Many college students and 20-somethings shy away from Costco because who really needs to buy 100 rolls of TP at once, right? While many families can easily spend over $300-400 on one trip, this does not mean that Costco is not a great place to save money – even for singletons.
There are a lot of "hidden" Costco programs and deals that make Costco a great deal for college students. Here's how you can maximize the savings if you don't know where to start.
Why would you buy an Executive Membership when it costs twice as much as the Gold Star Membership? It is simple. You receive 2% cash back on most Costco purchases. This does not include gas, unfortunately. However, if you do pair this membership with the Costco credit card, you will earn 3% cash back on gasoline purchases.
With the 2% cash back, you will either claim a good portion of your membership costs back or make money. But I don’t spend that much at Costco, you might say. You don’t have to. If you had the low grocery budget of $250 a month and spent it all at Costco each month for a year, you would earn $60 back by the end of the year. This means you will have actually saved $5 on the Gold Star Membership price.
Remember, you don’t just have to do grocery shopping at Costco. You can also save money if you do all of your holiday shopping and clothes shopping there too. Costco also offers deals on movie tickets and gift cards too. For example you can buy $100 worth of gift cards for less than $80 (at so many places - at it's typically localized). Switch over your medical costs to, such as contact lenses and prescription drugs. You will save money on essentials and earn even more cash back.
Furthermore, using the Costco credit card alongside the Executive Membership allows you to earn double cashback. You will earn a reward check from Costco every year. The Costco card doubles as your Executive Membership so that you don’t have to carry around two cards.
Did you know that Costco offers deals on car insurance? While we've covered the cheapest car insurance for college students before, Costco may beat many of those offers.
Car insurance through Costco is very affordable, and for my own personal needs, has been the cheapest amongst other car insurance companies. They offer the usual car insurance discounts, such as student driver or multi-car family discount.
An added bonus if you have an Executive Membership is that you will receive Roadside Assistance, Lifetime Renewability, Glass Repair Reimbursement, and Home Lockout Assistance.
Best Deals at Costco
- Gas: For most cities, Costco’s gas is the most affordable locally. Plus, the way Costco organizes the gas lines makes life much less stressful.
- Tires: You can regularly find name brand tires for as low as $70 to $80 at Costco. Bonus: You receive free tire balances and rotations if you purchased your tires with them.
- Rotisserie Chicken: Do not pass up the rotisserie chicken. It is the fastest, tastiest, and cheapest meal you will get your hands on. Eat it over the sink the first night and then throw it a wrap or sandwich for leftover lunches and dinners.
- Vacations: If you can afford a little R&R, then Costco’s travel section is the one you should check out first.
- Olive Oil: One and a half liters is only $9.99! That is roughly half the cost of the well-known Bertolli brand, and yet, according to at least one independent study, it’s much better.
- Alcohol: Did you know that Costco is the largest importer of high-end French wines? They have high quality and name brand alcohol at deeply discounted priced.
- Eyeglasses: College student status equals crappy insurance. Thankfully Costco offers very affordable eye exams and eyeglasses. You can save over $100 just by choosing Costco over a different optical shop. Keep your eye out for special glasses coupons that allow you to get two pairs for a great price.
- Clothes: We totally get it. Fashion wannabes don’t want to be caught getting their threads from a warehouse. Some say the designer duds at Costco are lower quality, but we still think it beats the quality and look of Walmart clothing any day.
Worst Deals at Costco
Stay away from these buys if you want to save your money.
- Personal Hygiene Items: You shouldn’t forgo the three giant bottles of shampoo just because of storage issues. Usually you can find personal hygiene items, such as shampoo, razors, and feminine products cheaper through Amazon, Walmart, or Target. You can also use a coupon at those three stores too.
- Books: It can be hard to resist the beautiful book display, but Amazon usually wins with the best prices.
- DVDs and CDs: Again, Amazon is usually the winner.
- Laundry Detergent: Buy a huge tub of laundry detergent and use it all four years of your college life. Great plan, right? Wrong! While there is no doubt that one giant bottle of detergent can last you through college, it has been found that laundry detergent loses its effectiveness six months to a year on the shelf.
Costco’s Secret Price Code
Ever wonder why things are so randomly priced at Costco? There is a method to the madness. Each price sign can tell you if something is a great buy or if you should pass on it. For example, if the price ends in .88, then it is a manager’s markdown. They want to get rid of this item quickly.
Items that end in .97 are also items that have been marked down. If the price ends in a different amount, such as .49, .59, or .79, then it means Costco purchased the item cheaper from the manufacturer and you get to save more too.
Sometimes price cards will also have an asterisk (*) in the top corner. This means that the specific club will not be reordering that product. Therefore, if you like it, stock up on it.
Costco is notorious for their free samples. Visit during your lunch hour on a good day, and you can score yourself a free lunch. Even if the samples are slow for the day, Costco’s food court is quite impressive for an inexpensive price. Where else can you find a $1.50 hot dog combo or pay $1 for a huge churro. Let’s not forget the tasty and huge pizza you can buy for only $10.
More Ways to Save at Costco
Still not sure how to make a Costco membership work for your circumstances and budget? Then these tips are for you.
- Split Your Membership. So you may not need 15 chicken breasts or 5 romaine lettuce heads. This is where you can split the cost with a friend or two. In fact, you could split your whole membership if you wanted, just as long as you shop together and split the cash afterwards.
- Use Your Freezer. Your freezer is not just useful for storing Hot Pockets. You can repackage bulk meat into smaller sections and store them in the freezer. Even better, you can grill up all your bulk meat at once. Then throw them into plastic food storage containers with brown rice and vegetables. Now you have one or two weeks of healthy meals prepped and ready to go in the freezer.
- Shop the Instant Rebates. Plan your grocery list around Costco’s instant rebates. Also, stock up when an instant rebate makes a product extremely affordable.
- Buy the Kirkland Brand. Have you ever gone to the store and bought the store version of your favorite treat? Chances are it tasted a bit funky, right? It is not that way with the Kirkland branded products. Their brand of food, especially their bacon, is top-notch for a lower price.
- Take Advantage of Their Generous Return Policy. Another thing to love about Costco is how nice they are when it comes to returns. They have a 30-day price protection policy and 90-day return policy. This means that if you buy something one day and notice it is discounted in a week or two, they will refund you the extra cost. Also, you can technically buy a new television and return it within 90 days, without a hassle. If you end up buying a food you do not like or produce that has gone bad too quickly, take it back. They stand behind their products and customer satisfaction is their main goal.
- Shop Wisely. It is very easy to get carried away at Costco. Even with concrete floors, everything looks appealing. Start with a list and stick to it. Don’t get distracted by cool gadgets that you do not need. Also, try to stick to the outer aisles, which is where you will find all of the essential food items on your list. Finally, keep a calculator with you and add as you go. You don’t want any surprises in the check-out lane.
You don’t need to be a family of four with a mini-van and “Soccer Mom” sticker to shop at Costco. In fact, Costco can be a wonderful money saver for all college students, as long as you shop with your budget in mind.
If you're looking for more ways to save money as a college student, look at Amazon student. It's a student version of Amazon Prime, and it can be a great way to save.
Do you have a Costco membership? Have you found other great ways to save?
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him on the About Page or on his personal site RobertFarrington.com.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared toward anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.