Updated on 12.30.14

Six Strategies for Maximizing the Value of a Warehouse Club

Trent Hamm
Costco rotisserie chicken

Going to Costco? Don’t forget to fill up the gas tank and grab a rotisserie chicken on your way out. Photo: Kyu Kim

Over the holidays, I had a great conversation with several relatives about the compared merits of Sam’s Club and Costco (our conclusion was that you should just use whichever is most convenient or closest for you), which eventually turned into a discussion of how to get the most value out of a warehouse club membership. Naturally, I pulled out my little pocket notebook and started taking notes.

In the end, most of the strategies we shared were tips on specific items which were priced well, but I was more interested in general-purpose strategies that people can use in a lot of situations. Here are six things that can be really useful and valuable if you have a warehouse club membership.

Fill up your gas tank while you’re there

Many warehouse clubs have an attached gas station that requires you to use your membership in order to fuel up. Most of the time, these gas stations offer fuel prices that are about a dime per gallon cheaper than other nearby stations.

Obviously, then, it makes sense to fuel up every time you happen to be near your warehouse club when you’re low on fuel. More than that, though, I fuel up every time I’m there. I always want to leave the parking lot from my local Sam’s Club with a full tank of gas.

The reason is simple – if I fill up every time I’m there, I directly lower the number of times that I’ll have to fill up at other stations that are more expensive than my local warehouse club. In fact, other than road trips, I don’t believe I’ve filled up anywhere else for the last year or so.

Let’s say that I filled up 80% of the time at my local warehouse club, saving a dime per gallon each time, and I drive 10,000 miles per year in a 20 mile per gallon vehicle, that means that 400 gallons were sold to me at a discounted rate, adding up to $40 a year in savings just from the gas alone.

This isn’t always a guarantee, of course. You should always check the gas prices in your area and make sure that your warehouse club is beating those prices before you sign up for a membership.

Pick up prepared foods (like rotisserie chicken)

If you’re ever in a situation to order takeout food, check out your local warehouse club. Their takeout options are generally tasty and extremely competitively priced.

Different family members raved about the Costco rotisserie chickens, with one person claiming it was a weekly meal. A few people spoke highly of the pizza at Sam’s Club – while it’s not my favorite pizza in the world, it is very competitively priced.

A take-out option from a warehouse club can be a very cost-effective substitute if you’ve already made the decision to get a take-out meal. (The value of a take-out meal itself is another question entirely.)

Buy gift cards for restaurants you go to

Warehouse clubs tend to offer gift cards that are available at a slight discount – it’s not a big deal when you can buy a $25 gift card for $24.88, for example.

Where the real bargain comes in is when they sell bulk packs of gift cards associated with a restaurant that you dine at regularly.

Let’s say, for example, that you enjoy eating at Old Chicago Pizza and/or Rock Bottom Brewery, two restaurants owned by CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries. You like them enough that you might eat at each place once per year.

At Sam’s Club, you can buy $100 in face value in gift cards from CraftWorks for $80. In other words, the next $100 you spend at either of those restaurants immediately receives a 20% discount if you use the discounted gift cards instead.

If a restaurant has discounted gift cards at Sam’s Club, we basically don’t eat there without using a discounted gift card to pay for our food. If you make the assumption that such a discount has no impact on our schedule of eating out, then it’s a direct money saver for us.

(That’s the trick, though. Having a discounted gift card in your wallet shouldn’t cause you to eat out more. It might make you choose that restaurant over a similarly-priced one, but only after you’ve already made the independent decision to eat at a restaurant. If the card encourages you to eat out more, then it doesn’t really save you money at all.)

Use modular meal planning

One of the foundational principles of how Sarah and I plan meals is something we call “modular meal planning.” We keep the ingredients for several meals that our family likes on hand at all times – at least the non-perishable elements – and in adequate bulk. That way, no matter the situation, we can always have a family favorite meal prepared at home that isn’t just a repeat of what we had a few days ago.

Bulk buying of non-perishable foods makes this kind of modular meal planning much easier, and warehouse clubs make this really easy. They tend to offer very good prices on large bulk buys of staples such as dried rice, dried beans, pasta, oatmeal, and other things that we use all the time.

Since we know we’re going to have spaghetti probably one night a week – as it’s one meal that all five of our family members enjoy – it makes sense to buy the items for spaghetti in bulk. Since we have several family-favorite recipes that involve black beans, it makes sense to buy black beans in bulk. Flour, salt, dried basil, tomato sauce – those things show up again and again in recipes we make, so we buy them in bulk.

No matter what happens, we always have something we can make for supper. Thanks to bulk buying at warehouse clubs, it’s usually a cheap meal, too.

Split large bulk purchases

Let’s say you’re considering buying a jumbo pack of toilet paper at your warehouse club. The price per roll is good, but the total price is a bit oppressive for your budget and you also don’t know how you’ll store them. This is a perfect time to enlist help from your friends.

What I’ll do is add the sales tax to the total package on the calculator on my phone (multiplying the price by 1.07, in other words, to factor in a 7% sales tax), then I divide that number by the number of individual packages in the jumbo pack. So, if the big package actually just contains nine 4-packs of toilet paper, I’ll divide it by nine.

Then I’ll text a few friends: “At Sam’s Club. About to buy big bundle of toilet paper. Do you need any? 4 pack for $2.87?” If a couple of them get back to me, then I just go ahead and buy the big jumbo pack.

You can do that with almost any bulk purchase at a warehouse club. As long as you have a friend willing to take a portion of it, you can pay warehouse club prices and not have to deal with the warehouse club bulk.

Another strategy is to simply shop with a friend. Take a friend with you when you go there and then talk about splitting the price of some of the big purchases. “I’ll buy this big bundle of paper towels, you buy that bundle of toilet paper, I’ll buy this box of diapers that’ll fit both of our kids, you buy that jumbo pack of dinner rolls, and then we’ll split everything when we get to your house!”

Go during lunch time or Saturdays and do a “smart loop”

At our local Sam’s Club, there are usually a dozen or so “sample stations” at the store that are offering food samples during lunchtime rushes as well as most of the day on Saturdays. The samples are usually quite generous, too, and don’t cost a thing.

We take advantage of that with a simple strategy. We’ll go shopping there during the peak sample periods, but before buying a thing, we’ll walk through the whole store trying the various samples without putting anything in our carts.

This serves several purposes. The big purpose is that it fills us up a little so that we’re not making impulse food buys. If you shop for food while you’re hungry, you’re much more likely to buy something impulsively that you wouldn’t otherwise stick in your cart. The other purpose is that it allows you to try food items before you buy them so that you can make your own judgment about the quality. Most of the time, I don’t end up buying what’s offered anyway, but I did end up buying some oranges due to the samples (we needed some fruit anyway and oranges fit the bill).

It’s a simple free way to cut back significantly on your impulsive grocery store food purchases.

Final Thoughts

Warehouse clubs can save you a lot of money, but if you’re not using your plan to the full extent, you’re leaving money on the table. The value of a warehouse club goes beyond good prices on frozen goods and electronics and office supplies, but you have to think ahead and do a bit of extra work to extract that value. For us, it’s well worth it – we easily save hundreds a year with our membership when we figure in all of the savings it provides for us, from gas and reduced food impulse buys to modular meals and restaurant gift cards.

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