Sarah and I have been longtime members of Sam’s Club, the only warehouse club within reasonable distance of our home. Since our membership renewal last September, I’ve been keeping careful track of how much money the membership has actually saved us with a pocket notebook devoted to this purpose that I keep in our van, and here are the results, broken down by category. Note that an annual membership at Sam’s Club is $45.
Please note that this only includes things where I could actually verify the savings. It does not include a number of additional purchases where I instinctually was very confident about savings, but could not immediately verify it, and it does not include any purchases Sarah made separately at the club near her workplace.
We generally buy household supply store brands at a local Target as their store brands on household supplies work well and at least sometimes beat Sam’s Club prices. We buy many food items at Fareway and Aldi, which are local discount grocers convenient to us, and we usually stick to store brands there. So, basically, our comparison points are the store brands at Target, Fareway, and Aldi, not name brand items, and that’s largely because those are the shopping options available for us for food and household items.
Gasoline I have stopped at Sam’s Club 14 times in the last year for a gasoline fill-up. During each of those visits, I compared Sam’s Club gas prices to the gas offerings close to the club and also close to our house. On each visit, the gas price saved us between $0.05 and $0.11 per gallon. On each visit, the amount of gas purchased varied between 10 and 16 gallons. Thus, the range of savings per stop was $0.50 to $1.76 per visit, over 14 visits. Our actual total savings for gas was $12.74.
Trash bags We have been buying Member’s Mark boxes of tall trash bags, which come with 200 trash bags in them, which cost $12.98 per box. For comparison’s sake, the store brand trash bags that we would normally buy from our regular store come in a box of 120 for $15.99. In this case, the cost of the Sam’s Club bags are $0.0649 per bag and the store brand bags are $0.13325, for a savings of $0.06835 per bag. My estimate is that we used about 200 bags per year, so our savings is $13.67 per year.
We also have a box of tall brown bags for yard waste, of which we perhaps use 40 per year (conservatively, as it seems like we use a ton during the spring and they still get used occasionally throughout the year). The Member’s Mark 33 gallon bags we use come in boxes of 90 for $13.48, giving a cost per bag of $0.1498 per bag. The equivalent store brand 30 gallon bags come in a 72 count box for $15.99, giving a cost of $0.22208 per bag. Thus, we save about $0.07228 per bag, and over 40 bags that adds up to $2.89 per year.
Dish soap We buy the Member’s Mark 100 ounce liquid dish soap for the dishes we hand-wash, and it does a pretty good job. We keep it under the sink and use it to re-fill a smaller and more convenient bottle, as this is quite a jug. It costs $6.98 for 100 ounces, or $0.0698 per ounce. The best deal for store brand dish soap we’ve found elsewhere are these 10 ounce bottles for $0.79, or $0.079 per ounce. We go through about three of the big jugs per year (about 300 ounces) and each ounce saves us $0.0092, so the total savings is $2.76.
Steel cut oats They offer this in a 25 pound bag for $32.98, or $1.3192 per pound, whereas the cheapest price I can find elsewhere is a 30 ounce canister for $2.79, or $1.488 per pound. That’s a savings of $0.1688 per pound. My estimate is that we go through about 30 pounds of oatmeal per year, so we save about $5.06 annually buying the oatmeal in bulk.
Dishwashing detergent Our kids do the majority of the dishwasher loads here and we’ve found that individual packets tend to work much better than a nine year old dumping dishwashing detergent out of a jug, so we buy individual packets when we’re not experimenting with our homemade ones. We’ve found that these packets at $9.98 for 105 of them (or $0.0950 per load) work just as well as the store brand packs elsewhere, which come in around $8.59 for 43 of them or $0.1998 per load. This means that the Sam’s Club jumbo box saves us $0.1048 per load, and over the course of 350 loads per year (yes, we have five people, we run the dishwasher roughly daily), that saves us $36.66 annually. That’s one of the best bargains there for us.
Spiced rum We use this in cooking (you haven’t lived until you’ve tried rum-soaked walnuts in cookies) and in occasional mixed drinks. We go through a large 1.75 L bottle of this per year and buy it at the warehouse for $28.39, whereas the cheapest we’ve been able to find it elsewhere was for $31.99 for the same exact bottle. Thus, we save $3.60 per year on this specific purchase.
What don’t we buy there? Some products that we do not buy at Sam’s Club because the store brand is cheaper elsewhere include toilet paper (this store brand is notably cheaper per sheet), brown rice (I can get it for about $0.60 a pound to $0.75 a pound, and it’s never less than a dollar a pound at Sam’s Club), condiments (store brand condiments elsewhere are cheaper than the usual Heinz options at Sam’s Club), sugar (store brands are cheaper elsewhere), and fresh produce unless I’m absolutely positive I’m going to use it all in the next day or two.
So, in the end, I can verify $77.38 in annual savings from our membership over the past year. This does not include additional savings that my wife incurred or that I wasn’t able to directly verify (like when she gets her own gas there). If I buy nothing but gas, trash bags, dish soap, steel cut oats, dishwashing soap, and spiced rum there, I’ve more than paid for the annual membership. Any other savings are just icing on the cake. Obviously, these savings will vary a bit as prices change over time, but there’s more than enough breathing room here to continue to make the membership worthwhile for us.
What about Costco? What about BJ’s? I would actually quite happily shop at both of those stores if they were easily available to us. However, there are three Sam’s Clubs closer to our home than the nearest Costco (it’s far enough away that I wouldn’t realistically shop there), and there doesn’t appear to be a BJ’s within several states of us. I would love to shop at a Costco as I’ve found their store brand stuff to be stellar when I’ve had a chance to use it and their prices seem quite good, but I simply don’t have access for comparison.
All I can say is this: for our family’s buying habits, a Sam’s Club membership saves us money compared to buying gas and store brand products elsewhere, even with the cost of membership included. I can absolutely verify the savings over the course of a year, and I know which products actually save us money there.
In terms of routine, I often know which handful of items we need at Sam’s Club and I pick them up when I’m there. I remind myself of a needed item at Sam’s Club by using a location-aware reminder on my phone. Whenever I notice we need something from Sam’s Club – one of the items on that list, such as dish soap or trash bags – I check the levels of a few other things that we buy there, then put a reminder on my phone that sends me a loud notification whenever I go near the place. It dings whenever I pull in there to get gas, which is my routine. Then I just pop across the parking lot and pick up the stuff I need.
For us, this ends up saving us at least $25 per year. That’s just the money I can dead-on verify – it doesn’t include things like my wife’s routine of getting gas at the Sam’s Club near her workplace, which I don’t have accurate numbers on, or moments when I’ll buy a ton of fresh produce for a make-ahead meal or something like that, because those are irregular. In short, the membership more than pays for itself for our family.