Ten Tips for Maximizing Your Savings at a Warehouse Club

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As I’ve mentioned many times before, my wife and I shop at Sam’s Club. It’s really the only warehouse club available to us easily (there are no BJ’s around here and the only Costco is on the far side of Des Moines, almost an hour away) and it serves a lot of our needs.

I’ve been shopping there for several years and I’ve found several little techniques that really maximize your value in shopping there. You really can do much better on some items by utilizing a warehouse store, but you’ve got to follow a good plan. Here’s how.

1. Take a look before you sign up. Before you walk in the door and sign up for a membership, visit the store and look at the prices and the selection to make up your own mind. Warehouse clubs often offer one-day memberships, either in the newspaper or at the desk there. Give them a call and find out before you go.

If you can’t get in using these methods, ask around your social network to see if anyone’s a member, then ask if you can visit the store with them. This method is even better because you can make purchases when visiting with a full member, whereas with the short-term memberships, there’s a 10% markup on prices.

2. Split a membership. Find a close friend and split a membership with them. Just go to the store, sign up for a membership, put your friend down as the other card, and get membership cards for both of you. This will cost you each half the normal price of an annual membership, getting you in the door for a year for just $20.

You usually have to sign up at the same time, but warehouses are completely fine with you and your co-member having different last names, different addresses, and different phone numbers.

3. Bulk-buy in cooperation with friends. Hesitant to buy a giant mountain of toilet paper? Talk to a friend of yours and agree to split the cost of that mountain. This way, your cost per roll on that toilet paper is very low, but you also don’t have to deal with the storage of that much toilet paper.

There are lots of items you can purchase this way, from paper towels and fruit juice to diapers and bagels.

4. Only buy stuff you know you’ll use up. One of the big temptations at a warehouse club is to convince yourself that you’ll use a huge amount of something that’s perishable, whether it’s salad greens or fresh fruits. You see the price per pound, recognize that it’s much lower than it is at other stores, and talk yourself into it.

Don’t.

Ignore the cost per pound. Instead, you have to focus on the amount you’ll actually use before having to chuck the rest – and that’s a tricky thing. I usually figure on the very low end. On occasion, it’s still a value even if more than half winds up in the compost bin, but most of the time, it’s not really a bargain.

5. Make a price book. Along those same lines, in order to maximize the value you get from a warehouse club, you have to have some sort of a price book.

A price book simply means that you have a list of prices of many of the common things you buy at various stores that you shop at. Maybe you just have the prices from your favorite grocery store on it. In any case, you simply take that list with you to the warehouse club and use that as a basis for comparison. So, an entry in the price book might be “3 rolls of Bounty – $3.33″ and then you can use that to figure out whether twelve rolls of Bounty for $11 is actually a bargain (it is).

6. Use a shopping list. Another important factor is to know what you actually need before you go. Thus, before you go, make a shopping list. Write down all of the things you actually need, then hit the warehouse club before you visit the grocery store.

Doing this not only helps to ensure that you get all the stuff you actually need, but sticking to that list goes a long way towards curbing impulse buys, since you’re so focused on the grocery list instead of wandering down the aisles.

7. Look at gas prices. Most warehouse clubs offer gas prices that are lower than other gas stations in the area. This savings varies a lot – in some areas it can be as much as a dime per gallon and in other areas it’s only a penny or two. Our area seems to vary between about two cents per gallon and five cents per gallon.

Thus, whenever I have an opportunity, I fill up at Sam’s Club. If I fill up there once a month, putting 20 gallons in my tank and saving five cents a gallon, that saves $12 a year. If my wife does the same, filling up there three times a month and putting 12 gallons in the tank, that saves $21.60. All told, we save $33.60 from the gas alone.

Two other areas where the savings were surprising for me were liquor (beer, wine, and hard liquor) and big-ticket electronics, like laptops and televisions. Their prices were very, very strong on these items.

8. Take note of the other benefits. Most warehouse clubs offer other benefits beyond the cheap household stuff and the gas benefits. Take a careful look at the pamphlets that the club provides and see if any match your needs.

For example, Sam’s Club offers a discount on car prices with certain cooperating dealerships. Thus, I can take that extra info into account when we make a car purchase and it might reveal a better car deal for me. That’s a potential significant savings.

9. “Gap” your membership. When your membership is about to expire, go to the club and stock up on all of the nonperishables you buy there – shampoo, toilet paper, soap, and so forth. Then allow your membership to expire for several months as you use your backlog of items. When you start to run out of your backlog, go in and renew your membership.

Let’s say that you fall into a twelve months on, six months off pattern. Over the course of six years, you would reduce your membership buys to four, saving you $80 over that period.

10. Get your impulses in check. This is perhaps the most useful tip for warehouse club shopping. You have to get your impulses in check before you go. If you don’t, the benefits of the club will go away for you.

What do I mean? It’s easy to see items at a warehouse club that you might use, and the price per unit is often very low. It becomes really tempting to throw it into your cart. However, if those buys are impulsive, not only is it something you wouldn’t have otherwise bought, it’s also something bought in an excessive quantity. That’s a recipe for throwing your money away.

We save a lot of money each year by shopping at Sam’s Club.

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20 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Maximizing Your Savings at a Warehouse Club

  1. We have thought of doing the “letting our membership lapse a bit” idea. We are coming up on our first year with Sams. I know that I save some money, but since there are only two of us, I wonder if I save enough to match the membership. The rudimentary calculations I have made show that we about break even. However, if I let the membership lapse and then rejoin, I thought I would have to repay the initial fee in addition to the year membership. I wonder how this might pencil out. I might just have to sit down to figure that out.

  2. On occasion, it’s still a value even if more than half winds up in the compost bin, but most of the time, it’s not really a bargain.

    Maybe I misread the intent here, but this sentence made me cringe. It sort of implies that it’s ok to waste food as long as you save money in the net equation. (I don’t think you’re suggesting anyone should plan to waste food, but it just sounds like “hey, if it goes to waste but you saved money overall, don’t sweat it.”)

    I guess since I grew up poor, a surprise late baby of parents who grew up in The Depression, I’ve internalized their “waste not, want not” mindset. We were not allowed to even consider buying more than we (or someone else) could use or to waste food ever. If I’d rather pay X for Y pounds of food and have none go to waste than pay X for Y+ pounds and throw any away.

  3. about those extra services-

    i don’t know if costco still has one for real estate, but back in 2008 i used their referral program, and we got a large gift card was it $250 or $400?? i can’t remember, and also a check for about $1500 after we closed.

    they also have a lower rate for windshield repair, if you use safelite glass.

    i always use them for tires, too.

    years ago my friend and i used to go together, park next to each other, and split up the bulk stuff as we were unloading our carts. that was the easiest way.

    one thing i’d make sure of- if you go w/ a friend, make sure it’s a friend who will pay her own way, if that’s the arrangement you want to have. i let a friend from work go w/ me, and she paid for maybe 1/2 of her stuff, then never paid me back the rest she owed me. i should have seen it coming, based on prior behaviors, but oh well.

  4. We have cut our Sam’s Club bill down by following #6 and #10. We stick to our list and don’t buy off of it. If we think something is missing on the list and think, “oh, let’s go ahead and pick it up just in case”, we don’t. We can alway go home, check to see if we actually do need it and go back another day.
    One year we impulsively bought a hot tub at Sam’s Club. I love that hot tub but stayed on the credit card for several months (maybe even a year!).

  5. “Over the course of six years, you would reduce your membership buys to four, saving you $80″
    WOW, 80$ over 6 years…

  6. You have to be careful with #9. I’ve heard that some warehouse clubs backdate your membership, even if you’ve been gone a few months, so you end up paying for months you didn’t use. Check with the stores policy before you try to let the membership lapse. (I don’t have any experience with this as my employer has purchased my membership the last few years, but I read about it on other blogs.)

  7. Wow, the gas price difference in my area is usually about 15 cents less at Costco for regular and 18 cents less for premium. I don’t look at too many gas stations for comparison, just the one near my house. But that’s still only about $2/week in savings. I guess it adds up though.

  8. i find that sams usually gives me a $10 sams/walmart gift card for renewing 2 weeks before the end of my membership [doesn't change the dates of my membership year] this makes it worth renewing on time for me.
    i split a sams membership with a friend and bjs and costco with my sister. i was able to add my friend to my account at sams in the middle of a membership year and my sister added me to her costco and bjs accounts in the middle of her membership year. never had a problem where someone said we had to sign up at the same time but that may be specific employees or certain rules made by the stores near you?

  9. I don’t know what the policy is at Sam’s Club, but at Costco, #2 is not possible unless the second person on your account lives with you. My now-husband tried to add me onto his Costco membership a couple of months before we got married, but wasn’t able to until we had the same address and I changed my driver’s license to show the same address as his. Also, regarding gas prices, the differential in my area is about 15 cents for regular. I’m actually really surprised that the prices in Trent’s area are so close.

  10. If your place of business needs any kind of items at all that are sold at one of these clubs, convince a supervisor at work that a “business” membership is needed for your job.

    I’ve never paid these annual fees because I’ve always had a memebership paid for by my job.

  11. We use Costco most for two thing shere you didn’t mention: prescriptions and eyeglasses. Both are significantly cheaper than anywhere else in town. Our membership pays for itself in a month just in those two departments!

  12. Don’t forget that items like fresh berries can be frozen on a cookie sheet and thrown in a ziplock bag in the freezer. I also buy the big box of fresh spinach in Costco and put it in the freezer to use in smoothies. Gas price differential for me is usually about 20c a gallon, though my husband drives a diesel, so he fills up elsewhere.
    We also have the Amex/Costco cash back rewards card that gave us $260 cash back this year, and we only charge what we can pay in full every month.

  13. I tried to “gap” my membership at Costco and it didn’t work; it expired the last day of November, I renewed at the end of January, and they backdated my new membership so it still expired November of that year. It sucked.

  14. We love our Costco membership, for the dog food savings alone! And the contact lenses, and lean ground beef…and…. We have to avoid the prepared foods that are plentiful in order to maintain our savings. Often the produce is more than we can eat, but then we can give away the extra to friends and still have saved. We also make sure to shop in the weekday, midday as much as possible to avoid the crowds.

  15. With Costco, the executive membership may be worth it because of the 2% cash back every year. If you do enough shopping there or get one or two bigger purchases like a TV or computer, your membership fees can be recouped and you might turn a profit. This is easier to do with a larger family but even with just me and my husband, we always recover the extra fee for the executive membership and we usually recover the entire membership fee.

    Plus on some items, Costco’s stellar return policy is worth it’s weight in gold. Over the past five years, I’ve returned four Xbox 360 because of the red ring of death, no questions asked. Costco issued a credit or a Costco gift card and I bought a replacement right then and there, no worries about shipping the console to Microsoft and waiting a week or more for a (possibly refurbished) replacement. Customer service even held the hard drive off the old unit and swapped it in for the new one so I didn’t lose my saved data. Even if the item is out of warranty, they’ll still accept it.

    Word of advice: keep *everything* that came with the package and the receipt for anything you might return. For example, the Costco Xbox package usually includes 2 games; don’t sell those games. You won’t get much for them anyway since a lot of other people are selling the same games from the same package.

    Some items are excepted (like cell phones and mp3 players), so check their return policy.

    As for gas, we tend to fill up when we’re already there shopping so it’s convenience and a small savings, which is good enough.

  16. Hearing aid batteries are also cheap at Sam’s. The last batch I got were about $.35 each.

  17. If you work for a company that uses a Sam’s Club to pick up items regularly see if they have any extra business cards. I know that I worked for a company for a while that had 10 extra memberships. So the company had 1 card and than they added the first 10 people who were interested in paying $10 each for a membership card per year. A great deal if you work for someone who already has a Sam’s membership, maybe offering to go pick up their faxed in order on your way to work would encourage them to give you a card.

  18. A price book is essential to using warehouse clubs wisely. Somethings are really not a good deal, and it’s hard to predict which ones. At the Sam’s Club I belong to, dishwashing soap is a good buy, but dishwasher detergent is cheaper at Target because a generic is available there.

    I would say one of the best buys at Sam’s Club is the yeast- less than $5 for 2 pounds. The package we bought expires 2 years from the date of purchase, and since we bake a lot, we’ll use almost all of it. It’s by far the cheapest price I’ve seen for yeast.

  19. I’ve been able to avoid a Costco club membership by having a friend buy me a gift card for $50 once per year. Then I can go in and purchase the vitamins that I like. I can forgo all other savings. I cringe when I see the hugh quantities of some items. I’ve found good prices at Smart & Final, and they have smaller packages.

  20. I cannot believe that Costco backdates memberships. That’s like robbing their customers. I have a Sam’s Club membership and they do not do this. I missed my expiration date as we weren’t buying in bulk much that year. So I just let it expire. The next time I went in I had to renew and this was almost 6 months later. I always have the original expiration date engrained in my head so this messes me up to this day. I have to go check online. So I know for a fact Sam’s does not backdate memberships. Good thing or I definitely would not be a member. My question is how do you go about adding a second person? I’ve added my husband in the past, but he never uses the card so I want to split it with my friend. My card expires in a couple weeks. Should I bring her with me? Or should I just go and add her info to my card? They aren’t going to be mad that I am trying to split it with a friend? How do I explain the different last names and addresses? I feel like I am stealing a little here. Thanks! Love your site! It is one of my favorites. :)

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