Cheap Eats: Membership Warehouses

The current issue of “Real Simple” magazine contains the statement, “… members-only markets can be an indispensable source for saving on essentials, such as steak, shrimp, and [washed and bagged] salad greens.”

OK, here’s mom’s advice: If you are trying at all to cut costs, steak, shrimp, and bagged salads are not essentials. They are special treats, maybe even reserved for occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries.

Buying groceries at Sam’s, Costco, or similar store can definitely save you money. But remember, just because something is cheaper doesn’t make it cheap. This brings us to the question: is a membership warehouse always cheaper?

Before we decided to fork over the substantial fee for membership at our local club warehouse (Sam’s Club, in our case), we did some research to see if it would actually save us money in the long run.[1]

I went to my favorite local market and noted the prices on the staples we commonly use. Then we went to Sam’s Club and compared.

I immediately realized one issue. With few exceptions, Sam’s carries name brand merchandise, whereas my local market has their own house brand. Since we are perfectly content with most generic brands, I usually buy whatever costs the least. Surprisingly, even with the warehouse discount, sometimes my market was the cheaper alternative. And, I didn’t have to buy in large quantities.

Then I compared my market’s sale prices to the warehouse, which doesn’t have sales. Again, sometimes my market was cheaper. I made a mental note to always check for sales before heading to Sam’s.

Finally, I noticed that while the club prices really were often much better, the selection was much more limited. For example, we use low- or non-fat dairy products. In most cases, Sam’s only has the full-fat versions. We had to make some decisions regarding price versus health concerns.

Now I had an idea of which items I would normally buy at the market, and which ones at the warehouse.[2] It pays to keep up to date on the market and warehouse prices, as these change. I’ve notice meat, in particular, has skyrocketed, and the warehouse is now much cheaper (less than half price at times). We don’t eat a lot of meat, but when we do, I usually get it there.

Since our schedule is pretty hectic, I never know when my husband or I will make it to a store. Therefore, we keep separate lists on the refrigerator, one for Sam’s and one for the market. Since warehouses change what they stock according to the seasons, I prefer to head there first. Then I go to the market to pick up the items I couldn’t get at Sam’s.

There is one major caveat involved at shopping at these bargain stores. You have to stick to your list. If you can’t control your impulse buys (because something or other is such a great deal), you shouldn’t even walk in the door. It is still true that the best way to save money is not to spend it in the first place.

[1] Since we also run a non-profit ministry, belonging to a club warehouse makes financial sense for us. We buy most of our office supplies there, in addition to groceries. If you live alone, or have a small family, however, the savings on groceries and household items such as tissues and soap may not justify the cost of membership.

[2] In our case, we regularly buy chicken, ground beef, cheese, bread, lettuce, and (a splurge) sliced ham and turkey at the warehouse. Sometimes I get additional items as well.

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