Costco: What’s worth it, what’s not?

Some people are surprised to hear we have a Costco membership when it’s just the two of us. I admit, paying to shop someplace is a hard sell for me, especially when we only go a few times a year. If you’ve never been to Costco before, only been a couple of times, or never really inspected the shelf prices, it’s easy to get carried away; not only can the selection and the store itself be kind of overwhelming, but the fact you’re paying for the privilege of shopping there makes it easy to assume everything you come across is going to be a great deal. Of course, this is not always the case, especially if you’re already making the effort to buy groceries in bulk and on sale. That said, the past few years have taught us a few things regarding what to buy (and what not to buy) in order to come out ahead.

Keep in mind the suggestions below are for a small or small-ish family; if you have 6 kids, own a restaurant, or eat potatoes for every meal, obviously this will not apply to you. Also, when in doubt, READ THE PRICE LABELS CAREFULLY. Make sure the correct price label is above the correct item, and if it doesn’t list a per-unit price, calculate it yourself. (If you suck at math and your phone doesn’t have a calculator, bring an actual calculator. I’ve not only done this myself but have seen other people doing it as well, so I feel safe saying it’s a socially sanctioned Costco Thing.)

So, what’s worth it?

• Flour.
At 30 cents a pound ($14.89 for 50 lbs.), Costco’s price is unbeatable. It’s admittedly a lot of flour, but we portion it out into plastic buckets with tight-fitting lids so it stays fresh.

• Carrots.
At $4.99 for 10 lbs., they’re roughly the same price per pound as the ones at the grocery store, but they’re organic, and carrots last forever in the crisper so it’s good to have them on hand.

• Unsalted butter.
Sometimes you can find butter on sale at the grocery store for cheaper, but it’s not that much cheaper, and this way you always have a steady supply. Get unsalted (why not salted? I like to have control over how much salt I’m putting in; plus, salt acts as a preservative so companies can get away with using not-as-fresh butter) and freeze it.

• Bacon.
Same reason as the butter—it’s sometimes cheaper at the grocery store, but not always, plus the Kirkland quality is better and it’s good to have on hand. Freeze it.

• Chicken thighs.
Not only is a bag of frozen Kirkland Signature thighs always $1.99/lb., but they’re extremely versatile and good to always have on hand.

• Coffee.
The San Francisco Bay brand is cheapest at $6 a pound. Coffee can sometimes be found for cheaper at Grocery Outlet, but this is a good fallback for when you can’t find on-sale coffee at the grocery store. It’s a big bag, so keep it frozen and only take out what you need.

• Foil and plastic wrap.
It may be a little disturbing to pay $15 for a foodservice-sized roll of plastic wrap, but it will last you nearly until the end of time, and this is coming from someone who uses a lot of plastic wrap. Ditto for the foil.

• Rice.
Only $9.69 for a 25-pound bag. ’Nuff said.

• S&W organic tomato paste.
Tomato paste can be made into a quick tomato or pizza sauce quite easily, so it’s always great to have around. It’s a few cents cheaper than store brand, plus it’s organic.

• Kalamata olives.
This huge jar costs about as much as two small jars at the grocery store. Plus, they’re brined so they last forever in the fridge.

• Sun-dried tomatoes.
Again, definitely cheaper than the grocery store, and they keep forever in the fridge. (The oil will harden, but you can either leave the jar out at room temperature a few hours before you need the tomatoes, or wipe the hardened oil off with a paper towel.)

• Better Than Bouillon.
A staple in our household for the weeks when we can’t make our own. It keeps forever, and is always cheaper than the grocery store.

• Oils.
Again, always cheaper per ounce than the grocery store. Keep in mind that at Costco the canola oil is cheaper than the vegetable oil (they’re usually stored next to each other and have similar packaging). Also, if you’re only going to be cooking with olive oil, don’t get extra-virgin. You won’t be able to taste the difference, and 1 1/2 gallons of regular ol’ olive oil is only about $23. (Pour it into a smaller bottle with a funnel.)

• Balsamic vinegar.
A gigantic bottle of the real thing is only $12. If you, like us, make your own salad dressing, this is indispensable.

• Nuts.
If you eat a lot of nuts, know these are usually on par with the sale price at the bulk bins, but fresher. Keep them refrigerated so they don’t turn rancid. If you don’t eat a lot of nuts, bags this big probably aren’t worth it.

• Garofalo pasta.
I admit this is a borderline item. It’s about $1.19 a package, which is not as cheap as the regular store, but the quality difference between real, premium Italian pasta and dried store brand is hard to ignore once you’ve discovered it. Given that the “premium” is only 20 cents, I save this pasta for simple meals when quality is especially noticeable.

S0, what’s not worth it?

• Oatmeal.
It’s always cheaper in bulk at the grocery store (at Winco it’s 25 cents a pound; here it’s 73 cents a pound). You can’t tell me Quaker has some proprietary claim to oat flakes.

• Canned tomatoes.
At Costco it works out to 96 cents a can, vs. 59 cents for store brand at the supermarket. Plus, they only have stewed and large diced, and you know how I feel about diced.

• Convenience foods, snack foods, anything from the bakery, anything they’re giving away as samples.
Duh.

• Spices, especially powdered ones.
Unless you work in a commercial kitchen, there’s NO WAY you’ll be able to use all of the container before it loses its punch. Whole spices that you grind yourself are a little safer bet, but it’s still best to buy smaller amounts fresh.

• Garlic and onions.
It seems like a great idea to buy these in bulk, but they’re not as fresh as you think. Unless you’re making garlic confit and French onion soup every night, the garlic will sprout and the onions will start to mold before you can use them all. I consider myself a pretty heavy onion and garlic user, and it happened to me.

• Potatoes.
Same problem as with the garlic and onions. It doesn’t look like that many potatoes, but they’re not like the ones that just came out of your garden that will last for months; these have already been sitting around for a while, so they need to be used sooner than you think.

• Fruit and vegetables (except for carrots).
Again, not as cheap as in-season fruit on sale at the grocery store, and odds are you won’t be able to use it up before it turns.

• Meat from the butcher section.
Most—if not all—of it is cheaper on sale at the regular supermarket.

• Yeast.
At $3.99 for the biggest bag I’d ever seen, I thought this was a great deal two years ago. However, I bake bread twice a week, and I still haven’t even used half the package. It’s about to expire.

39 responses to “Costco: What’s worth it, what’s not?

  1. Great post. I’d have to add my reason for not being a member of Costco. My job had a great offer to join the local Costco a few years ago, so my wife and I went off one Friday evening to sign up. It turns out that we had joined for free 10 years prior when a new store opened somewhere, and we weren’t considered “new” members. So they said we weren’t eligible for the reduced price membership. So out of principle, my wife and I walked away. Costco literally turned away paying customers. I imagine your same analysis would apply to B.J.’s or Sam’s Club, if we were so inclined to check either of those out.

    • Unreal! But not entirely surprising; judging from the crowds I see every time I go, they’re not exactly hurting for business. I’ve never been to B.J.’s or Sam’s Club, but I presume the same logic would apply.

  2. I buy my baking supplies there: sugar, vanilla, eggs, unsalted butter. I bought the flour once when I was going through a lot of flour, now not so much. I buy their berries too, and cheese. Scott TP, paper towels, laundry detergent, and dish soap are also some of our regular purchases. I’ve never thought to check on prices, it’s more of a convenience for us.

    • I second the TP and paper towels. I’m not sure if they’re actually cheaper, but it’s so much more convenient to not have to search for them on sale at the grocery store every few weeks.

      • broccoliisgoodforyou

        That’s my logic also!

      • TP(Charmin) is Definitely a better price, i’ve priced them elsewhere and the rolls are smaller depending on where you buy, haven’t found a better price anywhere yet.

  3. Just a comment on yeast – I don’t have a Costco membership, but I’ve been buying (supermarket) yeast by the jar for years. If you put the jar in the refrigerator as soon as you get it home, it survives for years past the expiration date.

    • I’ve had it in the fridge this whole time, so that’s great to know!

      • I actually keep mine out on the counter because I bake bread every two days or so. It still lasts a very long time. You can really keep using it until you notice a marked decline in performance. But yes, in the fridge, it will last “forever.” I’ve had yeast I used for over 5 years and it was just fine.

  4. Great post! Just out of curiosity, are you comparing name brands or generic? I personally find that some of my grocery store brand name beats Kirkland in terms of price (canned tomatoes – which I know you said isn’t worth it, pasta, and TP come to my mind immediately as items that are cheaper at my grocery store – Wegmans). Didn’t know what your thoughts were on that aspect 🙂

    • Generic/store brand. I’m always on the lookout for the absolute cheapest version of a product. However, for some non-food items, such as TP, I admit the convenience of not having to worry about running out trumps the small amount of cost savings I would get by buying it at the grocery store.

      • We don’t have Costco, but the problem I’ve seen with warehouses like BJ’s and Sam’s Club is that their store brands are very limited. Meanwhile, Wegmans has their own good-quality versions of just about everything at very low prices. They also offer a lot of items in bulk, so you can get the “bulk discount” without having to pay $50 per year for membership. For where we live, we’ve learned that it’s definitely not worth it… but if we were in an area with less competition, it probably would be.

      • I prefer to buy in bulk whenever possible from Winco (I think Wegman’s is only in the east, but Winco also has an enormous bulk selection), but it’s quite a trek for us, as the inner Portland metro is quite inhospitable to stores that aren’t eco-friendly, locally owned, et al. Costco is a trek as well, but at least it packages in such quantities that we don’t have to make the drive very often.

  5. Great post. I used to shop at Costco all the time but got tired of a $400 bill on the way out – I stick to shopping with coupons and sale items now. Sure beats the huge grocery bill per month….but having said that I still have my costco membership for items like Tires for my car and Christmas items 🙂

    • Oh yes, tires as well as electronics, printer cartridges, garbage bags, Turbo Tax at tax time…they’ve really done their research on how to hook you.

  6. We don’t have CostCo here, but I do know the problem of buying too much in a wholesale place (for which we don’t need to pay for membership, just need to have a company or know someone that has).

    Yeast must be very cheap at the supermarket in the US if it’s less expensive than $0.02 per bread! (two years, twice a week = about 200 breads, and you spent only $3.99 for all of the yeast used) I pay about $0.15 per bread over here!

    By the way, many expiry dates are mostly symbolic. Expiry dates have two meanings: “don’t eat after this date or you might get sick” (especially meat and fish products) or “we guarantee the quality until this date, but you won’t get sick from eating it” (dry stuff like pasta and rice, even salt has an expiry date which is utter nonsense). I don’t discard items in the second category as long as my sensory inspection (look, smell) doesn’t tell me to do so. I think it’s a waste to discard food that is still good to eat, just because it’s past the expiry date. You won’t get sick from expired yeast, it just won’t work.

    • I agree with you about the expiration dates; I plan to keep on using the yeast, it’s just that at this rate it’s going to take me another two years to use it all up! And it is incredibly cheap—the $3.99 bag is 2 pounds of yeast. It also depends on how much you use, though. When I make bread I use a sourdough starter, so I only use 1/2 a teaspoon at a time for a leavening boost.

  7. Great post. My husband and I were convinced to try a one-year membership at BJ’s and the jury is still out on whether it’s worth it. I’m finding that non-food items are the only ones significantly cheaper than the grocery store.

    • Some of their cleaning supplies, as well as things like batteries and trash bags, are indeed significantly cheaper. I didn’t include a full rundown because I’m mostly concerned with the food budget, but I probably should’ve.

  8. I do almost all of my shopping a Costco. I love in the mountains so I usually buy everything in bulk. The apples, bell peppers, whole chicken, cheese (tillamook) and milk are also good prices.

    • The whole chicken is actually not as cheap as it is at Winco, or even Safeway when it’s on sale. The only cheese I think I found that was significantly less expensive than the regular store was Parmigiano Reggiano, which I bought as a massive splurge a few years ago. As for the milk, do you freeze it? How do you use it all??

  9. Pingback: Top 10 Things I Love About My Beater Car | Digging Out and Up

  10. Reblogged this on Garnish and commented:
    Great thoughts on Costco!

  11. The yeast! Please continue to use it. You can actually freeze yeast to keep in dormant, then pour it into a smaller container and store it in your refrigerator. That also saves you from the mess of those weird tin foil bags. Who invented those things anyway?
    I also bake bread regularly (about two or three times a month), and I’ve been buying my yeast in bulk at Sam’s Club for a few years now. The yeast doesn’t lose it’s potency in the freezer, nor in the fridge, as long as when you bake with it you remember to use warm water.

  12. Reblogged this on A Single Serving and commented:
    Great post! Even those of you cooking for one should take a look at this! I do use Costco–even for one!

  13. A reminder: don’t compare Costco to BJ’s or Sam’s. part of what makes Costco great is their pre-selection of items. They pre-screen so you can be sure you’re getting top quality, not whoever is cheapest. Their store brand, Kirkland, often rivals or exceeds the quality of the top name brand items. Usually Kirkland isn’t much cheaper, but you get more of the item per box or container. In the meat section, Costco carries USDA choice or Prime where the others carry lower grades.

  14. Gotta say, Costco sells Coach’s oats, which are SO Much better than store brand or even quaker oatmeal. They’re toasted, and still cheap. I actually tag along on a buddy’s costco lunch trips because they’re the only place that sells them in Los Angeles.

  15. Nutella is much cheaper at Costco. So is vanilla. Flour and sugar, and rice depending on what kind you want are cheaper in bulk at Winco. I also agree about the quality of meat. It’s usually the same, and sometimes a bit less than other stores on sale but it’s so much better. Plus you can buy it when you need it without having to wait for a sale.

  16. I love Costco…remember their return policy is awesome too. I had a waffle maker for 2 years that only had a one year warranty and called the store about it and they said to bring it back and they gave me a full refund. I also mentioned in checking out one day that I hoped the oranges were better this time and they sent me straight to the front and found where I had purchased them 2 weeks before and refunded me. I love their salmon and tilapia. They also have a jalapeno greek yogurt dip that is amazing. We buy their apples since there are 7 of us and they get eaten along with their oranges, kiwi, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, and carrots. We also buy the kirkland signature toilet paper, laundry soap, paper towels, etc. Their brand is really good. They also just started making k-cups in the kirkland signature brand. I got 100 of them for like $36.

  17. Several of the items listed are not accurate reflections of per unit price in my area (as many food items vary significantly in price regionally) For example I know canned tomatoes and beans are cheaper at Costco than the grocery (unless there’s a sale) in my area (Seattle metro). I shop almost exclusively by unit price, but I know this isn’t common.

    Availability varies widely by region as well I coordinate shopping for a large convention’s staff hospitality suite twice a year in Boston and Seattle and the prices and availability vary greatly.

    Bring your calculator and make sure you’re comparing the same unit! Sometimes like items’ unit prices are not based on the same units.

    If you love spinach as much as I do their organic baby spinach is a much better deal than grocery stores (and we do go through the entire container).

    You can also freeze nuts, just make sure they’re in an airtight container so they don’t pick up odors/flavors.

    The cheapest toilet paper at our Costco (by price per sq ft) is the Marathon brand not the Kirkland brand.

    Costco also started carrying better quality dog food in the past year, Nature’s Domain equal in quality to what we purchased previously (I researched it thoroughly) and half the cost.

  18. I found that most organic/natural-foods type products are much cheaper than in stores, both the Kirkland brand and other brands. My favorite products at Costco seem to come and go fast. I love the tamales they carry and their portion-sized packages of “Seeds of Change: Brown Rice & Quinoa. If you’re a huge quinoa eater, Costco also has a 5 lb. bag for cheap. Bananas are cheaper and so is it’s organic spinach. Their organic ground beef is also cheaper than in grocery stores. Has anyone tried Kirkland diapers? I was wondering if the quality was comparable to name-brands?

    • I’m curious about the diapers as well…we use cloth during the day and disposable at night, so they’d need to be kind of heavy-duty, which is why I haven’t tried them.

      • I know this is an older post but, I noticed no one chimed in about the diapers. I’ve had kids in diapers for way too long… I only buy at Costco. It’s not easy keeping up on sales for diapers and the price at Costco is usually comparable to sales. Huggies and Kirkland are exactly the same price at Costco and they work exactly the same. I generally just buy the one that is being featured in the coupon book (usually $6 off). Thanks for this article, though! I really appreciate your comparisons, especially since I shop Costco a lot!

  19. I found if I can freeze the items from Sam’s Club it’s usually worth me buying. Cheese, hamburger meat, frozen chicken, and so on. I haven’t thought of the spices but it might be worth it since I make my own seasonings.

  20. “• Fruit and vegetables (except for carrots).
    Again, not as cheap as in-season fruit on sale at the grocery store, and odds are you won’t be able to use it up before it turns.”

    Thanks.

    Broccoli and Avocados are great buys at Costco and I eat a lot of both. And you won’t find frozen Blueberries this cheap anywhere. There is other produce that we also buy, along with a bunch of other stuff that is cheaper than any grocery store.

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