Every family has a grocery store chain that they stick to through thick and thin, and my family's was always Costco.
Along with all of the great savings on bulk-sized items, Costco's membership gives you a lot of other handy perks.
But enjoying a few $1.50 hot dogs isn't the only way to save money during your weekly Costco run.
Expert shoppers and Costco employees have their own advice to slim down your grocery bill. And these are their best tips:
1. Shop Outside Your Comfort Zone
Costco, and especially the store's Kirkland brand, offers great deals on grocery essentials.
It's hard to beat Costco prices for bacon, frozen food, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and baking ingredients.
But you can also get great deals on oddball items, so it's worth looking around the store.
Take tires: at Costco major brands are regularly marked down up to $70. The store also covers rotations, repairs, checks and top-ups for as long as the tire lasts.
That's a great deal.
2. Learn The Prime Locations
While Costco is pretty different from most grocery stores, the warehouse chain still relies on trickery to squeeze every penny out of their customers.
Costco intentionally makes their layout confusing (there are no signs to guide you) and stuffs the entrance with flashy, expensive items like flat screen TVs.
Move to the center of the store, which the employees call action alley. This is where the best deals are found.
Clearance sections are often placed at the far end of the store, so it pays to head there too.
3. Pick Up Discounted Gift Cards
One thing you won't find at other stores is cheap gift cards.
Costco offers discounted cards for restaurants and movie theater chains.
Some locations even offer discounted passes for local toll roads and public transit.
These are savings you can't get anywhere else, so you should always browse the selection.
4. Split The Difference
Costco offers a unique shopping experience, and some customers have thought up unusual ways of stretching their savings.
Sometimes the price per unit for bulk items, like toilet paper, is really cheap. But you can't justify stocking up on 100 rolls for a family of three.
In cases like this, it pays to have a Costco Buddy - someone who will split large orders with you.
You get the best savings, but won't crowd your pantry.
5. Freeze Your Groceries
You can use this tip at any grocery store, but it's worth more when you add in Costco's savings on meat and organic veggies.
There are handy guides to freezing extra servings of meat, fruit, and vegetables until you're ready to use them.
If you're extra thrifty, you can stock up on produce when it's in season, freeze it, and enjoy it for months.
6. Get Price Corrections
Like other big box stores, you can get a refund if you missed a sale price at Costco.
Say you bought an item for $10, but now it's been reduced to $5.
Take it to the customer service desk and they'll refund you the difference. You get 30 days to notice the sale, and you don't even need your receipt to get the correction.
Costco also has a famously generous return policy: you have 90 days to bring back anything you don't like (with the receipt).
7. Learn The Price Codes
There's an overwhelming amount of information on Costco's price stickers, but you only need to read two little numbers.
The end digits of an item price tell you whether or not it's on sale:
- Items ending in 9 are the Costco price.
- Items ending in 8 are the retailer price.
- Items ending in 7 have been marked down.
Also, be on the lookout for .00 and .88, the codes for a manager markdown. Usually these items have damaged packaging, but are still in good condition.
Finally, check for a date under the final digit of the price code. This shows the last time a price was marked down, and can be used to guess if you're getting a good deal.
8. Check For Clearance
With Costco's huge inventory, something is always being replaced on the sales floor.
Old or leftover merchandise is moved to the clearance section, usually at the back of the store.
You'll find new items in these sections every week, but be warned that they're not always marked down. Last items are put in clearance whether they're on sale or not.
The best times to check clearance are at the end of a season. For example, check for clearance barbecues at the end of summer.
9. Pick Up A Rotisserie Chicken
This Costco grocery staple has developed its own fan following, and once you've tried it you'll see why.
It doesn't just taste great, it's also an amazing deal. You get at least three pounds of meat for only $5.
If you learn how to reuse every part of the chicken, you can stretch it out into a week's worth of healthy, family-friendly meals.
Listen for a bell while you're shopping, then make a beeline to the meat section. That sound means a fresh batch of chickens have just arrived on the floor.
10. Learn The Coupon Policy
Costco does everything a little differently from other stores by design, and that includes their coupon policy.
The warehouse chain does not accept manufacturer coupons (say, a Tide coupon for $2 off). So products like razors and cereal might cost more at Costco.
And while the store offers its own coupons, they're automatically applied at the cash register. That means there's no cutting little scraps of paper for you to do.
But you can still get rebates on all your favorite products: apps and websites like Ibotta and Checkout51 will give refunds for part of the cost for certain name brand items.
Bear in mind: the store's optometry and photo department do take coupons, and you can find some in Costco's Warehouse Savings booklet.
11. Skip The Free Samples
I hate being the bearer of bad news, but those free samples aren't really free.
It's one of those classic bait-and-switch tricks that grocery stores love, because you spend money without realizing it.
Once you've sampled a cup of those free pretzels, you're much more likely to make an impulse purchase on a whole bag.
Enjoy a hot dog before you go shopping, and study these other tricks used by grocery stores.
12. Use Your Perks
That membership you paid for is good for more than just buying jumbo-sized packs of Kleenex.
There are all kinds of Costco perks that store members forget to take advantage of:
- You can get cheap ink cartridge refills.
- The pharmacy offers very, very low prescription costs.
- You can even get discounts on medical insurance, eyewear, and vaccination costs at the store.
If you're planning a family vacation, check if booking through Costco Travel is a good deal. The chain's travel arm offers all-inclusive vacations to luxury resorts at budget prices.
13. Gas Up At Costco
The most efficient grocery shoppers are known to plan their weekly trips to save gas.
Unfortunately, gas prices aren't getting lower any time soon, so we all need to learn to take our travel costs into account.
Being a Costco member offers an obvious advantage for savvy budgeters: prices at their members-only gas station are often 20 cents a gallon lower than the local average.
Plan your shopping trip to include a full tank of discount gas, and you'll be saving all week long.
14. Consider Getting A Black Card
Costco's Executive Membership level is a little pricey, but it's also rewarding to loyal shoppers.
You get 2% of your Costco purchases as a cash back rebate, which you can spend anywhere. You also get other perks, including AAA-style roadside assistance.
It's easy to try the higher level, then switch back if it's not for you. You can even ask for a refund on your membership if your savings are lower than the cost of the upgrade.
15. Mind The Asterisk
One of the trickiest signs to watch out for around the store is an asterisk on a price tag.
This symbol means that the item is being taken off the shelves soon, but if it's a seasonal item it may return next year.
Some say that the asterisk is a sign that you'll get a good deal on the item, but just like clearance products they're actually not always marked down.
While we're saving money, here's how to get 15 household essentials for less.