Monday, August 12, 2013

How to avoid overbuying at warehouse club stores

Oh, Costco.
Your brilliant sodium lights beckon me into your depths…you entice me with your mountains of fruit, huge piles of discount clothes, impossibly sparkly jewelry, walls of big-screen TVs, discount Kitchen Aid mixers…
I fill my cart with my bounty. “I’ve saved so much!” is my siren song.
And then comes the $350 bill at the checkout stand.
But wait, the bitter realizations continue! How could I forget the epic battle to squeeze 100 pounds of flour into the back seat of our sedan along with all of the other extremely large groceries?
So yeah, yesterday we went to Costco, one of the huge warehouse club stores in the US. My mom would often get the name of the PetCo mixed up with Costco when she would talk about where we bought our gerbils. We always replied that if we’d gotten the gerbils at Costco, we would’ve gotten a 12-pack of 5-pound gerbils, because nothing at Costco is small or comes in a convenient number or size.
These club stores are a compulsive shopper’s dream and a frugal person’s confusion. As the daughter of someone who had no trouble buying a 15 year supply of aluminum foil, Costco is a place where I really have to work hard to replace my desire to “save money” with a desire not to overbuy or overspend. Yes, you can save money on the items you purchase compared with other stores, but it’s hard not to spend a ton of money at these places. It’s easy to end up with way more than you need. 

How do you avoid overbuying at these places? I’ve tried going in with a list and sticking to it. Inevitably a few extras sneak into our cart. We’ve tried going with a specific amount of cash, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much we’ll need.
This time, we used some other strategies. And for the first time in ages, our bi-annual trip to Costco came out under $300! Here were our weird strategies:
1.      Bring a friend. One of my neighbors joined us on our expedition since she doesn’t have a car. We knew we had a limit on space in the car. I also appreciated having someone else have a more objective view of what and how much we were purchasing. Every time we laughed about how full our carts were, it made us stop and consider whether we really needed everything in the cart. You may be able to do this with your spouse, but maybe not. It’s easier to help someone else pick the unnecessary items out of their cart than out of your own. You can also split some item with your friend.

2.      Bring a list of what you want to buy and write down prices of the items as you put them in the cart. This made me more cost-conscious. It wasn’t as painful to write down “$2.89 X 2” for two gallons of regular milk as to write “$10.59” for a 1.5 gallons of organic milk, so of course we got the regular! This will also make it easier to comparison shop at the grocery stores. It also makes it easier to focus on the amount of money that will be disappearing from your bank account, as opposed to the amount of money you’ll “save.” Remember, it’s not saving if ¾ of those super-cheap bananas rot on the counter!

3.      Bring a calculator. Periodically we’d stop and add up everything we’d put in the cart (another reason to write down prices!) As the number slowly crept up I got much more careful about what went into the cart. No surprises at the checkout stand.

4.      Have specific plans for what to do with excess perishable food. I wanted some strawberries but I knew that the box would inevitably be too large to finish. So, I talked to the Chief Engineer and planned to make strawberry jam one evening later this week. I get fresh berries for the first few days, he gets jam later in the week, and nothing gets wasted.
In all, we spent almost $267. I feel good not because of how much money I saved (though I can’t complain about 25 pounds of flour for under $8), but because we’re keeping almost $80 more in our checking account this time around and NOTHING is going to get wasted. Not to mention, EVERYTHING fit in our cabinets. That’s saving, Dad.


  1. Oh, I totally agree, Costco can be dangerous! I try to only go a few times per year, and there are specific things that I buy there like giant bags of shredded parmesan cheese. But I'm still trying to work my way through one of those giant bags of organic brown rice, and produce is a real challenge. Although I did manage to eat my way through an entire enormous bin of cherries last summer! But I've gotta be sure to stay out of the chocolate covered everything aisle. :-)

    1. hehe, kitchen gadgets are always my peril :o) and we're still working on a bag of rice from last year too!

  2. We end up at Costco every 2-3 weeks. With our family of 4 and trying to reduce packaging, it is pretty convenient. I can get just one bag of crackers to last us that long over having to grab quite a few boxes. However, there are things that are pricier, like the organic milk. At our local grocery store, you can get a gallon for $5.50 or less. We tend to do pretty good with our lists (although we did go a little crazy today with snacks for school lunches), and I even return food if it was an impulse buy that won't be used! We usually get out around $100/trip, but it still feels like way too much. It's great, but also the death of me lol!

    1. i do miss the costcos in Austin. They were so much less crowded than here and so much closer! We were able to treat it like a grocery store and went in just for bagels and OJ once a week with one bigger trip a month. I didn't realize you could return food there! What's their return policy? We bought a shirt for Josh there last winter and still have it with the tags, since it was too small for him and we forgot to return it this time around.

    2. I'm not sure what their exact return policy, but it's pretty good. I'd try and take it back. The worst they can do is say no lol! I have an unopened monster bag of yeast that I bought thinking I would make so much bread..but yeah, that hasn't happened at all in the 6+ months since I bought it lol!

      As for the proximity, they are far for us--a whole 8 or 9 miles haha! In Phoenix, we had at least 3 within an 8 mile radius and 2 within a 3 mile radius. We realize how spoiled we were in AZ...even had 2 Whole Foods, 2 Sprouts, and several other grocery stores within a 4 mile radius. Austin seems small and inconvenient to us lol!

  3. Well done!! Costco are in Australia now (Syd and Melb, I think) and I believe there is one planned for Brisbane. I won't be going anytime soon as it is the complete antithesis of everything I believe in for exactly the reasons you described.

    I also object to to paying for the privilege of being able to shop somewhere.

    1. One thing I miss about living in Austin, Texas was that they had the bulk dry goods stores like you do in Australia. Our grocery stores are ridiculous, I feel like the packages keep shrinking while the prices stay the same. We did almost get rid of our costco membership once, but our ingredients for bread come out much cheaper even after the annual membership. 12 months of flour and yeast for us comes out to $42 for the flour and $9 for the yeast, whereas at the grocery stores we'd have to buy $60 of yeast a year and over $150 on flour! I don't know how poor folks manage in this area if that's what it costs to make bread from ingredients at our grocery stores.

      I'm usually not cool with places like WalMart because of how they treat their workers. But apparently Costco pays living wages. A friend of mine from high school works there and is quite content with how he's treated. An amazingly the company still has profits that are acceptable on wall street....

  4. I love this post about Costco, because it touches on the difficult dilemma we face when trying to buying value and simply buying too much in pursuit of value. Waste is a big issue, though it sounds like you have it under control.

    We ultimately decided to forego Costco but I know it works well for others.

    1. Thank you! It's great that you know yourself well enough to realize that even though Costco sounds like it could be a great deal, that it won't work for you. Thanks for reading!


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