Updated on 04.16.09

Is Your Local Warehouse Store Worth Your While? Here’s How to Find Out

Trent Hamm

My wife and I have been members at Sam’s Club for years. We use it to buy tons of items in bulk – but over time, we’ve realized that some items simply aren’t cheaper there. While visiting, I’ve noticed the same trend with Costco as well – it’s got spectacular prices on some staples, but poor prices on other things.

Is it worth it for you? I can’t answer that question – it’s clearly worth it for us, as we save literally hundreds a year shopping at Sam’s Club versus shopping at other grocery stores and department chains.

However, I can suggest a pretty easy way for you to figure out for yourself if you would save money at a warehouse store.

Make a “Bulk Buying” List
Your first step is to make a big list of all of the things you might be willing to buy in bulk for your home. The items to really focus on are nonperishable items that you use consistently and perishables that you use only on a very consistent basis. Some of these might include dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent, laundry softener, garbage bags, flour, rice, bread, milk, eggs, fruit juice, cleaning supplies, water filters, breakfast cereal, oatmeal, and so on.

One great way to do this is to save grocery and department store receipts for a few weeks (or a few months) and use those as a starting point. Go through those receipts, pick out the items that are regularly repeated (or are nonperishable and you have room to store), and make a new list of just those items.

On that same list, write down the prices and the units. So, for example, if you buy a bundle of 36 rolls of toilet paper, write down the number of rolls and the price of the package. Number of rolls, number of bags, number of packets, number of servings, and so on are all key numbers to write down here.

After that, you’ll want to calculate the price per unit of each of these items. It’s easy – just divide the price of the package by the number of units. If you bought a 36 pack of toilet paper for $7.99, you’d just divide $7.99 by 36 to get $0.22 per roll. This is an important number to have when you’re evaluating bulk prices.

Get a Day Pass
Once you have your list of things you’d regularly buy in bulk, get a day pass to your local warehouse store. Call the local branches and ask whether or not you can get a day pass at the front desk. Most such stores will offer one once – often, any purchases you make with that pass would cost you 10% extra (but don’t worry about that).

Go to the store, pick up your pass, and go around the store with your list and your calculator. Ideally, you’ll want to find as many of the items as you can – and you’ll put only the ones that are actually a bargain into your cart.

Know How to Calculate Per-Unit Prices
Figuring out which ones are a bargain is pretty easy. Just find the item you’re looking for, find the price and the number of items in the package, then use your calculator to divide the price by the number of items to get the price per item. If it’s better than the one on your list, add the item to your cart and jot down the better price per item on your list, along with the number of units. Don’t worry about the 10% difference on your one day pass at all yet.

Easy enough – most of you probably yawned your way through that tip. But here’s the kicker. At the end of the trip, you’re going to need to decide if the full membership is worth your money. Here’s how you do that.

Figure Up Your Total Deal
Go through your list and figure out the difference between the two prices per unit. For example, if you’ve got $0.16 per roll toilet paper in your cart and your previous best deal was $0.22, the difference is $0.06. Multiply that difference by the size of the package in the cart. So, if you’ve got a 36-pack of toilet paper rolls, multiply the $0.06 savings by 36 rolls, giving you $2.16.

Do this for every item in your cart, then add up the results. This total should be significant enough that it’s very clear you’ll save money over the course of a year. You might find that the stuff in your cart pays for the membership right now, or that it’s close. If that’s the case, go straight to the customer service desk, sign up for an annual membership, and check out. If that’s not the case, pull out any items that are cheaper at your other shopping locations and check out whatever is left in your cart (since, even with the 10% charge, they should be cheaper than you’d pay elsewhere).

On our staples – dishwashing detergent, water filters, bread, wine (Sam’s actually has a very good wine selection), olive oil, and so on – we regularly save enough to pay for the annual membership in a single trip.

The Real Trick
The real trick with warehouse clubs is to know how to focus on the stuff you’ll actually use in good time and avoid the stuff you don’t actually use in large quantity. When we shop there, we basically only buy things we know we will consume in their entirety in the near future (i.e., a bottle of wine) or we use so consistently that we’ll get through it pretty quickly (i.e., dishwashing detergent).

If you don’t stick to a similar policy, you’ll end up with a cupboard full of unusable stuff – and that’s a huge waste of money. Focus on the staples, though, and warehouse clubs can likely save you quite a few dollars.

Good luck!

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  1. Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    That’s a good idea. We have a membership at Costco that we use frequently, but it’s been a long time since we actually sat down and ran the numbers to see how much value we’re actually getting. Good post.

  2. Meg says:

    While we haven’t actually calculated purchases out, my mom and I share a membership (she’s in MT and I’m in NM) so the membership costs are also split in two, making it just a bit better of a deal for both of us.

  3. joanna says:

    I have weighed the pros and cons of warehouse buying too- for us, there’s a limited number of things that make the membership worth it, and I really have to resist impulse buys! Impulse buys at a grocery store will add $4 to my bill- at the warehouse store, it’s $15 or more!

  4. d_2 says:

    have you ever sat down and tried to see if you’d save as much by shopping at wal-mart instead of a pay-to-play warehouse? or are wal-mart prices on your list of “best prices outside the warehouse store”?

    wal-mart does pretty well on stuff like toilet paper, olive oil, fruit juice, dishwashing detergent, etc.

  5. Chris H. says:

    Agreed. I did something similar recently and discovered that soda was much more expensive at SAMs, plastic cups and plates were the same price, but trash bags would save me $10. Dog food/bones are cheaper too.

  6. hb says:

    Not to nitpick, but for toilet paper, you should actually be comparing price per square foot, not per roll, as the number can differ dramatically (especially with the unusually small Costco rolls). They’re still a better deal, but by a much smaller margin than you’d initially think.

  7. Johanna says:

    Hey, it’s another post about toilet paper. :)

    But I have a question. Are the prices of items on (for example) the Costco website reflective of what they charge in the store? Because the items on the website that I actually buy (mostly international foods and things like that) are all much more expensive than I can get them elsewhere, and if those are the same prices as they charge in the store, then it’s certainly not worth my time for me to get a day pass and do all this.

  8. Jerry says:

    One additional item: Make sure to check the per unit pricing before restocking as the prices may have changes significantly since your last purchase.

  9. Kevin says:

    Our HR office works with our local BJ’s to offer a employee discount. I think we pay around $29 for the year, the discount makes it easier to recoup the fee.

    At our local BJs they also offer gas at a discount, so we make sure to take whichever car is closer to empty and fill it up while we are there. Although the price difference against the local gas stations does fluctuate.

  10. CP says:

    Our local Sams Club and Bj’s Wholesale also offer gasoline that is usually the cheapest in the area by 5 to 10 cents/gallon. Assuming that this is not an “out of the way” stop that wastes time and/or $, these savings would also add up during the year as well.

  11. SteveJ says:

    Another thing that started pushing us away from the warehouse stores was that the previously ginormous sizes from Sam’s started showing up at Wal-mart. It’s a lot harder to justify swinging by the warehouse store when you run out of toilet paper. For us at least, it’s an event when we go to the warehouse store.

    You definitely have to be disciplined, we always have trouble with all those freezer items that aren’t really a good deal but look darn tasty.

    Another idea is to plan your membership around a big ticket item. We bought our washer and dryer from Sam’s for about $400 (for the pair) 5 years ago and they’re still going strong. Counting in the membership, it’s still half as much as we could find elsewhere, and they delivered them!

  12. also factor in the cost of membership in your purchases. if you are only going to shop there once/year to get bulk food or items, think about the annual membership you paid and incorp that cost into the final bill.

    One of my friends used to have a Sams Club membership that he used only once/year. I told him to cancel it and just come with me when I got my items (no biggie for me).

    I agree with the gas prices, Sams Clubs around me is 10-15cents cheaper BUT lately, the Marathon station across from the club is within 1 penny of their prices.

  13. Carrie says:

    I have found that shopping at Costco for certain things is worth it for us. Another thing to look into is the additional services they offer discounts on things like car rentals, long distance, insurance and real estate commisions.

  14. Linda says:

    About gas prices: At the Costco I go to, you can only pay with cash, debit, or Amex cards. I have a mastercard that gives me a 3% rebate on gas purchases, so it is always cheaper to buy gas elsewhere. In fact, I have to incorporate the 1% rebate I would get charging with the MC on all other purchases into my decision on the prices of any Costco merchandise.

  15. Sandy says:

    Make sure when you buy your olive oil in bulk, that it is in glass or metal containers…plastics leach particularly well into olive oil.

  16. Karie says:

    I have a membership to Sam’s and I find that with a family of six, we always get the better deal shopping there than at the local grocery store. I do a lot of cooking at home (nearly 3 squares, plus snacks), and not a lot of processed foods. Sam’s meat counter is always better quality than our local grocer (and even the butcher’s). I think it really depends on what you are trying to buy and how much work you want to put into it. I might get a better deal if I used coupons at the local grocery store, but I find them usually a waste of my time. It is a far better deal for me to shop at Sam’s.

  17. Chetan says:

    Good tips – if you actually have the time to do all of that each time you go shopping (they change prices too each time you might visit)

    I’d say that unless you plan to shop up a bill of $300+ in one go, just buy what you need (not what looks/tastes good). Even if it’s not the best deal out there, it’s usually pretty good. Also their quality is excellent.

    I usually end up buying toilet paper, flour, cereal, oil, the occasional cake, bread, vitamins, rice, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, meats at Sam’s Club.

  18. Valerie says:

    You can check Sam’s Club prices online – I don’t know about Costco. I dropped my membership when I realized how very few things I would actually buy there. (Though now I’ll check them when the washer goes out!)

  19. Suzanne says:

    My husband’s work provides us with a Costco membership, otherwise I don’t think we would have one. The nearest one is a 30 minute drive and I use so many coupons at my local store that I get things way cheaper. I do have some ‘regulars’ on my bulk list that I get at Costco for cheaper than I’m able to find elsewhere – so, I only go about once every 2-3 months.

  20. NMPatricia says:

    I actually did this not too long ago. My husband and I were trying to figure out if it was worth the $40 for membership to SAMs. (Although I have a bit of an ethical dilemna shopping at a Walton store) We had a coupon to shop without a membership but with the discount (found it on line). We did a shopping for stuff I use all the time – tissue, butter, juice, tuna, etc – and came home to calculate the savings from the lowest prices I had spent in the last six months. We easily saved the $40. The results surprised both of us. We are contemplating whether to buy the membership or try to score a coupon periodically to do the large shopping. Wouldn’t have to do it very often. We also coded all of our purchases to see how long a given amount lasts.

  21. sandra says:

    I shop both Sams and Costco faithfully in the Cleveland area. Sams is across the board substantially cheaper on everything—all staples. I do not buy any of the extra pre made frozen items at either place–no gourmet items—no beer/wine—no sodas etc—no books—no movies. I also time my visits to Sams between 10:25 a.m. and 12 noon because this is when the fresh meat is discounted for quick sale—I paid 1.98 a pound for chuck roast this past week….I also bought everything red tagged.

    Costco has the business card availble for 100.00 per year—many people do not know that if your yearly rebate check does not cover your membership fee Costco will return your diiference. Just ask….it is amazing what a phone call can do! Costco’s pet food (Kirkland) is one of the highest rated dry foods in the U.S.

  22. TD says:

    We have been members of Costco for years.
    I pay for my membership by buying gas for 2 cars alone. I save about $1 a fillup.. 2 cars per week.. is about $100 savings. On top of that I am getting back 2% with my Costco Amex (the old flavor) actually might be a bit less since once in a while we have to get gas somewhere else out of necessity. On top of that I am getting back 2% with my Costco Amex (the old flavor).

    We tried the Kirkland dog food.. our dog had such bad gas after we tried it for a week we took it back which of course they took back no questions asked, although I told em it made our dog stink.. which it did!

    Also, at least in Michigan, anyone can purchase Wine, beer, and booze at clubs. Most of its not at any great discount.. but Costco does carry a nice selection of wine, some at a few dollars less per bottle. I should wonder into Sams club sometime and check out their alcohol selection.

  23. I don’t have anything against a no-frills shopping environment or buying non-perishables etc. in bulk, and I know you can save a lot of money at big-box stores and warehouse clubs under the right circumstances, but I cannot justify using my dollars to endorse the infrastructure that they perpetuate. (And don’t get me started on Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club in particular.)

    Granted, in some areas of the country there aren’t a lot of other choices, but for someone with alternatives like myself, there are things more important than saving ten bucks on TP and a five gallon jug of peanut butter. Is the money you saved worth the cost to the community and the planet? I’m not here to say that it can’t be under someone else’s circumstances, but it pays to think about it.

  24. Luke says:

    We shop for a select few items at Sam’s Club, and our local store prints the unit price on the shelf label. For some reason, part of me distrusts the numbers so I almost always wind up carrying along a little calculator to verify the price per item.

  25. Brian says:

    One thing I noticed you didn’t consider is that all that bulk requires storage. If you store stuff in your house that you use for your business (especially if your business is in your house) then technically, you can claim part of your house as part of your business on your taxes (as well as part of the expenses for running your home like, for instance, heating).

    Oh and always buy milk at mini-marts. It’s almost always about a buck cheaper than grocery stores.

  26. Sabine says:

    @Johanna: the prices on Costcos website do not reflect the prices in-store. They are much cheaper.

  27. Beth says:

    Great advice, Trent :) I didn’t know day passes existed.

    I have to figure my costco membership into other areas of my budget. I tend to buy items for my home (blankets, towels, etc) that I need, and the good deals on books, CDs, electronics are part of my gift-giving budget. They also have some good prices on deals on basic clothing too (like pajamas).

  28. FupDuckTV says:

    My 9-to-5 gives all of its employees a membership to Sam’s Club. It is a nice perk. I try to make a list and buy in bulk when I can, but not all things are deals at the warehouse clubs. They do have good prices on MiniDV tapes.

    I’m curious, which is the best of all the warehouse stores?

  29. Bob says:

    Carrythebanner, can you explain how shopping at Sam’s is hurting the community and the planet? I’m not trying to start a fight, just looking for more information. I try to buy local as much as possible (farmer’s markets) and am a member of the local co-op and also a CSA member, but I also frequent Sam’s club once or twice a month. I simply can’t find toilet paper, razors, shampoo or chili powder locally, and I personally feel that buying in bulk at a plain warehouse is as good for the environment as I can get on certain things (trash bags, canned tomatoes, dried beans, etc). I think the lack of packaging waste makes it preferable to buy in large quantities, and there is certainly less shipping/handling involved when you don’t have to split and resplit items at distribution points (and therefore less fuel is consumed). What are your arguments to the contrary?

  30. Dawn says:

    For some of us, this is a locality issue, too. There are very few grocery stores where I live and they don’t carry a lot of variety. So, being able to get certain food at Sam’s (or even better Costco) is a big plus.

  31. Jaime says:

    A few other things to think about:

    1. Travel time and money — My local Costco is significantly farther away than my local grocery store. I’d have to factor in the extra gas and time to get there and back.

    2. Coupons — From what I remember, the warehouse clubs don’t accept coupons. Some things (e.g., cereal) are cheaper at the regular store if you wait until they are on sale and/or use a coupon to stock up. Heck, my store doubles coupons up to $1, so if something is on sale, it’s almost always cheaper per item at the regular store.

  32. todo es bien says:

    I LOVE Costco, but not for the reasons that most do. First, they have incredibly good customer service. How good? I bought a 42 inch plasma from them for 2 grand a while back. The unit went south on me, so I took it back 2 years later. I asked for a replacement, but they INSISTED that I take a full refund, in cash, even though all i wanted was a replacement that currently sold for 800 bucks. I spent ALL of the money back in the store of course, because I really felt bad about taking a full refund. (they since have reduced warranty coverage on TVs, rightfully I might add). I get 3% back on gas on my amex card from them. Frankly, the customer service is better and the employees are smarter than the competing big box stores. Another good reason to patronize is that in California at least they are a union store, so the employees make a livable wage – if all other variables are near equal I think this is important…

  33. todo es bien says:

    Addendum: Lest you guys think I am a piker, I originally bought the unit from Costco precisely because of their extraordinary warranty, I actually paid more than I would have elsewhere because I wanted that backing, which paid off. That is why I didn’t feel bad returning it, it is why I paid more in the first place.

  34. Rich says:

    I’ve seen a number of these should I or shouldn’t I shop the “big box” stores. The answer always is specific to each individual. We live here in Southern California and save the annual fee at Costco by just buying the gas! Yes, as one poster mentioned there are payment restrictions but we don’t even have to go in the store and we have already saved money. When we do go in we are already ahead of the game! Savvy shoppers should know the game that the retailers play in store layout and therefore should not be fooled into over spending on unwanted/unplanned purchases. Do your homework and go shopping with a very specific plan and you should make out fine. (Disclaimer: I do not work for Costco!)

  35. Mel says:

    I miss my Costco! Our membership paid for itself with the money we saved on gas (5-8 cents cheaper per gallon). I can’t find the bags of chicken breast (size or price-wise) that I found there, nor can I find the ice cream sandwiches. The price they had on contact lenses was pretty darn good too. (And since I’ve moved to a different state, and we have no costco here, I can’t even get a match…)

    But really, I miss the 1.50 hot dog/soda combo. That’s where DD decided to take me for Mother’s Day last year. =)

  36. Becky says:

    I go to BJ’s. Just buying milk there, I pay for my membership and then a whole lot more.


    Although I’m always tempted to buy the huge boxes of jalapeno poppers and mozzarella sticks – I stick to just buying milk, half & half, eggs, some fruit, juice, kitty litter and maybe coffee if I’m in desperate need. Sponges are also a pretty decent price per sponge there (as long as you don’t mind stashing 15 sponges in your place). The savings on the milk and half & half alone is more than worth it for me.

  37. Jane says:

    I’m with Mel on the hot dog/ soda combo, only I get it at Sam’s. It’s addictive.

    One problem with bulk buying is that I consume more when there is more. It’s consumption inflation if there is such a term.

    Having said that, I just enjoy shopping at Sam’s. I like the samples, and the price of some things just can’t be beat (e.g. the organic spring mix). I also appreciate that there are no plastic bags.

    I think that carrythebanner is off base. Bulk buying is ultimately better for the environment, as Bob brings up. Unless you don’t consume mass produced products at all (grow you own food, make you own everything) then it makes sense to buy in bulk at a place like Costco or Sam’s. It’s not always the most frugal choice (esp. if you coupon like I do), but environmentally it can be better than a traditional grocery store.

  38. Jade says:

    Glad to see a post reminding people to check per unit costs. I don’t know of a Sam’s Club in my area and wouldn’t shop at one for the same reason I drive past 2 WalMarts to shop at Target. But as for Costco, my dad’s girlfriend buys a bunch of stuff at Costco, simply because it’s in bulk, and assumes that it must be cheap because it’s from Costco. But with things like Diet Coke, even when I have a coupon from Costco to use there, it is still much cheaper to wait a week or two for a sale at a grocery store, and since we have 3 different chains nearby there is almost never a week Diet Coke isn’t on sale somewhere.

    Even the gas isn’t worth the hassle of planning a trip to fill up at Costco so I’m not going out of my way, 2 of the local grocery store chains have gas stations even closer, and one store is offering 50 cents a gallon off every time you spend over $100, much better deal than Costco at any time.

    There are some things I always find cheaper at Costco, i.e. toilet paper. And cheaper or not, there’s just some stuff there that’s actually better than what I can get anywhere else, i.e. fresh baked pizza, cookies or muffins from their bakery, not to mention the prices are fairly reasonable. I suppose all of that is my real reason for keeping my membership, lol.

    But I won’t upgrade to their $100/yr membership, I don’t have nor do I want or need an American Express card, so it’s not worth it to me. Doesn’t stop someone from coming up to harass me at the checkstand to upgrade though… I usually just threaten to cancel the membership I already have when they won’t bug off when I tell them it’s not worth it to me because most everything at Costco can be gotten cheaper on sale at a grocery store. I know they’re under pressure to meet a quota and all, but I also know that they make the bulk of their money on the membership fees…

  39. Jade says:

    Mel, I forgot about the 1.50 hot dog and soda combo. I think my uncle’s membership pays for itself with how often he goes there for that…

  40. Bill in Houston says:

    For Johanna (comment #4), the Costco web site lists the higher end of specialty food products, not the everyday items you find in the store. I buy skim milk there for $2.15 a gallon ($2.49 a gallon ON SALE at Kroger a mile away, $2.79 not), my fake eggs, hummus, whole wheat bread, toilet paper, paper towels, dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent (sorry, I don’t want to make mine yet), wine (Oh God, incredibly cheap prices on wine, 20% cheaper than the local ‘warehouse’), and gasoline. All of these items are cheaper than the local grocery stores, and yes we use them all.

    I have an Executive membership, which gives me 2% back on all purchases outside of gasoline. It also gave me access to their car buyer program. I detailed the $1500 upfront we saved when we bought through their program, and the lower interest rate on the loan (1.9% versus 4.9%) saves us $26 a month or $312 a year ($1248 over 4 years).

    We do not buy produce at Costco, as there are only two of us and the quantities are a bit excessive unless I’m making something specific that needs that quantity.

    Gasoline at Costco is between 6 and 10 cents per gallon cheaper than anyone nearby. I would use my Costco American Express card to get an additional 3% off my fuel cost, but the way their billing cycle runs I ALWAYS pay a fee even though I pay in full… it may be 10 cents interest, but that chaps me off. Damned AmEx. That one’s paid off and it will stay paid off.

    I bought a three pack of Bialetti saute pans for $20. Target had the largest of those three pans on sale for… $20. Win-win there. I also have the 10″ and 7″ pans.

    It is very easy to go a little apes*** (sorry, I can’t think of another word so I’ll self-edit) when you go to Costco, but a little restraint and you’re fine. You walk in right past the flat panel TVs and the high end jewelry. Great deals, but I’m there for groceries.

    In addition, their customer service is incredible! I bought a bike from them in 2001. The shifter siezed up so I brought it back a year later. They gave me cash. I bought a television from them in 2002, but when I got it home I noticed the picture was screwy (no reds), and they replaced it without blinking. I bought a watch from them in 2003. It died on my honeymoon in 2006 (seawater got into it). They gave me the cash value of the lowest amount it went for at the store. I got another one. My Mother (also a member) bought a flat panel monitor in 2003. It died in 2006 and they gave her the cash value. You can’t beat these folks. Sam’s is the Wal-Mart version of Costco, as Costco has higher end products.

    Lastly, you can’t beat an 18″ “Supreme” pizza for $9.99!

  41. Bill in Houston says:

    I forgot to mention that my 2% cash back paid for more than the cost of my Executive membership, primarily because I get my prescriptions filled there (I’m a 48-year-old heart patient).

    Oh, and Costco puts the per unit costs on most of their items. One thing I won’t buy there? Cereal. I can get a bulk brand from Kroger for less.

  42. Todd says:

    I love Costco too. It pays its workers fairly and they are actually happy to work for Costco. One of my neighbors is a former employee and he misses his days at Costco, even though he went on to become a doctor.

    They have great customer service and occasionally you can find amazing markdowns. (My best find: A $70 pair of Birkenstock sandals for 9.99 last September, on clearance because Fall was approaching.)

    Everything Bill in Houston said and more. Great gas prices, good pizza, and now their famous ice cream bars are back–dipped in chocolate and chopped almonds for $1.50. They are huge.

  43. PF says:

    Between savings on Diapers, Formula, and coffee, we have easily recouped the membership. I upgraded to the $100 membership because we spend so much on those items. Add in protein powder and frozen fruit for smoothies and we’re way ahead.

    I find some great deals on non-food items there too occasionally, but as someone pointed out, you just need to show restraint and as Trent pointed out, you need to educate yourself on best prices. I have found that I can do better on a lot of the food via loss leaders at the local grocery store.

    I thought Costco was held up as a model in retail as far as how they treat their employees etc. I wish carrythebanner would elaborate.

  44. Amanda says:

    For me, I find that the real value of my Costco membership is that buying staples in bulk there keeps me out of Target, etc because I don’t need to ‘run in’ for dish detergent, diapers, etc. I never in my life have come out of Target with only what I intended on buying!

  45. BonzoGal says:

    Anyone remember the episode of The Simpsons in which Marge shops at a “Monstro-Mart”?

    “Ooh, that’s a great price for twelve pounds of nutmeg”

    I always ask my husband to look for the 12-lb. jar of nutmeg when we go to CostCo… ;)

    We buy meat, wine, detergent, beer, cheese, bread, and some organic produce at CostCo. (Organic raspberries and artichokes have been really cheap this year!) I love our CostCo because they’re paying great wages, have profit sharing for their employees, and are a union store. They also sell local products such as bread from local health-food bakeries and wine from local vineyards.

  46. HisHersMoney says:

    Some items we just don’t want to run out of and have to buy all the time. Paper towels, toilet paper and laundry detergent. We use Costco and find their prices to be fair enough. It’s just easier than having to constantly have to hunt for the sales all the times on these items.

    We also love the roasted chicken taht are huge and only like $5.

  47. CalifGal says:


    You don’t have to buy a Costco membership to enjoy the food court! Even if you let your membership lapse, you can continue to enjoy the $1.50 hot dog combo and delicious frozen yogurt. They don’t ask to see your membership card…

  48. Johanna says:

    @Bill in Houston: Thanks. I figured that there must be a lot of products available in the stores but not on the website (since there doesn’t appear to be any TP on the website), but I was wondering if the prices for the items that *are* on the website are the same prices as they charge in the stores. But now I see that the website says that the prices include shipping, so I guess the prices in the stores would be lower?

  49. PF: I was in the middle of elaborating when the power went out at work. Starting from scratch at home …

    Buying in bulk can indeed reduce the amount of packaging used — but not always. Sometimes items are re-wrapped in their existing packaging with more packaging (e.g. individually wrapped paper towel rolls bundled together in more plastic), using more material than simply buying multiples of the individually sold items. Even so, using re-usable containers can reduce the overall amount of packaging even more, e.g. refilling your own containers with rice, grains, granola, etc. at somewhere like Whole Foods.

    I do agree that sending shoppers directly to a large central hub reduces the resources that would be used to re-distribute goods to other, smaller stores. But the flipside to that is the increase in resources needed to get the shoppers to the single big-box/warehouse store. Given their often gargantuan real estate needs (including massive parking lots), most big-box/warehouse stores are on the outskirts of town. Even in an urban area with public transportation (e.g. Boston), such stores are out of its reach, forcing every single person to hop in their car and drive there. This car-centric design is part of the increasingly unsustainable pattern of (sub/ex)urban sprawl. (I’ll leave each to his/her own to decide whether such stores are part of the cause or the effect.) Trying to get support for an infrastructure that’s less dependent on cars becomes very difficult when everyone’s houses and the only store in town can’t be linked easily any other way.

    These kinds of stores also have a history of running smaller, local stores out of business because they can’t compete with the economy of scale that big players offer. The loss of these stores is less tangible to the community at large (although not to the owners & employees of said businesses), but contributes to an overall reduction of character and uniqueness of a town. Additionally, those smaller businesses are often closer to the center of town, and when they go, living in a tightly connected area which is walkable and/or serviced by public transportation becomes less attractive when you need to drive to the edge of town to shop (coming back to the previous issue of sprawl). All of that said, however, these big stores don’t drive out the smaller ones on their own — shoppers are the ones who make the choice by voting with their dollars. The crux of my original post is that you are affecting your community, for better or worse, by how you spend your money, and that value is not solely found in the lowest price of an item.

    I grew up in western PA and am acutely aware that there are often no alternatives to these kinds of stores; when the pros and cons are weighed, they might very well be the best option available to you. Bob, it sounds like you’ve put time and thought into your own habits, and so if they are the best options available to you, then that’s great. My point was not to skewer everyone who goes to such stores (though I refuse to support Sam’s Club/Wal-Mart based on their history of union-busting and discrimination), but to point out that the best option available may leave warehouse stores out of the picture.

    (As to Costco’s customer service and employee treatment, I am ignorant either way. If they are head & shoulders above Wal-Mart & Sam’s Club, good for them, especially if they incorporate locally-produced goods.)

  50. Ken says:

    Another impact that people rarely look at is your local impact.

    Buying things at local businesses keeps the money in the local economy, while only a portion (sometimes a very small portion) of the money spent at large chain warehouses will stay in the local economy.

    So the “worth your while” has more variables in my mind.

  51. Apologies for the massive post — I didn’t realize it was quite _that_ long.

  52. Bob says:

    Carrythebanner – Thank you for the reply. I agree with you on most of your points and I can say that I wish I could take public transportation but it just doesn’t exist here (central Kentucky).

    My decision to shop at Sam’s (and Wal-Mart) is based on the fact that I don’t have any better option available for many products I buy. If I had a better local store to buy … anything from, I would shop there. The “local” stores here are Krogers and Family Dollar. I’m not sure who was responsible for the decline of the local markets, but I’m sure it happened a long time before Wal-Mart came to our town.

    I look at it this way: I could buy trash bags and produce from Family Dollar or Kroger, or I can buy trash bags from Sam’s Club and use the money I save to purchase a share in the local CSA (http://www.elmwoodstockfarm.com/) and visit the farmer’s market and local co-op every few weeks. I save on things that aren’t produced locally/organically/ethically anywhere near here, like coffee filters, and spend the savings on things that matter to me.

    There are things that benefit greatly from being produced in huge scale (trash bags, toothpaste, automobiles, etc) and there are things that I feel should be procured locally when possible (produce, meat, cheese, furniture, etc). The industrial revolution wasn’t all good, and it wasn’t all bad. I don’t think that I would want to buy a handmade locally built television for many reasons, or a locally produced car. Public transportation is possible because the rise of cities and industry allowed the roads and busses to be built in the first place, so you have to take the good with the bad. I’d prefer things to be a little “simpler” too, but I’m also a pragmatist and I will just do what I can individually to move society in the direction I’d like.

    I would shop at Costco over Sam’s club if there was one nearby since they seem to treat their employees better. I have friends who drive an hour and a half to go to the nearest one, but I feel that the fuel spent getting there and back does more harm to our culture than the benefits yielded from supporting the better working conditions there.

    Basically, I don’t mind spending more money if I’m getting something of value for it. I cook nearly everything I eat and try to stay healthy, so I buy my produce and meat locally for a huge premium. I couldn’t afford to do so if I didn’t save on other things. It’s the compromise I’ve made and I’m happy with it.

  53. ann says:

    What if you are picky like me? I only like one brand of TP and Sams never has it. Ditto for cat chow.

    Coupons and watching for sales save me more money than Sams or Costco.

  54. don’t forget to also add gasoline into the equation if youre warehouse has that option. I have to use premium gas and the savings on that alone compared to other gas stations is worth the price of the membership. The shopping is a bonus!

  55. jennifer says:

    Seattle area wholesale store no membership required: Cash n’ Carry. 2-4 locations in Seattle-metro area.

  56. Like anything else, knowledge is power when it comes to finding “true” savings and deals . . . that includes the warehouse clubs.

  57. Lenore says:

    I refuse to pay for the right to shop, but I can see how warehouse stores might benefit someone with a large family or lots of storage space.

    My latest resolution is to do ALL our grocery shopping at ALDI or FOOD FOR LESS. We save at least 20% versus Wal-mart and more compared to local grocery stores, and the food is of comparable quality to advertised brands. They charge a nominal fee for bags at checkout, but that encourages us to pick up cardboard boxes as we shop or reuse canvas bags. Best of all, we’re not worn out after shopping because the stores are smaller with fewer distractions and less duplicated merchandise.

    Here are some deals we snagged at ALDI today:

    Gallon of Milk $1.99
    Big Bunch of Bananas $1.30
    Jar of Spaghetti Sauce $.99
    Pound of Ground Turkey $1.19
    Hamburger Buns $.85
    Brick of Colby Cheese $1.29
    Can of Corn $.49
    Big Bag of Potato Chips $1.29
    Loaf of Bread $.79

    See how fast the savings can add up? ALDI offers a double-your-money-back guarantee if you don’t like a product, and they have many low-fat, sugar-free or whole-grain options for healthy eating. Nowadays these stores are clean, the employees are pleasant and the lines are usually short. If you’ve never shopped in a deep discount grocery store or haven’t gone to one lately, this is a great time to give it a try.

  58. Britt says:

    Good article. My wife and I were just talking about this two days ago. We(really me) just wanted to make sure that our savings would equal or surpass the $50/yr membership fee. BTW, love how wine is a “staple” in your house :-). Beer and wine are definitely staples in mine.

  59. Trudy says:

    It’s a shame that people will not shop at a store as it is not unionized. Unions had their purpose years ago – safety – now all they do is succeed in driving up prices to cover the costs of labor, take the auto industry for example. I support union-busting all the way!

    That being said, I love my Sam’s Club. I can buy the staples at a significantly reduced price over even the local Wal-mart. I always check prices and buy the things that I know are good deals and that I will use. I may live in western PA with limited options but I take advantage of every option I have.

  60. Shelly says:

    I absolutely love our BJ’s membership. We always save at least a few cents per gallon on gas (sometimes more depending on the current market) and we save quite a bit in-store too.

    Someone mentioned coupons above and suggested that warehouse stores don’t take them — I’m not sure about Sam’s or Costco but BJ’s definitely does. BJ’s also has coupons of their own: they send us some monthly plus there are online coupons and in-store fliers with even more. We take advantage of the coupons whenever we can when it’s for products we commonly use, especially ones where the more you buy, the more you save (it’s a common way for us to stock up on cereal, which lasts a while). We bought a chest freezer so we can buy bulk meat and frozen items, too — best purchase we ever made!

    As for the ALDI recommendation above, be sure to do your research there, too. In our area, our supermarket monitors ALDI and Price Rite and matches or beats them on common items like milk, spaghetti sauce, bananas, etc. I used to try to shop at ALDI regularly but then I realized it was mostly a waste of my time because I could get the same prices at my supermarket, where I’d need to go anyway for items ALDI doesn’t carry. Plus, none of ALDI’s products are local. Price Rite, if you have one, does carry some local products (at least ours does), so at least you’re supporting the local economy a little more.

    For bread and baked goods, see if there’s a bakery outlet in your area. We get deals better than any store at the local outlet because it’s direct from the baker, and if it’s close to the sell-by date the deals are even better. We stock up and freeze the extras to last us a while. And for produce, there’s usually no place better than the farmers’ market when it’s in season!

  61. We are BJ’s members. They have discounted gas (usually at least 10 cents a gallon less than the rest of the area) and a slice to order deli. The meat and cheese at their deli is about half the price of the grocery store and I don’t have to buy in bulk. I can also use coupons at BJ’s. While not everything is a great deal, there are many things that are. I check the unit prices and compare to my best price, as you suggested. There are some items we do quite well on. I find the best deals are on fresh foods: meats, veggies and dairy.

  62. de says:

    When we lived near a warehouse club, another way we saved was to double our shopping right before our membership lapsed, then wait to renew it until we were low or out of supplies. That saved us at least 10% on our membership, sometimes more, because I used our bulk perishables to do mega cooking for the freezer. Therefore we could usually go up to three months without buying a new card.

  63. Andrea says:

    One thing I didnt see mentioned yet was knowing how much you consume of products over the course of time. For example if you use 2 rolls of TP a week, then you’ll need to buy three packs of 36 rolls a year. You can multiply your $3 savings x 3 to count towards what you are really saving.

    I’ve started writing on the laundry soap, dishwasher soap, shampoo, conditioner etc when I open them so I have a sense of how long it takes to use a complete bottle. If you time it just right you can save time and money by only going to the store a few times in a year.

    When I was working on my best price list, I walked into Sam’s (didnt show my card, but said I was there to comparison shop and they let me right in) with a small notebook and pen. Then without a cart, I quickly walked through the aisles (no kids or shopping that day)looking for items that I would consider buying. Writing down price and unit measure so that I could compare appropriately.

    At home I pulled open Excel and typed in all of the various items on my list. I added a column for store (cleverly S for Sam’s, W for Walmart) so that as I went through the other stores and captured prices of items I could sort by item and really compare prices.

    Also as items go on sale, I can look at my printed list of items and see if $2/lb is a good price for cheese or if Sam’s is still less at $1.88/lb

    Anyway it works for me, but you’ve gotta figure that out for yourself. Which is the fun part of being frugal. It’s all a game.

  64. SteveJ says:


    Your level of organization is staggering. I’m in awe. I’m stealing the writing on bottles idea, I think it’s brilliant. Thanks!

  65. Claire says:

    To bob@#19
    Check out WakeUpWalMart.com

  66. Evita says:

    A warehouse store is usually not recommended for singles and couples (all those BIG packages) but it can work with organization.

    We have a large freezer and Costco is a $-saver and a time saver for this family of two. We freeze bread, meat, poultry and shellfish in meal-sized portions and we have space to stock those large packages of paper, cans and cleaning products. A trip a month is usually enough, although our Costco is close by (8 km). What I like is the consistent quality, which make shopping a no-brainer.

    I buy produce, spices and specialty items weekly at a local ethnic grocery store or at the market in summer, and I have the best of both worlds!

    I also carry a retractable measuring tape and have bought good-quality basic clothing. I would pay less at Walmart but the quality and durability are lower. I don’t enjoy shopping anyway!

  67. laura says:

    Hi Trent,

    I love the amount of detail you provide in each post! Another aspect to consider when comparing prices on tp and other paper goods is the sqaure footage per package. Upon first examination, a lower price per unit may seem like the best deal, but when you see how much that actually buys in quantity and you may be shocked…

    Keep up the great work! ;)

  68. Sierra says:

    I recently wrote a post in my own blog about the Tightwad Gazette’s notion of a “price book” – a book you keep to let you compare prices at different stores. As several previous commenters have pointed out, prices change. Who has the time to track all that?

    What I did was start a community price book online for those local to me (in the Boston/Cambridge area). That way, everyone can add their pricing information. You can check out the full post and see how to start your own, here: http://childwild.com/2009/04/09/the-tightwad-gazette-price-book-buying-rules/

  69. Emily says:

    I did the math on our $40 Sams membership once. My husband and I eat a lot of salsa. Our favorite brand is nearly $9 for the largest container at the grocery and about $5 at Sams. We laughed when we learned that we save the cost of our memebership in salsa alone.

  70. joan says:

    I use Sam’s for a lot of items. I also write the date I open an item to see how long it lasts. I also stock up just before my membership becomes due and then I wait 2 weeks to a month after it expires to renew. I compare the amount, cost and etc. when I am buying from Sam’s. I check the grocery flyers from the newspaper, and also use coupons for some of those items. From Sam’s I use a lot of the pre-cooked bacon and that item alone goes a long way toward paying for the membership. With two other families (relatives) we buy a case of hamburger, divide it into smaller amounts and place it in the freezer. Cost $1.41 a pound for good quality hamburger when bought this way. We also divide up the produce we buy making it a good deal for three families. I’m grateful that we have a Sam’s in our town.

  71. no_sked says:

    trent, you listed ‘garbage bags’ in your shopping list of bulk items. frankly, i’m surprised!

    you actually pay for something that only gets thrown away? why not re-use grocery bags, or the plastic bags that other items come in?

  72. ~M says:

    First, I share a membership with my family so I do not pay for card – and we save by carpooling. Plus, I get help carrying the heavy bulk packages. :)

    Second, I do the exact same things as Andrea: maintaining a spreadsheet that has columns for each of the stores (and Amazon grocery) that I visit. I record the unit price. For a while, I also recorded how long it took my husband and I to finish toilet paper and paper towels. I use google spreadsheets to do this so I can check it on my iphone while at the store. Also, I use my iphone camera to take a photo of a the price and unit size when I am grocery shopping.

    I take a prescription medication daily. For years, I bought it at Walgreens, but with my new insurance, the price is sky high and goes up monthly. We looked at Osco (Jewel’s pharmacy) and Costco and Costco saves us enough to have us break even with the membership. So anything I saved on afterward would be icing on the cake. My favorite deals at Costco are for organic eggs and Tropicana OJ with calcium (the only kind my husband will drink) and we go through at least 1 dozen eggs and a bottle each week. They also have a good price on frozen kosher chicken breasts, larabars, canned black beans, mango peach salsa, almond butter, and certain produce (but sadly rarely have organic). As always, the trick is to figure out whether you would have bought the item anyway – so bring a list!

    I belong to a club that hosts events and it is really convenient to have a Costco card and be able to buy in bulk for that too!

  73. Oh Lenore, just go ahead and rub it in that you have an Aldi near you!! :) Online threads on grocery shopping always depress me since people always seem to get such great deals at Aldi, and I have never in my life even seen one! Where are these mythical stores?? lol

    I have gotten great deals at a Costco/BJ’s/Sam’s Club… and I’ve gotten suckered for huge 4-packs of gigantic shampoo, that actually cost more than if I had bought it at the regular grocery store individually! I think the good deals are in the electronics aisle. We got a great t.v. that paid for the membership by itself. My sisters get tons of gorgeous produce at warehouse stores, but whichever one they go to isn’t near me, just BJ’s.

    The list with good prices is the key part. The Grocery Game does it for you, and for a pretty cheap monthly fee, but I found (myself) that buying generic was cheaper than couponing national brands. And, um, I could never find actual coupons in my newspaper, rather than just a ton of flyers. I’m probably the least competent couponer ever. I still struggle with the “good” prices of everything but boneless chicken breasts. I finally just decided that my best way of saving food money is to have a list and stick with it.

  74. Sharon says:

    Ann, what is your favorite cat chow?

  75. adrian says:

    Costco is awesome. Cheaper than groc store on everything in bulk; Kirkland brand is astonishingly good quality; and the little Costco cafe is cool too :-) Very cheap for excellent food! We take the whole family. And i got $300 back last year on my Costco Amex card. AND when I opened a Sharebuilder acct they gave me a bonus $90 as a Costco member. AND when I opened a CapitalOne account I got an extra $70 as a costco member. AND my Costco blue Amex has excellent % rebates on common purchases. AND gas is always cheaper in my area than surrounding stores. AND the return policy is great. AND their employees are always happy!

  76. Danielle says:

    When my husband and I decided to get a Costco membership, we discovered that the savings IN MILK ALONE covered our annual fee. Obviously, my husband drinks a lot of milk. It’s taken 2 1/2 years of marriage to get him down to 2 gallons a week by himself; five years ago, he could easily drink 8. Add in gas savings and it was a no brainer.

    Even before this all happened, we went to Costco. I don’t know if Sam’s or anyone else is the same, but if someone buys a Costco gift card for you, you don’t have to be a member to use it. We have a $25 card that we are saving for after our membership lapses and we need to re-evaluate (since we moved and our nearest store is 1 1/2 hours away).

  77. mk says:

    After many years of Costco membership, I decided NOT to renew last year, now I am living without it. Miss it, yet I’m getting used without it. I just try to simplify and minimize our household inventory and lower our consumption mode. We are small family, so naturally this change fit us. I guess it also has psychological change when I see the freezer with lot of room, you are more mindful what to look for sale for certain items that are essential to us. I have pantry & freezer “sweep” week when all frozen and packaged items need to be used for meals, skip the grocery shopping for the week or two (until supplies last). It is amazing to see how we still has a lot to cook for “sweep” week. It challenge me to be creative with the items otherwise continue to take space in the pantry.

  78. MGY_Bay Area says:

    I like to shop at Costco for several reasons.
    1. 2% cash back as I am an Executive member.
    2. (I am amazed that nobody actually mentioned) there is not tax on food items at Costco. (look at your receipt)
    3. Costco’s brand (Kirkland signature) is very high quality products but, less expensive. (love especially kirkland signature baby wipes, paper towel and toilet paper)
    4. I find organic food less cheaper than anywhere

  79. MGY_Bay Area says:

    Sorry, I meant
    4. I find organic food less expensive than anywhere :-)

  80. Erin says:

    Hi, All!
    We don’t have BJ’s, Sam’s or Aldi close by where we live (wish we did!), but thankfully, we do have Costco. Our Costco milk is about $3.25 for two gallons. Shredded cheese at about $2.00/lb, 25 lbs of flour for about $6.50. We do tend to cook from scratch, so these items are great to have. Like Andrea, I use permanent marker and write the date that an item is opened to give an idea as to how long it may last. And when you use the coupons that Costco sends out in mailings – wow! Terrific savings. When they send out coupons for items we use, I try to stock up and get a 3-6 month supply of whatever the item is -I promise that our intent is not to be greedy The mom in our family (me!), doesn’t care for shopping. So I save up and go on a BIG Costco shopping trip about once a month/month and a half – hoping to become more clever about it and go every two or three months eventually. Many of you probably know this already, but just in case – you can freeze the milk (after pouring a little into another container before freezing so as not to burst the container – I’ve done that – not fun!). The gives us the ability to NEVER RUN OUT OF MILK – WHEW! And at about $1.60 a gallon – well – can’t beat that! So, the big long story just to say this – I do feel that we get our money’s worth with purchasing just basic staples at Costco, vs. our local discount stores. And just the sense that “I don’t have to buy cheese for two months!!”, its a great feeling (from the lady for whom shopping is not a favorite thing)! And thank you, Mr. Trent for your blog – it’s been great to read!

  81. Rosa Rugosa says:

    It’s fun to see the diversity among households – our savings on wine alone covers our Costco membership fee :)
    We also share our membership with a family member who has been unemployed for awhile. They give us two cards, and I don’t like to drive, so I would never go there without my husband. So our second card goes to our family member.
    We find that certain staples are always a better deal: kitty litter, coffee beans, tampax, tp, & trash bags, to name a few examples.
    On other items, we do better with our grocer’s store brands. We’re also a two person household with a very small house, so we don’t find it worhwhile to buy as many things in bulk as a larger family might. Not just perishables, but also items that are consumed slowly, and the payback period is just too long (case of olives anyone?)
    And we always do better if husband goes alone. He’s like the “heat seeking missile” mentioned on another post. He buys what’s on the list, and when he deviates, it’s usually a pretty modest, well-thought-out expenditure. When we’re together, we sort of endorse each other’s “bad” behavior, and spend way more money.

  82. genie says:

    Costco just started (several months ago) carrying organic quinoa in 4 pound bags for $10 – this is at least 50 cents cheaper a pound than the cheapest we’ve heard of it and $1.50 cheaper a pound than what we easily have access to. As we eat a LOT of this, we stocked up. The savings just in that item nearly paid for the membership.

    I also sometimes shop with a friend who is super great on price evaluations. She keeps a spread sheet of prices in our local grocery and at Costco and can tell if the sale + coupon is better than Costco and shops accordingly. One idea is to find an equally organized friend and get a copy of their spread sheet – it is a place to start at least. I can also see this being useful if one happened to have an iphone – which I don’t.

    And, our Costco is 1/2 hour drive away, too. But, I usually only go once a month and before birthday parties… even with a drive, it is nice to get out and shop someplace other than tiny town.

  83. Ilene says:

    We do have a membership at Costco. I would say we go there once every other month or so. I have not sat down and done the work to see if we are getting the BEST deal on TP or paper towels there or not but that’s okay for me now. We are in the market for a new car and we are looking into the Costco purchasing. It seems like we might save a fair amount by using that. Worth looking into as another reason to keep or get that membership.

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