- Costco has plenty of excellent deals, but in some cases, the cost of a membership just isn’t worth it.
- If you’re shopping for perishable items, for example, or if you have limited space in your home, a Costco membership might not be a good idea.
- Here are some instances when the $US60 annual fee for a Gold Star membership – the lowest-priced tier of Costco membership – can’t necessarily be justified.
Costco is a fantastic grocery-shopping option for a variety of reasons. Between the great deals, the ability to buy large quantities of your favourite products at once, and the generally high quality of their available items, there’s a reason why the wholesale warehouse is a favourite among savvy shoppers and professional chefs alike.
But of course, as with everything, there are certain drawbacks and restrictions when it comes to whiling away a day wandering the high-stacked aisles at Costco. In particular, many would-be members are turned off by the fact that the store is members-only, with a Gold Star membership running you $US60 per year and a higher-tier Executive plan costing $US120 annually.
How to shop at Costco without a membership
While die-hard Costco lovers will insist that the cost of membership is well worth it, that’s not always the case for every person and in every situation.
Here are six instances in which it’s hard to justify forking over the cost of an annual Costco membership:
If you’re shopping for perishable foods, food waste can be costly.
While buying in bulk can be a lifesaver for a family of five, it doesn’t always make sense to stock up when you’re a single shopper or even a couple – particularly when it comes to perishable foods.
If you know for a fact you’ll be using a large quantity of a certain item within a particular time frame – such as one of Costco’s many party platters for a special event – it obviously makes sense to stock up. However, when it comes to things like fresh produce, fresh meat and fish, and even over-the-counter medications, the expiration date can sneak up on you quicker than you realise.
This is doubly tricky because Costco doesn’t do size options. It’s either the amount they have available in bulk or nothing.
“Determining whether a Costco membership is worth it comes down to two things: lifestyle and shelf life,” Jenna Coleman of Particular Pantry told Business Insider. “If you are shopping for a one- or two-person household, beware of perishable items. Anything from giant bottles of OTC medications to two-pound packs of strawberries has an expiration. And no matter how good the deal is, it is wasted if you can’t consume it all before it expires.”
If you’re a savvy sale shopper or an avid coupon user, you’ll often find better prices at local stores.
When you’re a bargain shopper on a strict budget, or not particularly wedded to any specific brand, you may find that Costco’s prices are not necessarily the best. There are plenty of supposed Costco “deals” that are actually a waste of money. This includes some Costco products that are lower quality than other brands and other items that are regularly found on sale elsewhere.
“Costco has great varieties of pasta all packaged together, but they’re really not the best bang for your buck. Especially if you stock up on pasta when it’s on sale at the normal grocery store, I usually only pay between $US0.50-$US1.00/lb. for pasta, which Costco can’t beat,” the blogger The Many Little Joys wrote.
Local grocery chains can easily beat Costco’s per-unit prices for certain items, especially when you combine store or manufacturer coupons with a rebate app such as Ibotta,
“It can be hard to find items at Costco that are actually good values relative to regular grocery stores if you are a penny pincher. This is particularly true if you are conscious of a unit of measure pricing. Bigger is not always better,” the personal-finance blogger Stephanie Schill of Wynning In Life told Business Insider.
“For example, La Croix sparkling water, which my husband and I drink a lot of, is available at my local Costco for $US8.99 per 24-pack,” Schill added. “That’s $US0.37 each. They are regularly priced at $US3.99 for a 12-pack at my local Woodman’s store every day of the week, bringing the cost down to $US0.33 each.”
If there isn’t a Costco within a reasonable distance of you, it can be hard to justify the lengthy and out-of-the-way trip.
While Costco is massively popular, there’s not exactly one on every corner. According to Statista, the company operates a total of 762 warehouses worldwide, 527 of which are in the US and Puerto Rico. Compare that with approximately 4,769 Walmart locations and 1,822 Target stores, and you’ll realise that it might not necessarily be easy for a potential member to access the warehouse bargains.
Driving significantly out of your way to shop at Costco can cost you both valuable time and money, in terms of gas and the cost of additional wear and tear on your car.
“I’d recommend taking a second look at a membership if you have to drive any distance out of your way to get there,” Schill told Business Insider. “You may convince yourself that you’ll make a special trip once a month, but odds are if you have to put in the effort to go there, you won’t. So unless there is a location near your home, or on your commute, I’d reconsider.”
If you’ve made the switch to an online grocery-delivery service, a Costco membership isn’t necessary.
There are a handful of ways to shop at Costco without purchasing a membership of your own. If you’re part of the growing number of people who have made the switch to online grocery-delivery services, several actually allow you to purchase Costco products directly through their portal, without ever stepping food in the warehouse.
Instacart is one such option, which offers free delivery for your first order and a variable delivery fee on each order after that. You can also purchase an Instacart Express membership, which offers free delivery on orders of $US35 or more from the variety of stores Instacart has available.
Kelan Kline, a personal-finance blogger for The Savvy Couple, told Business Insider that it has been cost-effective for him and his wife to make the switch.
“We started using Instacart a few months ago and shop at Costco at no extra charge and no membership needed. I think in general these fast-growing delivery service companies are making big bulk grocery stores lose a good amount of customers,” Kline said.
One caveat is that the pricing can vary depending on your local Costco. For example, my Costco features a pricing disclaimer on Instacart, saying that prices are higher there than in the local warehouse.
Google Express has also partnered with Costco and similarly has free delivery on orders over a certain amount, but it again offers the disclaimer that online prices may not be the same as in-store prices.
If you live in a small space, buying in bulk can be difficult or even impossible.
Apartment dwellers know all too well the difficulty of warehouse shopping. As tempting as it can be to stock up on a year’s worth of toilet paper and paper towels, it’s simply not feasible if you don’t have the space to store it.
The hassle of storing your bulk Costco purchases may not be worth the savings it can bring.
If you’re prone to impulse purchases, Costco can cost you in the long run.
It happens to the best of us: You just need to run into the store for one quick thing, and you walk out three hours later weighed down by $US200 worth of groceries.
This can be particularly costly in a place such as Costco, which often features a rotating selection of new and intriguing products that you didn’t even know about but can’t possibly resist once spotting them.
“If you go to Costco for an item or two and leave with several more, chances are you’re wasting money on things you didn’t really need in the first place,” Courtney Jespersen, a consumer-savings expert at NerdWallet, told Business Insider.
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