Costco Wholesale, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale Club. What do all three of these have in common? They are all membership warehouse stores, and they are growing in popularity every day. While big box stores have been around since the 1970's or 1980's (depending on where you do your research), they have come a long way since the early days. While I don't have an exact number (Wikipedia is not always the most reliable source for up-to-date info), there are well over 100 million members between the three major big box retailers as of the end of January 2014. Does that mean that millions of Americans (as well as citizens of dozens of other countries) simply like purchasing a year's supply of trash bags, toilet paper, salad dressing, and cow-size packages of meat all at once? Yes and no.
Let me explain. Just like any store, warehouse stores have great deals, and money suckers. You simply have to be aware of prices, knowing both the regular prices on things at the stores you shop at, as well as how to break costs down to a per unit basis. I have shopped at both Costco and Sam's Club, as they are both local, but I don't have experience with BJ's. I'm assuming BJ's also sells grocery items based on what little I know about them but I don't see too many everyday groceries on their website. The great thing about Costco and Sam's is that they break down the cost for you- most price tags show both the total price and the unit price (per pound, per ounce, each, etc).
Before I go into too much detail comparing unit prices, let's stick to one simple product that can make it worth your while to shop at a warehouse store: Milk. Keep in mind that prices will vary depending on the area of the country you are in, but there is a MAJOR difference in cost between a gallon of 2% milk from Costco and a gallon of 2% milk from Price Chopper or HyVee here in the KC Metro area. I might be off by a bit, but the last I remember my store brand 2% milk at Price Chopper was $4.79. It may have gone up since I bought milk there last. At Costco, I'm only out $2.99. My family goes through between two and four gallons of milk a week depending on recipes and types of breakfasts we eat. Even at just two, I'm spending $5.98 before tax, versus $9.58 at Price Chopper. My weekly savings are $3.60, for a total of $187.20 in savings each year! Given the minimum yearly membership fee at Costco is $55, I'm still saving $132.20, just by getting my milk there instead of at the local grocery store. To me, that alone is worth it!
I know that the largest group of people are going to say that they don't have a Sam's, Costco or BJ's too close to them. If there is a big box retailer within an hour's drive from your home, depending on how you plan and organize your meals and how much space you have, it can still be worth it to make a monthly trip to stock up on staples. I've heard of people loading their large coolers in the back of their vehicles to ensure meat and other refrigerated items last the long ride home from their monthly (or even every two months) trip to the store. I've also read numerous accounts of people who stock up on milk and other dairy products when they go to the store and freeze most of it and simply let it thaw completely in the fridge for 2-3 days before needing it. Obviously some things don't freeze well, but with a little research you can eat well while saving big bucks!
Do you do a lot of baking, especially making your own breads? Or make cakes from scratch like I've started doing? A twenty five pound bag of flour at Sam's Club is $6.94. If I remember correctly, a cheap store-brand bag of flour usually runs about $3 when it's not on sale. This doesn't take a math guru to figure out that the flour is cheaper per pound at Sam's Club. How about sugar? Most baked goods also require sugar, and my family drinks Koolaid throughout the year in place of soda, so we go through a LOT of sugar (which is still cheaper than buying soda and store-bought sweet treats). A five pound bag of sugar at Walmart costs $2.68 ($0.536 per pound), compared to $3.98 for a ten pound bag ($0.398 per pound) at Sam's Club... and this two stores are owned by the same company!! I personally prefer to buy the twenty five or fifty pound bags of flour and sugar, but I couldn't find the prices online to compare these sizes, but I can assure you they are even cheaper per pound.
So maybe you don't do much baking. Not everyone does, and that's okay. Not everyone likes to do as much cooking from scratch, and that's okay too (although I will say the more you can do from scratch, the more you can save, and the better your family will eat). I know just about everyone uses condiments like ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, relish, etc. I'm not going to the trouble of comparing each condiment for you, but Heinz Tomato Ketchup is $3.98 for 64 ounces at Walmart (or 6.2 cents per ounce), compared with three 44 ounce bottles at Sam's Club for $6.23 (4.7 cents per ounce).
These are just a very small handful of things you can save some major money on by shopping at warehouse stores, and there are numerous things I haven't compared prices on simply because I don't know the price and it's not available on the companies' websites. I use my membership at Costco weekly to grab my milk, but I also purchase the flour, sugar, salt, yeast, certain meats, potatoes, onions, carrots and other produce that will keep longer (since it takes longer to go through!), toilet paper, trash bags, shampoo and conditioner, blade refills for our razors, certain vitamins and OTC medications, condiments, seasonings, cooking oils, eggs, as well as other items. I steer clear of cereal and snack bars, as I buy Malt O Meal brand bags at the grocery store- much cheaper for our cereal eater. There are other items I don't buy because we just don't use them in our house, or I tend to stock up at the grocery store when the sale rolls around that offers stuff super cheap- chunk cheese, bacon and hot dogs fall in this category and get frozen until I need them.
On that note, there are times that the local grocery stores have items on sale that I normally buy at Costco and it is more cost efficient to shop the sale, even if it is a smaller container. And I'll admit that I take advantage of those sales, especially if I have a coupon I can combine with the sale price! Heck, just recently there was a four dale sale at Price Chopper and a two day sale at HyVee, both with some great buys. I unfortunately missed the two day sale at HyVee, but was able to take advantage of the four day sale at Price Chopper today. There's always a few things in the sale I don't even bother with, as my grocery budget doesn't allow for splurging quite as much as others', but I grabbed a few Totino's pizzas for $.88 each since the kids are going to be out of school this coming week for conferences, and the Birds Eye frozen vegetables were also $.88 each. I wish I still had coupons to combine with the two awesome deals, but you have to admit that it was a sale worth not missing out on.
I wish I was organized enough that I could show you just how much I save by taking advantage of my favorite big box store! Maybe that will be something I'll have to work on and talk about later. I know the savings I get each time I plan meals and grocery shop are well worth the $55 yearly membership fee. How about you? Do you shop at Costco, Sam's or BJ's? What products do you typically buy in bulk, and which products do you avoid at the warehouse stores? Leave me a comment below to share your bulk shopping tips and tricks!