A question we get a lot here at Saving the Crumbs is: “Do you think Costco membership is worth it?” It’s a valid question since buying wholesale definitely jives with the crumb saver mentality but putting down $55 (our month’s food budget) just to be part of a club makes me stop to consider how much savings we’d actually pocket in the end.

I’ll admit that Costco definitely has some great deals and awesome merchandise. However, don’t let the $80 off the Dyson vacuum cleaner (when you don’t need one), or the amazing deal on the patio furniture (when you don’t have a deck), or even all the tempting samples they lure you with, sway you from a good, hard analysis of whether Costco membership is the right decision for you.

Being from California where just about everyone lives off of Costco, Al and I were pretty tempted to get membership when a Costco finally moved into our vicinity. But after honesty looking at our shopping habits, our current needs as a childless couple, and price options at other stores in the area (think ALDI), we decided against becoming official members of the Costco fanclub. Blasphemy? Before you judge us too hard, have a look at the questions we asked ourselves and perhaps they will help you think through your decision too.

1. How Far Away Is It?

We shop with the understanding that any money we burn in gas to reach our shopping destination essentially adds that amount to the price of our purchases. Drive 2 hours to Atlanta burning $20 of gas to stock up on the Jasmine rice on sale? That 40lb bag of rice on sale for $20 just cost us $40!

Costco is right on the border of how far Al and I are willing to drive for a good deal. We would have to save more on our necessary purchases (emphasis on necessary) than we spend on gas and membership fees, and honestly, that would be pretty hard for us to do, as you’ll soon see why. (Even making the trip to fill up on cheaply priced Costco gas is a toss-up for us since at Walmart we get 3% off buying a Walmart gift card from Cardpool and then 3 cents off per gallon at the pump using the gift card.)

How far away is your Costco from your house? Can you recoup the costs of travel and membership fees on savings? Remember, travel costs are always good to consider when determining whether any shopping spree (or vacation or eating out excursion or Saturday night entertainment) is worth it.

2. Do You Need Bulk?

Do you have 4 kids, constantly entertain guests, or have tons of empty shelves and closets that just need to be stockpiled? We sure don’t! In fact, part of the crumb saving mentality is to strive to live contently on less. We aim to be low-maintenance, to seek simple pleasures, and to not surround ourselves with accumulated extras. Do we need 34 AA batteries, 12 cans of tomato paste, or 18 sponges for just the 2 of us? I don’t doubt that at some point we could use up the tomato paste in crockpot beans, or that eventually all 18 sponges would have been worn away with the few dishes we wash during the week. But we’ve come to the conclusion that storing all that stuff for so many years in our fairly small house is usually* not worth the savings that still has to have gas expenses subtracted from it.

*There are a few things we do prefer to buy from Costco, including natural peanut butter, Kirkland toilet paper, and multigrain Cheerios when they’re on sale (because Al has a soft spot for Cheerios). But generally, we choose to buy smaller quantities at places where we can find similar products for equivalent or lower prices.

Are you a lonely bachelor? Are you the Duggar family?! Your household needs will help in your decision whether buying wholesale by the pallet load is for you! Don’t fall prey to the idea that just because it seems like a good deal, you must get lots of it, even if you don’t need it.

3. Can You Find It Cheaper Elsewhere?

An important step in our decision not to buy Costco membership was price comparison (read how we did it here). We found that although Costco definitely had great brands at good prices, we could often find similar products at competing or even lower prices at stores closer to home. For us, we could find carrots, onions, fruit, rice, oats, even hygiene products (just to name a few) cheaper at places like ALDI (and didn’t have to drive so far to get it or buy 50 pounds of it at once).

But it is important to note that this only works if you have gotten over brand-name loyalty and are willing to possibly take a quality cut for significant discounts. For us, we’re loyal to the best deal, and we’re not very picky. So our options fling wide open. Now mind you, weighing quality vs. cost is a bit of a balancing act. But Al and I are willing to compromise quality in areas that don’t significantly affect or reduce functionality for a significant savings. The sponges aren’t Scotch-Brite and don’t last quite as long? No problem, for half the price we’re happy to replace them more often (which is actually more hygienic).

Have you done your homework? Consider the necessities on your shopping list and the other store options in your area. If Costco still comes out on top, great! If not, you may want to reconsider whether membership is for you.

But is it an all or nothing? Must you choose between casting your lots with Costco for $55 or turning your back on all Costco deals forever? Thankfully, there is another option. Just keep reading.

The Solution: Costco Cash Card

So, what about those things that are cheaper at Costco, that we don’t mind stocking up on, and that we prefer a certain brand? Yes, there are some which we hinted at earlier. Kirkland natural peanut butter is much, much cheaper than anywhere else (even Amazon!) and we like their flavor best. After reading about all the R&D that goes into producing Kirkland toilet paper, learning that it is Costco’s #1 selling product, and not wanting to compromise too much on this very crucial household amenity, we haul the 36-roll beast home and have TP stuffed in every nook and cranny in our bathrooms. So what do we do then when we’re too cheap to buy a $55 Costco membership but want to buy these great Costco items?

Enter the Costco Cash Card: The Crumb Saver Solution to Costco Shopping

Yes, that’s right. The Costco cash card allows non-Costco members to make purchases at Costco and even fill up at Costco gas stations. No additional fees: you pay the same price for products as Costco members.

Al and I have been doing this for years. We purchase a cash card (or refill a previous one) through our parents or friends who are Costco members. We flash the cash card when passing the bouncer at the entrance, pick out our purchases of peanut butter and gargantuan TP, and when they ask for our membership card at the register, we hand them our cash card instead. Whenever we need the card refilled, we ask a friend or family member who is a Costco member to help us refill it and then just pay them back.

It’s the perfect solution for those who don’t buy enough at Costco to make it worth the membership but like to be able to make a few Costco purchases now and then. The Costco website even mentions that it’s great for students, so they are overtly promoting this as a service for non-members who have smaller spending needs. Sound too good to be true? Here’s the info right off the Costco website:

You must be a Costco member to purchase or reload Costco Cash Cards.  Members and non-members may use the cash cards to shop at any Costco location in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and online at Costco.com or on Costco.ca. Costco Cash balances may be used toward membership or merchandise.

The Costco Cash card features include:

  • A convenient payment option in our warehouses, gas stations, and costco.com
  • No expiration date
  • Are rechargeable at any Costco warehouse location
  • Can be purchased in denominations from $25 to $1,000
  • A supply card or gas card for businesses
  • A means to provide students with money for food, gas, or school and dormitory necessities, while being able to limit their spending
  • Balance can be accessed on costco.com, the warehouse “red kiosk” or by calling the toll-free number on the back of the card

A couple other tips we’ve learned:

  • You must be a full Costco member to return an item
  • I usually print out the information above from the Costco website and keep it with my cash card just in case the cashier has any questions (when our Costco first opened, we would have to explain it to the cashiers, but now there’s no problem using it at our location)

So there you have it. Some may call our refusing to buy Costco membership blasphemy, but for us, well…we call it smart.

Do you have Costco membership? If so, what makes it worth it to you? If not, why not? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Share with us in the comments below.