According to the USDA, the monthly cost of food at home for a family of 4 ranges from a low of $551.90 to a high of $1252.20. That’s a lot of spending on food — and it doesn’t include costs associated with eating out.
Not surprisingly, groceries (and food expenses in general) are an area where many of us are trying to cut back. Shopping at Costco (and other warehouse stores) can be one way to do that, IF you do it the frugal way. That means avoiding impulse buys, knowing yourself, and planning ahead.
It doesn’t take much to become a disciplined Costco shopper and save significant amounts of money, even for small families. (We are a family of 3.)
Here’s how to shop at Costco the frugal way:
Ready to get started? Follow these steps.
1. Make a Costco warehouse shopping list
We use an app called Our Groceries to make our Costco warehouse shopping list, but you could do something similar with a piece of paper stuck to the fridge.
Whenever we run low on things, we add them to the list. This list is just the things we plan to buy at Costco. Stick to only the items on your list, and you’ll ensure you only buy the things you really need.
2. Do some window shopping
If you’re just starting out with this method, here’s what to do. Go to both your regular grocery store and then Costco with a list of everything you typically buy at either store. Don’t buy ANYTHING at either one during this step! Write down the unit prices on the items you buy regularly. Then get out your calculator & compare. This takes time, but you only have to do it once — and the savings will be significant over time.
Look at the items that are cheaper per unit at Costco and decide if they are things that could be frozen or stored for long periods. (For example, meats, bread, pasta, or toilet paper).
If they’re things you probably won’t eat before they will go bad, knock them off your Costco warehouse shopping list. Move them to your regular grocery store list instead. We don’t buy fruits or vegetables at Costco, for example. We’re not willing to freeze them, and we can’t finish them in time while they’re fresh. But your family might be different.
4. Divide the list into two:
Once you’ve decided which items are cheaper to buy where, divide your list into two. One list for things to buy at the regular grocery store, and one for things to buy at Costco.
With experience you’ll know which items are always cheaper at Costco, which are a better buy at the grocery store, and which could be a better deal at either depending on sales and coupons. If you’re not used to shopping at both stores, use the comparison information you got during the window shopping step.
5. Fill up before you go, and then get started.
Eat a full lunch or dinner, including dessert, before a trip to Costco. (Do this before getting regular groceries as well for that matter.) Now grab your Costco list & head to Costco, leaving your spouse or children at home (unless they don’t usually ask for additional items when you shop).
6. Walk straight to the back of the store.
Do NOT pass Go (electronics, books, DVDs, gadgets, and those giant stacks of cool things you’ll see as soon as you walk in). Go directly to the back of the store instead. It only takes about 2 minutes of discipline to do this, and chances are you’ll have saved the cost of your annual membership right there. Just concentrate on not running the other shoppers over or on people watching, and you’ll be too busy to notice the latest & greatest things you don’t need and didn’t intend to buy.
7. Buy the bulkiest & heaviest things first.
In our store these are near the very back wall, but they could be in a different location in your store. These include things like dog food, cat food, toilet paper, laundry detergents, etc. Turn around and hit the meat & bread sections next.
Your cart will be so heavy at this point that you won’t have much interest in browsing. (It’s hard to browse while pushing 80 to 100 lbs of things — you’ve got to really concentrate on steering your cart & keeping it moving instead.)
Now check your list to see if there’s anything on it that you’ve missed, and go straight to those individual items. If you don’t find them in their usual spot, ask someone where they have moved to instead of searching for them yourself. The less items you see in the store, the better.
If you do see something along the way that seems appealing, tell yourself that if it’s on your list NEXT time, THEN you will get it. After all, you didn’t know you “needed” it until you saw it, so chances are that you really don’t. (And you’ll likely forget about it as soon as you get home.)
Finally, head to the pharmacy area and pick up any prescriptions, healthcare & eye care items that are on your list. In our store these are right next to the checkout, so make that your final stop.
8. Escape without buying anything else.
Once you’ve checked out, top up on gas and then head home to unload.
Don’t forget about Costco’s other services as well, such as photo processing, home services, or things like recommending Realtors. (I got a $1200 rebate just because I clicked on a link on the Costco web site and allowed them to recommended an [excellent] Realtor to me when I needed one. Here are some tips on getting rebates.)
Our Costco spending
We do this about once a month, and usually spend between $80-$140 there. We get a cartload of items that would have cost us significantly more at the regular grocery store. And we rarely have anything in our cart that wasn’t on the list when we walked in.
The things we do buy don’t spoil, get used up, and they’re things that we use every day and would have bought anyway. This cuts our normal grocery store trips down too. All we need to buy there are perishables and the items that are less expensive. It’s great way to save!