Last week, I had a chance to indulge my usually suppressed Consumer Instinct and buy a WHOLE BUNCH OF STUFF at Costco.
The nearest outlet of that chain is about 20 miles away from my house, in a mostly-sprawl area called Superior, Colorado. If you know Mr. Money Mustache at all, you know that I would never drive that far just for a shopping trip, so I always wait until I have other business in the towns nearby such as Boulder. As a result, I usually get to Costco about once every 3-6 months, and when I do, I acquire a hatchback-busting $400 load of groceries and any other necessities that happen to be available at unusually low prices at the time.
A Costco membership costs $50 per year. And expanding a nearby errand does still add some extra driving to my trip – which would not otherwise be necessary since I get all my other groceries using a bike trailer. Am I fooling myself with this membership, or is it actually a good investment of my time and money?
To find out, I have conducted a Top-Secret Multi-Store, Inter-City Investigation – just for you.
I walked through endless aisles, took candid photos on my telephone, jotted down notes on scraps of paper, and then spent countless minutes typing all of the results into a spreadsheet to figure out The Real Deal.
SO NOW.. let’s go line by line through my latest Costco receipt, and compare the cost for equivalent food from my local Safeway. You can see all of my purchases, judge for yourself whether or not they are practical or silly, and at the end we’ll see how much I saved or wasted on the trip.
|Item||Costco Cost||Safeway Cost||Costco Savings|
|Quaker Oats - 30 lbs in the form of 3 10lb boxes||20.67||45.00 (and this happened to be during a major sale)||24.33|
|Toilet Paper (100% recycled) - 32 double rolls||14.69||17.33 (but no recycled TP available)||2.64|
|Blackened Wild Salmon Filets - Frozen - 2.25lb||15.99||29.97||13.98|
|Organic espresso roast coffee - 4 bags totaling 9 lbs||48.00||75.96 (that was the cheapest wholebean coffee in Safeway. For equivalent quality, more like $100+!||27.96|
|18 organic eggs||3.69||5.98||2.30|
|3 lb organic beef burger patties||15.99||23.97||7.98|
|2 lb Kalamata Olives, fancy||6.79||11.97||5.18|
|4lbs frozen mixed blueberries/raspberries||10.99||19.20||8.21|
|2lb sliced various kinds of cheese (party style)||8.99||12.00||3|
|8.5 lbs (4 x 2.1lb bags) Quaker Natural Granola||15.98||21.80||5.83|
|300 generic-version-of-flintstone kid vitamins||12.99||17.50 (happened to be 2-for-1, normal price is double this)||4.51|
|32 oz pure maple syrup||12.99||19.99||7|
|4 lb thick sliced smoked bacon||14.99||19.96||4.97|
|2 lbs roma tomatoes||3.99||3.99||0|
|16 dry erase whiteboard markers (for our little artist)||9.99||16.00 (Staples price)||6|
|3 lbs Boulder natural sausages||7.19||18.83||11.63|
|6lbs Whey protein powder (for the weightlifters in the family, also supplements protein for fussy eating boy)||39.99||59.99||20|
|3 lbs Coleman organic chicken breast||18.45||23.97||5.52|
|2lbs colby jack marble cheese||5.99||7.99||2|
|2.4lbs smokehouse roasted almonds||8.99||19.18||10.19|
|9 lbs (!) raw unsalted almonds||29.37||45.00||15.63|
|1.13 kg organic tortilla chips||4.39||12.00||7.61|
|5 lbs shredded mozarella cheese for pizzas||12.99||20||7|
|4 pack men’s merino wool hiking socks||10.99||17.00 (target price)||6.00|
|16oz pure vanilla extract||6.89||19.98||13.09|
|3 lb Pico de gallo salsa, fresh||5.49||no yumminess equivalent, closest is Newman’s Own at 2.69/lb = 8.07||2.58|
|2 lbs smoked turkey slices, fancypants||11.99||15.98||3.99|
|303 grams ground cinnamon||2.65||9.00 (6 x 50g containers, on sale)||6.35|
|3.5lbs dark bittersweet chocolate chips (70% cacao)||9.79||13.95||4.16|
|2 lbs active dry yeast (for bread and pizza making)||4.15||43.12 (5.39 for a 4-oz jar!? what the fuck, safeway?)||38.97|
|32oz extra virgin olive oil||5.44||15.99||10.55|
I’m calculating this for the first time as I write the blog posting, so my first reaction is Holy Shit! My Costco habit is even more useful than I had been assuming!
Comparing the $401 Costco bill to a potential $690 Safeway bill means that I am saving 41% over the lowest prices I could find at Safeway – and this is over a huge swath of groceries. After subtracting the membership cost, I probably still save close to $1000 per year.
All of these things are food that we actually eat, and use up completely, so there is no need to factor in waste. I’ve been buying basically the same staples for years. The exact list varies slightly, as some of my staples hadn’t run out yet and thus do not appear on this list, and some of the things I bought this week will still be around and not need replenishing when I return in December.
Of course, Costco isn’t entirely comprised of great deals. You still have to watch yourself, and know how to spot good values and avoid poor ones. There are always a few traps laid around the store.
Some things are ridiculously overpriced (a 2-pack of 6 foot HDMI cables for your computer or TV for 38.99 – the correct value of a 6-foot HDMI cable is about $2.00, and there are dozens to choose from at Amazon. My computer monitor is getting the signal I’m seeing right now from one of those very cables – works perfectly).
Other products are fairly priced, but stupid, like a stainless steel electric Turkey Fryer with carbon filter and digital temperature controls for $138.99. (WTF?)
The hardware and tools section is very-well priced, although the selection is minimal. Last year I bought a FatMax rolling tool chest for my carpentry business – it costs $80 at Home Depot, but Costco had them at $30. I also noticed that the size of car battery that fits my car is available at Costco for $68. I just paid $102 for the same model at AutoZone. Damn!!
And still other products are tempting and well-priced, like a fancy digital weather station that measures wind and rain and connects to your computer and publishes your stats on the internet, for $80… but yet completely frivolous and unnecessary, because you can find out all the weather parameters you need by looking at the internet-reported values from your NEIGHBOR’s digital weather station.
Overall, the ultimate value of Costco from a Mustachian perspective is this: drastically lower prices on many high-quality grocery staples. You just can’t go wrong from a frugality sense, cooking your way through a 50-pound bag of rice that cost you only $18. Their prices are remarkably consistent around the country, so if you can get to a Costco, you can make grocery shopping in California almost as cheap as eating in Alabama. If you’re having trouble getting your own grocery costs equal to or lower than mine ($75/week for a family of 3, even with plenty of luxuries like coffee and organic meat and fish thrown in), you might want to compare your own food prices to those in this article.
totally agree and love Costco, also love that it is 4 miles from my house and I can get there more often than 3 – 6 months. Milk there is not sold in ridiculous sizes and is regularly $1-$1.50 per gallon cheaper than other stores.
I’ve noticed that I’m not a big fan of their produce. Any given week I can get a better price on grapes at a local grocery store (probably loss leader). Sometimes its fairly priced, but so gigantic I’d rather buy elsewhere. For example, apples may be 99c a lb but their almost a lb each. I’d rather get the 2in variety at the local grocer. Bananas are usually a deal.
Do you have an Aldi nearby? They’re a “discount” grocer, sell 95% generic branded merchandise but have generally very good prices for staples. No membership fee or bulk sizes required.