How to Shop Costco

Mr. ThreeYear and I fell in love with Costco when we lived in Atlanta. It was conveniently located, the prices were great, and you could occasionally find very good deals on cool items for your yard or your house. But in New Hampshire, the closest Costco was over an hour away. So, for eight years, when we lived in New Hampshire, I occasionally shopped BJ’s Wholesale Club (we could get a discount membership through Mr. ThreeYear’s work). But it really wasn’t the same.

Fast forward to December, 2019, when my good friend and fellow deal lover took me to the newly-opened Costco near our house. I bought a membership that day, loaded up my buggie, and several hundred dollars later, decided I needed some ground rules regarding how I shopped at Costco.

Only Shop with a List

First of all, if you are browsing in Costco, prepare to check out with a much-higher grocery bill than you planned. You will be tempted by the fourteen-pack of ready-to-eat Indian Chana Masala, the chocolate-covered almonds, or whatever your weakness is. Costco is a master at products that entice you to buy them when you weren’t planning on it. I think their products have some weird electronic signal that attracts you to them.

Instead, when you go into the store, have a list of what you’re planning to buy. It’s okay if your list is vague, like “Boys’ Pants”–sometimes you don’t know exactly what they have for sale–but have an idea, and a price range, of the items you’re looking for. Otherwise, you will buy things you don’t need.

Shop Sales & Buy Enough for 3 Months

Likewise, when you go into the store, know what is on sale. Costco sends you a mailer at the beginning of each month showing what’s on sale for that month. You can also keep track via the Costco app on your phone. Costco’s sale cycles tend to be about three months long, so if an item that you normally purchase is on sale, buy enough to last you three months. For example, when Rao’s tomato sauce was on sale, at $8.50 (normally $10.50 for a two pack–yes, I know it is very expensive but it’s delicious, ok??), I bought three packs, because I knew I needed to have enough until the next cycle.

When kids’ snacks go on sale, I tend to buy three big boxes–one box for now, and two to last me the next two months.

Know What to Buy and What to Pass On

Costco has great deals on some items. On others, its prices are only okay. For example, I know that buying seltzer at Costco is not the best deal. I can buy a 12-pack at Aldi for $2.29, but seltzers at Costco are around $7 for a pack of 36.

We know that boxes of tennis balls are a great deal at Costco, so we make sure we always have a box of those.

I also know that tortilla chips are not the best deal at Costco. If I compare the cost-per-ounce of Aldi chips with Costco’s big bag of Kirkland chips, the Kirkland chips are way more expensive per ounce.

It’s important that you know the cost-per-ounce of your favorite items, because you won’t be able to compare apples-to-apples a lot of times. Costco’s items are in larger containers or they’re organice, or both. Even so, I know that a six-pack of their organic coconut milk is a great deal, because it works out to just over $1.00 per can, and it’s a really high quality (a lot of coconut milk is just watered down, meaning you need to use more to make a recipe as creamy).

I tend to pass on Costco’s prepared food items, because I don’t find them to be a very good deal (although other friends swear by them).

Don’t Grocery Shop at Costco

If you are planning to buy all the groceries you need at Costco for the week, then plan to spend way more than you would at a grocery store. Granted, you’ll inevitably be buying a larger quantity than you would at a grocery store, but when I have used Costco like a grocery store, my bill has been much higher.

Instead, I use Costco like a specialty store. I try to shop there once or twice per month, stocking up on the specialty items that have the best prices, items like:

  • olive oil
  • organic coconut milk
  • lunchbox snacks
  • detergent
  • shampoo
  • medicine and vitamins
  • frozen vegetables
  • meat substitutes
  • wine

Costco should be used to stock up on pantry and freezer items, if you want to ensure you’re getting the best deals. And while their fresh produce items, especially limes and lemons, can be good deals, your best bet is to buy those only occasionally, on your once-a-month shopping trip.

If your Costco has a liquor store attached, they have really good prices on spirits. Ours doesn’t, but we did find this Irish Country Cream made with fortified wine that tastes just like Baileys. And for under $10, we’ll skip the whisky.

Shop Clothes During Changes in Seasons

Costco marks its clothing down dramatically during the changes in seasons to make room for new merchandise. We’ve gotten many pairs of shorts for $5, pants for $7, etc., when the season is about to change. Beware, though. Clothing deals go fast at Costco, so if you see a good price on a clothing item you like, don’t wait. We saw some really nice Travis Mathew golf shirts for $25 (they’re a really nice, really expensive brand of shirt) but they no longer had Mr. ThreeYear’s size.

Costco makes sure that the clothes it stocks are high-quality and durable, so rest assured that the clothes you do buy are sturdy and well-made, even if they may not be super trendy (they won’t be, actually).

Check Out Deals on Bigger Items

Costco carries tires, has a travel section, and partners with companies to install HVAC systems (as we’ve recently experienced), wood floors, windows, and other major home repair items. It’s worth it to check out their prices on these items, as they are often very competitive, and come with a 10% Costco gift card.

We’re planning a trip to Hawaii this summer, and are checking out the packages Costco has for Hawaii, which include hotel, car, and excursions (we’re using points to fly so we don’t need the flight portion). It remains to be seen if we’ll go with one of their packages, but they have lots of competitive packages and upgrades.

Costco also has really competitive prices on furniture. One thing that I really like about buying products like furniture at Costco is that I know they have a terrific return policy (they’ll basically take anything back) and their buyers do a great job shopping for quality in the first place. So, chances are that the products I buy from Costco are made-to-last.

So there you have it…my tips to buy at Costco. Costco is a store that can help you save money, but you have to be careful about how you use it, because, like any store, its goal is to make as much profit as possible. If you use Costco the right way, you can save a boatload and get some great, high-quality products in the process.

Author: Laurie

Hi. I'm Laurie, and my family and I have set out to double our net worth and move abroad in the next three years. Join us on our journey!

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