Costco gets big ups from shoppers and shopping experts alike for its high quality and low prices. During recent research trips we’ve been impressed too, highlighting some of the best things retirees should buy at Costco (opens in new tab) as well as some of the warehouse club’s best store-branded Kirkland Signature products (opens in new tab).
With annual membership fees ranging from $60 to $120, it’s tempting to wring as much as you can from every Costco run: bulk packages of toilet paper, eggs in 24-packs, 10-pound bags of flour or a 12-pound Japanese Wagyu boneless ribeye roast (just $999.99). But as enticing as buying everything in bulk at Costco might be, it’s not always the wisest choice, says Tracie Fobes of money-saving website PennyPinchinMom.com (opens in new tab). “For example, that big pack of toilet paper may look like a great deal, but what do you pay at your [local grocery] store? What is the price per roll there versus what you are getting at Costco?”
Understanding per-unit pricing is critical when buying in bulk. So too is understanding that you might not use up such large quantities before they spoil or expire. Here are 10 things you should think twice about before buying in bulk at Costco. Take a look at the list.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are certainly healthy, but they have a short shelf life. Can you really get through a prepackaged bunch of bananas – at Costco you can’t break them off into smaller bunches like you can at a supermarket – before they go brown and mushy? How about a 5-pound bag of apples or a ginormous container of mixed lettuce?
- “That big bag of avocados may look like a great deal, but if you can't eat them before they go bad, then that is money wasted,” says Fobes. “You have to know what it is you will eat in the time that the product is consumable.”
Shopping expert Trae Bodge (opens in new tab) agrees: “If you serve a salad every night with dinner, get the giant bag of mixed greens. If not, get your greens at the grocery store.”
Unlike fresh produce, frozen fruits and vegetables can’t go bad. Or can they? Shopping experts say step away from the freezer case. That big bag of frozen broccoli that seems like such a bargain might not be in the end.
- “Oversized bags of produce may seem like a great idea, but every time you open the bag, the frozen food is exposed to fresh air and can cause freezer burn,” says money-saving expert Andrea Woroch (opens in new tab). “I find it’s better to buy smaller bags of frozen vegetables and fruit from a local grocery store and look for deals on the store brand to save.”
Liquid Cleaning Products
It might come as a surprise, but liquid cleaning products don’t last forever. As such, buying them in bulk isn’t necessarily such a thrifty idea.
- “Liquid cleaning products tend to become less effective over time, so they are best to buy in smaller containers unless you regularly do laundry for a big group,” says Bodge. “Powdered cleaning products have an unlimited shelf life though, so this can be a good buy at Costco.”
Of note, Consumer Reports gave high marks to Costco’s Kirkland Signature Ultra Clean powdered detergent. The product-testing outfit lauded the store-branded detergent’s stain-fighting abilities and low cost per load.
You run the risk of your cereal going stale if you buy it in bulk and don’t eat it fast enough. But shopping experts say there’s an even bigger reason to avoid the cereal aisle at Costco: You can get a better price on a box of name-brand cereal at the supermarket by combining sales and coupons.
“If you watch your local grocery store and find a sale, you can pair that with a coupon and get a much better price than you would getting that big box at Costco,” says Fobes. Costco doesn’t accept manufacturer coupons, she notes.
Bodge echoes Fobes’s advice: “For cereal, soda, canned goods, eggs and milk, it would be wise to compare the unit prices between the price club and your grocery store. You’ll find that buying in bulk is a good deal only some of the time, especially when you factor in any grocery coupons that you might use.”
Costco’s pharmacy aisles (next to the pharmacy, naturally) are chock full of those extra-large bottles or boxes of over-the-counter medicines, from sinus medication and aspirin to vitamins and diet supplements. You’ll do better shopping elsewhere, saving experts say.
- “Since over-the-counter medicine is taken on an as-needed basis and has expiration dates, an oversized bottle of ibuprofen will likely never get used up before it goes bad,” says Woroch. “You’re better off buying it when needed from your local drugstore or big-box retailer and opt for the generic to save 30%.” Woroch recommends using the Flipp app to compare store circulars to see which retailers are offering the biggest discounts on the OTC meds you need when you need them.
No time to shop around? Grab your loyalty card and head straight to your neighborhood chain drugstore, such as CVS or Walgreens, says Fobes.
“Drug stores will have sales where you can use coupons,” she says. “However, what makes the deals really good are when you get the store rewards in return. These rewards are like free money you can use to buy other things you need.”
Personal Care and Beauty Products
Be cautious when weighing whether to buy personal care or beauty products in bulk at Costco, advise the shopping experts we talked to.
“Only buy items that you go through quickly – for example, body lotion, shower gel and hair conditioner. If there’s something you use only sparingly, like an eye cream, face cream or antiseptic ointment, I would not advise buying it in bulk,” says Bodge. “Sunscreen products also have a limited shelf life, so if the whole family is using it, great. If it’s just you, get it at the drugstore.”
Fobes agrees: “Drugstore deals on personal care products can often be a much better deal than the big bottles you buy at Costco.” Combining sales with coupons will yield the best prices. (Again, Costco won’t take your coupons.)
A 12-pack of canned creamed corn may look like a great deal at Costco, but look closer and you’ll notice those cans have expiration dates on them. And really, how much creamed corn can you go through in a year?
If you prefer national brands, hold on to your manufacturer coupons until your brand of choice goes on sale at the supermarket. Grocers hold frequent sales on canned goods. Don’t be surprised to see “buy-2-get-3-free” deals periodically. Shopping experts say February is a particularly good month for big sales on canned goods.
Alternatively, sample the supermarket’s generic brand. The everyday price per can might even be lower than the per-can price of a national brand purchased in bulk at Costo. “You can find better deals on generic brands at the grocery store,” says Woroch.
As with bulk-purchase cereal, you run the risk of your salty snacks going stale if you buy them in oversize packages.
- “Chips, cheese puffs and other snacks are probably cheaper in bulk, but it’s not a good deal if half the bag goes stale,” says Bodge. “There are only three of us at home, so I only buy snacks in bulk if we’re planning to have company.”
Smaller bags of name-brand potato chips, tortilla chips and similar salty snacks frequently go on sale at supermarkets, sometimes at 50% off. Stock up ahead of major sporting events, when snack manufacturers run some of their best promotions.
For home cooks, buying spices in bulk usually doesn’t pay off. This is especially true when it comes to the exotic spices that are rarely called for in recipes. Good luck ever getting to the bottom of that extra-large container of fenugreek.
Worse, spices lose flavor and potency over time. Generally speaking, spices only stay fresh for six to 12 months, according to Bodge. However, the shelf life can be shortened significantly if the spices are exposed to moisture or stored near heat (like, say, in a spice rack next to the stove).
When we recently compared grocery prices at Whole Foods and Aldi (opens in new tab), we made an interesting discovery: The German supermarket chain is an inexpensive source of spices, in particular organic spices, in non-bulk quantities. Aldi was selling organic garlic powder (2.75 ounces), organic basil (0.62 oz.) and organic thyme (0.75 oz.), to name a few, for just $1.99 per container. In contrast, Costco stocks (non-organic) garlic powder in 5-pound plastic jugs.
Unless you’re running a restaurant or deep-frying turkeys on weekends, those bulk sizes of cooking oil aren’t the bargain they seem.
That’s because cooking oils, like other products on this list, have a relatively short shelf life. For cooking oils, that shelf life is about six months. After that, shopping experts say, they can start to turn rancid. Any money you might’ve saved up front is lost once you’re forced to dump the spoiled oil.
The Kirkland Signature cooking oils sold on Costco.com come in two-packs. The canola oil two-pack included 2.84 liters of oil per bottle; the two-packs of olive oil and Mediterranean blend oil included 3 liters of oil per bottle. That’s a lot of oil.
Bonus Tip: Electronics
Ok, so you probably don’t buy your electronics in bulk, but you do spend a lot of money on them. I’ve fallen under the spell of those 65-inch televisions that Costco has beaming at you as soon as you enter the store. They’re engaging and bright, and specially tuned by the manufacturer to that brightness, the better to lure you in. And the prices? Seemingly hard to beat.
But don’t make an expensive impulse purchase, shopping experts warn, before you actually understand what you’re buying.
“Although you can find some really great deals, it’s important to compare apples to apples and not apples to oranges when looking for TVs, tablets and laptops,” says Woroch. Her best advice? “Just be sure to read the product details, specs and reviews. Manufacturers often create electronics [with limited features] specifically for warehouse stores so they can sell them at a lower price, and you just want to make sure you are getting all the features you need and want.”
Bob is a Senior Online Editor at Kiplinger.com. He has more than 40 years of experience in online, print and visual journalism. Bob has worked as an award-winning writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., market as well as at news organizations in New York, Michigan and California. Bob joined Kiplinger in 2016, bringing a wealth of expertise covering retail, entertainment, and money-saving trends and topics. He was one of the first journalists at a daily news organization to aggressively cover retail as a specialty, and has been lauded in the retail industry for his expertise. Bob has also been an adjunct and associate professor of print, online and visual journalism at Syracuse University and Ithaca College. He has a master’s degree from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a bachelor’s degree in communications and theater from Hope College.
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