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How to save money at Costco (and avoid overspending), according to shopping pros

Are those Costco deals really that good? Shopping experts and employees share their money saving secrets.
Some can't-miss bargains include cooking spray, Nutella, organic spinach, construction paper and cheese.
Some can't-miss bargains include cooking spray, Nutella, organic spinach, construction paper and cheese. Rick Bowmer / AP file

Do you remember when you were indoctrinated into the cult of Costco? I do. Friends were visiting from out of town last summer and the topic of the great, fresh seafood available there came up. They began to rave, heaping praise on the warehouse club (a little excessively, I thought). And they couldn't stop at just telling us how amazing it was, they had to show us. So we piled in the car and drove to Costco — and left with our very own membership card, singing praises to all who would hear.

Now I'm a member, for life, probably, but still haven't lost that feeling of awe and bewilderment that strikes when you enter the mammoth, brightly lit space. I still get the thrill of the deal, but also wonder if it's all such a good value, and if I'm doing it right. To find out some pro-level tips I asked a couple of experts. Joanie Demer from the Krazy Coupon Lady and Kyle James of shared their best Costco intel with NBC News BETTER.

No Costco card? There's a loophole for that

Think you need a membership card to shop at Costco? There's a way around that. A Costco Cash Card “gets you in the door and through checkout,” Demer said. “It's a huge loophole. The reason they allow it is they're convinced once you're in the door you'll be hooked.” (I can vouch for that.)

So, “a friend or family member who is a Costco member can buy you a Costco Cash Card (either in the warehouse or online) … with a value up to $1,000,” James said. “Then you can pay them back and get in Costco and use the cash card just like you would a membership card. This is also a great option for college students who don’t necessarily need to buy a lot of stuff in bulk as a cash card still provides a way to buy food, gas and school supplies.

The card is also a way to be disciplined, Demer added. You can leave your cash in the car and have a built-in limit. This way “you know, 'I'm not going to leave with those reindeer lights.'”

Know these possible pitfalls — and solutions

Costco comes with a few rules you won't typically find with other retailers. There are no manufacturers coupons allowed, Demer said. So that $5 off razors coupon you clipped? Save it for Target.

A potential way around this, Demer noted, is to use the ibotta app, which, she explained, is “circumventing the POS [point of sale] by asking you to take a photo of your receipt after purchase.” The tool will find offers you're eligible for and deposit the cash in your account.

And they don't take American Express. They actually only take Visa cards, cash, checks, debit/ATM, EBT and Costco Cash Cards. So if you show up like I did once and load up your cart only to get to checkout with a Mastercard they won't take and no other payment method, you're out of luck. If you find yourself in that position there's an emergency escape route: I went to the service desk and applied for a Costco Citi card. Five minutes later I had my temporary card in hand, and crisis was averted.

Oh, and it's BYOB — bring your own bag. Have some giant IKEA bags lying around? That'll do the trick. Otherwise you can ask the check-out clerk to help you rustle up some boxes to stash your gallon of mayo in.

Are the deals really that great?

The short answer is: it depends.

“Because you're paying a membership fee people feel like they should only shop at Costco,” Demer said, “because everything from boxed cereal to diamond rings are the best deal,” but that's not necessarily the case.

For one, will you actually use the stuff you buy? Anyone who has shopped there long enough can attest that they've bought way too much of some incredible deal, making it, of course, not that great a deal after all when they wasted it. (I'd have to Swiffer my floors every day for the rest of my life to use our stockpile.)

And there may be better deals elsewhere. Particularly with the health and beauty items, Demer said, prices are often better at drugstores or other retailers where you can combine store promotions like 'buy so many and get a gift card or percentage off' with high value manufacturer coupons.

The good deals are really good

But where the deals are good, they're really, really good. Take toys, Demer said. She recently compared prices with Amazon, and “the Costco prices are amazing. The way Costco is negotiating these toys they're getting prices that are insane.” The prices hands down beat Amazon, she said, “which is unheard of.”

What are some other steals? “Some of the best deals are spices,” Demer said, and pure maple syrup and vanilla extract. Other stores can't touch these prices, she said. “If you only buy one thing at Costco, make it maple syrup.” And if you're not a toilet paper snob, she said, get the big pack of Kirkland (Costco's in-house brand) TP. “Even after the best deals we find on Krazy Koupon Lady, it rarely every get cheaper per foot.”

Some of her other can't-miss bargains include cooking spray, Nutella, organic spinach, construction paper and cheese.

Look for deals hidden in plain sight

While prices for meat are already super competitive, especially given that “categorically speaking, Costco only carries higher grade meats,” Demer said, it can get even cheaper. “If you want to go crazy, crazy there is a bulk discount,” she said. “The prices are on a sign way up above the meat counter … the discount is pretty significant.” For buying in extra bulk you'll get 20 percent off the regular price. Keep in mind that a case of, say, ribs at Costco may have to be taken out on a flatbed, she said, but if you have a group of friends and want to do a big cookout (or have room for 60 pounds of Choice prime rib) it could be worth it.

Another tip comes from reddit user (and Costco employee) fixxall, who posted "Pro tip: For extra lean (and cheap) ground beef ask the meat department for a 10lb 'chub.' We sell our regular ground beef (88/12%) for $3.49 a pound. The way we make it is we take our fat trimmings from cutting steaks and mix it with the chubs to bring up the fat content and increase our profits. The 10lb chubs are probably sitting around 5% - 8% fat and only cost $2.99 a pound! You'll have to ask for these specifically as we don't normally put them out for sale."

This sounded slightly made up but the meat counter at my Costco knew exactly what a chub was (though unfortunately they only offer them in the summer, that varies by store, they said).

If you love it, grab it now

Having learned the hard way that there's no guarantee what's here today is there tomorrow (I still miss you, Daily Greens juice!), I know now if I have a particular favorite to go ahead and stock up. “They bring things in with no plan to keep them long term,” Demer said. But at least there's a way to get a heads up if your favorite is at risk of disappearing. “If you see an asterisk on the price sign that means it's not going to be restocked,” she said. That may only mean it's seasonal, but it could also be the end.

If you see an asterisk on the price sign that means it's not going to be restocked.

Forget buyer's remorse

How much do you hate it when you buy something only to see it go on sale the next week? Costco feels your pain. “Very few shoppers are aware that Costco offers 30-day price protection,” James said. “Whenever you make a significant purchase, keep the receipt and check the price on subsequent visits over the next month. When you see a lower price, just take your receipt to the Costco customer service desk and get some money back. Lost your receipt? No problem as all your purchases are kept in the Costco system and can be pulled up with your membership card.”

Try this tip to save $50 to $100 per trip

“The front of the store and center aisles of most Costco locations are chock full of stuff you had no idea existed, but clearly cannot live without,” James said. “If you let your cart meander into these aisles you'll easily end up spending an extra $50-$100 as this stuff is incredibly tempting.” One solution? “Especially when running in for a few items,” James said, “enter without a shopping cart. You can't buy what you can't carry.”


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