Groucho Marx famously declared that he didn’t care to belong to any club that would have him as a member … but we’re willing to bet that he’d think differently about a Costco Wholesale membership.
Costco has grown to have a cult following since it first opened in 1983 in Seattle. Back then, archival photos show individual memberships cost $30, plus $15 for a spouse (quite a bargain compared to today’s prices!), but anyone who’s shopped at the warehouse club recently will recognize the same industrial shelving, oversized packages, cement floors, and crowds of eager shoppers scoring awesome deals.
Today, Costco has nearly 800 stores across the globe and is fondly known for its food court with the $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, its private-label wines that rival award-wining vintages, and its giant-sized packages of just about everything. Even Mr. Marx might agree that this is one membership investment that can pay off big-time… and anyone can join if they have $60 for the basic fee.
But before you head to your nearest Costco to get your card, read on to learn all you need to know about joining the club.
You can check out the store for free before you invest
Here’s a secret that just might blow your mind: You don’t need a membership to get in the doors. There are a few ways even nonmembers can check out the fabled aisles of savings. The easiest way is probably finding a buddy who’s a member and tagging along on their next shopping trip. Technically, only members can make purchases, but as long as your friend lets you scan her member card at the register, you’ll be able to pay for your own 30-pack of toilet paper.
Another way to get in is to get a Costco Cash card. This gift card lets you shop without a membership, using the value on the card to pay for your gallon-sized bottle of maple syrup and your three-pound sack of lemons. Only members can buy Costco Cash cards, so, again, you’ll have to know someone who is a member to get the hookup. But once you have that gift card in hand, you can give the store a real test drive — and even take some of those must-have bulk items home with you.
Know that not everything is a deal at Costco
If you’re getting a membership simply because you want to save big bucks on everything you buy, know that some items sold at Costco are not much cheaper than if you bought them in a traditional grocery store. Certain cheeses and organic milk, for instance, don’t seem to be that great of a deal compared to buying them at your local supermarket. In a comparison test, one report shows that certain produce, fresh chicken, and coffee were also cheaper at a regular store.
This is why it’s a good idea to do a quick recon of the store before you invest in a membership. Make a list of some of your most frequently purchased items and check the prices at Costco, then compare them to what you normally pay.
Another thing to consider: Like any warehouse club, most of Costco’s products are sold only in larger-sized packages. It might be cheaper when you calculate the price per ounce, but for perishable items, if you can’t eat it all before it goes bad, you’re actually losing money (not to mention wasting food!). We’re not saying a Costco membership doesn’t have it’s benefits, but those benefits vary based on what you regularly purchase.
You can sometimes get a membership at a discount
Does the $60 price tag seem too steep? Occasionally, Costco memberships can be found at a discount or with a bonus for new members, in the form of a gift card. In 2018, a Living Social deal, priced at $60, included the membership, a $20 Costco Cash Card (hey, you could give it to a friend who wants to check out the store without a membership!), and assorted goodies ranging from a package of batteries, to discounts on meat and online shopping.
Keep an eye on Groupon and Living Social for these types of deals, and be sure to grab them when you see them, as they’re often in limited quantities. We’ve also seen savings like these through banks and other organizations. And occasionally there are even special deals offered for teachers, where they can get a coupon booklet with the purchase of a new membership. The booklet is good for $60 worth of merchandise, offsetting your initial investment.
If you’re not to antsy to start spending at Costco, being patient could gain you a cheaper membership — or at least a cheaper bill on your first shopping trip.
You can only pay at Costco via these methods
If you prefer to pay for your shopping with an American Express, MasterCard, Discover Card, or Diner’s Club Card, you’re out of luck. Costco only accepts Visa network cards for credit card payments. You can also pay via debit card, cash, check or EBT.
Costco had a longtime relationship with American Express starting in 1999, but discontinued that partnership around 2016, which is when AmEx was no longer accepted in the warehouse stores, and Visa was phased in. While AmEx customers might be frustrated that they can’t flash their plastic at Costco, Visa charges a lower fee … so hopefully those savings are passed onto members.
So, when you head to the store, make sure your debit card is loaded up or your Visa has plenty of balance available just in case some of Costco’s less conventional offerings catch your eye: a digital piano or an inflatable stand-up paddleboard, perhaps?
Springing for the executive membership might be worth it
here are a few options for Costco memberships. The basic membership is called the Gold Star membership. Priced at $60, it’s the minimum you can spend to get in the door and start throwing some of that Kirkland-brand goodness –which is often 20 percent cheaper than most other brands in the store — into your extra-large shopping cart.
The Gold Star Executive membership is the other option for individuals. It costs twice as much as the Gold Star membership, but before you dismiss it outright, think about how much you might spend at the store each year. Because you get 2 percent back on your purchases (in the form of a Costco gift certificate to spend in the store), spending around $3000 a year (that’s $250/month) is enough to offset that extra $60 you spent on the higher-priced annual membership. Executive members also get extra benefits on certain Costco services, too.
If you think you’ll be a true Costco fan, the Costco credit card offers even more benefits
When Costco discontinued its aforementioned AmEx partnership, it quickly aligned with Citi to offer an official Costco credit card. The Costco Anywhere credit card can be used not only at Costco (and it works in place of your membership card), but anywhere else that accepts Visa, too.
And there are plenty of perks and rebates, too, such as a percentage back for just about everything you buy with it, ranging from four percent back for certain gas purchases to one percent back for everything else. According to a review, these rebates are higher than the original American Express Costco card.
You need a membership to get the Costco Anywhere card, but if you plan to apply for the credit card, just spring for the basic Gold Star membership, since purchases with the card will get you that same 2 percent back you get with the Executive level membership.
The reward gets paid out every year in the form of a certificate, which you can redeem for cash at a Costco store, or use in the store towards more stuff… perhaps even a package of Costco’s number-one selling item: toilet paper.
If you’re not happy with your membership, you can always get a refund
Let’s say you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and finally purchased a membership. But perhaps you quickly discover that the store is too far away to make it worth the long drive, you’re having trouble storing all the giant packages in your small house, or you just have grown weary of fighting the free-sample-hungry crowds when you’re just trying to get to the checkout with your bottle of Kirkland wine.
According to the company, if you’re dissatisfied with your membership, they’ll refund the fee in full at any time. No questions asked. It’s not even unheard of to buy and return a Costco membership in a single day!
So, go ahead and treat yourself to that Costco membership. What have you got to lose? Only, perhaps, a dress size if you stock up on some of Costco’s priced-to-sell exercise equipment!
You can share your membership
With a Gold Star or Executive membership, you can get a second card for another member of your household; they just need to live at the same address as you do. These household members get their own photo ID membership card, and can use it to enter the store and make purchases on their own — you don’t even need to be with them.
In addition to their additional household member, business members can also add members for $60 each (which, since membership costs $60 in the first place, isn’t much of a deal!).
And, since shopping is usually more fun with a buddy, know that you can always bring up to two guests with you every time you shop. It’s a great way to introduce Costco to potential new members … and to have an extra hand or two to load up all your bargains into the back of your SUV.
Student and members of the military can get extra perks with memberships
Are you in college, or do you someone who is? A Costco membership can help budget-challenged students with well-priced beer, Cheerios, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, and other staples of college life. And you can save even more by buying your membership through UniDays, where you are eligible for a $20 Costco card (that’ll buy you a lot of ramen noodles!). Of course, your other option is to wait until you go home to visit your parents, and convince them to take you shopping with their own membership… maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll even pay for your stuff!
Veterans and active members of the military are rewarded for their service to the country with a special promotion of their own. New Costco members who sign up still pay $60 for their basic membership, but they’ll get that $60 back in the form of a booklet full of coupons for free and deeply discounted items.
You don’t need a membership for all of Costco’s services
You don’t necessarily need to be a member to enjoy all of Costco’s many benefits. Anyone can grab lunch or dinner at the food court. It’s usually located near the exit, so just enter through the exit or near customer service to grab your favorite menu item.
In some states, liquor must legally be available for sale to the public, without any membership restrictions. In that case, even Costco nonmembers can shop Costco’s extensive liquor department — some even have their own entrances — where you can find name-brand spirits as well as the company’s private-label Kirkland brand offerings.
Finally, nonmembers can take advantage of some of Costco’s health-related services. They can get eye exams, since the optometrists are not employed by Costco (but they can’t buy glasses). And, in most states, nonmembers can fill prescriptions at Costco pharmacies, enjoying lower prices on both human and pet medication. One report ranks prices on Costco medications second-lowest among a range of other pharmacies.It’s important to note, though, that prices on meds are even lower for club members, thanks to the Costco Members Prescription Program.
And if you really need a way to get your hands on some of those great Costco-only products, you can shop Costco.com or via Instacart, but nonmembers pay slightly higher prices, as well as delivery fees, if applicable.
Your Costco membership gets you into any store in the world
That’s right, while visiting a Costco might be the last thing on your itinerary while you’re traveling internationally, tucking your membership card into your fanny pack could come in handy. You could replace a broken suitcase, grab a couple of cheap beach towels, or buy a few outfits if your luggage got lost by the airlines. Or maybe you’re just missing the taste of Costco’s cheap and delicious hot dogs from the food court.
There are more than 200 Costco locations outside of the U.S. as of 2019, and the company has an aggressive growth plan in Europe. And while the European Costco locations sell a lot of similar products to their American counterparts, you might be able to score some locally produced foods or other merchandise. (And actually the similarities in selections may have their perks: one homesick American in Paris found that Costco was a great place to stock up on hard-to-find items from home, like marshmallows and pumpkin pie)
Make the most of your membership with other services
Your Costco membership nets you way more than just the opportunity to buy bulk groceries. If you buy a membership, look beyond the awesome deals in the grocery aisles and see what else Costco has to offer in the way of services.
Like to travel? As a Costco member, you have access to its exclusive travel service, which offers negotiated rates on vacation packages, cruises, hotels, and even rental cars. And the company recently changed its policy so that Executive members get 2 percent back on travel purchases after the trip has been completed.
Costco services also extend to savings that aren’t quite as glamorous as travel. You can get special member pricing on new or used cars. More than 1 million Costco members have bought cars through Costco in the past five years (as of February 2019), with discounts being estimated at around $1000 off a more traditional car-buying avenue.
There are also savings on home repair services, appliances, insurance, and even smaller services like check printing or photo developing. Costco’s automotive departments are an affordable place to buy new tires and car batteries.
Finally, you can even get prescription glasses or contacts in Costco’s optical department, which are staffed with opticians and optometrists to get eye exams (and yes, they accept many forms of insurance).
Costco’s aisles aren’t labeled … on purpose
Before you buy a Costco membership, you’ll probably want to know what the shopping experience is like. To put it succinctly, a visit to the warehouse store will require a lot of walking.
One sneaky trick Costco uses to get shoppers to spend more money is omitting labels from its aisles. Not only that, the store will often move certain staple items to different areas of the building. This ensures that customers never really know exactly where they’re going. In turn, they’re forced to cover every corner of the store and walk down every aisle.
Costco isn’t trying to help you get your steps in. Instead, it’s trying to get you to see as many items as possible in hopes that when you lay your eyes on the 24-count package of Cup Noodles or jumbo tub of Nutella, you’ll decide you can’t live without it. Next thing you know, you have things in your cart you never expected to buy and Costco just got a little bit richer.
Costco is the country’s largest seller of wine
If asked to name the biggest wine retailer in the country, it would likely take you quite a few guesses to finally land on Costco. And yet it’s true: Costco is the largest seller of wine in the United States, totaling more than $1.5 billion in annual sales. This accounts for half of the company’s yearly alcohol sales.
The secret to Costco’s success in hawking wine is the same it uses for all of its other products — selling it for significantly less than its competitors. According to Delish, the wholesaler marks up wine for roughly 14 percent. Other retailers bump up the price by up to 50 percent. But even though it’s known for its low prices, Costco doesn’t just deal in the cheap stuff. Believe it or not, the wholesale giant imports more high-end French wines than anyone else in the world.
Costco is one of the country’s largest pizza chains
Perusing the vastness that is a Costco warehouse is sure to make you work up an appetite. But fear not, the company has you covered.
Although it is not your typical fast food joint, with more than 550 locations in the United States, Costco is one of the largest pizza chains in the country. For reference, that’s more stores than well-established pizza places such as Cicis, Chuck E. Cheese’s, and MOD Pizza, and nearly twice as many locations as Sbarro.
The store sells a slice for less than $2.00. (The same price applies, regardless of your choice of topping). And if you don’t think you’re getting a good slice for that price, think again. Costco’s pizza has a strong following as the store doesn’t cut corners. According to Southern Living, a cheese pizza includes two full pounds of cheese, and a pepperoni pie is adorned with precisely 60 slices. As for freshness, a Costco supervisor claims that, "A pizza slice that doesn’t sell within the hour gets thrown out and replaced."
A Costco membership might just be worth it for the chicken alone
Let’s be honest: there are nights where we might not know what’s going on the dinner table, much less how it’s going to get there. Fast food and pizza might be a viable option, but they’re not always the healthiest. That’s where Costco comes in.
If you’re on the fence about getting a Costco membership — and you also just happen to be feeding a family on a busy schedule — here’s some literal food for thought. Costco’s rotisserie chickens are insanely popular. According to Fortune, Costco sells about $60 million rotisserie chickens a year. They might just make getting a membership worthwhile.
For starters, the list of ingredients and seasonings is filled with some of the least controversial ingredients you might see on the dinner table. Mashed previously found that while there’s a decent amount of sodium in these delicious birds, there’s not as much as you might expect: 460 milligrams per serving. That’s definitely not as much as you might get if you took a swing through the McDonald’s drive-thru for dinner, where a McChicken contains 560 milligrams of sodium. Costco’s rotisserie chickens are delicious, versatile, and picking one up means that with just a bag of frozen veg from the freezer, you can put a meal on the table quickly — and it won’t taste like regret.
It could save pet owners a ton of money
If your household includes a furry family member, you might want to stop hesitating about that Costco membership and go ahead and take the plunge.
Anyone who’s had cats and dogs knows how expensive medications can be, from pills prescribed by a vet right down to regular treatments like heartworm pills. You should know that Costco’s pharmacy doesn’t just cater to humans, they also have a wide range of pet meds that could make your membership worth it for their prices alone.
Costco Pharmacies can transfer and fill your pet’s medications the same way they fill human ones, and that includes things like NexGard (for flea and tick prevention) and Interceptor (for protection against heartworm and internal parasites).
Couple that with the fact that Costco also has a Member Prescription Program that allows members to get anywhere from two to 40 percent off their prescription drugs, and that could add up to some serious savings. Before you get your membership, get your prescriptions organized, and start saving immediately.
There have been changes at Costco due to COVID-19
Before you sign up for your annual membership fee, you should also consider the changes that the store has made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, per Costco.
Many updates are simply for the protection of staff and customers alike. Face masks are mandatory for adults, and those who are exempt from wearing face masks because of medical conditions are required to wear a face shield. Social distancing measures are in place, and there are limits on the quantities of certain products that you can purchase.
There are some other rules in place that — depending on how and when you shop — might make you think twice about a membership. If your work schedule restricts your shopping hours, you should know that Costco has implemented Special Operating Hours on weekdays in many of its locations. (That’s typically between 9 and 10 a.m., but can vary based on location.) During those hours, only members 60 years or older — or those who are immunocompromised, or are disabled — will be allowed into the store. No guests will be allowed to accompany them, and in some locations, that means only one person per card will be allowed into the store.
There are also special measures in place for first responders and healthcare workers: with proper ID, they will be given priority access to the store. (Except in Massachusetts, where state regulations forbid these workers from shopping during senior-only hours.)
How much online shopping will you be doing at Costco?
If you’ve spotted a few good deals on the Costco website and you’re wondering if a membership is worth it, here’s the deal.
Anyone can shop online at Costco.com without a membership, but there’s a catch. When you check out, you’ll be charged a five percent surcharge, in addition to any shipping fees that you might accumulate (via Costco Customer Service). Also, when Business Insider did some comparison shopping, they found that the prices listed on the website were as much as 20 percent higher than in-store prices. (The idea, they say, is that it’s likely an attempt to get people to head to the store and shop in person, where they’re more likely to be tempted by impulse buys.)
So, what’s the bottom line? The New York Times did the math, and found the cutoff: If you’re going to be spending $1200 or more on the Costco website, then it’s worth it to become a member. If you’re under that number — and only shop there online — then the membership fee isn’t worth it.
Buying in bulk at Costco can cost you more
Getting a membership at Costco to buy in bulk might seem like a no-brainer. You get more, and even if the up-front cost is more, you’re going to save money in the long run, right? Maybe not.
Some seemingly safe bulk buys will actually go bad way faster than you might think, so if you’re eyeing a Costco membership for the bulk deals, you might want to assess what you’re really going to be buying.
MoneyCrashers says that brown rice, for example, only has a shelf life of six months. Seriously! Even oatmeal only lasts for about a year, while those bags of seeds and nuts you’re stockpiling for down-the-road baking projects should be used within six months of their expiration date, too. Other products that have a shorter shelf life? Olive oil, all-purpose flour, and most spices (via The Balance).
But what about things you’re not going to eat? Household cleaning products, detergents, soaps, and skincare products are great bulk buys, right? Not so fast. Researchers have found that when it comes to cleaning products, they only keep their oomph for a maximum of a year. And those skincare products? The longer they sit around, the more likely they are to become contaminated with bacteria that you’re then introducing to your skin. Opened containers should be used within the year, and that sheds a whole new light on whether or not that giant tub of skin cream is worth it.
Costco takes their store brands very seriously
Every household has its unique habits, and for some, that means a reliance on name brands. We all know that person who has to have Starbucks coffee, who swears Duracell batteries last longer than any other kind, or who believes that the only real tuna fish sandwich is the one made with Bumble Bee tuna.
If your love of name brands is making you think twice about a Costco membership, you should know that you might not have to worry.
Sure, you’ll be going to Costco and stocking up on Kirkland products, but you should know that not only does Costco take the quality of their products very seriously, but some of them might be the exact same thing you get under brand name labels. That Kirkland brand coffee? Read the small print, and you’ll see that it boasts "Custom roasted by Starbucks." Yahoo! Finance says that their batteries are actually made by Duracell, and their tuna? Yes, it’s Bumble Bee. And those are just a few examples of the name brands that manufacture products for Costco.
Even if you can’t find your favorite name brands hiding under another label, you should also know that Mashed found a ton of products — from olive oil and animal crackers to vodka — that Costco and Kirkland just does better.
If you love sales and coupons, it might not be worth it
There’s something satisfying about scoring a bargain, especially when it’s on something you use all the time. And coupons? Somehow — in an age when many newspapers and magazines have gone completely digital — coupons are still a thing. And it’s kind of understandable: Shows like TLC’s Extreme Couponing make it seem like anyone who’s dedicated enough could get their shopping for free (via Money Crashers).
While not everyone goes to those extremes, those who love hunting down sales and clipping coupons for the thrill of savings might find Costco isn’t a good fit for them.
When Business Insider did some comparison shopping, they found that if you’re already hunting for the best deals, buying what’s on sale at regular grocery stores, and clipping coupons, you’re probably not going to save any money with a Costco membership. Break things down into their "per unit" cost, and you’ll find that grocery store chains often have better deals on the stuff you buy all the time — especially if you wait to stock up when things go on sale. Factor in the added bonus of being able to buy smaller sizes that will stay fresh longer, and bargain-hunters will find they might want to skip getting that Costco membership.
Figure out how close you live to Costco
Costco has such a cult following that at a glance, it might seem like getting a membership for a once-a-month trip could be an adventurous way to shake up your shopping habits. But according to Business Insider, finding out where the closest Costco is to your home — or work — goes a long way in telling you whether or not a membership is going to be worth it.
While there’s drive time, gas, and wear on your car to consider, there’s also the question of motivation. If there’s not a Costco that’s conveniently located for you, the chances of you taking time out of your busy schedule to go significantly decreases.
It sounds like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but look at it this way: They say that Costco only has 527 stores located in the US and Puerto Rico. Consider the fact that at the same time Walmart boasted 4,769, and it’s pretty clear which one might be more convenient.
Let’s put it this way: When is the last time you opted for getting up off the couch to put in a DVD over the convenience of just turning on Netflix? Choosing the more convenient shopping option works in pretty much the same way.
Don’t forget to weigh your options
If you’re thinking about a Costco membership, you should know that not all warehouse stores were created equal. The best one for you depends on your own individual needs, so doing some research is key.
What exactly do we mean? For example, CNBC compared shopping online at Costco with shopping online at BJ’s. Of the 26 products they compared, BJ’s was a clear winner in 18 of them, which suggests that if you’re an online shopper, you might want to check out BJ’s instead. Not only are they generally cheaper, but they also accept coupons — Costco doesn’t.
On the other hand, Investopedia says that when they compared Costco and Sam’s Club, they found that Costco had a wider variety of store-brand products that were ultimately cheaper. But, Sam’s Club offered more choices when it came to name brands. However, recent store closures mean that people who once had easy access to a Sam’s Club might not have one around the corner anymore.
Bottom line? Do some comparison shopping before you commit, and make sure you’re going to make the most out of a membership.