Costco is the world’s largest membership-based warehouse club operator and the fourth-largest retailer by 2020 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.
Millions of Costco members can’t be wrong, but it pays to know how to extract the most value from Costco and Costco-affiliated products and services and how to avoid buying things that sell for less elsewhere. There are even some ways nonmembers can extract as much savings as possible from shopping at Costco.
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.
1. Use Costco.com for Research
Costco.com is a valuable resource whether you plan to buy in-store or online.
If you’d prefer not to deal with the crowds at your local Costco warehouse, shopping online is an option. Members get two-day shipping on a wider selection of nonperishable goods than any individual Costco store offers. However, smaller orders may incur delivery fees, and some products are available for less at the warehouse.
But Costco.com really shines as a research tool. You can use Costco.com to:
- Compare prices on comparable products with other major retailers, like Home Depot and Walmart
- Confirm that a particular product is available in your preferred store
- Compare product types, sizes, quantities, and capacities in Costco’s inventory (that’s especially helpful for more expensive durable products like furniture and appliances)
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 from 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.
2. 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 a lot of time in the store, helping you zero in on the sale items you need while speeding past impulse buys.
Moreover, because Costco has a generous 90-day return policy for most nonperishable goods, including major appliances and electronics, there’s less pressure to exhaustively compare Costco’s price with that of other retailers before capitalizing on a limited-time sale. Just wait to unbox your purchase until you’re confident there isn’t a better deal.
3. Use the Costco App When You Shop
Costco isn’t one of the best places to use a coupon app like Ibotta or Coupons.com. After all, it’s built around the premise of members-only savings, not savings for all. But it doesn’t hurt to search your favorite coupon app for potential deals or cash-back opportunities at Costco stores or Costco.com.
But there’s one app that reliably offers Costco discounts. It’s the Costco mobile app, and it includes a digitized, store-specific list of current Costco markdowns. You’ll see these same markdowns in-store, provided they’re still in stock, but the app makes it much easier to plan each shopping trip before you hit the store.
4. Eat Before You Shop
Eat before you go. It’s sound advice for any shopping trip that may involve impulse buys. But it’s crucial for the hungry Costco member with a weak spot for frozen or refrigerated edibles.
Costco’s prepared food products generally come in big portions compared with what you’ll find at the grocery store or even superstores like Walmart. They add more to your grocery shopping bill and take up more storage space than standard-issue supermarket portions.
Eating before you shop could prevent ill-advised nonfood purchases too. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that hungry shoppers are more likely to spend on inedible items in addition to food.
5. Fill Up at the Food Court
If you arrive at Costco on an empty stomach, make a pit stop at the food court before proceeding into the store. Entree pricing 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.
6. Shop on Weekday Mornings
It’s fair to say 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.
The most significant disadvantage to shopping earlier in the morning is a lower likelihood of snagging free samples of food and beverage products on sale at the store. Free sample stations are more common during peak hours.
7. Compare Costco Prices to Supermarket Prices as You Shop
Keep your supermarket mailer handy as you explore Costco’s nonperishable food aisles. Or you can download an app called Flipp, which keeps track of all your favorite grocery and other store mailers (including Costco).
Carefully compare 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 it’s 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
The same logic applies to nonfood items too. As you browse Costco’s home goods, clothing, or appliance inventories, keep relevant competitors’ apps or websites handy on your smartphone. You’ll want to confirm Costco really offers a better deal than Kohl’s on that pair of jeans, Home Depot on that microwave, or Best Buy on that flatscreen.
8. Don’t Wait to Jump on a Good Deal
If you see a good deal, snap it up. That’s especially important for seasonal items like patio furniture, winter clothing, and holiday decor. These typically remain in stock for a matter of weeks or less.
One December, after using Costco.com to confirm my local warehouse store had the area’s best deal on a high-quality artificial Christmas tree, I dropped what I was doing to pick it up. I managed to snag one, but when I arrived, there were only five left in stock.
Additionally, Costco’s nonseasonal inventory is less predictable than the typical superstore’s. The warehouse giant can’t guarantee restocking of out-of-stock merchandise, and an asterisk on the price tag means the product is discontinued, meaning it’s definitely not coming back.
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 whether you’ll see that deal again. And if you’re just not sure, remember that generous 90-day return window on most goods (just check to ensure that product qualifies).
9. Buy Kirkland Signature Products Whenever Possible
Kirkland Signature is Costco’s store brand. It offers the overall lower prices you expect from a store brand with quality similar to the name-brands that command premium pricing.
That’s all the more impressive since some popular Kirkland-branded products are actually manufactured by recognizable (and in some cases premium) brands. MoneyWise identifies several well-known, well-respected brands behind Kirkland goods past and present:
- Diamond Naturals (dry dog food)
- Starbucks (whole-bean coffee)
- Perrigo (infant formula)
- Duracell (batteries)
- Kimberly-Clark (diapers)
- Reynolds (aluminum foil)
- Ocean Spray (cranberry juice)
So with rare exceptions, I buy Kirkland-brand products when available. Some of the competitively priced, high-quality Kirkland Signature products I’ve come across include:
- Cheese. Specifically, I like the Parmigiana Reggiano, which comes in 1.5-pound hunks that never seem to spoil. Kirkland’s feta cheese is good too.
- Wine. Specifically, I get the sauvignon blanc. I’m no expert, but it’s good and cheap.
- Seltzer. Kirkland Signature packs 36 cans into its multi-flavor cases, but they’re still cheaper than the 30-can, single-flavor cases of LaCroix.
- Pizza. It’s nothing fancy, but I’ve consistently found four-pizza boxes for about $10, or $2.50 per pie, which is roughly 30% of the per-pizza cost of gourmet frozen pizzas at my local supermarket.
10. 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.
11. 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, but you can also quickly run up your bill on food of questionable worth.
You don’t need to avoid the freezer and refrigerator aisles altogether, but each purchase 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.
Also avoid buying perishable prepacked food that will spoil before you can eat it. That’s not a great value.
12. Only Buy Produce in Bulk if You Can Eat It Before It Spoils
Bulk-bought produce 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 particular caution with whole spices, such as garlic and ginger, both of which come in massive bulk portions at Costco. At Costco, one bag of garlic contains more than a dozen heads, whereas grocery stores typically sell heads individually. Garlic and ginger keep longer than fruits like bananas, but the typical home cook still can’t get through an entire Costco portion before it turns bad.
That said, Costco produce is often a fantastic deal for shoppers able to minimize food waste.
13. Plan Freezer Meals Before Stocking Up on Perishable Bulk Items
Freezer meals extend bulk-bought perishables’ 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 (you can buy it at Costco). With regular use, you’ll recoup your upfront cost and then some.
My family typically has three or four different freezer meals in 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 casseroles. It works out to about a month’s supply of weekday dinners with fresh-cooked meals in between to keep things interesting.
14. Buy Bulk Pantry Staples
Though the per-package savings isn’t always eye-popping, Costco’s bulk staples offer great value for frequent shoppers. For example, its Cheerios two-pack 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 you can also freeze, but make sure the container has room to expand)
- Cheese, though the big portions may not be appropriate for lighter users
15. Look at the Last Two Numbers on Price Tags
At Costco, some advertised sales offer excellent value. Others, not so much. A sale marker (which is rarer at Costco than 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 merchandise and the potential value it represents:
- A price ending in 0.97 indicates a markdown, meaning the item was originally priced higher.
- Lower non-round numbers, such as 0.49 and 0.74, indicate clearance sales, special manufacturer pricing, or both.
- A price ending in 0.88 and 0.00 indicate manager specials, which may mean the product is priced to sell.
A price followed by an asterisk (such as “$11.97*”) denotes discontinued goods. When you come across an asterisked product you use regularly or know you’ll need at some point, such as paper towels or food staples, grab it. It probably won’t be there when you return.
16. 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, often delivering after-the-fact discounts via Costco Shop Cards. Vendor selection varies, but the following types of products and services are common:
- Roofing and siding
- Garage doors
- Heating and cooling
- Water and septic
- Pools and decking
Costco displays the full lineup of preferred vendors so you can see them as you walk out of your warehouse past the checkout lines and food court. You can also look on Costco.com for more information.
17. If You Can’t Move Heavy Merchandise In-Store, Get Help
This Costco hack won’t directly reduce your shopping bill, but it could keep you out of a pricey urgent care clinic. Grab a low-rise cart on your way in, flag down a Costco employee near the merchandise in question and have them hoist it onto the cart for you.
When you check out, tell the cashier you need help loading it into your vehicle. Chances are their supervisor can find an employee for the job, though you might need to wait a few minutes if the store is busy.
18. 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 whether stopping at Costco stands to save you money over the nearest non-Costco gas station and by how much.
19. 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. Some Costco locations have self-serve nitrogen compressors for refills. If yours doesn’t, a tire shop staffer should be happy to do it for you, though you might need to wait if the shop is filled with paying customers. And if the pressure drops when you’re not near a Costco location, you can safely refill your nitrogen tires with regular compressed air.
- Lifetime Free Maintenance. The lifetime free maintenance 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.
20. Pool Resources With Roommates
Costco isn’t just for families. It permits members to give their free household card to an unrelated individual, provided they live at the same address and are at least 18 years old. Additionally, Costco allows anyone with a Costco card (membership or household) to bring up to two nonmember guests to the store with them. In practice, that means up to six unrelated individuals living at the same address can shop at Costco (two cardholders and four guests).
This arrangement is perfect for roommates who use similar ingredients or cook meals together and share nonperishable necessities like toiletries, toilet paper, and household cleaners. For example, six people sharing the same housing unit might not be able to justify the annual cost of six 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 arrangement work, appoint a designated roommate to be responsible for the membership, possibly by drawing up a cohabitation agreement to govern it and other shared resources and responsibilities. If one of you owns the house, it’s most logical for that person to hold the membership, as they’re less likely to move out.
Then assign another to be that individual’s free household cardholder. It will fall to one or both cardholders to go to the store when you need something, so choose wisely. Then visit Costco as a group to divide shopping labor and minimize your time in-store.
21. Know When to 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 and perks page for more details and exclusions.
22. Use the Costco Anywhere Visa Card
The Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi 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.
Read our Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi review for more details.
Costco Shopping Hacks for Nonmembers
The bulk of this guide covers Costco shopping hacks for card-carrying members, but nonmembers aren’t entirely out of luck.
Costco allows each member to bring up to two nonmember guests into its stores. Select Costco departments — notably, the pharmacy and optical — are open to nonmembers with or without member chaperones.
23. Accompany a Card-Carrying Member
Most nonmembers shop at Costco by going with a member.
So find a family member or friend with a Costco membership 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 must pay for your purchases too. Keep the receipt and settle up in the parking lot. That’s what Venmo’s for.
24. Fill Prescriptions at Costco Pharmacy (if Pricing Is Competitive)
A few Costco departments are open to nonmembers with or without chaperones.
One is Costco Pharmacy, a full-service pharmacy that’s often cost-competitive with major national pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.
The 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 must contact that pharmacy for pricing.
25. Get an Eye Exam at Costco Optical or a Hearing Exam at the Costco Hearing Aids Center
Costco Optical and the Costco Hearing Aids Center are two other Costco departments 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, you must be a member 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.
26. Stock Up at Costco Liquor (if Pricing Is Competitive)
In about a dozen states, including California, Texas, and New York, Costco allows nonmembers to shop at Costco Liquor shops with a valid Costco Shop Card. Costco Liquor shops generally have separate 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 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.
But even with these hacks, Costco membership isn’t suitable for everyone. If you expect to patronize Costco stores or Costco.com sparingly and pick your purchases carefully when you do, Costco’s typically low prices and bulk deals probably won’t offset the annual overhead.
Also, Costco’s business model doesn’t fit every lifestyle. Buying in bulk isn’t always a good deal. Throwing out pound after pound of spoiled food is no different from flushing your hard-earned cash down the toilet.
Still, 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 Costco shopping hacks for nonmembers, and if you like what you see, go all-in on membership with the world’s biggest warehouse store.
*Valid only for nonmembers for their first year of membership. Limit one per household. Nontransferable and may not be combined with any other promotion. You must join in person with a Costco representative. New members will receive their Costco Shop Card by mail in 4 to 6 weeks. Costco Shop Cards are not redeemable for cash, except where required by law.
A Costco membership is $60 a year. An Executive Membership is an additional $60 upgrade fee a year. Each membership includes one free Household Card. May be subject to sales tax. Costco accepts all Visa® cards, as well as cash, checks, debit/ATM cards, EBT and Costco Shop Cards. Departments and product selection may vary.