Costco is the world’s largest membership-based warehouse club operator and its fourth-largest retailer by 2017 sales, according to the National Retail Federation. If you live in or near a major American city, you almost certainly live within an hour’s drive of a Costco warehouse, where bulk buying reigns supreme.
Whether you should pay $60 per household, per year for a Costco Gold Star membership — or $120 per household, per year for a benefits-rich Executive membership — depends on if the benefits of the more expensive membership save you more than the additional cost.
Mercifully, the membership fee doesn’t increase very often, but money is money. If you expect to patronize Costco stores or Costco.com sparingly, and to pick and choose your purchases carefully when you do, Costco’s typically low prices and bulk deals may not offset the annual overhead.
Also, Costco’s business model doesn’t fit every lifestyle. Buying in bulk isn’t always a good deal, even when it’s situationally appropriate. When it’s not situationally appropriate, and you find yourself throwing out pound after pound of spoiled food, you might as well flush your cash down the toilet.
All the same, millions of Costco members happily renew each year, secure in the knowledge that their membership fee more than pays for itself. They know how to extract more value from Costco and Costco-affiliated products and services — and how to avoid buying things at Costco that sell for less elsewhere. There are even some ways that non-members can extract as much savings as possible from shopping at Costco.
Costco Shopping Hacks for Non-Members
The bulk of this guide covers Costco shopping hacks for card-carrying members, but non-members aren’t completely out of luck.
Costco allows each member to bring up to two non-member guests into its stores. Select Costco departments — notably, Pharmacy and Optical — are open to non-members with or without member chaperones.
1. Accompany a Card-Carrying Member
This is how most non-members shop at Costco.
Find a Costco member in your extended family or friend network — you almost certainly have one — and ask to tag along on their next Costco trip. Use your own cart if you plan to buy a lot, but the cashier will ask for proof of membership at checkout, so your card-carrying chaperone will need to pay for your items too. Keep the receipt and settle up in the parking lot.
2. Get Your Hands on a Costco Cash Card
Costco’s prohibition on unattended non-members has a notable loophole: the Costco Cash Card, also known as the Costco Shop Card.
The Costco Cash Card is a reloadable gift card accepted only at Costco stores and Costco.com. Eligible balances range from $25 to $1,000 — enough to cover any Costco trip that doesn’t involve the purchase of, say, a top-of-the-line widescreen TV. Most importantly, the Costco Cash Card is valid for entry at Costco stores.
Though only Costco members may purchase Costco Cash Cards, Costco doesn’t officially prohibit use by non-members. So if none of the Costco members in your social network is available to take you shopping, send them enough cash to cover your expected Costco bill and ask them to buy a Cash Card on your behalf.
3. Fill Prescriptions at Costco Pharmacy (If Pricing Is Competitive)
A few Costco departments are open to non-members, with or without chaperones or Costco Cash Cards.
One is Costco Pharmacy, a full-service pharmacy that’s often cost-competitive with major national pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens. The Costco Pharmacy Drug Directory posts cash prices for some prescription medications available at Costco Pharmacy locations, though not all. Use this information as a guide only, as posted prices apply only to prescriptions purchased and shipped from Costco.com. If you want to pick up at a specific location, you’ll need to call that pharmacy for pricing.
4. Get an Eye Exam at Costco Optical
Costco Optical is another Costco department that’s open to all, with caveats. Anyone can schedule a basic eye exam or hearing test at any Costco Optical location. Pricing is subject to change but is generally competitive with national optometry chains.
Unfortunately, membership is required to purchase contacts, eyeglasses, and hearing aids. If you’re in the market for new vision or hearing aids, seriously consider pulling the trigger on a membership, as your savings could easily offset the fee. You can always cancel before your renewal date.
5. Stock Up at Costco Liquor (If Pricing Is Competitive)
In about a dozen states, including California, Texas, and New York, Costco allows non-members to shop at Costco Liquor shops with a valid Costco Cash Card. Costco Liquor shops generally have separate, unmanned entrances, making it easy to breeze in without passing through the main warehouse.
With some exceptions, Costco Liquor isn’t the place to buy a six-pack here or a bottle of wine there. Like other Costco departments, its value is in bulk buys: 24- and 30-packs of beer and hard seltzer, magnums and boxes of wine, 1.75-liter bottles of spirits. Its selection of reasonably priced high-end liquor, such as 12-year Scotch and small-batch bourbon, is impressive too. Both traits make Costco Liquor a great place to stock up before you host a party.
Canvass your local supermarket or liquor store before you buy, though. I’ve come across plenty of bad deals at my local Costco Liquor shop.
Costco Shopping Hacks for Costco Members
Every card-carrying member should know these Costco shopping hacks — and take advantage of as many as possible, as often as possible.
6. Use the Costco Anywhere Visa Card
The Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi (read our Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi review) is a cash-back credit card for Costco members. Most Costco and Costco.com purchases earn 2% cash back, with no caps or restrictions on earnings. Costco Travel purchases earn unlimited 3% cash back, while the first $7,000 spent on gas purchases each year (including purchases at Costco gas stations) earns 4% cash back. Cash back accrues as Costco store credit, payable as a Costco Cash Card once per year after your February card statement.
If your credit is good to excellent, you regularly shop at Costco, and you can commit to paying off your balances in full each month, the Anywhere Visa card is an easy way to save 2% whenever you shop at Costco.
7. If You Plan to Spend More Than $3,000 Per Year at Costco or Patronize Costco Travel, Upgrade to an Executive Membership
Costco Executive members pay $120 per household, per year — $60 more per year than standard Gold Star members. In return, they get a 2% Reward (2% cash back) on most Costco purchases, including Costco Travel purchases, up to $1,000 in total Reward earnings per year. Spend $3,000 on eligible purchases each year and you’ll earn a $60 Reward, enough to cover the cost of upgrading from Gold Star to Executive.
See Costco’s Executive Membership benefits page for more details and exclusions.
8. Pool Resources With Roommates
Technically, unrelated individuals can’t share the same Costco membership. But in practice, unrelated individuals can utilize a single Costco membership since Costco permits every member to chaperone up to two guests per visit.
This loophole is perfect for roommates who cook meals together (or prefer the same foods, at least) and share nonperishable items like toiletries and household cleaners. Four people sharing the same housing unit might not be able to justify the annual cost of four Costco memberships, no matter how much they share. A single, shared Costco membership makes far more sense — and is far cheaper — for housemates.
To make this work, you’ll want to make one roommate responsible for the membership, possibly by drawing up a cohabitation agreement to govern it and other shared resources and responsibilities. You’ll want to visit your home Costco as a group, as well, to divide up shopping labor and minimize your time in-store.
9. Shop on Weekday Mornings
It’s fair to say that shopping at Costco is an experience, but to call it “fun” is a stretch, especially when the aisles are as clogged as the parking lot. If your schedule allows, avoid peak shopping times — weekend afternoons and weekday evenings — in favor of lower-traffic times, such as weekday mornings. During the first hour or two after the store opens on Monday or Tuesday, you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself — unless it’s the day before a major holiday.
10. Use Costco.com for Research, Even If You Plan to Buy In-Store
Costco.com is a useful resource when you’re in no hurry to get your items and would prefer not to deal with your local Costco warehouse. Here, you’ll find two-day shipping on a wider selection of nonperishable items than any individual Costco store offers — though smaller orders may incur delivery fees and some items are available for less at the warehouse.
Costco.com really shines as a research tool, though. In one memorable case, I used it to confirm my local Costco had the lowest price on the high-capacity dehumidifier I needed immediately to draw moisture out of a wall I’d opened up in my home. I saved about $30 over an equivalent model on sale at the Home Depot across the parking lot and two days of waiting for a questionable Amazon alternative. Not bad for five minutes of research and eight minutes in the car.
11. Buy Kirkland Signature Products Whenever Possible
Kirkland Signature is Costco’s store brand. It offers the overall lower prices you’d expect from a store brand, plus quality on par with name-brand equivalents that command premium pricing.
With rare exceptions, I buy Kirkland Signature when it’s available. Some of the competitively priced, high-quality Kirkland Signature products I’ve come across in my travels include:
- Hard Cheese. Specifically, Parmigiana Reggiano, which comes in 1.5-pound hunks that never seem to spoil.
- Wine. Specifically, Sauvignon Blanc. I’m no expert, but it’s good and cheap.
- Seltzer. Kirkland Signature packs 36 cans into its multiflavor cases, yet they’re still cheaper than the 30-can, single-flavor cases of La Croix.
- Pizza. It’s nothing fancy, but I’ve consistently found four-pizza boxes for about $10, or $2.50 per pie — roughly 30% of the per-pizza cost of gourmet frozen pizzas at my local supermarket.
12. Don’t Wait to Jump on a Good Deal
This is especially important when it comes to seasonal items, which typically remain in stock for a matter of weeks or less. One December, after using Costco.com to confirm that my local warehouse club had the area’s best deal on a high-quality artificial Christmas tree, I dropped what I was doing to pick it up — and was relieved to find I’d gotten one of the five remaining 7.5-footers in stock.
In addition, Costco’s non-seasonal inventory is less predictable than the typical superstore’s. Out-of-stock items are not guaranteed to come back in stock, and an asterisk on the price tag denotes a discontinued item — meaning it’s guaranteed not to come back anytime soon.
Bottom line: Don’t wait to capitalize on well-priced nonperishables at Costco, even if it means stretching your budget in the short term. You don’t know when or if you’ll see that deal again.
13. Be Wary of Frozen or Refrigerated Meals and Sides
Compared with the rest of the store, Costco’s vast freezer and refrigerator sections are value wastelands. You’ll find some good deals here, but you can also quickly run up your bill on items of questionable worth.
While it’s not fair to advise avoiding the freezer and refrigerator aisles altogether, each purchase here warrants careful number-crunching. My Costco warehouse has a dynamite chicken tikka masala dinner that’s nearly as good as the version served by the Indian joint across the road. But its per-ounce price is about the same.
You also want to avoid buying perishable food that will spoil before you can eat. That’s not a great value.
14. Eat Before You Shop
This is sound advice for any shopping trip that may involve impulse buys. But it’s especially important for the hungry Costco member with a weak spot for frozen or refrigerated edibles. Costco’s prepared food products generally come in big portions, meaning they add more to your grocery bill and take up more storage space than standard-issue supermarket portions.
15. Fill Up at the Food Court
If you do arrive at Costco on an empty stomach, make a pit stop at the food court before proceeding into the store. Entree pricing here is so low it’s difficult to see how the place turns a profit. The catch: It offers a limited, generally unhealthy menu that’s heavy on standard American fare like pizza, burgers, and hot dogs.
16. Only Buy Produce in Bulk Only If You’ll Eat It Before It Spoils
Bulk-bought produce certainly seems like a good deal — until it sprouts mold or withers away before you can eat it. If you’re not one to consume huge quantities of berries, bananas, or salad mix, stick to your supermarket’s produce section and its smaller, more reasonable portions.
Exercise special caution with whole spices, such as garlic and ginger, both of which come in massive bulk portions at Costco. Garlic and ginger both keep longer than, say, bananas, but the typical home cook still won’t go through an entire Costco portion before it turns bad.
All that said, Costco produce is often a great deal for shoppers able to minimize food waste.
17. Plan Freezer Meals Before Stocking Up on Perishable Bulk Items
Freezer meals extend bulk-bought perishable items’ shelf life, minimizing or even eliminating waste. If you already have a stand-alone freezer, you can begin planning your first batch of freezer meals today. If not, consider investing in one. With regular use, you’ll recoup your upfront cost and then some.
My family typically has three or four different freezer meals in the rotation at any given time. Most are stews and casseroles that heat up well. We usually purchase enough raw ingredients to make eight to 10 portions of stew and one or two baking pans of casserole. It works out to about a month’s supply of weekday dinners, with fresh-cooked meals interspersed to keep things interesting.
18. Don’t Assume Meat Is a Good Deal
While generously portioned, Costco’s fresh meats and fish aren’t always priced competitively. Bring your supermarket’s weekly mailer on your next visit to compare deals.
19. If You See a Good Deal on a Nonperishable Item, Go For It
Keep your supermarket mailer as you explore Costco’s nonperishable food aisles. Carefully compare items’ unit costs by dividing the bulk container’s total price by the number of servings or ounces. Then do the same for the equivalent supermarket product. When you find a good deal, jump on it while the item is still in stock.
Your mileage may vary, but I’ve consistently found value in these shelf-stable Costco buys:
- Dry spices, like cumin and red pepper
- Liquid seasonings, like soy sauce
- Pasta sauce
- Peanut butter (and nut butters in general)
- Snack bars
- Loose nuts and trail mixes
20. Buy Bulk Pantry Staples
Though the per-package savings aren’t always eye-popping, Costco’s bulk staples offer great value for frequent shoppers. Its Cheerios two-pack, for instance, sells for about 20% more than one similarly sized supermarket box. These pantry staples typically offer better value than supermarket equivalents:
- Vegetable oil
- Sliced bread — for best results, freeze one loaf and thaw it when you’re done with the first
- Milk (which can also be frozen, but make sure the container has room to expand)
- Cheese, though the big portions may not be appropriate for lighter users
21. Look at the Last 2 Numbers on Price Tags
At Costco, some advertised sales offer excellent value. Others, not so much. An item being marked “on sale” (which is rarer at Costco than at most nonmembership-based retailers) is less important than what’s on the price tag.
Specifically, the last two numbers convey a great deal of information about the item and the potential value it represents:
- .97 indicates a markdown, meaning the item was originally priced higher.
- Lower nonround numbers, such as .49 and .74, indicate clearance sales, special manufacturer pricing, or both.
- .88 and .00 indicate manager specials, which may mean the item is priced to sell.
A price followed by an asterisk (such as “$11.97*”) denote discontinued items. When you come across an asterisked item you’ll eventually need to buy, such as paper towels or food staples, grab it. It probably won’t be there when you return.
22. Review Costco’s Coupon Mailers Before Your Trip
Costco warehouses are big, often crowded, and not always well-organized. Spending a few minutes with your store’s monthly mailer before your next trip could save you a great deal more time in the store — helping you home in on the sale items you actually need while speeding past impulse buys.
23. Fill Up at Costco Gas Stations
Don’t be intimidated by the long lines. Traffic moves fast at these 12- to 16-pump gas superstores, and per-gallon savings range from $0.05 to $0.20 over prevailing local prices (and sometimes more). Use a gas price app like GasBuddy to see exactly how much you stand to save over the nearest non-Costco gas station.
24. Buy Tires at Costco
Costco tires generally beat dealerships and independent mechanics on price, after accounting for installation and balancing. And Costco’s tire shop offers some additional value-adds that could reduce your lifetime ownership cost:
- Nitrogen Fills. Unlike most shops, which use compressed air, Costco fills its tires with nitrogen. Nitrogen-filled tires retain pressure better over time, especially in extreme weather conditions, thereby reducing fuel consumption. When the pressure does drop, you can safely refill your nitrogen tires with regular compressed air.
- Lifetime Free Maintenance. This includes balancing and repairs, the cost of which can really add up if you drive on rough roads regularly.
- Five-Year Road Hazard Warranty. Costco tires come with a five-year road hazard warranty — basically, a guarantee that Costco will repair or replace tires damaged in normal operating conditions for five years from the installation date.
25. Take Advantage of Preferred Pricing on Major Third-Party Purchases
Costco partners with select third-party vendors to offer members-only pricing on major home improvement purchases. Vendor selection may vary, but the following types of products and services are common:
- Roofing and siding
- Garage doors
- Heating and cooling
- Water and septic
- Pools and decking
You’ll see the full lineup of preferred vendors as you walk out of your warehouse, past the checkout lines and food court. You can also look on Costco.com for more information.
26. If You Can’t Move a Heavy Item In-Store, Get Help
This Costco hack won’t directly reduce your shopping bill, but it could keep you out of the urgent care clinic. Grab a low-rise cart on your way in, flag down a store associate near the item in question, and have them hoist it onto the cart for you.
Costco members have a lot of money-saving hacks at their disposal. From cash-back credit cards that earn rewards on every purchase to smart bulk-buying strategies that significantly reduce at-home meal costs, savvy Costco shoppers know a lot about keeping shopping bills in check.
If you’re not yet a Costco member, now’s the time to take a closer look at the benefits of membership. Whet your appetite with the above Costco shopping hacks for non-members, and if you like what you see, consider going all-in on membership with the world’s biggest warehouse club.
What’s your No. 1 strategy to save money at Costco?