9 things to know before your first trip to Costco

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9 things to know before your first trip to Costco
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All year long, Clark.com’s Michael Timmermann is sharing quick and easy ways to save money as part of our Michael Saves series. Check in every Monday as he puts new and familiar savings strategies to the test. Sign up for our newsletter to have these stories delivered to your inbox!

Money expert Clark Howard is probably the biggest Costco fan I’ve ever met, but I never seriously considered joining the warehouse club myself until recently.

As a single person, I always thought that buying in bulk wouldn’t make sense for my wallet.

RELATED: Clark’s #1 secret to avoid overspending this holiday season

Is a Costco membership worth it? 

I guess I’m going to find out for sure because I just signed up for a one-year Costco Gold Star membership after seeing a deal on ClarkDeals.com.

For $60, here’s what I got:

  •  1-year Costco Gold Star membership
  • $20 Costco cash card
  • Coupons that will make these items free: Kirkland Signature Paper Towel Create A Size 12/160 ct; Kirkland Signature VitaRain Zero 24/20 oz; Food Court Pizza

Before my first trip to Costco as a new member, I’ll admit that I was a bit overwhelmed. But I was also excited to see what my family, friends and co-workers have been talking about.

Here’s what to expect on your first trip to Costco Wholesale

Start at the membership desk

After finding a spot in the huge parking lot, I made my way to the membership desk located near the entrance. It took about 10 minutes to process my application, including posing for a picture that’s used on the membership card. My card was printed on the spot and I was ready to shop!

Have a game plan

I grabbed a giant shopping cart and showed my card to the woman at the front door. Once inside, I noticed several rows of big screen TVs, fresh flowers, tables of clothes, a massive grocery department and free samples all over the place.

Since it was my first time, I decided to go without a list. Perhaps this was a mistake. My cart filled up quickly before I even got to the meat, dairy and produce sections near the back of the store.

For Costco newbies, my advice is to give yourself at least an hour to shop. Go through every aisle and jot down the things that you normally buy to help you make a list for future visits. You can also search Costco.com to remind yourself about what’s in stock.

Kirkland Signature savings

Costco sells a lot of brand name merchandise, but the club also has its own brand called Kirkland Signature. You’ll find these products in every corner of the store. There are private-label batteries, vodka, toilet paper, dog food, coffee and so much more! I picked up three 16-ounce bottles of Kirkland Signature contact lens solution for $9.99, a huge savings compared to the national brand.

Look for monthly deals and discounts

If you like to clip or print out manufacturer coupons, they won’t do you any good at Costco. The warehouse club doesn’t accept them. However, Costco releases a monthly ad of member-only savings. For example, this Tide HE liquid laundry detergent (146 loads) is $18.99 after an instant savings of $4.80.

Tide detergent

How to spot marked down merchandise

As I was going through the aisles, I kept an eye out for prices that end in .97, like the $14.97 hoodies in the picture below. Costco CEO Craig Jelinek told Clark that the .97 means an item has been marked down because it’s not selling well. Price tags with an asterisk mean an item will not be reordered.

The danger of buying in bulk

For a single person or a couple, there’s a bit more risk involved when you buy in bulk, particularly perishable foods. I ended up purchasing so many fresh vegetables that I started to get stressed out about being able to finish them.

However, some of Costco’s products are split into smaller packages, which is a huge convenience. These chicken breasts are in tear-off pouches so that you can keep some in the fridge and freeze the rest.

Costco chicken breasts

Going forward, I’ll probably get more items with a longer shelf life, mainly dry goods. This should be no problem because Costco is a processed-foods paradise. The club has giant bags of potato chips, bottles of juice and boxes of cereal. Most options are super-sized!

Fill up on cheap gas

When I first pulled up to Costco, I noticed a line of cars waiting to fill up on gas. The savings at the pump can be substantial. The sign at the front of my store showed $2.19 for a gallon of regular. That’s 40 cents cheaper than a gas station less than a mile down the street.

Costco $2.19 gas

Checking out

It’s probably a good idea to keep your membership card in the front of your wallet while you’re shopping because the cashier will ask for it at checkout. Once your items are scanned, they’ll put them right back into the cart, so bring a box or bags if you need them. And if you’re paying with a credit card, make sure it’s a Visa. Costco also accepts cash, checks and debit/ATM cards.

Costco checkout

Not satisfied? Get your money back! 

Costco is known for having a generous return policy. When I was signing up at the membership desk, I watched as a few people made quick and easy merchandise returns. Costco will also cancel and refund your membership fee if you’re ever not satisfied.

Final thought

The final bill was $175.27 for my first trip to Costco. To make this work, my initial plan is to make a monthly Costco run to stock up (with a list every time) instead of going to a big-box store every week or two.

What’s your strategy to save money at Costco? Share your tips on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below.

Editor’s note: Thanks to the Clark.com readers who’ve shared their money-saving tips! They gave Costco tires, eyeglasses and its car-buying service a big thumbs-up. One person told me the best time to shop is weekday afternoons when kids are being let out of school. We’ve rounded up the best tips here. Keep the great advice coming in the comments section below!

Check out more from our Michael Saves series:

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Mike Timmermann About the author:
Michael Timmermann paid off his mortgage in two years. Now, he shares his money-saving tips on his blog, Save on Almost Everything.
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