Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.
Paying for the privilege of shopping at a wholesale warehouse isn’t always worth the cost.
Many shoppers think they’re saving a bundle by buying in bulk but never bother to do the math. Is shopping at warehouses like Costco really worth it compared with your local grocery store?
With lower prices per unit for buying bulk, you might save a few dollars, but that can get gobbled up by travel expenses, food waste, and Gold Star or Executive membership fees.
Let’s take a closer look at when shopping at Costco makes sense and when skipping it is a smart money move for your household.
Is the Costco Membership Fee Worth It?
Whether Costco’s cover charge is worthwhile depends on your situation.
The money itself can mean more or less depending on how much of a stretch it is for your budget, of course … but that’s not the only factor.
To figure out whether paying the membership fee would be a savings or a needless splurge, you’ve got to examine your purchasing needs and behaviors — and match them up with the goods and services Costco has to offer.
How Much Is a Costco Membership?
Costco offers three different memberships, one of which is a business membership and all of which have annual membership fees.
All memberships, including the standard Gold Star membership, come with one free household card and are valid at all Costco locations worldwide.
Costco Memberships, Annual Membership Fee, Reward Points, Number of Members, Other Benefits:
- Gold Star: $60; no; two; N/A
- Executive: $120; Yes, 2% back on purchases; two; savings on Costco services and travel benefits
- Business: $60; no; two free, additional members $60; can purchase items for resale
You’ll be tempted to sneak your entire extended family in under the membership umbrella, but don’t.
Costco specifies that the Gold Star and the Gold Star Executive memberships can have only one primary cardholder. A second card is provided free of charge for any household member you designate, but they must be over the age of 18.
How Much Do You Save Shopping at Costco?
Before we dive into whether a membership is worth it, let’s do the math on Costco’s bulk items, specifically everyday grocery or household items. For the purposes of comparison, the prices quoted are for store brands or name brands available at all three stores in mid-January 2023.
Item Price Comparison at Costco, Walmart, and Target:
- Eggs (white), dozen: $3.60, $5.28, $3.89
- Milk (1%), gallon: $3.14, $2.96, $2.99
- Bread (white, Grandma Sycamore), 24 oz.: $3.14, $3.28, 3.49
- Chicken breast per pound: $2.99, $3.42, $3.79
- Toilet paper: 73 cents/roll, 87 cents/roll, 83 cents/roll
As the price comparison shows, Costco members do enjoy lower prices when buying in bulk but not on all items. Some of the deeper discounts can also be found on popular Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products such as rotisserie chicken, olive oil, maple syrup, saran wrap, batteries and more.
Keep in mind Costco’s per-unit prices are for buying large quantities.
That’s not a big deal for household staples or groceries with a long shelf life, but for perishables, it’s a problem. Costco members have to carefully consider how much their household can consume and if they have the space to store bulk items.
6 Reasons a Costco Membership Is Worth It
So when is a Costco membership worth it? When your savings add up to more than the annual membership fee.
For Gold Star members who shop Costco regularly, that would mean saving $5 or more per month — not a stretch when you’re salivating over those egg and chicken prices.
Executive memberships are more expensive, but they also offer 2% back in rewards points. Costco estimates that to recoup your $120 Executive membership fee, you’d have to spend about $500 per month.
Here are the six situations when a Costco membership is money well-spent (and saved).
1. If You Have Kids
If there’s anything you need lots and lots of as a parent, it’s diapers and wipes — unless you’re using cloth reusables, or even braving the world of potty training.
The price point on Kirkland Signature diapers is hard to beat, coming in at 18 cents per diaper.
Perhaps you’ve heard the rumors, but Kirkland Signature baby wipes are the stuff of parenting legend. They’re just 3 cents per wipe.
Costco also sells baby formula in bulk, although Costco is struggling with the same supply chain shortages as other stores.
Another family-friendly savings nexus? Quick and easy prepared foods. Busy parents will love finding pre-packed heat-and-eat rice and quinoa at a steep discount from grocery store prices.
Oh, and don’t forget the free samples that’ll have your kids begging you to take them along when you go shopping. How’s that for a change of pace?
2. If You Buy Organic
As of 2020, 10% or more of all organic grocery purchases in the U.S. happened at Costco. This Seattle-based wholesale chain has become an organic retail powerhouse, offering many bulk organic foods for lower prices.
These are just a few of the major organic brands Costco carries in addition to its Kirkland Signature organic products and produce:
- Pacific Foods
- Nature’s Path
- Green Mountain Creamery
- Seeds of Change
- Made in Nature
Costco is also widely known for offering bulk meat and poultry raised without antibiotics or hormones as well as cage-free eggs.
3. If You Have a Dog
Costco’s Kirkland Signature dog food earns solid reviews from veterinarians and others, who find it a trustworthy, inexpensive alternative to pricier pet brands.
A 40-pound bag will set tails wagging at about $1.34 per pound, and there are half a dozen different formulas designed for puppies, seniors, small breeds and more.
Another reason Costco is a dog’s best friend? Kimberly Gauthier feeds her four dogs a raw diet — which means she buys a lot of meat.
“A Costco membership makes this affordable,” she writes. She needed an extra freezer to store it all, and she bought that at Costco, too!
She also mentioned Costco’s dog beds are some of the best-priced and highest-quality on the market. She’d know — she’s the mind behind Keep the Tail Wagging, a blog all about dog nutrition and care.
4. If You Drive a Lot — or at All
One of the best deals at Costco probably isn’t on your grocery list. It’s gasoline.
Yup: Costco’s got some of the most affordable gas around, and you can’t purchase it without a membership (unless you’ve got a Costco cash card, which only members can purchase).
Just be warned that Costco gas stations have notoriously long lines of members waiting for the pump, so fuel up during off-hours instead of on weekends.
Another Costco automotive perk that’s worth the membership fees, even if you have an electric vehicle, is the Costco tire center. It offers deep discounts on tires, free rotation and maintenance, and the tire center fills up your tires with nitrogen instead of air.
5. If You’ve Got a Big Expense Coming Up
OK. Hear us out on this one.
The Costco list of weird discounts includes some crazy stuff you’d never imagine buying from a warehouse, like a casket or an engagement ring.
But big price tags mean bigger kickbacks if you have an Executive membership.
And even with a Gold Star membership, there’s a good chance discounts on things like vacation packages, furniture or backyard play sets could recoup your annual fee in a single purchase.
6. If Costco Is Your Jam
Hey, no judgment. Shopping at Costco still feels like an adventure, and cruising down the wine aisle while noshing on samples isn’t the wrong way to spend a Saturday morning.
And with its commitment to a livable wage, ethical food sourcing and generous return policy, supporting Costco can feel as good for your conscience as it is for your wallet.
And how about that famous $1.50 hot dog deal at the Costco food court?
Marketwatch estimated the hot dogs at Costco should cost about $4 when adjusted for inflation, but co-founder Jim Sinegal reportedly threatened to kill CEO Craig Jelinek if he raised the cost, so they’ll be $1.50 for the foreseeable future.
4 Reasons to Rethink a Costco Membership
Is Costco worth it for everyone? Not exactly. The following are some situations in which a Costco membership might cost you more than it saves.
1. If You Live by Yourself
This one’s tricky.
Some things are worth buying in bulk because they never go bad and you can never have too much (read: toilet paper).
But since most folks who live alone don’t have the space to store bulk items, a warehouse membership might be a wasted cost if you’re flying solo.
2. If You’re Part of a Couple
While a warehouse membership is almost a no-brainer for families, it’s a bit more of a stretch for a child-free couple. Do you really go through that much stuff?
There are some ways to get around potential waste when buying in bulk, like splitting purchases with another couple.
Although Costco allows only the actual cardholder to make purchases, you can easily split the bill afterward and have your friends reimburse you in cash.
So, you’ll get to take advantage of Costco’s awesome deals without contributing to America’s massive problem with food waste. Heck yes!
3. If You Live Too Far From a Costco Warehouse
How far is too far to make a Costco membership worth the travel and the trouble?
The consensus is anything longer than 20-30 minutes, depending on your gas mileage and traffic congestion, is too far to travel to your local Costco.
You can check an online fuel calculator to see exactly how much you’ll spend.
The good news is that as of January 2023, Costco has 847 locations worldwide, with 583 in the United States alone. So in most corners of the country, you don’t have to travel far to find a Costco near you.
4. If You Don’t Have a Visa Card
A few years back, Costco decided to accept payment via credit card only from Visa cards.
If you’re a member, Costco accepts cash, personal checks, most ATM/debit cards and many mobile pay options like Apple Pay or Google Pay.
You can also have someone purchase Costco shop cards for you to use, but that’s a serious hassle.
3 Things You Can Buy at Costco Without a Membership
Did you know you can use a bunch of Costco’s services and even buy some products without a membership? Yep. Step this way and see what you can slide into your cart.
It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that you can actually access Costco’s pharmacy without a membership — your right to do so is protected in some place by state law.
You can also get low-cost immunizations, hearing tests and eye exams membership-free!
2. Alcohol and Wine
One thing you probably didn’t know about Costco: It’s the largest wine retailer in the U.S., and in some states, it is required to sell alcohol and wine to you even if you don’t have a membership.
While it’s technically to do with post-Prohibition-era laws pointed at speakeasies, these are the states where you can fill up your cart with booze and bypass the membership fee:
- New York
3. Online Orders
Some of Costco’s products are available online only, which works out just fine for folks without a membership card.
You’ll have to pay a 5% surcharge for orders on Costco.com, but you’ll still have access to the same products, such as Costco’s popular discounted gift cards.
One caveat is that members get free two-day delivery for orders of $75 or more, but as a nonmember, you’ll be stuck with three- to five-day standard shipping for your online Costco purchases.
Should You Get a Costco Membership?
The answer to whether to get a Costco membership is mostly a personal one.
If you live alone but have a chest freezer and a big pantry, the benefits of making fewer trips to the grocery store might be worth it to you.
Keep in mind there are also other warehouse stores out there (hello, Sam’s Club) that might be closer to where you live or a better fit for your needs.
As long as you’ve weighed the pros and cons, fill up your cart with the good stuff and enjoy the samples guilt-free.
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