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If you’ve never been about that wholesale club life, you might wonder from time to time — are wholesale clubs really cheaper?
I mean, you’ve gotta pay for a membership. Then buy in bulk. Depending on where you live, you may even have to make a pilgrimage to get to the closest location. Are the savings really big enough to make up for all those upfront costs and inconveniences?
Our team has collectively shopped hundreds of stores across the country. And we’re here to tell you: Yes, wholesale clubs really are cheaper. For everyone but a select few, all the extra rigamarole is worth it. Let’s break it down the best way we know how — by the cost!
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1. Are wholesale clubs cheaper than grocery stores? When you consider the price per unit — yes.
When you consider the price you’re paying per item, the wholesale clubs beat out these grocery chains for their grocery prices:
Related: To see the full play-by-play on how the costs broke down, see our guide to the cheapest grocery stores.
2. The membership fees (usually) pay for themselves.
As long as you’re shopping for a family, you’ll be able to earn back your membership fees in no time. Let’s look at each club and how much money you can earn back in savings.
The cheapest Sam’s Club membership is $50/year, but you can often join for 50% off.
At Sam’s Club, the basic membership (Club membership) costs $50. Because you’re buying in bulk, you can probably get away with less than half as many grocery trips, and over the course of a year, you’ve saved more than $50. Plus, their Club memberships often have special offers for new members, going for just $25 – $35 rather than the typical $50 rate.
The next level up for Sam’s Club membership is the Plus level, which costs $110/year. However, you also get 2% cash back with this level of membership, up to a maximum of $500/year. If you spend just $500/month on groceries, you’ll have earned back your membership fee and then some. And that’s just via the cash-back rewards — we’re not even counting the everyday savings you get on the groceries.
A basic Costco membership is $60/year, which means you only need to pocket $5/month savings to pay for it.
Costco also has two tiers of membership. The cheaper one is the Gold Star membership. It costs $60/year. Again, as long as it’s your primary grocery destination, you’re gonna save more than $60/year shopping at Costco.
The Executive membership gives you 2% cash back, too — and Costco pays this benefit out up to $1,000/year. The Costco membership fee for this level is $120, but, just like Sam’s Club, you can easily earn it back in rewards if you spend at least $500/month or more on groceries at Costco.
You can join BJ’s Wholesale Club for as low as $20/year, so you’ll earn that back in savings in no time.
If you’re East Coast, you may also have BJ’s Wholesale Club as an option. BJ’s membership comes in two tiers, just like the others. The cheaper Club membership is usually $55, but if you’re a new member, you can sometimes find BJ’s membership discounts that make it just $20. Saving $20 shopping wholesale is easy peasy!
The Club+ membership level is $110/year, but you’ll also get 2% cashback. So just spend $500/month on groceries, and your membership has more than paid for itself.
3. You might not even need a membership to shop at wholesale clubs.
There are some hacks for getting around wholesale clubs’ membership fees entirely. For example, at Costco, you can shop without a membership if you have a Costco gift card. So just ask your Costco-membership-toting friend to turn your $100 in cash into a gift card, and you’ll be able to get in the door and score all the savings they do.
Sam’s Club will let you shop online with a 24-hour guest membership, but you’ll be charged a 10% markup for the privilege. You could also get a free 90-day trial membership to shop in person — without the markup.
It’s worth getting a BJ’s membership if you can grab one when it’s just $20. While you can get a one-day pass to evade the membership fee, you will pay a 15% nonmember fee if you go this route.
4. Wholesale clubs have ridiculously generous return policies.
Another big way that shopping wholesale clubs can save you money is through their return policies. Both the Costco return policy and Sam’s Club return policy let you make returns whenever for most products. We’ve even seen examples of people getting full refunds when the items are totally trashed.
While we definitely don’t recommend abusing the policy, it is liberal enough that you can rest assured that if you don’t like the bulk-sized crackers you just bought after opening the first sleeve, you will be able to get your money back.
BJ’s return policy isn’t quite as flexible, but they do give you a full year to return most products. That’s plenty of time to reclaim any money you spent on an item that just didn’t work out.
5. What items are a good buy at wholesale clubs? Check out this list.
Sam’s Club and Costco have some of the lowest prices on the largest variety of items, especially household staples like paper goods. And to compare the value you’re getting, you always have to consider the price per unit, since pack sizes can differ between stores.
Here are a few of the best items to buy at Sam’s Club based on value:
- Trash bags
- Toilet paper
- Paper towels
- Coke products
- Heinz ketchup
- Yoplait yogurt cups
- Tyson chicken nuggets
For Costco, we always recommend these best Costco deals that beat other stores:
- Maple syrup
- Rotisserie chicken
- Vanilla extract
- Sea salt
- Almond butter
- Half-sheet cake
- Duracell batteries
- Pasta sauce
- Orange juice
For things like laundry detergent, Costco and Sam’s Club prices are dead even — and they’re both a better value than what you’ll get at stores like Target.
Related: Need help comparing? We did the digging on who wins between Sam’s Club vs. Costco.
6. If you can’t afford to buy in bulk, WinCo or Target may be your best bets.
So we’ve answered the question of “are wholesale clubs cheaper?”. But what if you just don’t have the budget — or storage space — to buy in bulk? While the price per unit tends to be lowest at wholesale clubs, your total cart cost on any given shopping trip is going to be a little bit higher, just because you’re buying so much at once.
If your budget can’t afford to buy in bulk right now, Target has the next-best value (as long as your Target store actually has a full grocery section). If you’re trying to keep your cart under $100, though, and only buy as much as you need, WinCo can be even cheaper.
True story: When I lived in rural Idaho, I used to pack a cooler in my car and make the 30-minute trek to WinCo in the next town over. The savings were so huge it more than made up for the gas money!
If you can afford the upfront spend, it’s more economical to head to your wholesale club. But if you can’t, you can still strategize your spend at the cheapest grocery store within your budget.