Is Buying in Bulk Really Cheaper? Costco vs. Super Walmart

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The following post is by MPFJ staff writer Travis.  Travis is a customer blogger for Care One Debt Relief Services, and also appears weekly at Enemy of Debt.  Travis candidly shares his personal journey to pay off $109,000 of credit card debt and the tips he’s learned along the way. As a father and husband he provides a unique perspective on balancing debt, finances, and family.
A few months ago, a Costco opened up near my home.  My wife and I checked it out as guests of some friends who had purchased a membership.  I was skeptical of even going, as I haven’t been a fan of buying in bulk for the following reasons:
·           Many times, the product isn’t any cheaper per unit, it’s just in a big package.
·           Buying in bulk can cause people to buy and consume more.
·           Bigger packages can mean waste because products expire or get stale before they’re used up.
On the other hand, as we walked around the store,  I saw many great products.  I also saw products that we normally use in bulk sizes.  I remembered a comment on a different blog post about club store shopping that suggested making a monthly trip to the store,  purchasing items in bulk once a month, then filling in other things around it as needed from a “regular” grocery store.
Before unleashing my checkbook on a Costco membership and products, I wanted to ensure that buying products at Costco that we actually use will save us money.  I spent time walking through both Costco and a Super Walmart, where we usually purchase the bulk of our groceries,  comparing prices to find out which of the products my family uses would be worth purchasing at Costco.
The following is just a sample of the comparative data of commonly used products from both stores:
Orville Redenbachers Smart Pop 94% fat free microwave popcorn:

Costco:           $10.99 for 40 packages                  (27.5 cents per bag)
Walmart:         $5.18 for 10 packages                    (51.8 cents per bag)
Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter: 

Costco:           $10.99 for two 48oz jars                  (11.4 cents per ounce)
Walmart:         $4.08 for a 28oz jar              (14.6 cents per ounce)
Bounty Paper Towels:

Costco:           $19.99 for 12 Jumbo Rolls             (23 cents per square foot)
Walmart:         $  9.97 for   6 Super Rolls               (39 cents per square foot)
Hamburger:

Costco:           $14.95 for 5lbs of 88/12                  ($2.95 per pound)
Walmart:         $  4.28 for one pound of 90/10      ($4.28 per pound)
Soda:

Costco:           $5.99 for a 24 pack                          ($5.99 per 24 pack)
Walmart:         $6.48 for a 24 pack                          ($6.48 for a 24 pack)
Red Grapes:

Costco:           $9.92 for 4 pounds                          ($2.48 per pound)
Walmart:         Varies                                                 ($2.48 per pound)
I was surprised that almost every item that I checked was significantly cheaper when bought in bulk at Costco (negating one of my earlier points). 

Products purchased by household will vary, but I didn’t find many products that I would have an expiration problem with.  For example, with the hamburger, I would separate it into five 1-pound packages, put into freezer bags, and freeze them.  I would have a concern about the peanut butter, as I’m not sure we would use that much peanut butter before the second jar would go bad.  This may be a good opportunity to split the cost with a neighbor, each taking one of the gigantic jars.

I found that Costco carried many products that I normally cannot find at Walmart, such as a wide selection of non-frozen seafood.  However, I also found that  Costco did NOT carry some products that we use every week.  For example, the frozen pizza selection at Costco was horrible.  For that item alone, we would have to make a weekly trip to Walmart or some other store to pick up frozen pizza. 
While shopping at Costco looks to be able to save us quite a bit of money, the biggest obstacle will be coming up with the funds for what will likely be a large and quite expensive monthly shopping trip.
How about you, readers, do you shop at Costco or another club store?  How often during the month do you shop there, and how do you budget for an expensive shopping trip?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

***Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Comments

  1. moneybeagle says:

    The biggest variables that can change this are coupons and sales. If you can get a pack of paper towels on sale and then apply a coupon, you could actually come up less per unit than at Costco. The issues there are that you won't get as many (you might get 4 rolls of paper towel, not 12) and that you can't predict the deal, whereas the Costco prices generally remain constant. With toilet paper, for example, we'll usually buy the big pack they have, but if I spot a deal along the way, we'll supplement that.
    My recent post The Simple Reason JC Penney’s Pricing Gimmick Failed

    • I noticed the same thing, moneybeagle. Some of the items I compared were on sale at Walmart – but I took the non-sale price for the comparison because, as you mentioned, things are not always on sale. Always buying the item at a club store will give you a predictably “normally lower” price. But if you can hit a sale when you need at item at a different store that saves you money, more power to the shopper, right?

  2. This is a great post/topic to discuss! When I was growing up, my Dad and I would make a trip to Sam's Club to buy a motherload of items for our family about once a month. Overall, it seemed to work pretty well. However, we seemed to be unable to get out of the Sam's Club without spending under $200 (in the 90's).

    Currently, my fiance and I make a big shopping trip to a super walmart once a month, so we might be good candidates to try out Costco/Sam's Club. But, since it's just the two of us, I feel like the bulk packages at a club store may be too much for us to go through.

    A couple of other questions I was curious about when reading the post:

    1) what does a costco annual membership cost?

    2) did you get a feel for how the costco costs compare to the Great Value brands that Wal mart sells?
    My recent post Is Buying in Bulk Really Cheaper? Costco vs. Super Walmart

    • Those are great questions, Jacob – ones that I thought about addressing, but I thought addressing too many major topics in the post may make it bulky and hard to follow.

      The annual cost of a membership at CostCo is $55….but you could also get an executive membership for $110. The executive membership gives 2% cash back on your purchases. But you'd have to spend around $2750 a year to make up the difference between the two memberships.

      I think a more valid comparison would be how Walmart's Great Value brands compare with Costco's Kirkland brand – although I did get the feeling that the Kirkland brand didn't quite have the same breadth of product as Great Value does.
      My recent post I Love You Like A Blogger Roundup – 04/12

  3. If you are going to be buying name-brand, the warehouse stores are cheaper. But house brand at Wal-Mart is cheaper than name-brand at Costco.

    Warehouse stores are also GREAT for luxury foods, like fancy cheeses. :)
    My recent post I’m Pregnant And I Can’t Get Up!

    • That is a good point, Jenny….however CostCo does have their own Kirkland brand – although as mentioned in a previous comment I'm not sure Kirkland has as many products as other store brand.

      Costco is good for luxury foods….it also has some really nice products that I can't get at my normal grocery store. As a griller / smoker, they have a great meat section with brisket, pork shoulder, ribs, etc that are hard to find anywhere else.
      My recent post I Love You Like A Blogger Roundup – 04/12

  4. I go to BJs once per month so I wonder if my results would be similar to yours. I assume the pricing is similar to Costco, but have you ever seen a comparison?

    I have done some limited random price checking against Walmart and Trader Joe's and I've found that BJs prices are usually better. However, I can sometimes buy store brands at Walmart or TJs when BJs has only a brand name. Then Walmart or TJs can sometimes be better.

    Also, BJs sends out a coupon book every month and some of those deals can be really good.
    My recent post Asset Allocation Saves You From Yourself

  5. Buying in bulk can be great for large families because they tend to eat more. If i didn't need to buy in bulk, i would rather pay a little for if i waste less. You can always just try generic food at Aldi's, because they are super cheap!

    • I've checked out Aldi as well, Rob, and while they do have some super cheap items, I've found that they don't have the selection of products that other stores have. Definitely a good option to keep that grocery bill as low as possible, though – thanks for sharing your thoughts!
      My recent post I Love You Like A Blogger Roundup – 04/12

  6. Excellent post! Being that it is just my husband and I, our monthly household/grocery expenses are not very high. With that said, my husband still eats like he is experiencing a growth-spurt (he bikes a lot so he burns off a lot of what he eats). We go to Costco about once every other month, and most of our items are non-food items. We try to buy toilet paper, tissue paper, garbage bags, laundry detergent+softener, toothpaste and contact lens solution at Costco. I have bought food from Costco, but the bulk size tends to be far too much for our needs and I HATE wasting food. We have many grocery store chains that offer competitive soda prices so I always am able to find a deal (we are diet coke heads, I know I know it's sooo bad for us). All the rest of our foods are purchased at the grocery store and we are able to keep our budget at about $60/week.

    I can see buying food in bulk when you have a larger family, it's just the budgeting for it that can be a bit tricky. Whatever works for a family that helps save money, right?

    • Hi socarr, great to hear from you – it's been a little while. :) Buying in bulk when it's just the two of you can be a problem in using the product before it goes bad….but for some things (like meat) you can purchase it at the lower price and just freeze it. The non-perishable items (as you mentioned) are still a great option as long as you can purchase enough of it in a year to make up the membership cost.
      My recent post I Love You Like A Blogger Roundup – 04/12

  7. I've never been to a BJ's rjack – I'm not sure they have those in my area of the country (Minnesota) – but I would think that you're right that the pricing is similar to Costco. You have a valid point that there will be some items that are cheaper elsewhere – the savviest of shopper will figure out what products are cheapest where and shop at multiple stores. Sometimes travel and time will negate the savings, but in my case the Costco, Sams Club and Super Walmart are very close together.
    My recent post I Love You Like A Blogger Roundup – 04/12

  8. I go once a month. I have a list of things that I buy at Costco because I know they are cheaper than grocery stores. There are definitely things at Costco that are more expensive than the grocery store. You have to be willing to do the math to figure things out.
    My recent post Gettin’ Hitched Without Losing The Bank

    • Thanks for validating my efforts, MoneySmartGuides – that's exactly why I took my notebook, a pen and a calculator with me walking around both stores. I have more work to do…..I think what I will ultimately do is perform a few full grocery shopping trips in April yet, and make a comprehensive list of everything we purchase. Then I can do the comparison of everything we use over a span of several weeks and really make a true “What I should buy at Costco” list. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  9. I know this article and comments focus mainly on consumer staples, but one thing that really stands out for me is Costco's return policy. For most items, the return policy is pretty much “unlimited”. Also, anything you buy online can be returned to the physical store for a full refund. Let's say you bought an item 3 years ago, and now it breaks. Guess what..full refund (except for limited computers/electronic items).

    • I didn't know that, Mateo – I appreciate you sharing that. If a reader is contemplating getting a membership at Costco, their return policy could be a deal breaker/maker!

  10. Interesting price comparisons. I love Costco, although I could never use it as my only grocery store. Two things I love about Costco is that they have lots of organics (including organic ground beef and chicken breasts). They also have a coupon book that comes out about monthly, that can reduce your costs even further.
    My recent post Take a Student Loan Quiz and Enter to Win a $50 Prepaid Mastercard

    • I just found out that they have a coupon book this weekend, Julie…which really surprised me because Club stores normally run under the assumption that their everyday prices are already lower, so no sales are needed. I'm looking forward to checking out their sales and seeing if they ever hit products I use. Thanks for mentioning that point – great to hear from you…..haven't connected with you for awhile, hope you are doing well!

  11. I've considered this, but Costco is probably too far away for me to wanna deal with. I can be lazy when it comes to driving.

    Right now, I'm buying things on Amazon's subscribe & save. When I buy 5 or more items in a given month, I'll get 15% off all of them, plus free shipping. Depending on what I get, the prices can be really competitive and it's nice that I don't have to actually go anywhere/take time out of my day to do the trip.
    My recent post Making several investment deposits in a month, rather than one

    • Shopping form home is always a bonus, right Kacie? I'm assuming these products are household products and not food?
      My recent post How Much Would You Pay For A Child’s Birthday Party?

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