11 Ways You’re Wasting Money at Costco

Everyone’s favorite membership warehouse store can be a bit of a money trap. Follow our tips for not getting sucked in and making the most of your budget.
Updated May 8, 2024
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Costco Warehouse store exterior sign

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Do you get a little dopamine spike every time you walk into a Costco? It’s like everything you could possibly need in life is right there in one place, plus you’re saving money.

Except that maybe you went in last week for a bottle of vitamins but then came out with a 4 lb jar of jelly beans, some snowshoes, and an inflatable hot tub.

Costco's fantastic deals can definitely help you rock your budget. But despite the bare bones, everything-still-on-a-pallet warehouse look, the store is absolutely designed to make you spend more money.

Here’s our list of 11 ways you could be wasting money at Costco and what you can do to avoid it.

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Not taking advantage of the store’s generous return policy

Andriy Blokhin/Adobe Costco return policy

Costco has a notoriously generous return policy. If you’re not 100% satisfied with your purchase, you can return it any time (except for electronics, which must be returned within 90 days, cigarettes, alcohol, and items with a clear life expectancy like tires).

Going for “just” a chicken

Hanoi Photography/Adobe free sample food for testing

If you are immune to the powers of Costco’s famous $5 rotisserie chickens, $1.50 hot dog and soda combos, and an unending supply of free samples, then we salute you.

That’s because these are all ploys — long game, loss leader strategies — to keep you in the store longer so that you spend more.

Make Costco a scheduled monthly trip instead of a drop-in, and consider that the average customer still spends between $130 and $140 every trip.

Buying more than you have space for

Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe woman with bowl of green apples in pantry

You know how it is. Those multipacks of pasta and frozen bags of shrimp and burgers always seem like the answer to your quick-and-easy-meal-night prayers. But then your pantry and freezer start to fill up, and after a few months, you’re throwing the half-eaten bags of food in the trash.

Or you start to store things in the garage, which we all know is just dumpster purgatory. Before you head to Costco, realistically evaluate your space, keeping in mind that if you don’t see an item regularly, you’re probably not going to use it. (If you still don’t believe us, please take a moment to count the number of powdered garlic salt containers currently in your cupboard.)

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Buying more than you can use

Tada Images/Adobe a  masked customer loads his car after shopping in Costco

Buying in bulk is tempting, especially when your favorite shampoo, coffee, and chips are being sold in multipacks at a low price per unit. But if you can’t use everything during its recommended shelf life — opened or not — you’re throwing money away.

The same goes for single-unit but short-shelf-life items, like dairy products and produce. Unless you’re throwing a dinner party, it might be more cost-effective to purchase smaller, more realistically sized items at a grocery store.

Purchasing high-end liquors

Игорь Головнёв/Adobe Grey Goose brand vodka on store shelf

A 1.75 ml bottle of Grey Goose will cost you around $50. A bottle of Costco’s private label, Kirkland Signature vodka of the same size? $16.99.

Costco’s vodka flavor profile is so reminiscent of Grey Goose’s that there have even been wild internet rumors that the two were one and the same.

All we know is that if you’re spending your money on high-end vodka, you’re wasting your money. Other Kirkland Signature libations of note are their Tequila Añejo and Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel.

Not comparison shopping beforehand

ifeelstock/Adobe man POV surfing at Amazon UK Prime Day shopping deals on Apple MacBook

Before you head to Costco, make a list of everything you definitely need, as well as things you might need. Then check prices on competitor retail sites, like BJ’s, Sam’s, Amazon, and your preferred grocery store.

Costco is also notorious for its lack of brand variety, so their least expensive brand of toothpaste, for instance, might be more expensive than the cheapest brand of toothpaste at another store.

Blowing your grocery budget just because it’s bulk

Sarah Rypma/Adobe Grocery cart with toliet paper and supplies at Costco

Let’s say you have a weekly grocery budget, but because you’re buying in bulk, which will last longer, you figure you can spend double or triple your budget. In theory, this seems reasonable, but you would have to be really disciplined and underspend in the following weeks.

Our advice would be to make a list of all the bulk goods you absolutely know you will use, and create a sub-budget just for those things.

Or, you can shop with a friend — every Costco member can bring in two non-member guests — and after you pay, divide up those multipacks of water, peanut butter, and yogurt.

Succumbing to herd mentality

AllisonLouvain/Adobe customers with shopping trolleies leaving checkout area of Costco warehouse

This goes back to impulse buys and Costco’s attempts to reel you in. At peak hours, when the store is crowded and people are piling things onto their flatbed trolleys, it can be very difficult to overcome herd mentality.

If everyone else is cashing in on great deals and stocking up on cases of coconut water, why shouldn’t you? But in all likelihood, those customers are overspending.

Avoiding peak Costco hours can make your shopping experience more peaceful, and you’ll probably spend less too.

Upgrading to an executive membership

dennizn/Adobe Costco receipt and executive membership card

Costco’s basic “Gold Star” membership is $60 a year, while the “Executive” membership is $120 a year, but with an enticing 2% money-back annual reward.

To make up for the $60 price increase, you would need to spend $3,000 annually at Costco. If you have a large family or plan to make a lot of big home improvement purchases this year, it might be worth it. But for most people, the cashback incentive would either be nominal or a waste of money.

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Buying brand-name over-the-counter medicine

TOimages/Adobe Kirkland Signature Vitamin C 1000mg in plastic bottle

If you’re wondering how to save money at Costco, the Kirkland Signature line of over-the-counter medicine and vitamins is a really good deal. If you’re buying the popular, more expensive name-brand of the same product instead, you’re most likely wasting money.

For instance, 1,000 tablets of 200 mg Kirkland Signature’s ibuprofen is only $13.99, compared to $29.48 for 360 tablets of 200 mg Advil ibuprofen.

A Kirkland Signature bottle of 1,000 mg Vitamin C with 500 tablets is $19.99 but often on sale for $15.99. Compared to a Nature’s Made bottle of 1,000 mg Vitamin C, which is $30.75 for only 300 tablets, that's a no-brainer.

Going on a treasure hunt

wolterke/Adobe Costco Wholesale Store and Trademark Logo

Costco is known for moving items around to different locations. And in the Costco fan world, finding where these items went, as well as anything new or popular, is called “treasure hunting.”

And guess what happens when you go on a treasure hunt? You see a lot, and buy a lot. To keep your focus, we suggest sticking to the center and back of the store, where you’ll find the best savings and lowest price points.

Bottom line

Sergii/Adobe Person shopping at the grocery shop food concept

To avoid wasting money at Costco, the name of the game is creating a budget, buying only what you need, and resisting impulse purchases.

And if all of that seems too difficult — we know it’s hard to resist the power of a Costco membership — we suggest skipping the shopping cart altogether and only buying what you can carry in your arms or basket.

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Becky Holladay Becky Holladay is a finance and travel writer whose work has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and the California Business Journal, among others. She loves finding out what makes people tick and telling their stories, whether they're entrepreneurs, artists, or changemakers.

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