The Real Skinny on Warehouse Clubs: A Costco Analysis

When the New Year rolled around this year, I had two resolutions.  The first was the same as every year; to get healthier.  The second, however, was more about our budget.  I wanted to start making small changes that would help us save more throughout the year.  Aside from utility bills and housing expenses, we take our biggest hit on groceries every month.  So naturally, this is where my focus was drawn.  Couponing is a great way to save and for a long time, before Declan was born, I did clip coupons.  I soon found, however, that it is a lot more challenging to find the time after a second baby.  Also, I am attached to some brands and a lot of our money is spent on produce, so the coupons often didn’t help that much.  I turned to the warehouse clubs, Costco to be exact (although Sams Club is great, too).  I had previously seen some articles and news shows to the effect that not everything is cheaper at these stores, so I went in with my eyes open and since the beginning of the year, I have been collecting little tidbits of information about what is better at which stores.  Today, dear reader, I will share some of them with you.

In my world, there are three places to buy groceries; Walmart, Kroger, and Costco, so my numbers and comparisons revolve around these three.  Also, let me say up front that I do not buy produce at Walmart.  My family eats a LOT of fresh fruits and veggies and I have brought home one too many moldy strawberries and rotting pineapples from Walmart to continue to waste my money there.  Besides, it isn’t always cheaper.  Finally, you will find bigger sizes and family packs at big box stores like Sam’s Club and Costco.  For that reason, you will need a little extra storage space to take advantage of the savings they offer.

Produce

The produce section at Costco is amazing and I have never bought anything there that wasn’t of good quality.  Kroger also has great produce and a huge organic section.  However, over the last few months, I’ve found that you have to be careful when buying produce at Costco.  First, the obvious, is that you are buying in bulk.  If you are not going to eat 16 big apples or 4 pounds of grapes before they go bad, then it isn’t in your best interest to buy them there.  Second, depending on the season and the holidays, produce is often cheaper elsewhere.  For example, I went to Costco yesterday and to Kroger today.  A whole seedless watermelon at Costco was $5.99.  The last few weeks they have also been $5.99 at Kroger, but due to the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, they were on sale for $3.77, making Kroger $2.22 cheaper!  That’s a big difference!  Blueberries at Costco were $0.33 per ounce.  At Kroger, they typically run $0.67 per ounce, but they were having a buy one get one free deal this week, so they were also $0.33 per ounce at Kroger.  No difference and not worth a special trip to Costco.  Strawberries were also on sale this week, making them only $0.11 per ounce at Kroger.  They were $0.20 at Costco.  The bottom line is that with produce, you are better served to watch the ads to see who is having the best deal.  The exception to this rule is frozen produce.  I do not have the exact numbers, but I can tell you anecdotally that if you are looking for frozen, organic vegetables, Costco is the way to go.  They are MUCH cheaper in that department.

prodceBoxed Goods

I am not sure what the correct terminology is for what I’m talking about here, but I’m going to call them boxed cerealgoods.  What I’m talking about are the non-perishable, shelf items, such as cereals.  Most boxed goods are definitely going to be cheaper at Costco.  For these comparisons, I compared the Costco prices to Walmart, since their boxed goods are always cheaper than Kroger’s.  Cereals are a much better deal at Costco.  Cheerios are $0.14 per ounce at Costco, as compared to $0.28 at Walmart.  For a 40 ounce box of Cheerios, that’s a whopping difference of $5.80!   Honey Bunches of Oats didn’t provide as big of a difference with the price per ounce at Costco being $0.14 and $0.18 at Walmart.  Still, when you’re talking about a 48 ounce box, the total savings at Costco is $1.52.  Another example is oatmeal.  Quaker instant oatmeal packets cost $0.18 per packet at Costco, but $0.25 at Walmart.  The savings are also huge in the dried fruit arena.  Craisins are $0.14 per ounce at Costco and $0.25 per ounce at Walmart.

Personal Care and Laundry

For some reason, I haven’t kept the comparisons for many of these items.  I have done the math in store, soaphowever, and they are always cheaper at Costco.  We buy all of our deodorant, razor blades, etc. at Costco.  I do have a few comparisons.  Oil of Olay Ultra Moisture Body Wash is only $0.17 per ounce at Costco, but is $0.24 per ounce at Walmart, making a 23 ounce bottle $1.56 cheaper at Costco.  Dawn Ultra dishwashing liquid runs $0.27 per ounce at Walmart, but only $0.09 at Costco, making the 90 ounce bottle I bought yesterday $16.67 cheaper than buying it at Walmart!  I find this astounding difference to be true of most soap and personal care items.  The only thing you have to consider is that Costco might not have a specific brand.

Baby

For diapers, I should first point out that Costco does not sell Pampers.  Since, this is one of the things I’m picky about, it is a never ending disappointment.  They do sell Huggies, but I’m not sure about the numbers and how they compare in terms of diapers.  Huggies Natural Care Unscented Wipes are sold at Costco and average out to $0.02 per wipe.  They are $0.03 each on Amazon.com, at Babies R’ Us and Walmart, and $0.04 from Diapers.com.  Don’t think that the Costco brand would be any cheaper though; they run $0.04 per wipe, making the Huggies wipes from Costco the best deal.  Formula is also much cheaper at Costco.  We use Similac Sensitive, so my comparisons are based on that.  The formula ranges between $1.07 and $1.08 per ounce at Babies R’ Us, Walmart, and Diapers.com.  It’s a whopping $1.42 on Amazon.com.  At Costco, it’s only $0.90 per ounce.  I have seen Enfamil at Costco but have never done the comparisons for it.  I have never seen Gerber Good Start.

wipesMeats

The fresh meat section can be another place that varies depending on the season, holidays and weekly sales ads.  With the current Memorial Day sales, boneless skinless chicken breasts from Kroger were only $1.99 per pound this week.  Costco’s are always $2.99 per pound.  Most of the time, I can get them for $2.99 per pound at Walmart as well.  Boneless pork chops, however are also always $2.99 per pound at Costco and Kroger had them on sale this week for $3.99 per pound, making Costco the better choice.  The same can be said for ground beef.  It all depends on the current sales at Kroger and Walmart.  Pre-packaged deli susagemeat and frozen meats are generally cheaper at Costco.  For example, Hillshire Farms Oven Roasted Turkey was only $0.26 per ounce at Costco, compared to $0.31 at Walmart.  We also like the Jimmy Dean frozen turkey sausages and they were $0.22 per ounce at Costco, but $0.31 at Walmart.

 

Dairy

Dairy is tricky.  Once again, there is the fact that it is perishable, so if you aren’t going to eat/drink it before the expiration date, then there’s no point in buying it in the larger sizes found at Costco.  Also, I have never found milk to be cheaper at Costco.  A gallon of organic 1% milk from Costco is $7.30 per gallon.  A gallon milkof Horizon 1% organic milk is $5.99 at Kroger and sometimes cheaper.  (Kroger is also cheaper on the Horizon milk than Walmart, though I don’t have those numbers.  Walmart does have their own brand of organic milk, but it seems to go bad quicker.)  For most other dairy products, Costco is your best bet.  Yoplait Light yogurt is $0.08 per ounce at Walmart, but only $0.07 at Costco; not a huge difference, but still a savings.  Feta cheese is much cheaper at Costco at only $0.29 per ounce, but an astounding $0.48 per ounce at Walmart.  That’s a savings of $4.70 for a 24 ounce container.

I know I just threw a lot of numbers at you, so if your mind is all boggled, let me just sum it up into a few rules of thumb.

  • For fresh produce, you will often do better just checking your weekly circulars.
  • For dried fruits or frozen vegetables, go to Costco.
  • For boxed goods, personal care items, and baby products, you definitely want to stay at Costco as long as they have your favored brands.
  • Much like produce, check your circulars to compare fresh meats.  Prepackaged deli meat and frozen meats are cheaper at Costco.
  • Do not buy milk at Costco, but yogurts and cheeses will definitely be cheaper there.

Happy shopping everyone!

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