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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Cameron Huddleston, Online Editor
Andrea Browne Taylor, Online Editor
| Updated September 2015
Shopping at a warehouse club, such as Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s Wholesale, is a great way to save money. These bulk-goods stores offer low per-unit prices on many things they sell. Don’t be afraid to stock up on the best bargains at warehouse clubs including batteries, meats and wines.
However, it’s easy to make costly mistakes when shopping at warehouse clubs. Perhaps the biggest miscalculation: Assuming the club price is the best price on every item. That’s not the case. Another big blunder made by club shoppers is buying things they don’t need simply because the price is “too good to pass up.” Unnecessary spending can deal a blow to any budget.
It’s best to avoid bulk purchases of perishable items at warehouse clubs, no matter how tempting the price, if there aren’t enough people in your household to consume them quickly. Throwing away spoiled or expired goods is the same as tossing money in the trash. Plus, you should always shop with a list to avoid impulse purchases, which can be whoppers at warehouse clubs.
When making your warehouse-club shopping list, keep these 16 things off it. You can find them cheaper elsewhere, or you simply won’t reap value by buying them in bulk.
It’s tempting to pick up books to read on vacation or DVDs for the kids while you’re shopping at a warehouse club. But the deals on these items usually aren’t as good as you can find elsewhere, says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of the personal finance blog Money Crashers. You can usually buy new books and DVDs for about 15% less online, he says, and you can even find used books for as little as a penny (plus shipping) on Amazon and eBay.
Better yet: Don’t pay a thing for books or DVDs by borrowing them for free from your public library. There also are several ways to read e-books for free.
Canned goods will last for years in the pantry, so stocking up is smart. Just don’t stock up at the warehouse club. You can score better deals on canned goods when they’re on sale at the supermarket. Expect to pay 20% to 40% less per unit than what you’d shell out at the warehouse club, says Teri Gault, CEO and founder of TheGroceryGame.com, a grocery savings Web site. Prices are especially hard to beat when supermarkets put their store-branded canned goods on sale.
Plus, unless you’re hosting a big cookout, do you really need a 117-ounce can of baked beans?
SEE ALSO: 12 Biggest Shopping Mistakes at the Supermarket
Just because an article of clothing or a pair of shoes is cheap doesn’t mean you’re getting a deal. There’s a reason clothing and shoes sold at warehouse clubs are so inexpensive: Even with designer brands, they’re often lower quality, using cheaper fabric and weaker embellishments, such as buttons and zippers, that won’t last as long. See Cheap Clothing Is a Costly Mistake to learn more about budgeting for clothes.
Money Crashers’ Schrage specifically cautions against buying flip-flops at a warehouse club; you can get them for much less at the dollar store. Flip-flops, which aren’t meant to be high-quality footwear, usually cost $1 at a dollar store versus about $10 at a warehouse club, he says.
That one-gallon jar of mayonnaise or three-pack of 44-ounce ketchup bottles might seem like a good buy if you host a lot of cookouts or eat sandwiches on a regular basis. But the shelf life of condiments is relatively short once the container is opened. Mayo retains its freshness and quality for just two months in the refrigerator after opening, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper app. Unless you’re running a restaurant (or have a condiment-heavy diet), you probably won’t consume such a large amount before it goes bad.
Ketchup lasts longer in the fridge – six months – but more often than not purchasing bundled items isn’t the best idea from a pricing standpoint because you end up not using all of them, says Howard Schaffer, founder of deals Web site Offers.com. If the extra bottles of ketchup never leave your pantry, then you didn’t really save money by buying in bulk.
SEE ALSO: 12 Things You Should Never Buy in Bulk
Shoppers should steer clear of large containers of olive oil and vegetable oil at warehouse clubs, says CouponCabin.com CEO Scott Kluth. Cooking oil starts to go bad quicker than you realize, he says. The USDA’s FoodKeeper app puts the shelf life of olive oil and vegetable oil at three to five months after opening. Making a bulk purchase can be a money-waster if you don’t use it all before it expires.
“Shoppers can find deals on cooking oils in smaller packages at their local grocery stores,” Kluth adds, which lessens the risk of spoilage.
The prices on televisions, computers and other electronics can be good at warehouse clubs, but you can usually find even better bargains on deal and coupon sites, says Offers.com’s Schaffer. Be vigilant when comparing prices. Electronics sold at warehouse clubs tend to be bundled with accessories or have slightly different features than similar models sold at other retail outlets. So you might not find the exact same TV or laptop elsewhere, but you’ll likely find something very similar for 10% to 15% less.
BestBuy.com and Sears.com will also have seasonal promotions – look for laptops at back-to-school sales and big-screen TVs around the Super Bowl – and additional savings can be realized when you tack on an online coupon code, he adds.
SEE ALSO: Best Times to Buy Big-Ticket Items
Generic diapers from a warehouse club can be a big money-saver because they work as well as the name-brand diapers at a much lower cost. But if you’re really pinching pennies, you won’t find the best deal on generic diapers at warehouse clubs. In fact, generic diapers from a warehouse club are typically about 4 cents more per diaper than Target’s or Walmart’s generics, says Lauren Ward, a research analyst for personal finance site CreditDonkey.com.
And while saving just a few cents per diaper might not seem like much, the spare change can add up if you’re buying hundreds of diapers per year. Put the extra money toward a babysitter, something any parent can appreciate.
SEE ALSO: 11 Worst Things to Buy at Walmart
Trae Bodge of RetailMeNot.com, a coupon and offers Web site, estimates that liquid bleach and liquid detergent lose their effectiveness after six months as the active ingredients naturally break down over time. Clorox says its chlorine bleach should last a year if stored at room temperature; much less when exposed to heat or cold because extreme temperatures rapidly accelerate the degradation. So if you don’t have a big family and don’t wash lots of laundry, you might not get through a warehouse club’s supersize bottle fast enough.
Instead, Bodge recommends looking for deals on smaller containers at a grocery store or big-box store. The dollar store also is a great place to buy cleaning supplies. Or purchase a warehouse club’s supersize box of powdered detergent or bleach, since powders retain effectiveness much longer than liquids, Bodge says.
SEE ALSO: Best Things to Buy at Dollar Stores
You usually can buy a gallon of regular milk at the grocery store for 50 to 60 cents less than you’d pay at a warehouse club, says CreditDonkey.com’s Ward. Plus, you can find this perishable item in smaller quantities at the grocery store, which will lower the risk of it going bad before you can drink all of it.
Surprisingly, stores that you might consider high-end can have the best everyday prices on specialty milks. When we compared the costs of selected products at several grocery chains, we found the best prices on organic milk at Whole Foods and the best prices on almond and soy milks at Trader Joe's.
Warehouse clubs’ prices on name-brand cereals are comparable to cereal prices at grocery stores, Ward says. However, warehouse clubs generally don’t have sales on cereal. So you’re better off stocking up on your favorite cereal when it goes on sale at the supermarket, she says. Unopened cereal will stay fresh in the pantry for up to a year after purchase, according to the USDA’s FoodKeeper app.
Boost your savings at the supermarket by using manufacturers’ coupons during sales. Some warehouse clubs, such as BJ’s, will accept manufacturers’ coupons; others, such as Costco, won’t.
Although a warehouse club might seem like the logical choice for jumbo packs of paper towels and toilet paper, consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch says you’ll get a better deal on paper products at the grocery store. Shop for paper products during the first and third weeks of the month, when supermarkets typically put them on sale.
As with name-brand cereals, couple manufacturers’ coupons with grocery-store sales to score even deeper discounts.
SEE ALSO: 10 Secrets to Saving at the Supermarket
Buying printer paper in bulk might seem like a smart money-saving move, but you’ll keep even more cash in your pocket if you get your paper for free from an office-supply retailer. That’s right: free. Most office-supply chains offer customers who sign up to receive e-mails from them a 100% cash-back rebate on printer paper a few times a year, Schrage says.
Special rebates also apply to other office supplies, such as Post-it Notes, pens, pencils, folders and notebooks.
There’s the obvious reason not to buy fruits and vegetables in bulk: You might not be able to consume them all before they go bad. But there’s another reason you should buy your produce at the supermarket rather than the warehouse club: Prices on produce tend to be static at warehouse clubs, whereas prices drop dramatically at the supermarket when fruits and vegetables are in season, says Gault of TheGroceryGame.com.
For example, when asparagus is in season during March and April, it can cost as little as 99 cents per pound at the grocery store, she says. It tends to run up to $2 more per pound at warehouse clubs.
You can always find soda on sale at a grocery store for less than you’d pay at a warehouse club, says Jeff Yeager, an expert on frugal living and author of several books including “The Cheapskate Next Door” and “How to Retire the Cheapskate Way.” For example, Yeager says that Coke products go on sale every other week for between $2 and $2.50 per 12-pack at the supermarket where he shops. However, a 24-pack costs between $7 and $8 at the warehouse club – up to twice as much as two discounted 12-packs purchased at the grocery store.
SEE ALSO: 10 Ways to Save Money on Groceries Without Coupons
These skincare items are often cheaper elsewhere. Money Crashers’ Schrage says, for example, that you usually can find sunscreen at a drugstore for 10% to 15% less than at a warehouse club. Plus, if you're buying sunscreen just for a short beach vacation, you don’t need the big container or the three-pack bundle stocked by warehouse clubs.
RetailMeNot’s Bodge also cautions against buying large quantities of beauty products – especially facial cream – at warehouse clubs, because they have a limited shelf life. For example, anti-aging creams can expire in as little as three months. In addition, lotions and creams that are applied by hand are susceptible to contamination; the more times you dip your fingers into the container, the greater the risk. Smaller quantities of lotions and creams have a better chance of remaining germ-free.
SEE ALSO: What Not to Buy at Drugstores
Think twice before picking up toothpaste at a warehouse club. You can usually find better prices by checking Sunday newspaper circulars for weekly deals, suggests TheGroceryGame’s Gault. Keep in mind you’ll need to be flexible on the brand in order to score the best bargain. For example, we found a four-pack of Crest ProHealth Whitening Toothpaste (at 6 ounces per tube; 24 ounces total) for $9.78 at Sam’s Club. But at a Wegmans grocery store, a three-pack of Colgate Cavity Protection Fluoride Toothpaste (at 8.2 ounces per tube; 24.6 ounces total) cost just $5.09.
If natural toothpaste is your thing, try Trader Joe’s. A 6-ounce tube of its store brand costs nearly $2 less than Tom’s, a popular brand of natural toothpaste carried by many retailers.
SEE ALSO: Worst Things to Buy at Trader Joe’s