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shopping cartFor some people, money is no object.  For the rest of us, money isn’t as available as we’d like.  We look for ways to make every dollar count, especially during times when the economic outlook isn’t particularly rosy.  By not spending unnecessarily and, when we shop, by spending wisely, we do what we can to stretch the purchasing power of our money (This applies as well to those who simply enjoy living frugally even if they don’t have any financial concerns).

One very popular and, if done with some creativity and intelligence, effective way to save money is to shop at warehouse stores or “big box retailers” such as Costco, Sam’s Club and the like.  Merely shopping at these places will not, however, save you money.  If you’re not mindful of a few things, you may fall into the trap of being, as the saying goes, “penny wise and pound foolish”.

So how does one really save money at Costco, Sam’s Club and merchants like them?  By simply following 8 tips each time you go.  With a little preparation and a little discipline, you can save a bundle.  And the good news is that these tips don’t require any special skills, tools or insider knowledge.   You don’t even have to download an app!  All you need is enough of a desire to save money to use our 8 suggestions each time you shop.

Before we start, remember that saving money is relative.  Buying things you don’t really need at less cost isn’t really “saving”, it’s simply buying less expensive items.  In order to truly “save” money, you should know how much you have to spend, what you are prepared to spend and on what and, finally, what you are prepared to do to spend less than you have available.  That is what we mean by saving money.

What you need, first and foremost, is a real line-item budget for groceries, sundries, fuel, auto care, utilities, clothing, rent/mortgage, etc.   Once you’ve come up with a detailed budget suited to your household’s reality, you will need to the discipline to live according to that budget.

1.  Make a list.  As obvious as this may sound, making a list is fundamental to saving money, especially when shopping in stores like Costco that have such an incredible variety of products and in such large quantities.  Know what you want before you go.  List it all.  And stick to the list!  With some willpower you’ll be able to resist the temptation of that wide-screen HD prominently displayed when you first walk in or that computer game your kids have been clamoring for.  If you don’t resist that temptation, no budget you design can help you save money.

2.  Don’t shop hungry.  No matter where you do your grocery shopping, you’ll end up buying more food if you are hungry.  So eat before you go.  Or, if you’re rushed for time, eat when you get there.  Costco, for example, has great meal deals if you don’t mind eating something like pizza or a hot dog.  If you’re bringing the kids with you, this is an inexpensive way to feed the family and takes a bit of the boredom out of shopping for your young ones (Gentle suggestion:  If you can swing it, leave the kids at home.  They’ll see plenty of things they “need” in the aisles and you’ll either be distracted by continually managing their expectations or end up spending money on things that seem like a good idea at the time).

3.  Understand the science of unit pricing.  Ok, maybe it’s not a science.  But it is math.  And you should try to become comfortable with figuring out whether buying products in bulk actually gives you a better price than if you were to buy them individually at the grocery store.  We’ve seen many a case (so to speak) where that isn’t so.  So be sure to bring your calculator with you (whenever you go grocery shopping, no matter whether it’s at a big box store, a big chain grocer or the corner market).

4.  Plan your attack by knowing your store.   As we mentioned above, wide-screen HD television will be prominently displayed near the entrance.  So will the latest video game consoles and high-tech gadgets.  And you can’t avoid them.  But you can walk right past them.

In fact, there are a number of areas within the store you should walk right past such as the middle aisles.  If you think about it, you’ll recall that the meats, bakery items, frozen foods and sundries are all displayed at or near the perimeter of the big box stores.  The center aisles, the area of least congestion and highest visibility, are where books, movies, clothing, games, holiday decorations and seasonal furniture are displayed.  People like to go to big box stores because they see it as some sort of excursion, excited to see what’s being featured this trip.  If your intention is to save money, this is doom because you are tempting that ugly monster we call compulsive buying.  However, if you’ve made the list we’ve suggested, you wouldn’t think of navigating the center section of the store anyway, would you?

5.  Buy your household necessities in bulk.  Toilet paper, paper towels, detergent and food items with a long shelf life.  However, sometimes the best deals are for food in such amounts that you couldn’t possibly use it all (e.g., meats).  Simply invest in some freezer storage bags and split the packages into meal size portions.

6.  Use the buddy system.  If your food storage space is limited but you simply can’t pass up the bargains on meats or other highly perishable items, arrange to split the purchase with a friend or relative.  You’ll likely find a willing participant in this plan, especially in someone who doesn’t have the necessary store membership.

7.  Don’t experiment.  We all like to try new things.  However, whenever you’re buying a new breakfast cereal, now is probably not the right time buy a case of 6 boxes if no one in your family even knows if they like it.  If they don’t you haven’t saved any money, you’ve wasted it.

Oh yes, we neglected to mention an 8th tip:  Pay with cash.  Studies have shown that people buy more when they use credit cards to purchase things.  Not only that, but if they don’t pay the entire balance on those purchases when the bill comes, whatever “savings” they’ve received is wiped out by the interest rate on the unpaid balance of those purchases on the card.  You don’t save 10% on an item if you’re paying 15% interest on the credit card.  If, however, you are certain that you will pay the entire balance on any credit card purchases, you may want to consider the TrueEarnings®Card from Costco and American Express.  This card allows you to earn 1% cash back rewards on your Costco/Sam’s Club purchases and there is no annual fee with your paid Costco Membership.

It’s easy to save at Costco, Sam’s Club and their brethren.  All you need is some planning and to keep your focus on what you’re there to do.