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

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!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.