Most people like to get a good deal, and Costco is a popular place to do just that. Just look at a Costco parking lot on a random Saturday afternoon! Who wouldn’t want a free Costco membership?
Costco is well known for its great pricing on bulk items including toilet paper, packaged snacks, dry goods, organic items, cleaning supplies, and more.
The reason Costco can offer these low prices is that you need to have a membership to shop there. A Costco membership starts at $60 per year. If you’re not used to having to pay to shop, you may be a little hesitant to start a membership. Maybe you’re wondering…can’t I just try it out for free?
Purchase Items Without a Membership
Full disclosure before we go on: You can’t actually get a Costco membership for free. Sorry. ☹
But there are still plenty of ways you can shop for free at Costco. You just need to get a little creative!
There are certain items at Costco that can be purchased without a membership. In fact, some of these items are required by law to be able to be purchased without a membership. Here are some ways to – legally! – work around Costco’s membership requirements.
1. Use a Costco Shop Card
To truly shop at Costco for free, you’ll need a little help from a current Costco member. Costco’s customer service webpage states that a Costco Shop Card may be used by nonmembers as well as members to shop at any Costco location in the U.S., Canada, or Puerto Rico, as well as online.
Sounds great, right? But here’s the catch: Costco Shop Cards can only be purchased by current members. So, you’ll need to grab your card-carrying member friend and head to your nearest Costco customer service desk where they can purchase a Costco Shop Card for you.
You might be able to find Costco Shop Cards available for purchase online at eBay or other retailers.
The Costco Shop Card is a gift card that has a minimum load of $25 and a maximum load of $2,000. It can be reloaded, but only by a Costco member and only in person at the store.
This option is probably best for those who don’t plan to visit Costco regularly. Also keep in mind that you’ll need to keep your Costco Shop Card safe – especially if it has a lot of money on it – because if you lose it, it’s like losing cash.
Another catch: You can use the Costco Shop Card to purchase items online at Costco.com or Costco.ca, but you’ll need to pay a 5% surcharge over the price advertised for members.
RELATED: 13 Legit Ways to Get Free Gift Cards
2. Shop with a Costco Member
Remember that willing friend or family member who could purchase you a Costco Shop Card? Well, you could just tag along with them as they shop. Maybe you’re being a bit of a mooch, but for the occasional Costco shopper, or for someone who just wants to check it out, it’s a perfectly by-the-book option.
Members are allowed to bring up to two guests into the warehouse (it says this on their website), but only Costco members may purchase items. You could have your transaction rung up separately and reimburse your friend later or just use your payment card to pay.
3. Place an Instacart Order
There’s another workaround for shopping at Costco without a membership – Instacart! As with most – if not all – Instacart orders, items are priced higher through Instacart than what you’ll find in store. And of course, you’ll have to pay service and delivery fees as well as leave your shopper a tip. There is a $35 order minimum.
But it is possible to get Costco goodies through Instacart. I just tried it and didn’t need to enter a membership number at checkout. However, you will get extra savings through Instacart – and earn Costco Rewards – if you add your Costco membership number at checkout.
4. Shop Online at Costco.com
You can purchase items online at Costco.com, even if you’re not a member. Do note that some items will be marked as “Members Only,” and members will also only get access to the monthly coupons and savings.
Plus, online items at Costco.com and Costco.ca are already priced higher than what you’ll find in the store. (Costco even says this on their website.) And when you order online, you’re not getting the full selection of what Costco offers in stores. For example, you can’t purchase fresh items online for delivery since shipping takes several days.
Oh, and one more thing: you’ll need to pay a 5% surcharge over the member price. Still, it might be worth it if the items you’re looking to buy are still priced cheaper than you’ll find elsewhere…or if they’re specialty items that are exclusive to Costco.
If you do the math, as long as you spend $1,200 or less a year at Costco.com (paying the non-member surcharge, of course), you’ll still save over the cost of buying Costco’s lowest-priced membership at $60/year.
5. Buy Alcohol
Costco’s prices on alcohol are deeply discounted compared to normal retailers. Their Kirkland store brand offers the best deals and may be manufactured by your favorite well-known companies. They also offer a very impressive selection of wine, with a lower markup than you’ll find elsewhere.
So, if you’re looking to stock up for your next party or even just fill your own minibar fridge, you’ll definitely want to give Costco’s liquor selection a second look.
And there’s good news for people who live in certain states: local laws may prevent Costco and other membership clubs from only selling alcohol to members. That means that if you live in one of the following states, you’re allowed to purchase alcohol without a membership:
- New York
Your Costco location may have a separate entrance to the liquor department, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you to just walk in and shop. If you live in another state, it’s worth a call to your local Costco to see if they allow alcohol sales for non-members, too.
6. Buy Prescriptions and/or Immunizations
Got a prescription to fill? Whether it’s a one-time thing or a regular prescription, you’ll want to check out the low prices at Costco Pharmacy. They offer prescriptions for pets, too!
Due to state and federal laws, Costco is required to offer these low-priced prescriptions to all people. This means you do not need a membership to purchase prescription drugs at Costco, and you can buy prescriptions both at their warehouses and also online.
Their Pharmacy counter accepts several different forms of payment: cash, ATM/debit cards, Costco Shop Cards, and Visa.
You may also be able to order your prescriptions online for delivery via mail and auto-refill, if necessary. How convenient!
However, Costco does offer members an extra benefit on prescriptions: the Costco Membership Prescription Program. This is a prescription drug discount card program that provides eligible Costco members and their eligible dependents with the ability to obtain lower prices on all medications. It’s intended for members who either don’t have insurance, or their insurance doesn’t cover all of their prescriptions.
Also, you can get discounted immunizations and vaccinations at Costco without a membership. For example, flu shots currently start at just $19.99.
Walk-ins are welcome, but they do recommend you reserve your time in advance which you can do so online. Be sure to bring your insurance card as many insurance companies will cover the price of your shots.
Find a Costco Membership Discount
OK, so the freebie methods just won’t cut it – you definitely want to get your own Costco membership. Hey, I get it! But before you head to the member desk and sign up, wait! There are a few ways to get a Costco membership discount so you don’t have to pay full price.
7. Check Online Deal Websites
Usually once or twice a year, Groupon and/or LivingSocial will have a fantastic Costco membership deal that offers a gift card or freebies along with the price of the membership. You’ll still have to pay for the membership, but the freebies typically offset most – if not all – of the cost.
For example, in August 2020 there was a Groupon deal (no longer available, but you can read about it here) that offered a Costco membership along with a $40 gift card and $40 off an online purchase of $250+ for just $60, which is the normal price of a Costco Gold Membership.
You can check Groupon periodically to see when they offer the deal again. (Of course, we’ll post it here on The Coupon Project, too.) A little patience may pay off big!
Keep tabs on popular sites like Slickdeals that help you find the best deals online, including on Costco memberships.
8. Get a Bonus Gift Card Because of Your Job
If you’re employed in a particular field, you’ll get a $30 Costco Shop Card when you join (with verified ID). This discount is currently available to first responders, nurses, medical providers, military, and teachers. Read all about it here.
College students can also get a $20 Costco Shop Card when signing up for a membership – details here. Truth be told, I don’t know what a college student would do with a Costco membership…but, hey, the savings are nice!
9. Find a Friend for a $10 Gift Card
Costco is offering its current members a bonus for getting their buddies to sign up! The Refer-A-Friend promotion at Costco is good through December 31, 2020.
When your friend brings you to the membership counter to sign up, you’ll both receive a $10 Costco Shop Card to use on a future purchase. You must both be present to qualify.
Visit the membership counter and mention you are there for the Refer-A-Friend promotion, then provide the employee with the code 23566 – that’s it! The primary member on a Costco membership can refer to friends a year.
Please note that expired members do not qualify to participate – you must be a brand-new member to sign up or have a membership that expired at least 18 months ago.
10. Give Yourself a Free Trial
Unfortunately, you can’t just walk into Costco by yourself and start shopping for free, saying you’re just trying it out. There’s no such thing as an actual “free trial membership” at Costco.
That being said, Costco does offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee. If you’re not happy with a purchase or with your membership, you can bring it back or have it refunded.
Now, you should really only do this if you’re actually not going to use your membership (it’s more than a little skeevy to use it all year and then get a refund on day 364), but at least you know that you’re not 100% locked in to your membership once you purchase it.
A few years ago, I did this myself with my Costco membership. I had really wanted to try a Costco membership for my family, but I realized once I got there that it just wasn’t something I would regularly use.
At that time in my life, I didn’t buy a lot of items in bulk. Plus, the parking lot was a nightmare that I didn’t want to have to deal with each time I shopped. So, I asked for a refund and got it. Their customer service was really top-notch.
Maximize Your Membership Cost
As mentioned before, there’s really no such thing as a free Costco membership. But there are plenty of ways to save at Costco to help you offset the cost of your membership and maximize your investment.
A Costco Gold Star membership costs $60 a year, and a Costco Gold Star Executive membership costs $120 a year. Here are some Costco shopping tips to help you recoup that cost.
11. Buy Gasoline
You’ve probably seen the gas pumps at Costco with lines of cars waiting to fill up. It’s worth the wait if you use a lot of fuel!
To get an idea of how much you’d save, I checked GasBuddy.com to see how current gas prices in my area compare. My Costco had gas priced at 22¢ less per gallon than the next lowest price. If I were to fill up with 20 gallons each time, that’s a savings of $4.40 each time I fill up.
I fill up about once per week (I drive a lot since I have to bring my kids to school), which equals a savings of $228.80 per year, just on gas! Even if I filled up just fourteen times over the year, I’d pay for the cost of my membership.
12. Buy Gift Cards & Movie Tickets
Costco has discounted gift cards and movie tickets available both in-store and online. You can use these yourself to save a little extra at other retailers or unbundle them and give them as gifts.
In a quick browse online, I found $100 worth of Build-A-Bear Workshop gift cards for $79.99 and $100 worth of California Pizza Kitchen gift cards for $79.99. Purchase both of those deals and you’re already two-thirds of the way toward covering your Costco Gold Star membership cost!
Often times you’ll see discounted gift cards to local restaurants and attractions, too. Costco definitely considers what people will be interested in as they curate their gift card selection – it’s not just national retailers.
P.S. – Even non-members can purchase some of their gift cards and movie tickets online!
13. Earn Costco Rewards and Credit Card Rewards
Costco has two levels of membership: Gold Star and Gold Star Executive. The Gold Star Executive Membership is twice the cost of the Gold Star Membership, but it gives you some added perks, including cashback.
Executive Members earn an annual 2% Reward (up to $1,000) on qualified Costco, Costco.com, and Costco Travel purchases. This means that if you spend $6,000 at Costco in a year ($500/month), you’ll completely pay for the cost of your Executive Membership through Rewards.
Note that Rewards are not calculated on purchases of gasoline, Costco Shop Cards, alcoholic beverages in certain states, prescription purchases in certain states, and at food courts.
Whether or not you’re an Executive Member, you apply for the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi to earn additional cashback including
- 4% on eligible gas for the first $7,000 per year (1% after that) – this works out to up to $280 for the first year and $70 for subsequent years
- 3% on all restaurants and eligible travel
- 2% on all other purchases from Costco
- 1% on all other purchases
This credit card doubles as your membership card and has no annual fee as long as you have a paid membership.
14. Buy Costco’s Kirkland Signature Brand Items
You already know that passing on the name brand items and buying generic instead is a great way to save. But Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand takes generic buying to the next level.
Kirkland Signature items are found only at Costco and include everything from grocery items to organic to home and kitchen to everything in between. You’ll typically find these items right next to their name-brand counterparts in the store, so you can easily see how much you’re saving by buying this brand!
Remember that Costco offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee, so if you don’t like any of their Kirkland Signature items, you can bring them back for a full refund.
15. Buy Tires
Costco is one of our favorite places to get the best deals on tires. They offer a pretty awesome deal a couple of times per year in which you get big savings off a set of four tires PLUS installation for just a penny per tire.
Even right now, Costco is offering a deal in which you can save $150 instantly on any set of four Bridgestone tires with installation. That would make your membership more than pay for itself!
Note that your choices are limited for tires (just Bridgestone, Michelin, and BF Goodrich), but you’ll also get free rotation, balancing, inflation checks, and flat repairs for the life of the tire.
16. Eat at the Food Court
Costco’s food court is legendary. Where else can you feed your whole family for about $10? Their food is quick, cheap, and delicious.
Considering there are Costco locations across the U.S., you can even use your membership to eat at the food court while you’re traveling. It’s no doubt cheaper than fast food, and it will give you and your family the chance to stretch your legs a bit while you’re out and about.
If you make a point to visit Costco’s food court say, twice a month instead of hitting up a fast food joint, you’ll pay for the cost of your membership if you save just $2.50 each time vs. getting fast food. And that’s pretty easy to do. You could even pick up one of Costco’s huge pizzas for just $10 or so for your weekly pizza night and save vs. getting delivery.
17. Book Your Travel Through Costco
Did you know that Costco is one of the best places to rent a car? You’ll get special perks and sometimes bonus gift cards when you book through Costco.
For example, right now you can get a $20 Costco Shop Card when you rent a car through Avis or Budget Rental and book online with Costco Travel.
When you book your rental car online, Costco’s Low-Price Finder will automatically calculate the best applicable coupon compatible with your member discount. You may also get your additional driver fee waived.
Besides rental cars, Costco has some pretty amazing travel deals and services. They employ trained travel professionals who can assist you in planning and booking your vacation, getting you negotiated rates on vacation packages, cruises, and hotels. Your total price will be clearly displayed throughout the booking process, so there won’t be any surprises when it’s time to pay.
18. Utilize Coupon Apps
There are lots of different coupon apps out there that will help you save money. Costco doesn’t accept manufacturers’ coupons, but you can get cashback when you purchase certain items.
Some of my favorite apps that work well with Costco include the following:
- Ibotta gives you cashback when you shop at Costco and other retailers. You’ll need to browse the app and add offers for items you want to buy, then upload a photo of your receipt. There are even some Costco-specific offers! Once your receipt is approved, you’ll receive cashback in your account.
- Fetch Rewards lets you earn points for scanning receipts. You’ll earn points when you scan any eligible receipt, but you’ll get bonus points for purchasing select items.
Keep track of your earnings over the year and you’ll see how quickly it can add up if you’re diligent with scanning your receipts!
RELATED: 18 Best Coupon Apps to Save Money
While you may not be able to get a totally free Costco membership, there are still ways to shop at Costco and save big. You can buy certain items without a membership, you may get a discount on your membership cost, or you’ll just offset the cost of the membership by all of the savings you’ll get. It will pay for itself in no time!
In what ways do you save on your Costco membership? Please comment below to share your experience!