5 Frugal Rules You Must Follow When Shopping at Costco

Photo: Carolyn Coles

Everything is cheaper at Costco, right? Not so fast! For a frugalist, Costco and its warehouse membership club brethren can be very appealing. So much so, in fact, that Costco has become the fourth largest retailer in the U.S. and eighth in the world. After all, who doesn't see the bargain provided in buying a 50-pack of veggie burgers or a 120 oz. jar of spaghetti sauce?

Costco can provide some cost-saving values, but it can also be a money pit if you are not careful. Here are five rules to adhere to when shopping at the wholesale retail giant.

1. Make a List of Everything That You Typically Need From the Grocer

Do this before you ever set foot in a Costco. Costco has a way of luring you into buying things that you normally don't buy. If something does not make your list, there's a good chance that you should not buy it at Costco. At the same time, you won't find 75% of the stuff you might typically buy elsewhere, so don't rely on Costco for your entire grocery buying experience. (See also: 9 Things That Are Worth Buying at Costco)

2. Compare Apples to Apples

For units of identical size, figure out the per unit price of the things that you normally buy and what their typical weight per unit is. Usually you'll have to buy packs of six, eight, or more units of something that you'd buy one of elsewhere. This makes comparing easy if you just do some simple math.

What's harder is comparing identical items that come in different size units. Find out the price per ounce of the item from Costco and compare it to the price per ounce of the same thing elsewhere. Go with the retailer that's cheaper, except when you'd have to buy more of a perishable item than you could ever use by the time the use by date passes.

3. Use the Costco Credit Card

If you're looking for savings at Costco, it only makes sense to get the Costco Anywhere Visa card. You'll earn cash back on gas, dining, and travel, along with all your Costco and Costco.com purchases and other purchases as well. Why wouldn't you want free cash back for being a Costco shopper?

4. Try the Samples...If You Dare

Costco typically offers up several sample stations. Usually, the food and drink at these stations is not the healthiest. As in most grocery stores, it's offered up by friendly older women, and it's hard to say no to them when they ask you how many bags of cheddar popcorn you need. So if you grab a sample, get the heck out of there...fast.

5. Make Planned Trips Every Other Month or More

If you are buying things in bulk that get you a nice discount, you usually don't need to re-stock them for a few months. There's nothing wrong with that! Resist the urge to go back more frequently when you really don't need to, because you most likely will get tempted by electronics or some of the other cool things you probably don't need.

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Guest's picture

Regarding your last point, Amex is the only CREDIT card you can swipe at Costco. I use my Visa Debit card there all the time.

Guest's picture

Shopping at Costco is cheaper because people are buying in bulk. But this is only if you compare to other supermarkets at their regular price. I have noticed that if you buy items on sale, it is mostly cheaper compared to Costco's unit price. If you get in the habit of buying saled items at supermarket, you could have a lot especially when you use coupons along with it. Of course the problem to this is that not every items are on sale.

Guest's picture

Re: The Costco AmEx... "it's the only card you can actually swipe at Costco."


While American Express is the only CREDIT card accepted at Costco warehouses, members may use any Visa or MasterCard DEBIT card for in-warehouse purchases, and may use ANY AmEx card for credit purchases, not just the Costco co-branded AmEx.

Further, members may shop online at costco.com and pay with Visa or MasterCard CREDIT cards, just not in the warehouses.

Guest's picture

I shudder to think how much money I have wasted at Costco through the years. What I've found is that Costco only offers significant savings on a few items that we use regularly. I'm even considering giving up my membership--not sure I'm quite ready for such a drastic move though ; ).

Guest's picture

Not all Costco locations have gas stations, but the one nearest our home does and it offers the most competitive gas prices on a consistent basis. I think if it wasn't for the gas discounts, we might consider giving up our membership... that said, the "free" sampletizers are always fun, especially now that we have a kid :-)

Guest's picture

Problem with waiting too long between trips is that things disappear. They may come back on rotation or they may be gone forever, even things you think have become their staples. If the posted price by an item has an asterisk *, it's going away.

Guest's picture

You forgot to check the coupon book! My Costco sends out coupons, and there is often at least one thing on my list included. Sometimes, the coupon makes the brand name item cheaper than the house brand, and you can use one coupon several times. The customer service desk usually has extras on hand.

Guest's picture

I joined costco in colorado, because we eat organic and the price and variety of organic foods near Highlands Ranch area is cheaper than going to whole foods. I had one accident in 30 years, and my car insurance doubled. I called Costco auto insurance, and because i am an executive member, my car insurance was reduced (through Ameriprise) less than half. It more than paid for itself over and over.