Welcome to Part 2 of Warehouse Club Week! In Part 1 I shared the result of the ultimate price battle between my local warehouse club (BJ’s) compared with our department store grocery; a local grocery store; and a discount grocer. Today I’m going to share my top eleven tips for saving (possibly hundreds!) when you’re considering shopping at a warehouse club.
Our Warehouse Club Shopping Story
My husband and I have been shopping at a warehouse club since the early years of our marriage, when our now adult son was a toddler. Back then we didn’t have a warehouse club in our town. Instead we had to drive half an hour to get to Costco a few towns over. We would go once every few months, getting gas and stocking up on certain items. Of course we made all the classic mistakes, from impulse buys to getting large amounts of things that we couldn’t use up.
Eventually we let our membership lapse, since we weren’t getting a great value at the time. Some time later, a BJ’s opened in our town. We took advantage of a special offer that let us join for $25 for the year. We’ve been able to use similar offers through the years to save on memberships, and for our family, the full cost of a membership is made up for in savings.
Why? Well because we are now a family of five with four adult sized humans (two of whom are teenaged boys). And that brings us to my first tip…
1 – Make sure warehouse club shopping makes sense for you in your personal situation
First and foremost I suggest you look at your particular situation to see if shopping at a warehouse club makes sense for you. How big is your family? Do you eat out most of the time or do you eat at home a lot? Do you live in a place with plenty of storage, or is space at a premium? Are you able to plan and stick to a list and avoid impulse buys, or is that not you? What kinds of products do you usually buy – local, organic, name brand, store brand, etc.?
As I mentioned earlier our family is a larger one. Teenage boys eat as much food as you can give them! We have plenty of storage with a pantry, a “pandemic pantry”, and closets to store away extra paper towels and toilet paper. Our budget allows us to spend larger amounts at the warehouse club every month or two. We have a car to easily transport whatever we’ve purchased to our house. And we prefer local for fruits and veggies, but we also live in Connecticut, where the late fall, winter and spring has sparse local offerings.
This might not be you. Maybe you’re single, or an older couple who can’t go through a lot of food or items quickly. Perhaps storage is at a premium, or you aren’t in a situation where you can spend more to save more over time. You might hate making lists or planning meals, or eat out a lot/travel a lot for work, so you don’t go through a lot of food at home. Perhaps impulse buys are common and making or sticking to a list sounds like something that someone who isn’t you would do.
If that’s the case, then shopping at a warehouse club likely doesn’t make a lot of sense for you. You may end up not saving enough to make the membership worth it; waste food; or overspend. Buying in bulk could just lead to food waste with much of it going in the trash. After all, personal finance is personal, and you should look critically at any and all tips to save money to evaluate whether or not they would actually work for you. What works great for me and my family situation might be a financial disaster for you.
2 – Coupon smartly and strategically (if you can)
Personally I love BJ’s coupons. They mail a coupon flyer to our house every few weeks, and also put all their coupons up on their app. You can actually use both if you buy multiple items, which works great for stocking up on non perishables. Also, you can combine a BJ’s coupon with a regular coupon on a single item. So if you have, for example, a coupon for Starbucks that came in your newspaper and a BJ’s coupon for the same thing, you can use both on one Starbucks bag of coffee. Costco, on the other hand, doesn’t accept manufacturer coupons – and neither does Sams Club. So you need to tweak your strategy depending on where you’re shopping.
In past years when money was tight, I’ve gone through some “crazy couponing” phases where I would spend a lot of time, energy and effort on couponing to save the most money possible. Today time is at more of a premium for our family. So rather than spending a lot of time chasing coupons, we look at the BJ’s coupon book and app once we’ve prepped our list for the trip. If we see a coupon for something we were going to buy anyway, we’ll clip it. This simple strategy saves us $10-$20 per trip with minimal effort, and avoids us falling into the trap of buying things just because we have a coupon for it.
3 – Don’t fall into the trap of using more because you bought more (unless it’s deliberate)
This tip is an important one, because if we have a larger size of something, we may unintentionally use more of that item than usual. At times it could be a deliberate strategy – like when we buy a larger container of ground turkey and so plan several meals that week around ground turkey. But when it’s unintentional and unconscious, it can end up costing you more money in the long run.
For example, take ketchup. We buy larger containers of ketchup at BJ’s, which don’t expire for about a year and so get used up in plenty of time. But if we aren’t careful, we could end up squirting extra ketchup on our plates every time we use it. Why? Not only does it seem like a lot comes out of these big bottles, but also it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking that since we have plenty of ketchup, a little extra doesn’t hurt. But compound that kind of thinking over and over again and we’ll end up using up the item much faster than if we bought smaller sizes and used less.
4 – Buy what you will realistically use before expiration
Anyone out there buy, say, a giant container of potato salad only to use a very small amount and have to throw the rest in the trash? It’s not just wasting food, although that’s important. But it’s also wasting money to buy a very large amount of something only to have to toss the item in the trash.
In fact, this was a common mistake we made in the early days of shopping at warehouse clubs. The bargains can be tempting. If you don’t have a good handle on how much your family really consumes, you might convince yourself that sure, you can eat five pounds of potato salad in the next week. It took a few years of tweaking, and some growing of the family, to get a good handle on whether or not we can use something up in time. We buy very few perishable items for just this reason. You’ll note that most of the things we bought don’t go bad for a very long time (or ever).
5 – Fact check whether you’re really saving money
This is the kind of detailed analysis I did on Monday. Although it took me a long time, I learned a lot in the process. It allowed me to challenge my assumptions about what was really a bargain, and to see where I get the most – and least – savings buying at the warehouse club. I highly recommend you do something similar, if for no other reason than to identify the specific things that make it the most worth it to stop by the warehouse club for you.
6 – If you aren’t sure if warehouse club shopping will work for you, give it a trial run
Did you know that you don’t necessarily need to be a member in order to shop at a warehouse club? That’s right. And no, it’s not necessarily that you have to mooch off someone else’s membership (although that is a quite common strategy). BJ’s, for example, offers a one-day online free shopping pass where you can order things online for delivery without membership. This could be a great option if you’re single or a small family and only want to order say once a year to stock up.
For Costco, various articles say you can shop online (although you’ll pay slightly more) or with a Costco gift card. I haven’t tried either though, and some of those articles are older – if you’ve done either one let me know in the comments. Also all the stores have certain sections you can visit without being a member, like the pharmacy and in some states the alcohol section.
7 – Analyze which membership tier – and option – is right for you
Each of the three major warehouse clubs has different membership tiers. Higher tiers come with cash back and additional perks that may or may not be worth it to you. The best way to figure out if the cost is going to be worth it is to calculate whether you’ll make more in cash back or savings than the extra membership level costs you.
For example, at BJ’s you can get a basic membership for $55 per year, but for $110 per year you can get a membership level that gives you 2% cash back on most purchases. So if you spend over $2,750 in the club each year, you’ll earn more than enough cash back to cover the $55 difference in cost.
You’ll want to check your membership tier at least once a year, as your shopping habits and lifestyle change over time. There was a time we shopped at BJ’s more often and the higher tier was definitely worth it. Now we go there every few months and the higher tier isn’t as worth it.
In terms of membership options, there could be an option to join as an “additional member” on someone else’s account for a discounted price. At BJ’s, for example, I could add on an “additional member” to my account for $30 – a $25 per year savings for them off the usual $55 per year price. This works best for relatives, close friends, or adult children.
8 – Remember the warehouse club for infrequent purchases
We all spend money on things that crop up once in a while – eyeglasses, patio furniture, tires, televisions, vacations, shredders, and the like. Well, your local warehouse club just may sell those items at a discount! We’ve been very pleased with the glasses and tires we’ve purchased from BJ’s, for example. And just this past week I was able to snag a portable charger for $15 less than the least expensive option at Target. You should be able to use the website or app to quickly check and see if your warehouse club is selling something infrequent you might need at a good price.
9 – Make a list and stick to it!
Yes, the samples are designed to get you to buy things not on your list by showing you how delicious something new is. And sure, that ~is~ a great price for 100 pounds of mangoes. But impulse buys and shopping without a list are exactly how you end up coming home spending $500 and discovering you didn’t buy half the things you needed. Then you either have to go back, or go spend more at a different kind of store.
We make our list using Alexa. As we run out of things, we just say “Alexa add ‘X'” and she adds it to our shopping list. As we look at the coupons, if we notice a great deal on a staple item we’ll need soon, we tell Alexa to add it. Then we look around the pantry and fridge to see what else we might need. After we’ve finished making the list, we use the Alexa app while shopping to check things off.
Now you don’t need to do it that way. We used to use lists written on scrap paper (usually junk mail or junk mail envelopes). You can also use the notes in your phone, deleting or marking each item as you buy it. We just like the Alexa. Only downside – it’s easy for the kids to add things to the list. Sometimes our try to sneak in things like ice cream or cookies…
10 – You don’t save anything if you buy things you don’t need
I’m going to say right now that the best savings strategy is to simply not buy things you don’t need. In a long time ago article, I talked about the difference between active and passive frugality. The media and most personal finance content focuses on active frugality. After all, there’s very little to write about passive frugality. It comes down to… just not buying things. Short article and not very entertaining.
But maximizing the art of things not bought is key to saving the most amount of money shopping at a warehouse club. Especially if money is tight, you have to question whether or not something is a need. And just because it’s a great bargain doesn’t make it a need. You save 100% on the things you don’t buy.
Examples? Well lets take a look back at my list from the other day. On it I had pecans. Well pecans were clearly a great bargain at BJ’s compared with the other two places. And in my case, I can use them up before they go rancid. Buy I remember my frugality heroine Amy Dacyzyn once calling nuts “an expensive way to put a little crunch into a cookie”. You’ll save the most if you just don’t buy nuts at all.
Now I don’t necessarily agree with Amy’s perspective on nuts. As evidenced by the fact that yes, I bought nuts. But I do agree with thinking carefully about what’s really a need, what’s a want, and recognizing that buying wants just because they’re a bargain doesn’t save you money. Instead buy them because they’re worth the cost to you, and get the best cost you can.
11- Re-evaluate regularly as your personal situation, prices, life, and buying habits change over time
As I mentioned earlier, when we first gave warehouse club shopping a try, we had two fewer kids than we do now. We lived in a condominium, not the house we live in now, and had less storage space. Our one child was a toddler. Money was much more scarce, but time was more abundant.
Today we have four adult sized humans and a seven year old who I swear can eat as much as an adult. We have a house with plenty of storage. Money isn’t as scarce but time sure is.
In the future, eventually it will be just my husband and I in the house. We may decide to downsize – after all, we won’t need a home this size for just two people.
Over the years I’ve learned the one constant in life is change. As your life changes, your needs and wants will shift as well. But it can be easy to fall into a rut and keep spending on something that no longer gives you value. Especially with handy “automatic renewals”, where you can forget for years you have a membership you don’t use any more.
At least once a year it’s a good idea to look at all your recurring charges, subscriptions, and memberships, not just ones to a warehouse club, and see if they’re still adding value. Are you still using it? Watching it? How often? And then cancel (or turn off auto renew) things that no longer bring you value. After all, you can always sign up again later if you change your mind.
What tips did I miss? Which one resonated with you?
I’m sure I’ve missed some other great warehouse club shopping tips. Let me know your top tip, whether I mentioned it here or missed it, in the comments below. Or hit me up on social media or email, I would love to hear from you! I’m on Twitter, Facebook, Insta, TikTok, Pinterest, and email firstname.lastname@example.org.