Even Small Households Can Save Big at Costco
It’s been nearly ten years since we began talking about another state. At first, it was an impossible dream, but soon idle chatter turned to serious talk. That developed into a list of “must-haves”—things a new location would have to offer for us to consider making the leap.
At the top of the list? Weather. Having lived in Southern California for most of our lives, we knew it would be impossible to beat the weather we’d come to love and pretty much taken for granted. Finding the next-best weather was at the top of our must-haves.
Second on the list: Costco. Do you think I’m kidding? They don’t call me the Costco Queen for nothing.
Whether a household of one or a big family, I believe anyone can stretch their money and improve their budget by shopping at a discount warehouse club like Costco. But only if willing to stick to a few very important shopping techniques.
Release Your Inner Parent
Know this. Upon approaching the entrance of Costco or other warehouse clubs, you’re about to turn into an undisciplined 2-year-old, feeling entitled to everything you see. Temper tantrums are likely. So, even before you cross the threshold, engage your stern, mature, wise inner parent to keep you on task. Focus! Do not allow yourself to go broke saving money.
Shop with a List
Arriving with a written list is absolutely non-negotiable. No list? Stay home! Decide what you need before you get there. Write it down. Once inside, do not even look at it if it’s not on the list. And for goodness’ sake, do not touch it.
Wandering eyes and curious minds are the evil tempters that will push you to pop one of those big-screen TVs into your cart entirely on a whim. If that gallon-size high-end shampoo turns out to be a genuine need that you simply forgot to put on the list, you can always return to buy it later when it IS on the list.
Justify the Membership Fee
At $60 a year for the privilege of membership at Costco (other warehouse clubs have similar fee structures), make sure you will realize net savings over and above the fee. Keep in mind that your membership allows you to purchase lots more than food including gasoline, prescription eyeglasses, hearing aids, insurance, garage doors (we did and cut other estimates by half), appliances, mattresses, home improvements, car rentals, vacations, and that’s only a start.
Don’t Outshop Ability to Consume
If anything nullifies your best intentions, this will be it. No matter how great the bargain or the deal, if you can’t reasonably use a 25-pound bag of flour or 10 pounds of onions before they spoil, that’s a bad deal. Never buy more than you are sure (not hope, think, or feel) you can use without creating a false need. Never buy for the sole purpose that you think you cannot afford NOT to buy it. That’s just plain stupid.
Don’t Overshop Storage Space
How will you store that much flour? Where will you keep 15 pounds of Russet potatoes where they will be cool and dry? Does your freezer have space to accept four times as many English Muffins as you typically purchase at the supermarket? Do “best by” dates align with your family’s consumption rate? Look for unusually creative ways to store perishable and non-perishable items in ways they are out of sight, but not out of mind! Make an inventory list and then keep it up to date.
Create the Appearance of Scarcity
Once you get home with cases of this and that—even paper towels or toilet tissue—you’d best find a place to stash your supply, or it will disappear faster than Colorado snow on a bright sunny day. Don’t load up the bathroom with tons of tissue. That sends the signal that you have an unending supply. Keep the visible supply lean, then replenish from the deep supply in the garage in an unmarked box. Don’t load the kitchen cupboard with a years supply of breakfast cereal. Keep a reasonable supply out in the open, with the rest in deep storage.
Divide and Conquer
Breaking large items into practical sizes is a task that comes with the territory. Failing to do that can make things very difficult. Take cheese, for example. We can’t reasonably use a big block of Kirkland brand cheddar cheese, working from that one block.
Instead, I unwrap the cheese and cut it into six semi-equal portions. Then I vacuum seal five, keeping one in plastic wrap for the coming week or two, and into the refrigerator, they go. See how that works? One block of cheese at half the price of my supermarket, will last for a minimum of 6, potentionally 12, weeks! Kept sealed in the refrigerator, that cheese is as fresh and tasty as the day I bought it.
Costco is notorious for its prepared entrees made in-store, ready to be baked or finished off at home—to serve 8 to 10. Even though ours is a small household of two, I buy these entrees routinely because they are fabulous and I cannot make them myself for anywhere close to Costco’s price.
Here’s what I do: The minute I get home, I take the time to divide these big entrees into servings for two, transferring them to my vast collection of Snapware containers (equal to or even better than Tupperware, but much cheaper).
Sometimes I freeze the re-portioned servings, but most often simply put them into the refrigerator. Works like a charm.
Recently, I bought a huge container of Ravioli Lasagna with Beef & Pork Bolognese Sauce for $15.49 ($4.49 a pound) at Costco. I divided it into five 2-serving portions. That worked out to about $1.55 per serving. I could have just as easily re-portioned this into single servings, perfect for lunch or dinner.
Last, I take a picture of the product label, so I’ll know what I bought and how to prepare it.
Not a member? You can join here.
Are you worried that you cannot justify warehouse-club-size quantities even with all these techniques? Find a friend or neighbor in the same situation to split your purchases. You can’t split a membership unless you are in the same household, but you can split the fee. Then one of you can be the designated shopper. Both of you will benefit from the high-quality and low prices you’ll discover at warehouse clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ.
Not a Member? You can join here.
Rest of the Story
Our must-have list grew to eight entries. Over a period of two years, we visited many locations and did even more research. Once we narrowed locations to a small town in northern Colorado, we made multiple visits to experience every season and to to head off any major surprises.
As for #1 on the list, we are convinced the weather here must be the world’s best-kept secret, with an average of 300 sunny days annually (true!).
And #2? We nailed that, too. Costco is 1.5 miles from our front door.
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No Coscos in our area but there is a Sam’s Club. I have been a member for nearly 20 years. I started shopping there for the diapers but with a large family it has been well worth it to stay a member over the years. I have learned a few tricks over that time that have made it even more worthwhile. I upgraded to the Plus membership. With it I get free shipping if something isn’t at the store, free pick ups (regular members have a small fee for the service), and biggest of all: cash back. I save the cash back I have earned all year and use it to purchase next years membership. Some years I have some extra and other years I have to add a small amount of money but for several years my membership has been free or nearly free.
Besides paper goods I have found a huge savings in over the counter meds. Allergy meds are a fraction of the price that they are anywhere else. I used to buy the meat and divide it up into smaller packages and freeze those. I would have meat for months that way. I also shop there clothing when it is on clearance prices. Brands you find at high end stores can be bought for just a few dollars if you can get it on clearance. (if you doubt, check the prices printed on the stickers) The men’s jeans have been a standard here for years. The store brand is heavy fabric and they outlast just about anything I can buy elsewhere.
Can you tell I am a fan? I love buying things at a good price and I prefer having fewer choices but knowing that was if offered is good quality.
This has helped me to keep my spending under control at Costco—I only use cash.
Sure fire way to not overspend! Thanks for the feedback, Jane.
Hi Mary. I’ve been reading your column ever since I found a copy of “Tiptionary” at the used-book sale at my library many years ago. I am an occupational therapist and part of what I do involves teaching money management skills to my patients, so I am forever recommending your web-site and quoting your wisdom. One thing that I loved to give to my patients, as so many are impulsive when it comes to spending, is a flow-chart that you devised years ago. I remember you shared some of your own “wish I hadn’t bought that” experiences in the article, then printed the chart. It had “yes/no” questions (like “do I have something like that already”) and was a great decision-making tool. I looked in my folder today to make more copies, and I must have used the last one. Do you remember the column I’m talking about? If you do, is there any way you could re-print it or direct me to where it might be in your archives? Thanks so much!
Here it is in this post:
The Truth About Joy and Living Well, Below Your Means
So lovely to hear from you. Thanks for your kind words and vote of confidence! Sounds like we go way back 🙂
What great advice about the cheese!