Warehouse clubs like Sam’s Club, Costco and BJ’s have been popular for years and are becoming even more so. The USDA says these stores account for about 16 percent of food sales in the U.S., as of 2011 — the largest share of the market next to traditional food stores like supermarkets and grocery stores.
But some people say you can’t save money — or not much, anyway — at warehouse stores like these. We beg to differ.
Sure, you may not save quite as much as the store’s advertisements would like you to think. (What are advertisements for, right?) But you can still save quite a bit if you shop smart and use your warehouse club membership wisely.
1. Keep a Price Notebook
Average prices at warehouse clubs, according to a Consumer’s Checkbook survey, are 29 to 33 percent lower than prices at traditional supermarket chains. Prices on individual items will vary.
And for the most part, you’ll get a better deal if you buy items on sale at the grocery store, or if you combine sales and coupons at the grocery store.
The best way to know if you’re getting a good price is to keep a price notebook. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just list the items you buy most often and note the price of those items at different stores. Remember to include sale prices from your favorite supermarkets.
With this type of notebook, you can easily look up the item in question to see if you’re getting a better price at a warehouse club.
2. Don’t Get Sucked Into Extra Spending
Warehouse clubs, like traditional supermarkets, are set up to entice you to spend more than you’d planned. The major difference? Supermarket impulse buys might include a candy bar, magazine or lip gloss. Impulse buys at warehouse stores, which boast low prices on everything from clothing to electronics to furniture, could cost more.
There’s nothing wrong with heading to a warehouse club to buy your next television or easy chair. But those purchases should be planned, and you should strive to stick to your list when shopping in a Sam’s Club or Costco.
3. Split the Membership
Financial experts question whether the average family can make up the $40+ annual membership fee to a warehouse club. Some, says one AARP article, may not spend enough to make up for the entrance fee.
But if you split the membership between friends or family members, you save a lot more money at a warehouse club. And if you’re splitting a membership, you could also split some of the purchases, so each person gets only part of a huge bulk package.
4. Use the Store’s Signature Card for Points
Many of the big box stores offer their own credit cards, which can offer pretty slick cash back and points deals. The TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express is one great example.
With this card, you get 3 percent cash back on gas purchases at Costco and U.S. gas stations — up to $4,000. You also get 2 percent cash back on restaurant and some travel purchases. And as long as you’re paying for your Costco membership, there’s no additional annual fee for the credit card.
5. Only Buy What You’ll Use
This one goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Don’t buy food that you won’t eat. According to The Society of St. Andrew, up to 40 percent of food in America is wasted each year.
Sure we waste plenty of food from regular grocery stores, too, but it’s much easier to let things go to waste when you’re buying bulk packages, particularly when it comes to produce, which spoils quickly.
The key here is to know your family’s eating patterns. If your family of five will eat through several bags of apples and bananas in a couple of weeks, buy them in bulk. Otherwise, buy smaller quantities at the regular grocery store. You’re not saving yourself any money if you’re throwing out food.
6. Understand Food Storage Basics
“Buy only what you’ll use” goes only so far when you’re shopping at a warehouse store. To get the most for your money, you’ll have to buy more than you can use in, say, a week. Unless your family goes through gallons of spaghetti sauce in a few days.
So if you’re purchasing large quantities of food, you’d better learn how to store it properly. We’re not talking about storing tons of food in doomsday-prepper style. We’re talking about knowing how to properly handle the food you buy.
Canned goods are simple to store, and items such as flour, sugar and rice are easily stored in airtight containers. If you’re not sure how best to store a particular food, Google it to find out.
7. Buy More Than Food
One of the best ways to get the most for your Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s membership is to focus on more than food. These stores offer more selection than ever on a huge range of products, including clothing, furniture and electronics. And these items often have attractive price markdowns around the holidays.
Consumer Reports says, for instance, that you can get superior prices at warehouse clubs on electronics. They don’t have as much selection or a knowledgeable staff to help with purchases, but if you know what you want and are flexible, you could save a lot if you buy electronics at a warehouse club.