Are Warehouse Clubs Worth it for Couples? The Pros and Cons
For as long as I can remember — including back when it was Price Club pre-merger — my dad has been a Costco devotee, filling our home with all things Kirkland. Therefore, I had plenty of first-hand experience with warehouse clubs and the products they offered. Of course, there’s a difference between shopping for a family and bulk-buying for a couple.
Ever since we moved to Springfield, Missouri, my wife and I have driven by our local Sam’s Club frequently and wondered if it would make sense for us to become members. Up until recently, we had concluded that it probably didn’t make a lot of sense since 1) we’re only two people and 2) we already do most of our shopping at Walmart and Aldi to save money on groceries. However, after an Amex Offer showed up on my account late last year, we decided to give it a shot.
So, how is our warehouse club experiment working out — and would I recommend membership to other couples in a similar situation? Let’s take a look at a few pros and cons as well as some other things to consider when it comes to couples getting the most value out of warehouse club membership.
How Couples Can Get the Most Out of a Warehouse Club Membership
Varying degrees of “bulk”
When most people think about warehouse club shopping, I imagine they picture cartoon-sized containers of condiments or comedy bits referencing such absurdities. However, while Costco, Sam’s Club, and others do certainly have some large items, not everything is oversized or unreasonable. In fact, you can easily find products that contain fewer than half a dozen servings. Therefore, buying in “bulk” may not be as intimidating as you might think.
For every 50-pound bag of rice to be found in warehouse clubs across the nation, there are also boxes of cereal that come in a manageable two-pack. Similarly, if you don’t want to look like a lush with an oversized handle of liquor, you should also know that, at least at my Sam’s Club, there are normal-sized bottles of alcohol (750ml) that fetch lower prices.
Ultimately, if you’re shopping for just you and your partner, you’re sure to come across a product you would otherwise buy but can’t justify buying that much of it. At the same time, the items that tend to be sold in the largest quantities are also those that aren’t likely to go bad for quite some time. For example, when my wife decided to see if Sam’s Club had any ibuprofen, she was initially turned off by the idea of buying 1,200 capsules (one would hope not to need that many pills), but eventually decided to buy it anyway since they’d last a while, didn’t take up much room, and were on par with what we’d pay for far smaller bottles anywhere else.
The bottom line is that, despite the impressions you may have of what “buying in bulk” means, you really need to see what’s actually available before determining it’s not for you.
Trying new things
Not only are warehouse clubs often loaded with pantry staples and standbys but they’ve also proven to be a good place to launch new products as well. Heck, just think about the samples that such stores have become famous for — many of these are for newer items they’ve trying to grow awareness for. With that in mind, you may just come across an item you want to try. The only problem is that (assuming there’s no sample available) you’ll likely need to buy a sizable amount of a product you run the risk of not even liking. Again, in most cases, this won’t be a year’s supply of anything, but it’d definitely seem larger if you disliked it. Thus, while some of these novelties may be tempting, I’d recommend taking an extra pause before adding them to your cart.
Name brands may not be the best deals
One of the reasons that stores like Aldi and Trader Joe’s have become so popular in recent years is that they offer quality items at discount prices, thanks in part to private labeling. Meanwhile, the few name brands they might stock retain normal if not inflated prices, making their deals look even better by comparison. Well, in my experience, a similar phenomenon applies to warehouse clubs as well — although the share of private label products may not be nearly as high.
As I alluded to in my intro, my family was always a big fan of Costco’s Kirkland Signature products. Over at Sam’s Club, we’re now learning to love their Member’s Mark (not to be confused with Maker’s Mark, incidentally) and their various generics. In my view, this is where the true value of warehouse clubs shines, offering those low per-serving prices they’re famous for.
This isn’t to say that you can’t find good deals on name-brand products as well, but several of them don’t seem quite as appealing. Additionally, as we’ll get to in a moment, there are other tricks and considerations to be made when it comes to buying some of these top brands in bulk. Therefore, if you really want to save, I suggest aiming for the private label selections (when available).
In theory, combo packs seem like a great idea. After all, when buying in bulk, it’s nice to have some variety and break up the monotony of eating the same product over and over. However, if you’re picky like me, these combo packs can also come with a major drawback IMHO.
This is actually something I discovered as a kid, as many of the variety packs we bought would include two or three flavors I really enjoyed along with one I absolutely despised. That’s how we would end up with a surplus of Cherry Pop-Tarts or a fridge full of Grapefruit seltzers I’d leave for my father after I consumed all of the plain, lemon, and lime ones. Making matters worse, some variety packs might double up the amount of the “lesser” flavors while limiting the one you really want. Lastly, in many cases, it’s either combo packs or nothing.
Admittedly, I’m making this whole section more dramatic than it probably should be. But, all kidding aside, I do think this is a significant potential drawback that shoppers should be aware of. Of course, if you’re not as neurotic as me, you may have no issue with these combo packs — and perhaps even enjoy the opportunity to try new flavors you might not have otherwise.
Possible cash back
On top of the savings you’ll hopefully enjoy as a member of a warehouse club, you might also be able to score some cash back or other perks along the way. Sadly, one of my favorite hacks in this arena recently went away as Dosh seemingly discontinued (at least for now) their 5% cashback on Sam’s Club purchases offer. At least they still have a 3% cashback in-app deal for online Sam’s Club purchases, but I sincerely hope the change is related to current conditions and will return in the future. In the meantime, the stock-back app Bumped also features Sam’s Club, although they too recently slashed the cashback amount from 3% to 1% of your purchase price. Interestingly, they also switched from offering Walmart stock (Sam’s parent company) on these purchases to issues of fractional ETF shares instead.
Despite those two disappointing changes, there are still other ways to earn cashback on warehouse club purchases. For one, it just so happens that Discover is including Warehouse Clubs in their quarterly 5% back category (April through June) for their Discover It card. Ironically, however, Costco only takes Visa cards, so this offer won’t work there. Speaking of credit cards, both of the main clubs also offer their own. This includes the Citi Costco Anywhere Visa and the aptly-named Sam’s Club Mastercard.
It should also be noted that Costco and Sam’s Club have higher levels of membership that offer cash back as well. At Costco, those customers who opt for the Gold Star Executive Membership ($120 annually) can enjoy “Annual 2% Reward on Eligible Costco and Costco Travel Purchases.” Similarly, Sam’s Club offers their Sam’s Plus membership tier ($100 annually), inviting members to “Get 2% back on qualifying purchases – up to $500/year.” While both could be attractive options, I’d advise new members to get a feel for their shopping habits first and then run the math to see if either offer is a good deal for them.
Reasonable membership fees
When I was a kid — and even into my adulthood — I would have assumed a membership to Costco or the like would come at a pretty steep price. Then again, considering how busy these stores could get on a Saturday afternoon, I probably should have realized that they weren’t quite as exclusive as I imagined. In any case, it turns out that a warehouse club membership might be more affordable than you realize.
Currently, a standard one-year Costco membership goes for $60. Meanwhile, the equivalent membership level at Sam’s Club fetches $45. By the way, each of these offerings also includes a complimentary household card, so your partner likely won’t need to retain their own membership.
While I was writing this post, I also discovered that Sam’s Club is currently offering a special deal for new members where they can receive a $45 credit toward their first purchase (made within 60 days of joining). If you’re doing the math, this effectively makes your first year of membership free. Looking at the fine print, it looks like this offer is set to run through June 21st, 2020, but you can find more info here.
Finally, if you’re still not sure if a warehouse club membership is right for you and your significant other, there are a few strategies you can use to get a better idea. For one, the delivery service Instacart offers delivery of Sam’s Club and Costco products to non-members. That said, be aware that these clubs may have higher prices in-app than you’d find in-store (also, if you are a member, you can apparently add your account info in your Instacart profile for members-only pricing). On top of that, delivery fees for these clubs seem to be quite high — $8.99 and up from what I’ve seen — so an Instacart Express membership may be in order if you do want to try out either warehouse option.
Alternatively (and once things return to normal), you may simply be able to visit a warehouse club you’re thinking about joining with a friend who is already a member. Most clubs do allow members to bring a guest with them — although the member themselves will need to purchase the items. There are also reports that non-members may use gift cards for warehouses even as non-members, but it seems there could be some complications with that plan. Lastly, since Sam’s Club, Costco, and others maintain their own e-commerce platforms, you may also be able to gain some insight by exploring what products they offer on there. Of course, make sure to pay attention to what items are actually offered in-club as some may be online exclusives.
Looking back, it seems my wife and I really decided to join a warehouse club at the exact right time. Although we often encounter items that might be a good deal but are simply unnecessary for a household the size of ours, more often than not, we’ve been able to find great values that have also made it easy for us to stock up during these strange times. On a related note, while I miss my Costco days (there are none in our area), I can’t say enough good things about Sam’s Club’s “Scan & Go” feature that makes the entire warehouse shopping experience infinitely easier — especially in the social distancing age. With all that said, while I wouldn’t advise that every couple should go sign-up for a warehouse membership, I do think it’s worth exploring the idea and seeing what your local clubs have to offer. Then, you can weigh the pros and cons, run the numbers, and see if such offerings could end up saving you money in the long run.
Also published on Medium.