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Are warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam's Club worth it?

What's the best way to approach buying at these stores - buying everything there instead of the grocery store, or buying specific things?

Which items tend to be cheaper at the warehouse club stores, and which items am I better off buying elsewhere?

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We were members at costco, but decided not to renew. Meat was a definite cost savings, and laundry detergent as well. Diapers used to be a huge savings, but loblaws seems to be pricing things better now. We did by a bunch of Kirkland brand diapers and wipes before the membership ended.

The problem we had was that you just get too much stuff - you save a bunch on that laundry detergent that you buy once every two years, or the chicken you have in your freezer forever.

In Canada, the basic membership is $55 and we could not be certain we made that back, nor that we weren't over consuming as we walked the aisles. I have heard that the more expensive membership ($100) which gives you 2% back on purchases is a good way to gauge your usage and determine if it is worth it.

It also costs nothing to give it a try - their policy is a full refund at any time, so in theory you could go in on your 364th day and get a refund.

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    I have the Costco "executive" membership you're referring to (the one with the 2% rebate), and so far, my rebate only covered the extra cost of having bought the executive membership :-/ – Chris W. Rea Oct 15 '09 at 11:51
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    Costco will reimburse you if you don't make back at least the $50 you paid for the executive. It really is no lose. – MrChrister Jan 8 '10 at 3:54
  • @Chris - Sounds like a good deal to me if the savings on the products are there. One might argue that you are coming out ahead. – rjzii Sep 6 '11 at 13:11
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    The executive membership will show you how much you spent, but there's no way for it to show you how much you saved. It's not like it's running a price comparison against all other places you could have bought the same stuff; a rule of thumb such as assuming you saved 10% wouldn't be accurate enough to know if it's worth it. And of course it's not taking into account all the things you didn't really need to buy at all. – stannius May 31 '16 at 21:47
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    The key to Costco is to make a list of what you need and force yourself to stick to it – Neil McGuigan May 4 '17 at 17:49
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I know that for me personally, if I buy that giant box of Goldfish instead of the bags, it doesn't mean I'm saving money... just eating a lot more Goldfish. The trick, I think, to buying in bulk is to make sure that you're not consuming in bulk. You're not likely to go through more dishwasher detergent just because you bought the big bottle, but you may find the kids are eating a lot more fruit snacks, or you're throwing away half of that huge bag of baby carrots that went bad, because you bought in bulk.

  • I totally agree with this! We consume a lot more than we would otherwise. – Nat_Rea Dec 7 '09 at 3:19
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Whether or not they are worth it depends entirely on your situation. For my family, they are worth it, but I know a number of people who it would not be worthwhile for.

The big things that we find are cheaper to get at bulk stores are toiletries, detergents (laundry, dishwasher), meats (only if you have a big freezer), bread, and certain types of prepackaged foods. Right now, it's just my wife and me, but once we have kids it will become even more worthwhile with things like diapers, wipes, and various other items.

If you have a large family, or a large freezer odds are they are worth it. One thing to be careful of however is that they usually don't accept coupons. So if you're a big time deal shopper the gain may be minimal.

They only cost $40 a year, so worst case scenario if you don't get back your full investment you're not out too much.

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Also don't just assume that everything that Costco or Sams (we use Costco) sells is cheaper. Still shop around and look for the best price.

For us it is definitely worth it.

  • +1 Excellent point! You have to watch the prices, there are some great deals there, but some really bad ones too. – Move More Comments Link To Top Jan 22 '11 at 17:23
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Only select items. First - I agree, beware the Goldfish Factor - any of those items may very well lead to greater consumption, which will impact your waistline worse than your bottom line. And, in this category, chips, and snacks in general, you'll typically get twice the size bag for the same price as supermarket. For a large family, this might work ok.

If one is interested in saving on grocery items, the very first step is to get familiar with the unit cost (often cents per ounce) of most items you buy. Warehouse store or not, this knowledge will make you a better buyer.

In general, the papergoods/toiletries are cheaper than at the store but not as cheap as the big sale/coupon cost at the supermarket or pharmacy (CVS/RiteAid). So if you pay attention you may always be stocked up from other sources.

All that said, there are many items that easily cover our membership cost (for Costco). The meat, beef tenderloin, $8.99, I can pay up to $18 at the supermarket or butcher. Big shrimp (12 to the lb), $9.50/lb, easily $15 at fish dept. Funny, I buy the carrots JCarter mentioned. They are less than half supermarket price per lb, so I am ahead if we throw out the last 1/4 of the bag. More often than not, it's used up 100%.

Truth is, everyone will have a different experience at these stores. Costco will refund membership up to the very end, so why not try it, and see if the visit is worth it?

Last year, I read and wrote a review of a book titled The Paradox of Choice. The book's premise was the diminishing return that come with too many things to choose from. In my review, I observed how a benefit of Costco is the lack of choice, there's one or two brands for most items, not dozens. If you give this a bit of thought, it's actually a benefit.

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I'm guessing it depends on how much you'd be paying for membership. If you save more than the membership costs you and you actually use the products you buy and they don't get thrown away, then it's worth it. I'm not a member of a warehouse club but I do have a membership for another wholesale outlet, so I know a little bit about buying in bulk.

You need to take the same approach to buying goods wholesale as you would in an ordinary outlet, and do a few more things besides. Things like writing a list and sticking to it, making that list logically, so that you minimise the amount of time you spend walking around the shop. The less you see, the less you are likely to buy. Don't be taken in by offers, it's only a bargain if it's something you would have bought anyway. Don't shop on an empty stomach or with you children.

And with bulk buying, you have to stick to things with long dates, unless your family gets through something at a phenomenal rate. Things like pet food are good, sugar too if you do a lot of home baking, that kind of thing. Toilet paper and kitchen roll are great to buy in bulk if you have the storage space and toothbrushes are good too. You'll always need them, always need to replace them, they don't take up much space and don't have a use by.

The rules differ from family to family. Look at what your family uses and how much time it takes to get through something. That's the best place to start.

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Silly as it sounds, we belong to both BJ's and Sam's club (we don't have Costco in this area).

The produce at our local Sam's is top-notch, especially in the winter. The prices on fruit there are unbeatable in the winter time, and more than cover the membership cost. I also find the price/quality of canned/box grocery items like tomatoes, flour, etc is better than our supermarkets.

Our local BJ's has an excellent meat department, and we tend to buy alot of non-perishable groceries like ketchup, cheese, etc as well as soap/cleaning stuff because they accept coupons. They are closer to my home and also have a member-only gas pump that is $0.10-0.30 cheaper.

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