The decision to sign up for a rewards program at your favorite drugstore or retailer is usually an easy one -- there's typically no cost to join and you pretty much start saving money right away.
A membership that you have to pay for, on the other hand, requires some number-crunching first. Once you do the math, you may discover that, most of the time, paying for membership perks rarely pays off. Still, there are some paid memberships that do pay for themselves -- and quickly.
Here are five worth considering:
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1. Zoos and Aquariums
Cost: Roughly $100 per year.
Zoo and aquarium memberships aren't always cheap, but with perks like free parking, guest passes and behind-the-scenes tours, it can take just a couple of visits for the savings to offset the fee, says Allen W. Nyhuis, co-author of "America's Best Zoos: A Travel Guide for Fans and Families." (Bonus: Because you're joining a nonprofit, most zoo and aquarium memberships are tax deductible.) Your membership may even be good at other locations, he says. Joining the Pittsburgh Zoo ($50 and up), for example, gets you free or discounted entry to more than 100 other parks participating in the Association of Zoos & Aquarium's Reciprocal Admissions program.
Savings: A family of four visiting the San Diego Zoo for the day would pay $132, including one-day admission ($28.50 per adult, $18.50 per child) and rides on the Journey Into Africa tour ($10 per adult, $3 per child) and Skyfari air tram ($3 per person). Signing up for a family membership costs just $5 more -- and comes with a year of free entry, free rides and other perks.
Cost: $12.50 per year (includes free membership for a spouse or partner).
"You'd be crazy if you didn't join AARP as soon as you turn 50," says Joan Rattner Heilman, author of "Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50." Oftentimes, a business's senior discount is really an AARP discount, she says. No membership card, no deal. Borders, for example, restricts its 10% senior discount on paperback books to AARP-card-wielding shoppers. Others offer AARP members better deals. Choice Hotels International, whose properties include Comfort Suites and Quality Inn, regularly offers travelers age 50 and older a 10% discount. Those presenting an AARP card get an extra 5% off, plus a free Continental breakfast.
Sample Savings: Without an AARP membership, a three-day weekend at Chicago's four-star Raffaello Hotel would set you back $328 a night for a room with a king-size bed. AARP members get the room for $296 a night. You'd recoup your membership costs and save an additional $86.
3. Warehouse Clubs
Cost: Costco, $50; BJ's, $45; Sam's Club, $40.
You don't have to be in the market for a six-pound can of sliced peaches or a 48-pack of M&M Peanut candies to make a warehouse club membership worth your while. These clubs can be a more affordable option for some of the average family's regular shopping needs. "There are a few items [that are] always cheaper at warehouse clubs -- namely, milk, eggs, butter and cheese," says Mary Hunt, publisher of money management site Debt-Proof Living. These staples are regularly priced at least 20% lower than at your local supermarket, she says.
"But understand that shopping at the warehouse club is like a minefield," warns Hunt. To truly make your membership worth the cost, you'll need to separate the great deals from the bad ones. Bring your supermarket circular with you when you shop to compare prices and ensure you're really saving.
Sample Savings: Buy a 23-inch Toshiba LCD HDTV and DVD player combo for $575 at Overstock.com, or get the same model at BJ's for $430. You'd recoup your membership costs and save another $100.
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Visit the Family & Home Center
Cost: $48 per year, plus a one-time $10 enrollment fee for new members.
From a jump-start in cold weather to 24-hour roadside assistance should you get a flat or lock the keys in your car, there are plenty of services AAA provides for free that are worth their weight in gold for motorists in a bind, says Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. "You almost can't put a price on them," he says. Either way, it's a safe bet that the membership fee would be more than offset by the savings you'd reap during one roadside emergency.
Even if you're not a road warrior, carrying an AAA membership card can net you substantial savings. "Present your card everywhere," advises Reed. Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott properties all offer AAA members discounts of up to 10%, while Reebok outlet stores provides a 40% discount on footwear purchases.
Sample Savings: After an accident, your vehicle is towed to the nearest auto repair shop. Paying on your own, you can expect to cough up an average $100, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. With an AAA membership, the service is free of charge. You'll recoup your membership and save $42.
5. Amusement Parks
Plenty of amusement park memberships pay for themselves in as little as two visits, says Robert Niles, editor of amusement park review site ThemeParkInsider.com. "It's not just admission," he says. "There are discounts on food, merchandise and parking, plus access to special events." Many memberships also get you access to the brand's entire park network. Disney World's annual passes ($469 adults; $414 children) allow members to enter any of the four major parks.
Sample Savings: Someone heading to Six Flags Great Adventure and the Wild Safari park would pay $60 at the gate. Buying a season pass for $100, he would recoup his membership costs with a second visit to the park -- and save an extra $20 just during that one visit. The pass includes 32 free passes for friends on specific dates and $300 worth of in-park coupons.