Instead of running themselves ragged in search of deals, millions of Americans get all of their weekly shopping done under one roof: Costco.
One-stop shopping has been more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, and Costco is on a very short list of stores that have remained open nationwide. With well over 500 locations in the U.S., you probably won’t have to look far to take advantage of the wholesale savings.
The size and style of a Costco store — they’re built like warehouses — can be intimidating. And some people don’t like the idea of paying an annual fee just for the privilege of paying more money at the store.
But by following a few lesser-known tips and tricks, you can make the most out of a membership and stretch your government stimulus check further than you might expect. Here are some of the best tips, including a few even outsiders can use.
1. Decrypt the secret code on price tags
Usually, shoppers only look for one thing on a price tag: a low number.
Costco price tags are different. According to sources cited by Consumer Reports, the numbers and symbols can tell you whether to grab an item quickly or walk on by.
A price ending in .97 means the item is on clearance and probably a great buy.
A price ending in “9,” such as .69, .79 or .89 (but not .99) can mean a special deal from the manufacturer. They’re often new products being introduced at a lower price.
A price ending in .00 or .88 means the store manager probably cut the price because it's the last batch, missing a box or missing pieces. Inspect these items carefully, since they’re marked down for a reason.
An asterisk in the upper-right corner means an item won’t be restocked, so you better get it now if it’s something you want.
2. Don’t just save — get paid for shopping
You may have heard of shopping rewards apps before. After downloading the app on your phone, you just go shopping as normal and get rewards like gift cards for your purchases.
Well, the app Ibotta and Costco have teamed up to give you cash back on certain items. You can get anywhere from a quarter back on apples to $4 on packs of beer. It’s like your own secret sales flyer.
Even without using the app, being an executive member at Costco gives you an annual 2% store-credit reward on almost all purchases, up to a maximum of $1,000.
3. Don’t waltz in with a Mastercard
Savvy shoppers love to compound their savings with a cash-back credit card, but don’t just walk into your local Costco and assume your favorite will work.
The only way to pay by credit at a Costco store is with a Visa card. While it might seem unfair, Costco reportedly cut a deal in order to drastically lower transaction fees. In theory, some of those savings are being passed on to you.
If you’re a die-hard Mastercard user — maybe you have one of the new Mastercard debit cards that offer cash back — you can still make purchases on the Costco website.
At the cash register, you can try cash, a debit card or a mobile payment option like Apple Pay or Google Pay.
4. Save on prescriptions without a membership
Americans spend a lot on drugs. In the U.S., the average person spends about $1,200 per year on pharmaceuticals, says. the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — roughly $250 more than people in Europe pay.
If you’re anywhere near that average, you’ll want to find the cheapest place to refill your prescription.
One great thing about Costco’s pharmacies is that you don’t need a membership to get your prescription filled. Your doctor will call the pharmacy, and you can pick it up when it’s ready.
Costco also lists the prices of popular prescription drugs on its website for easy comparison shopping.
5. Dial up Costco’s free tech support
We’ve all been there: The TV decides to go on the fritz in the middle of a movie, or your laptop freaks out right before that big essay is due.
If you bought the device at Costco, you’re in luck. Concierge Service is one more perk members get to take advantage of.
Just call the toll-free number, 1-866-861-0450, between 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. PST, seven days a week (excluding holidays). They’ll be happy to troubleshoot or help set up products before use.
6. Ask for a 'chub' of ground beef
No, this isn’t a prank to make you sound silly, even if you might feel that way the first time.
If you’re looking to seriously stock up on ground beef, try asking the meat department for a 10-pound “chub.”
According to Reddit user fixxall, Costco normally takes the fat trimmings cut from steaks and mixes it into chubs of beef to increase the fat content — and the company’s profits.
The chubs are cheap, but they're not normally put out on the floor. You'll have to ask an associate for one.
7. Channel your inner professional at a Costco Business Center
The name makes it sound like you need to be a CEO to shop there, but these rare stores are open to anyone with a Costco membership.
They’re geared toward companies and small-business owners, so the selection can be quite different. You might find less fresh food and clothing but more appliances, individually wrapped snacks and beverages.
The biggest advantage is that Business Centers are open earlier and usually aren’t as packed. Less foot traffic also means easier parking and faster checkout times.
8. Skip the membership using gift cards
Don’t have a membership? If you’ve been given a Costco Shop Card, you can just walk right in.
Normally, you would need to enter with a Costco member to gain access. But with a Shop Card in hand, you can show up on your own.
The cards range from $25 to $2,000 in store credit that you can spend on anything in the store.
The one caveat is that only members are allowed to buy and refill the cards, so you’ll still need to know someone with a membership to shop there.
9. Trust us, eat at the food court
Instead of spending 10 bucks on lunch before braving the lines at Costco store, go straight inside and hit up the food court.
You can get a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog and a 20 oz. soda (with refill) for $1.50. Yes, a single dollar and 50 cents. That’s as affordable as it gets.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can get an 18-inch pizza for just $9.95. That’s one big pie for you and your family for way less than your average pizza chain.
Of course, none of this would be worth it if the meals were skimpy or gross, but they’re actually pretty darn tasty.
10. Get your eyes and ears tested on the cheap
Just like Costco’s pharmacy, these services are available to non-members as well.
According to data shared by Fair Health, the average eye exam in the United States costs $200. You can get one at Costco for less than half.
Hearing tests are even cheaper: $0.
You’re under no obligation to purchase hearing aids after the test, but if you do want them from Costco, you’ll need a membership. Same goes for buying glasses after getting your prescription.
11. Get Costco to book your vacation — and print your vacation selfies
Just when you thought Costco had it all, the company adds its own travel agency and photo center into the mix. Keep that in mind for when you're able to travel again.
The trained professionals at Costco Travel will help you find deals on everything from hotels to cruises to rental cars.
Then you can upload photos of you goofing off in Hawaii to the Photo Center. The site makes it easy to use your snaps to create wall decor, greeting cards, mugs — even blankets.
12. Make liberal use of the lenient return policy
Many stores make it hard to return merchandise, asking you to jump through hoops within a short time frame.
Costco, on the other hand, has one of the best return policies in the retail world.
With few exceptions — for example, electronics have a 90-day limit, and you can’t return cigarettes or alcohol — you can bring back almost anything you want, whenever you want.
It may sound too good to be true, but it’s the real deal. One woman was even able to get a refund on a dead Christmas tree in January, according to Fortune.
13. No need for an exit strategy
Merchandise isn’t the only thing you can return hassle-free at Costco. You can get a full refund on your membership at any time.
Maybe the kids moved out and buying in bulk doesn’t make sense anymore. Maybe you moved away, far from any Costo stores. Or maybe you just got fed up with the lines.
Whatever the reason, you’re covered.
14. Every time a bell rings, a shopper gets some wings
Costco can be a pretty noisy place, but try to strain your ears for the sound of a bell.
If you hear one, stop whatever you’re doing and make a beeline to the rotisserie chicken station at the deli. According to multiple media reports, a bell means a fresh batch has just been put out, and they tend to go fast.
Why? Costo has kept the price steady at $4.99 since 2009, according to CNN. It’s a steal that only gets better with age.
15. Split up servings and save
Don’t think you’ll eat all 10 chicken breasts? Hate white meat but love dark meat? No problem.
At plenty of Costco stores, you can ask associates to split up packages of meat into more manageable or desirable portions.
Don’t forget you can do your own version of this at home.
Sometimes you just don’t have the space for 30 rolls of toilet paper or a four-and-a-half-pound bag of chocolate chips. Shop with a friend, then split the goods and the cost. You’ll both save for buying in bulk from the store.
16. Get deals delivered to your door
Costco is popular for a reason. If you hate fighting for a space at the parking lot and standing around in line — especially in these uncertain times — you can order your groceries online using Instacart.
You can get all sorts of items delivered to your doorstep, from fresh produce to packaged meats to personal care items.
Whatever you buy will cost a little more than it would at your local warehouse, and you’ll have to pay a delivery fee. If you don’t have a Costco membership, you’ll have to order directly from the Instacart website and pay even more, so run the numbers to ensure you’re still getting a good deal.
17. Buy fresh, then freeze
It’s hard to justify buying food in bulk if half just goes to waste. Luckily, plenty of fresh foods freeze really well and last up to six months.
It’s not just meat that holds up well in the freezer. Many types of bread will be just fine; simply pop a bagel in the toaster when you’re ready to eat. Even some produce like spinach and broccoli will keep their flavor, if not their crunch.
Of course, instead of freezing individual ingredients, you can always cook up a delicious meal, freeze that and have dinner ready to go when you need it.
18. Don’t overpay for ink
Ink cartridges are one of those items you never think about until you’re printing an important document and the well runs dry. Then you need to make a desperate dash to an office supplies store, where you’ll shell out upwards of $50 per pack.
Getting a cartridge refilled at Costco’s Photo Center starts at $6.99.
The job only takes an hour, depending on how many orders the store has, so you can drop it off before you start shopping and pick it up when you’re done.
19. Don’t bother with manufacturer coupons
Thrifty shoppers will try to save wherever they can. Coupons are usually a safe bet.
However, Costco doesn’t accept coupons from other companies — in their words, “We distribute our own offers and savings.”
Instead, use the Costco app to get the best deal on products. You won’t need to waste time on a Sunday morning scouring through the newspaper with a pair of scissors. Sorry if you enjoy that sort of thing.
20. Go Kirkland or go home
Walking through the concrete aisles, you’ll see a familiar black, white and red Kirkland Signature label on every other shelf. That’s Costco’s own brand.
Named after a city in Washington state where Costco used to have its headquarters, Kirkland has just about everything, from food to clothing to personal hygiene items.
Costco keeps its own prices low, but shoppers say the products are almost as good if not better than other name-brand products.
21. Don’t get huffy when they check your receipt
Costco is pretty unusual — not many stores have a line at the exit.
It might seem odd to have an employee check your items and receipt at the door, but the company says it has two very good reasons.
The first is to maintain accuracy with “inventory control.” The second is to make sure you’re not being overcharged or undercharged for your items. Maybe the cashier missed an item or scanned it twice.
And yeah, they do catch the occasional thief this way.
There’s plenty of debate about whether this practice is accusatory or not, but if you want to keep your membership, handing over your receipt is mandatory.