Of all the stores that I regularly talk about at the blog, there’s one that I’m far more likely to overspend at. No surprises, it’s Costco. In fact, I’ve devoted an entire blog series to the ways Costco entices you to buy things you didn’t know you needed.
But what if you really DO need to stick to a budget while shopping at Costco? What if you truly opened your membership not to buy random throw blankets and coffee table books, but to stock up on meat, produce and other basic household goods? The last thing you want to do is negate your savings by overspending.
After shopping regularly at Costco for several years and paying close to attention to the way the store cycles merchandise in and out, I have a few handy tips to share with you today.
Tip #1: Stop calling Costco a great place to save money and recognize it for the marketing machine that it is.
Here’s the normal progression of a Costco shopping trip: finding a great deal here, another there, adding it to the cart. Look at all this money we’re saving! And then, the moment of truth: checkout. Inevitably, that pesky total is always more than we’d bargained for. If you’re like me, you end up doing what I like to call the Costco Justification Parking Lot Walk. This is where you justify the amount you spent to yourself (or your spouse or shopping partner) as you exit the store. “Well, we really did need new plants for the front porch…” “We’d talked about buying a new sofa a year ago…” “We’ll eat up all that canned soup eventually…” If you’re laughing right now, it’s because you’re guilty of it too.
I’m not saying Costco doesn’t have good deals. They do. But don’t be fooled by the warehouse appearance or exclusive club membership appeal – this store is out to make money, and lots of it. At the end of the day, it’s a business – and a very good one at that.
Tip #2: Limit your trips and time spent in the store.
The best way to spend less money at Costco is to spend less time at Costco. Personally, I go to Costco once a month most months. If I really want to stick to a list and a budget, I try to avoid shopping at Costco when I have lots of time to kill. Lots of time to kill + Costco = trouble.
Go to Costco right before your dentist appointment or before you have to pick your son up from soccer or something similar. Enforcing a time can be helpful to making sure you stay on task. (Just give yourself enough time to get through checkout and out the parking lot!)
Tip #3: If possible, consider shopping without a cart.
When my son was a baby, I liked to buy his formula at Costco. It was good quality at an affordable price. But money was definitely tighter for us back then too, so often I’d run into the store with him in one arm, grab the formula, and leave.
Have you ever noticed how large the carts at Costco? Yeah. There’s a reason for that. They want you to fill it with stuff. Lots of stuff!
Tip #4: Don’t follow the path Costco wants you to follow.
I believe that Costco, like most stores, has a definite path they want you to follow. At my Costco, you walk through electronics first, then housewares. From there, you have to cross through seasonal items, books or clothing to get to food! In other words, you have to run a gauntlet to get to the groceries.
Costco is a master at wearing down your willpower. It’s like being on a diet. In the morning, you resist the waffles and choose eggs. Yes! You can do this! At lunch, you opt for a salad and chicken. Way to go, you! The afternoon comes and you really start thinking about a brownie, but after a pep talk, you slice up some cucumbers. Phew, that was a close one. Dinner comes and you make salmon and some vegetables. But now it’s late evening and your stomach is rumbling. Finally, you can’t take it any more and you down a bunch of ice cream. This is Costco. You resist this, resist that, resist this – and finally, you can’t take it any more and you buy all the things.
Here’s my point: avoid playing Costco’s game, as much as you can. I think your best bet would be to head straight to the grocery section if that’s what you’re truly there for.
Tip #5: Avoid shopping on Costco during the weekends.
Now each store may vary a bit on this, but in my experience, Costco puts out the best samples on weekends. Samples prey on you in a couple ways. First off, when you eat them, they are often delicious and entice you to buying something you hadn’t considered. I know this because I’ve been there, done that. Second, they waft out good smells which makes you think about food even more and may influence your purchasing choices.
When I shop at Costco during the week or early in the day (say within an hour of opening), samples are sparse or not that great. (One day I visited on a weekday they were sampling seaweed snacks and almond milk. That didn’t produce any particular cravings!)
Tip #6: If you must splurge, plan on it ahead of time.
By now you might be thinking that I’m some sort of Costco killjoy. Honestly, I enjoy a good splurge as much as the next guy. I think that recognizing you like to buy yourself a treat or something fun at Costco is half the battle. Why not just acknowledge that and budget for it?
You can decide ahead of time to limit the dollar amount of unplanned Costco purchases, or shop with cash. You could also consider how Costco switches out their merchandise each season and plan on that. (For instance, in February you should expect to see gardening supplies and swimsuits and in August, start looking for Halloween costumes.) If you like to purchase seasonal items at Costco, plan ahead.
And of course, if you’ve decided this isn’t the way you want to shop at Costco at all, and you want to browse all the aisles and enjoy perusing all the things, I feel ya. See my Costco page for Stuff I didn’t know I needed…until I went to Costco posts.
Now it’s your turn: I’d love to hear what tips you’d add to my list. What other spending pitfalls have you observed at Costco? What other ways have you avoided overspending at this store? What seems to be your biggest areas of overspending at Costco? I want to hear it all – leave a comment below!