Costco, like Trader Joe’s and Aldi,1 has a bit of a cult following.
And this love isn’t your typical middle school “pine for you silently and from afar” love. This is exuberant, in-your-face LOVE.
Business Insider has written hundreds of Costco-related articles pandering to the ravenous fanbase and there are dozens of fan-run Costco blogs4 where you can find product reviews, recipes, and coupons while sharing your love with like-minded shoppers.
2022 was our first year as Costco members.
We initially joined as we had just bought our house and they had a good deal on a fridge and a washer and dryer set, both of which were hard to find during the COVID supply chain issues era.
Along the way, Costco won us over, and we ended up adding it to our biweekly grocery shopping trip along with Aldi and Walmart.
Since then, our Costco run has turned into something of a date. We wander around the giant warehouse, trying all the free samples5 and looking at stuff we’ll never buy. We hold hands, peruse the book section, people watch, and get in some steps. It’s oddly comforting.
But enough with the sentimentality.
What I’m all about is smart, thrifty living, i.e., living well on as little as possible. So the one question that really matters is, does Costco save you money?
The truthful and unsatisfying answer is, it depends on what you buy.
If you use Costco as your main or sole grocery store, you’ll end up massively overspending.
This is partly because Costco doesn’t always have the best prices and partly because they sell items in large quantities (e.g., 5 pounds of lemons, 6 pounds of carrots, 10 pounds of onions) which makes it likely that the food will spoil before you get around to eating it.
But when Costco is used to complement a price-focused grocery store like Aldi, it can provide some massive savings.
Being the geek I am, I downloaded all our Costco purchases6 from the past year onto a spreadsheet and crunched the numbers to get a definitive answer.
In this post, I’ll give a quick overview of how Costco works and then dive into our Costco purchases to show how much we saved and which items led to these savings.
How Costco works
If you’re familiar with Costco, you can skip this section.
You need to pay an annual membership fee to shop at Costco and there are two tiers of membership: Gold Star and Executive.
Gold Star is the entry-level membership and costs $60 per year. It allows you to shop in all Costco warehouses worldwide as well as online and includes two cards—one for you and one for someone in your household.
Executive is the premium membership and costs $120 per year. The main additional benefit with the Executive membership is that you get 2% back on every dollar you spend at Costco.7
So if you’re an Executive member and spend $3,000 at Costco during the year, you’d get a $608 annual reward check at the end of the year.
How do you decide between these tiers?
If you’re planning on spending more than $3,000 at Costco during the year, you should get the Executive membership as the 2% reward will be larger than the $60 difference between the memberships.
Otherwise, you should get the Gold Star membership.
|Monthly Purchases||Annual Purchases||Executive Membership Annual Reward||Executive Membership Benefit (Reward - Cost)|
|$250||$3,000||$60||$0 (break even)|
If you’re not sure, you can get the Executive membership and then downgrade it before the membership year ends and Costco will refund you the difference in price.
In 2022, my wife and I got the Executive Membership as we we spent $1,800 on the fridge, washer, and dryer alone. Add in a water softener for $400 and an iPad for $500 and we were already at $2,700.
Ultimately, we spent close to $5,000 at Costco in 2022 and received a 2% reward check for $96.72 so the Executive Membership paid off.
When we renewed for 2023, though, we went down to the Gold Star tier as we’ll likely only spend around $1,500 this year now that we’ve got Costco savings down to a science.
Our Costco Year in Review
From January 2022 to January 2023, we went to Costco 31 times in 3 different states9, bought 229 items (107 unique items), spent $5,136.43, earned $96.72 in 2% reward cash, and, according to my calculations, saved around $489.10
Out of the $5,136.43, $1,000 was spent on a washer and dryer set, $800 on a fridge, $500 on an iPad, $400 on a water softener, $85 on a raised garden bed, and $266.91 on taxes.
This leaves $2,084.57 on general grocery spending, which includes around $200 worth of alcohol for our wedding.
|Washer and dryer set||$999.99|
|iPad Air 5th Gen||$499.99|
|Morton Water Softener||$399.99|
|Raised garden bed||$84.99|
We bought 120 pounds of tofu, 114 pounds of quinoa, 65 pounds of gluten-free oats, 35 dozens of eggs, 21 pounds of almonds, 18 pounds of walnuts, 15 pounds of shredded cheese, 14 liters of extra virgin olive oil, and 12 bottles of prosecco.11
We saved $31.30 on the tofu, $105.73 on the quinoa, $38.31 on the almonds, $16.60 on the walnuts, $9.63 on the cheese, $14.37 on the extra virgin olive oil, and $15 on the prosecco when compared to Aldi/Walmart.
It’s hard to calculate the savings on the eggs since their price fluctuated so much this year but we likely saved a few bucks.
And the oats are actually more expensive at Costco than at Aldi—though not by much when they’re on sale—but we liked the fact that they were gluten-free.
|Tofu||120 pounds (30 4-count boxes)||$31.30||Aldi sells blocks of tofu for $1.75. In Costco, it’s a 4 pack for $6.49. A $2 per 4-pack discount in Jan. 2023 added up quick.|
|Quinoa||114 pounds (7 15-lb bags, 2 4.5-lb bags)||$105.73||Aldi sells 1 lb of quinoa for $2.56. The 15 lb bag of quinoa ($24.99) isn’t sold at every Costco. The 4.5 lb bag ($8.89) is though.|
|Oats||65 pounds (13 5-lb bags)||$0||No savings here as Aldi is cheaper. Costco had a sale on them that nearly matched the Aldi price and we liked that they were gluten free.|
|Eggs||35 dozens (5 5-dozen cartons, 5 2-dozen cartons)||$10||Hard to calculate the savings as egg prices have fluctuated a lot. But we likely saved a few bucks.|
|Almonds||21 pounds (7 3-lb bags)||$38.31||Aldi sells almonds for $4.99 for 14 oz. At Costco it’s 3 lb bags for $10 to $11.|
|Walnuts||18 pounds (6 3-lb bags)||$16.60||Aldi sells walnuts for $4.79 for 1 lb. At Costco it’s 3 lb bags for $10 to $12.|
|Shredded cheese||15 pounds (6 2.5-lb bags)||$9.63||Walmart sells a 32 oz bag for $7.48. Aldi might be slightly cheaper. At Costco it’s ~$15 for 2 2.5-lb bags.|
|Extra virgin olive oil||14 liters (7 2-liter bottles)||$14.37||Aldi sells a 16.9 fl oz bottle for $3.49. At Costco it’s $11.99 for a 68 fl oz bottle. It used to be cheapest at Walmart but prices have increased.|
|Prosecco||12 750ml bottles||$15||Costco has the cheapest prosecco. It’s about $1.50 cheaper than Aldi’s Belletti. We bought a good amount for our wedding in March 2022.|
Some other items with big savings were the 600-count fish oil softgels, avocado oil, spices (cinnamon, turmeric, crushed red pepper, pink salt, sea salt), maple syrup, trash bags, vanilla extract, Oikos Greek yogurt (when on sale), and an iPad Air 5th Gen.
If you’re curious, you can check out the full spreadsheet which has all our purchases, analysis, and stats.
What items should you buy at Costco?
These are the items we get at Costco:
- Tofu (we eat 3 blocks per week.)
- Quinoa (we eat 3-5 cups every week; look for the 15 pound bag from Village Harvest.)
- Nuts (we regularly get Kirkland Signature almonds and walnuts as my wife roasts them and puts them on the oatmeal we have for lunch a few times a week. We get cashews every once in a while too for vegan recipes.)
- Extra virgin olive oil (we used to get the Kirkland Signature brand but Pompeiian has been cheaper lately.)
- Avocado oil (we use it for cooking as it has a higher smoke point than olive oil.)
- Prosecco (we used it as champagne for our wedding; everyone loved it. Kirkland Signature spirits are terrific as well but aren’t sold in every state.)
- Spices (cinnamon, turmeric, crushed red pepper, pink salt, and sea salt. We used to get their No Salt Seasoning as well but we haven’t seen it in months.)
- Shredded cheese (this might be slightly cheaper at Aldi but not by much.)
- Fish oil softgels, vitamin D, and vitamin B complex (the fish oil softgels are where the savings are at. The vitamin D and B are only slightly cheaper than Walmart.)
- Oikos Greek yogurt (when on sale.)
- Butter (we froze the 16 sticks and have been working our way through them.)
- Maple syrup (we still have half of the bottle left.)
- Vanilla extract (they only sell a 16 fl oz bottle so it’ll last you a while.)
- Trash bags (we’re still working our way through the 200-pack.)
- Toilet paper and paper towels (the paper towels last us years and we go through a 30-roll pack of toilet paper per year.)
- Baking soda (we use it to clean the kitchen and bathroom.)
- Salt pellets for our water softener
- Occasional deals (we recently got weed and feed and potting soil for really good prices.)
We get all our fresh produce at Aldi as they beat Costco on price and sell more reasonable quantities allowing us to minimize spoilage.
And we go to Walmart for the few remaining items that Aldi doesn’t carry, such as dry beans.
The best way to determine what you should get at Costco is to have a spreadsheet with all the items you get along with the item’s price at your local stores.12 This’ll allow you to spot the items where Costco has a better deal.
By efficiently combining Aldi, Walmart, and Costco, you should be able to save hundreds a year on groceries.
So is a Costco membership worth it? Yes, if you’re a smart shopper, because Costco is absolutely killer in some items.
Our regular purchases of quinoa, nuts, tofu, and spices pay for the membership many times over.
It’s likely, however, that the items you purchase to cover the cost of the membership will be different.
If you’re a pet owner, Kirkland Signature Dog and Cat food alone might pay for the membership.
If you drive enough, the savings from Costco gas stations, which can be as much as 30 to 40 cents per gallon, might do the trick.
And alcohol is another category where Costco shines as their Kirkland Signature wine, prosecco, and spirits are generally significantly cheaper than name brands. The prosecco is terrific as is their vodka and Canadian whisky.13
So start making a list of the items you regularly buy and then swing by your local Costco to see how much you could save.
And if you’re a weirdo like me, download your receipts next year and share how much you saved.
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Often twice or thrice. We sometimes even put on a “disguise”, like glasses or a baseball cap, to avoid the wrath of the Costco employees who guard the samples as if their life depended on it. Is this too much? Yes. But it’s part of the fun. ↩
Costco has a copy of all your receipts for the past two years in PDF format in your account at Costco.com. I downloaded these PDFs and wrote a script to read the PDFs and create a CSV to import into Google Sheets. ↩
$3,000 x 2% = $60 ↩
Texas, Georgia, and Florida. ↩
To estimate the savings, I calculated what it would’ve cost to buy what we bought in Costco in Aldi or Walmart instead and subtracted what we paid in Costco. It’s impossible to get a fully accurate number as prices change throughout the year, especially this year with all the inflation, so take this with a grain of salt. ↩
We have about 45 pounds of quinoa and 5 pounds of oats left in the pantry. The prosecco was mostly for our wedding. ↩
My grocery prices spreadsheet is at 615 rows currently. I update it each time we do groceries so I also have a history of how prices change over time. I told you I’m a geek. ↩
Unfortunately, not all Costco stores sell spirits. It generally depends on the state. ↩