Is a Costco membership worth it?
After price comparing my pantry staples between Costco and ALDI, I absolutely think so, but many readers were concerned about the cost of membership and how that played into the savings.
Still, others said that Costco was too far and they didn’t believe it was worth the gas to get there. Are they right?
I’ve had a Costco membership for 6 years, and prior to getting a membership myself, I shopped at Costco with my step-mom. Do I think a Costco membership is worth it? Absolutely yes!
But we need to look at the numbers too, since the grocery budget dictates where and how we shop. Let’s tackle the issue of the gas first.
Is a Costco Membership Worth It – Location and Gas
There are nearly 700 Costco locations across the world, but it’s entirely possible that there isn’t one convenient to where you live. So we need to see how the cost of gas plays into whether or not a Costco membership is worth it.
Let’s pretend that gas costs $2.50 per gallon and your vehicle gets 20 miles per gallon. That means that for every 20 miles you drive, you’re paying $2.50.
Now let’s say the closest Costco to you is 60 miles, or approximately one hour away. Your total cost just for making a trip to Costco is $14. (If it takes you shorter/longer to get to Costco, divide/multiply accordingly.)
How can you justify the cost? Even with Costco being far away, there are a few ways to make the drive worth your while:
- make fewer trips, possibly just once a month or even every other month
- buy extras each trip you do make
- strategically plan trips around the holidays to take advantage of seasonal deals
- diligently keep a price book on the items you buy most often at Costco
- browse the warehouse coupons online before you make a trip
In California, Costco was about 6 miles away without traffic. It wasn’t far, but it wasn’t close and convenient either. It was about 2 miles from where the kids went to school, but going shopping after taking them to school meant waiting 90 minutes for them to open. And that just seemed like a waste of time. And going home, just to go back to Costco and home again, and then BACK to pick the kids up from school – that was a waste of a whole day.
So I switched my schedule a bit to be more strategic and went to Costco BEFORE I picked the kids up after school. It meant no more wasted gas or unnecessary trips to that part of town.
In Georgia, Costco is 8 miles away with lots of traffic. There’s still the same scheduling issue with the kids, but it’s out of the way from their school so shopping before picking them up doesn’t save me time or gas.
Now I strategically plan a shopping trip at the start of the month to take advantage of bulk pricing and our membership.
Lesser-known Perks of a Costco Membership
If it’s a road trip to get to Costco, then you better make the most of it. While the affordable Kirkland private label (that’s often produced by well-known brands), quality foods, and a greater selection of organic foods are the most common reasons why people shop at Costco, there are a few other lesser known perks to a Costco membership that make the drive worth it.
Gift Cards: We use “the gift card trick” often with our Costco membership, buying a full-price gift card for less than face value. For example, one Christmas we bought two $50 gift cards to a local restaurant for $80. We gave one as a gift and used the other for ourselves. Gift cards will vary from location to location, as well as season to season, so it’s worth a swing through the aisle when you’re there.
Movie Tickets: Regal Cinemas and Cinemark offer 10-pack of movie tickets from Costco for as low as $8.99 per ticket. They can be used at any of the branded theaters, and when you compare to purchasing an adult ticket at the movie theater for $12.08, you’ll save over $30 in this purchase alone.
Theme Park Season Passes & Special Events: This is similar to the movie ticket and gift card concept, except there are deals for season passes and special events too. Last summer we bought two season passes to a local kids amusement park AND a parking pass for what it would have cost us for two season passes. I’ve also season deals for Legoland, SeaWorld, Universal Studios, the Zoo and Cirque du Soleil.
Gas: If your Costco has a gas station, it would be wise to fill up before you leave. Some locations report a savings of 30¢ per gallon!
Other Non-Food Purchases: Costco members can order checks, buy boats and cars with no-haggle pricing (like Carmax), furniture and generic medications and really rack up the savings.
An Amazing Return Policy: We’ve personally taken advantage of this one multiple times over in many ways. From mattresses to laptops to strawberries, Costco has a very generous “no questions asked” return policy. (Some items like electronics and jewelry do have to be returned within a certain number of days, so double check before you leave the store.)
Shopping Costco Online
Another way to skirt around the issue of gas is to shop Costco online! Many of the items on sale in-store are also on sale online too. You can score some great deals when shopping non-perishables like contact solution, vitamins/supplements and food storage.
Many of the temporary items like clothing and shoes, as well as seasonal items like pool cleaning supplies, are available online too.
If you travel often, book your travel online through CostcoTravel.com to reduce the overall cost of the trip. Costco also offers vacation packages that come with bonus Costco Cash Cards, on-board credits on cruise ships, resort credits and bonus excursions. I personally haven’t taken advantage of Costco Travel, but I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews from those who have.
In some cases, we prefer to shop on line rather than in the store. We don’t own a truck – our biggest vehicle is a compact SUV – so if it requires a truck to move it, we just buy it online and have it shipped to our front door! We’ve done this in the past with mattresses, and we considered doing this with furniture too.
The Bottom Line
Depending on how far you live from Costco will determine whether it’s worth the membership or not. The goal is save what you’re spending on gas, on that trip.
If you make several trips, it might be hard to rack up enough savings every time. But if you shop strategically, and only shop once a month or even every other month, I fully believe you can make a Costco membership worth it, even if you have to drive a couple of hours each way!
Is a Costco Membership Worth It – The Fee
There are three main types of Costco memberships, each with its own advantages. The one thing that all memberships have in common is that they can be refunded at any time. So if you purchase a membership and it turns out it’s not saving you any more, you can cancel and get your membership fee back.
Gold Star Membership: $55 annually and includes a second household card for free
Business Membership: $55 annually, includes a second household card and allows you to make purchases for resale
Executive Membership: $110 annually, includes a second household card, 2% rewards on most purchases, additional benefits on Costco services and benefits and upgrades with Costco Travel (more on these services and travel below). If it turns out your 2% reward does not cover the cost of the upgraded membership ($55), Costco will refund you the difference.
Note: Splitting a Costco membership with someone is not okay in their books. A second household card is intended for another person living at the same address. This could work though if you’re in a roommate situation.
How to Get a Costco Membership for Free
Living Social is a daily deal site and every so often, they have a deal when you purchase a NEW membership to Costco through them. Last time it was on sale, the $55 membership came with:
- a $20 Costco Cash Card
- coupons valid for a FREE 72-pack of AA Batteries ($18.99 value)
- FREE Food Court Pizza ($9.95 value)
- FREE Organic Tortilla Chips ($4.99 value)
- coupon valid for $25 off a $250 order at Costco.com
All said and done, you’re getting PAID $24 to buy a Costco membership!
The Bottom Line
If you chose the executive membership, you technically have to spend $2750 in one year in order to earn the 2% reward and break even on the cost of your membership.
However, since Costco will refund you the difference if you DON’T earn $55 in rewards, then you only have to save $55 over the course of a year to break even. And if you score a Costco membership through Living Social, you only have to save $1.07!
I know that by shopping at Costco instead of ALDI each month, I’m saving at least $55, but closer to $80. But if buying in bulk doesn’t fit well with you and your family, consider these items that the cost savings of them by themselves, make a Costco membership worth it:
Baby Diapers and Wipes: Sales on Kirkland diapers (which are made by Huggies!) worked out to be the same as price matching and couponing at local drug stores. Since buying from Costco was so much easier than couponing and price matching, we’d wait until Kirkland diapers and wipes were on sale and then buy enough to get us through until the next sale (usually 2-3 months later).
Wine: I’ve seen prices vary as much as $4 per bottle on local varieties, but Costco is known for carrying many imported wines that would otherwise be extremely expensive! Beer is also significantly more affordable.
Large Appliances: When we buy a house, we’ve already decided to get our appliances from Costco!
Electronics: Both of my DSLR cameras were from Costco, and since we bought them when they were on sale, we easily saved $200-300 over the cost of buying them elsewhere. We’ve also purchased a laptop and a desktop computer from Costco, and we saved tons of money on both. We ended up having to return the laptop after about a month, but thanks to their no-hassle return policy, it was a breeze!
Glasses / Contacts: The glasses I’m wearing as I type this post are from Costco! Both Mr. Crumbs and I wear contacts, and insurance covers them each year, but it means paying out of pocket for glasses. What would normally cost $200 at the eye doctor cost me $80 at Costco – and this included a new set of frames!
Blendtec Blender: We bought my favorite Blendec blender at Costco and saved $100 over what we would have paid elsewhere! We loved that Blendtec has a warranty, but that Costco has their awesome return policy too. I’ve only had one small issue with my Blendtec and when I needed a copy of my receipt, Costco was able to pull it up using my membership card!
Here are some other big ticket items that make the membership worth it:
- Pet Food and Supplies
- Insurance (homeowners and car)
- Road Side Assistance for Executive Membership
- Batteries (think Christmas gifts!)
- Pool Cleaning Supplies
Is a Costco Membership Worth It – Not Always
Personally, I think every family can benefit from shopping at Costco, but every family is different and a Costco membership might NOT be worth it if you:
- prefer to buy just enough food for the week and not have anything extras or leftover
- don’t have the time or energy to divide bulk food purchases into smaller portions
- work hours that preclude you from shopping when Costco is open (although you could still shop online)
- have to drive more than 4 hours to get to Costco (it’s not a gas issue, but a time issue)
- don’t have fridge, freezer and/or storage space for bulk items
- have a family of just one
- do not find the clothes, shoes or seasonal items to suit your taste
How to Use Costco Without a Membership
If you end up deciding that a Costco membership is not worth it for you, you can still take advantage of these Costco services that don’t require you to have a membership:
- Food Court
- Alcohol (in some states)
- Eye doctor appointments (glasses/contact purchases require a membership)
- Hearing appointments (aids require a membership)
- Price comparison shopping (tell them you’d like to browse the store before committing to a membership)
Another way to shop Costco without a membership is to use a Costco Cash Card. It’s similar to a store gift card, with the only hiccup being they can only be purchased by people who have a Costco membership. If you’re fortunate enough to have friends or family who happen to have a Costco membership, have them purchase you a Costco Cash Card and then you can shop on your own schedule, without having to buy a membership yourself.
If you work for a company who has a Costco business membership, volunteer to be one of the designated shoppers. You’ll be issued a Costco card that you can use for yourself as well as the company.
Finally, the tried and true way to use Costco without a membership is to shop with a friend who is a member!