Can a warehouse club membership save you money? Is it a good deal for bargain shoppers? What are some of the things to watch out for when shopping at a warehouse club?
There’s no cut-and-dried answer to those questions: it absolutely depends on your lifestyle, your budget, and your family’s needs. But, there are some important things to consider when evaluating whether or not a warehouse or club membership is right for you.
Keep in mind that this information is presented primarily from a budget standpoint. If you shop at a warehouse club for convenience or other reasons other than trying to save money on a tight budget, then much of this information may not be relevant to you.
Impulse purchases add up
Buying something “because it looked good” at Costco or Sam’s can be costly. Instead of spending 50¢ on a single candy bar like you might at a grocery store, you’ve spend $5 on an entire box of candy bars. Your budget might not notice an impulse buy of 50¢, but an impulse purchage of $5 is a much higher percentage of most people’s budgets.
Trying new items can be costly
We once bought a large, $6 bag of Craisins trail mix at Sam’s Club. When we opened it and began snacking, we were more than disappointed: everything had an overpowering taste of coconut, which is not good for a family full of coconut haters.
It might not have been a big deal if it had been a small bag like you’d buy at a normal grocery store, but the gigantic bag at a warehouse store wascostly. Yes, you can often return products that you don’t like – if you want to mess with that.
Waste adds up
Whether you didn’t like it, got tired of it, or it went bad before it got used up, all of us – warehouse club shoppers or not – waste food. If you have trouble using up two “regular” bags of salad mix before they get slimy, will you be able to use a gigantic tub of salad mix before it spoils? If it was 20% cheaper at a warehouse store and you waste 30%, it was actually more expensive.
Many moms swear by the cheaper diapers at Costco, but then end up with half a box unused because their child outgrew them before they used the whole box. Yes, you can absolutely share or donate them, but again, we’re talking from a budget standpoint: the diapers may not be cheaper if you don’t use them!
The “warehouse club mentality” can be dangerous
Many people shop at a warehouse club because they think it’s cheaper than shopping at other stores. True, some things are – but many things aren’t. If you have the mentality of, “Oh, I’ll just pick this up here because it’s cheaper”, you are likely treading on dangerous territory – particularly because again, you are buying in super-sized amounts.
Grocery shopping amidst TVs and clothing is tempting
Yep, Costco has good deals on clothing and books. But, how often have you purchased something in the non-food section at a warehouse club that you needed but wouldn’t have purchased otherwise? Could you or would you have been able to wait longer if it wasn’t so convenience to purchase it alongside your groceries?
Bulk purchases often require other investments
I realized this when I bought a 50-pound bag of popcorn recently. I saved lots of money by purchasing in bulk, but now I have to find something to store it in that allows me to actually access it conveniently. Long term, this is not a major expense since I’ll find something I can use over and over; however, the short term savings of buying in bulk go down when I have to buy something for storage.
It’s hard to compare prices
It can be very difficult to compare warehouse club pricing to other stores. You’re generally going to be comparing items that are different sizes, so if you want to accurately compare prices, you’ll often have to go all the way to figuring out the price per ounce.
Cashback isn’t exclusive to Costco
Lots of people love Costco’s executive membership with the Mastercard that gives you 2% cashback on most Costco purchases. While there’s nothing wrong with that if you pay it off every month, it’s probably not saving you that much money. You could likely get a different credit card (or even debit card) that would allow you to earn rewards anywhere you shop, and wouldn’t charge the extra $50 that you have to spend to get the executive membership.
You can beat warehouse club prices without coupons
Most items go on sale for cheaper than Sam’s Club or Costco carries them, and usually without a coupon. If you use coupons, even better, but many items can be had for cheaper if you just watch the sales. This does require that you shop the sales and plan your menus based on what’s on sale: if you prefer to just buy whatever happens to be on your list without regard to what’s on sale, then yes, you’ll probably save money at a warehouse club.
A warehouse club isn’t a one-stop shop
I know lots of people say they don’t have time to shop all around town – I don’t, either, which is why I have been evaluating getting a warehouse club membership! But, I’d say it’s pretty rare for someone to do all their shopping at a warehouse club – you probably stop at another store to pick up the things that Costco and Sam’s don’t carry.
If you shop at a warehouse club every couple of weeks, you may find that you could save more money by shopping at different store (based on what’s on sale) and skipping the warehouse club shopping trip.
Cheaper prices don’t always mean you’re saving money
This is why I don’t currently have a warehouse club membership. I can see how a membership can pay for itself with bulk discounts. I can see the convenience and the high-quality items that are available.
But, just because it’s cheaper doesn’t mean it will save you money overall.
For instance, when I buy a pound of dried cranberries for $3/lb at Sunflower Market, I use those cranberries sparingly and try to make them last as long as I can. When I buy a big bag of dried cranberries at Sam’s for around $2.00/lb, I use those cranberries up about five times as fast as I would if I had bought the smaller package. It was cheaper per ounce to buy them at Sam’s, but overall I spent more and used the item much more liberally.
Nuts are lots cheaper when buying in bulk at Sam’s or Costco: but if I buy nuts, we will use them. When we were once content with brownies without nuts, all of the sudden we will be eating brownies with nuts. Is that bad? Of course not, nuts are healthy (well, minus the brownies)! But, the overall cost goes up because I feel liberated to use something I would otherwise be content to live without.
Though we could afford a warehouse club membership right now, and though I can think of many things I would buy there, I’m not buying one right now because it I know it will make my overall spending go up. While I would love to buy many of the items that Sam’s Club or Costco carries at their somewhat-discounted prices, I can’t justify the fact that many of those items would be “splurges” that would probably not be a wise choice right now.
Right now, I am splurging a bit in our budget – but it’s splurges in small amounts, not bulk splurges. When I buy something like Craisins and know I’m not getting the lowest price in town, I’m much more prudent with how I use those Craisins, and maybe even enjoy them even more!
I used to think warehouse clubs were a major ripoff, but after thinking about it long and hard, I really think that the budget-buster of warehouse clubs is not the membership fee, or the items that are actually more expensive than other grocery stores: at least for me, I think it’s that I would tend to overindulge in items because they are “cheaper” – but they’re still not cheap.
What do you think?
Again, the thoughts I’ve shared in this post are primarily coming from the standpoint of “bargains”, but I would love to hear why you chose to or chose not to shop at a warehouse club – aside from prices on specific products, what impacts your decision to shop Sam’s Club or Costco or avoid it?
Please join the discussion in the comments!