They're big, they're filled with temptation and millions of people shell out an average of 50 bucks a year to be card-carrying members of one of America's three big warehouse clubs: Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's.
While the whole idea is to save money by shopping at a warehouse club, membership alone does not guarantee that will be the result. In fact, just the opposite is as likely to happen, where members end up spending far more than they imaged they would because they just don't how to make a club work for them.
As a long-time warehouse club member, it's taken years for me to really figure out how to win the warehouse club game. Here are some tricks of the trade I've learned.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO. It is really dangerous to your wallet to cruise into the club without a clear idea what you are going to buy. The way to know before you go is to create a written shopping list. That way, if you need something, you'll know it before you arrive. If you discover things you need that are not on your list, make a second list of things you will buy on your next trip. Make sure to check the monthly ads for your specific club to see opportunities for instant savings or discounts.
STICK TO A BUDGET. Decide how much you have to spend before you get there, and then stick to it. Put blinders on your emotional self. Get the things you need (you'll know what those things are because of the list, remember?), and then get out of there. This isn't a treasure hunt; it's a place where you can often find the things you need for less than you'd pay elsewhere — if you do it right.
BULK BUYING. This is tricky. One of the ways to spend less is to buy in an item in a larger volume, and a warehouse club is a great place to do that. But it can also be self-defeating if you out-shop your storage space or you buy more fresh produce, bread, meat, cheese, poultry, etc. than you can use before it spoils. A bargain becomes very expensive if you end up throwing half of it into the garbage.
CREATE A SENSE OF SCARCITY. Whether it's a case of soda or toilet tissue, snacks, fruit or (fill-in-the-blank), find a way to dole out the item a bit at a time. If you load 24 cans of soda into the refrigerator in plain view, they will disappear in a flash. Stash non perishables in the garage or under beds or in high cupboards or closets.
INVEST IN A FOODSAVER. I am convinced that a FoodSaver with a pulse vacuum feature, or something similar, is really the only way to make a warehouse club work long-term. It's going to require an investment of about $175, but considering the price of food these days — provided you use this appliance religiously — you will recoup the cost quickly. Properly vacuum-sealed food lasts up to five times as long — fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, chips, nuts, snacks and more included. I can vouch for that. My FoodSaver extends the time between shopping trips. It keeps me out of Costco, which I must confess is a very good thing.
I recently invested in the FoodSaver 4980 with PulseVac (not all FoodSaver models have the pulse vac feature), which allows for manual starting and stopping of the vacuum to help prevent crushing delicate foods, such as baked goods and potato chips. This is a new feature and I love it. This model has other cool features as well, all outlined in the owner manual.
A warehouse club membership is not all fun and games. It's a tool that, when paired with personal discipline and a bit of hard work, can result is tremendous savings in both time and money.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.