and offering better choices. I would have to say that the worst part is how long it takes because the kids want to look at everything so we make sure to not plan anything else after our trip there. Hahaha! 🙂

  • Cecelia says:

    There are only 2 of us (kids are grown and gone), but we have a BJs membership and love it. It’s 12 miles from home, but we live in the sticks and the nearest regular grocery store is 6 miles away. We fill up our cars there when we are nearby, saving 5-10¢ per gallon. Milk is $1 less than other stores. We don’t get all our food there because we can’t use the large amounts before going bad, but we eat a lot of produce so we do buy their organic spinach and such. I buy most of my health and beauty stuff at Dollar General, Walgreens and CVS, stacking coupons, sales and “bonuses” (like the extra care bucks from CVS and store coupons from DG) so most of that stuff is free or close to free.

  • Laura says:

    I go to BJ’s. I have been going for years. I like that they take manufacturers coupons and I also get 2% back on purchases. When my 4 kids were smaller it is as a must. I do a lot of cooking. I make pretty much everything myself including pizza & bagels. Buying the stuff to make all this stuff is much cheaper at BJ’s. However, I do check the grocery circulars before I go and only get what I need at BJ’s and if cheaper at grocery store I stop there too. Thanks for the tips

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