What to buy from Costco

I got a great question from a reader regarding a magazine article I was featured in (HERE) that inspired me to break down what to buy from Costco that will actually save you money (and not suck away your entire paycheck!).

Here is what she said:

Loved the article and obviously love your page:) I have done coupons in the past. . .it’s hard with 2 little ones at home though. I would love to transition to your method. . I do watch for deals and ad match but I am curious how you do one bulk shopping trip per month. Do you have lots of meals planned out in advance? Or do you have a pretty standard list that you use at Costco? I do bulk shop some, but I would love to only do 2 big trips per month! Any more tips would be great:) 
   ~Sarah

Thanks for the questions, Sarah!

(To see a recent TV segment I did on this topic, click below to watch, and click HERE for more details)

UGH video is broken, click HERE to watch it online.

Helpful Preliminary Info:

  • See how I track my grocery budget HERE (and see how much I spend on groceries)
  • See how I fit buying bulk into that budget HERE
  • See how I grocery shop in general HERE
  • See how we track ALL our budgets HERE
  • Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the post to get the REAL “meat and potatoes” tips on how to save money at Costco!

Ok! Now onto Costco…

For my shopping at Costco I typically stick to the bulk items that are usually involved with cooking, and try to take advantage of their coupons whenever possible.  If you don’t get the coupons mailed to your house, the membership desk usually has extras. Ask to be put on the mailing list next time you are there!

First off, for a video of a TV segment I did on this subject and additional Costco buying tips and tricks, click HERE.

Things I buy (somewhat regularly) from Costco:

Just for the record…No, I don’t always buy these items every time I go. Rather, I buy these when they go on sale, and/or if I’m running low on my supply. I usually always try to keep these items on-hand. And another note, no, I didn’t list EVERYTHING here…there are plenty of things that I missed, I’m sure.

The best deals at Costco:


  • Dog food – about 1/2 the price of pet stores!
  • Olive Oil
  • Diapers & wipes – $5 or $6 off per box usually when you use their coupons. I buy whatever brand is on sale that month, because Huggies actually makes the Kirkland brand (so they are literally as good!)
  • Milk
  • Laundry detergent / fabric softener/ dryer sheets  – with coupons (see HERE for my preferences)
  • Cheese – I buy their huge bags of shredded Kirkland mozarella and cheddar. I divide them into small sandwich baggies and freeze them; pull out one bag at a time as needed. I also buy a huge 5lb block of cheddar, slice it up, freeze it in small baggies with small squares of wax paper between the slices, and pull them out when needed. The slices are great for sandwiches.) – see my tips HERE
  • Tortilla chips – the 3lb bags of Mission chips
  • Bags of frozen fruit and veggies – They are not only cheaper, but much better than other stores’ frozen veggies.
  • Seasonings, and pre-minced garlic – Their containers are HUGE are are much cheaper than other stores!…unless you buy them loosely in bulk, seen HERE.
  • Cleaning supplies – Disinfectant wipes, Comet, Swiffer refills, etc. (with coupons)
  • Prescriptions & vitamins – with coupon when possible, but in general they are nearly always MUCH cheaper at Costco! Tip: you don’t actually need a membership to buy from their pharmacy. Click HERE for info.
  • Cakes – $17 for their MASSIVE, semi-customizable cakes? Unbeatable. Oh yeah, and they are delish too!
  • Flowers and plants – A friend of mine’s folks own a large chain of flower shops. They said that Costco’s prices are so good, absolutely no one can compete with their prices. Same with their plants and trees.
  • Printer Ink – you can refill your empty cartridges for $7! (And sometimes they have an additional coupon in their mailer.) I’ve done this for years and it works great.

Other great deals at Costco:

  • Toilet paper and paper towels – The Kirkland brand mainly. It tends to be cheaper, even if a different brand has a coupon.
  • Bananas – Unless I can price-match it cheaper that week.
  • Potatoes – They may not be the cheapest, but they are HUGE and last forever.
  • Strawberries - When in season. They are the biggest and best strawberries EVER. Tip: Rise them in 1 part vinegar, 10 parts water. They will last way longer!
  • Baby formula – Kirkland formula is just as quality as the expensive stuff (it’s most likely made by the same manufacturer, actually)…but a fraction of the price!
  • Bread/rolls/buns
  • Bagels – Not necessarily always cheaper, but WAY better. I also like the mini bagels for brunches, parties, and mini pizzas/sandwiches for the kids.
  • Frozen chicken (*update: I used to buy bags of frozen chicken from Costco. Now I price-match chicken when it’s on sale for $1.70/lb or less. Then I put each fresh chicken breast in it’s own ziplock sandwich bag and freeze it. Ends up being much cheaper most of the time!)
  • String cheese – I freeze most of it, and pull a few out of the freezer at a time and keep it in the fridge for my kids. Packing them into lunches frozen is also a great way to keep them fresh – they are perfectly thawed out by lunchtime!
  • Romaine lettuce and bagged spinach – Many times I can price-match the lettuce for cheaper, but the huge bags of spinach are nearly always cheapest at Costco.
  • Chips – Potato and Dorito chips mainly
  • Fruit snacks / granola bars / some crackers / “snack items” – Nearly always with a coupon.
  • Tortillas – Their bake-at-home ones are basically the most delicious tortillas ever.
  • Salsa – We love their Kirkland salsa. Tip: If it starts to go bad before you can use the whole container, stick the rest in the freezer and pull it out when you’re ready to use it! Never let it go to waste.
  • Kirkland frozen lasagna – I usually shy away from frozen, store-bought meals. However, in this case since it’s around $10 for two trays (I believe), it’s a decent deal. One time I mentally factored the cost of my making lasagna, and Costco can basically do it cheaper!
  • Face lotion / deodorant / razors / shampoo / conditioner – With coupon. Extreme Coupon-ers will gasp at this because you can often get them cheaper with couponing, but I go for convenience since I only buy these 1 or 2 times per year.
  • Postage stamps – When I need a lot of them. They aren’t cheaper per stamp, but you don’t get slapped with any fees and it’s an easy way to buy lots of them at once.
  • Eggs – Cheapest place I’ve found to buy brown eggs.
  • Canned food – the BIG cans. The small cans aren’t the best deal, but the huge cans are! Open them up, divide them up into saved jars, freeze them. Spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, pineapple, whatever it is, just divide it up.
  • Juice – With coupon when possible.
  • Quinoa
  • Baking items – flour, sugar, sometimes butter and margarine, but I can usually price-match it much cheaper.
  • Jam (see HERE)
  • Photos and other printing – GREAT deals on prints many times. If you buy their picture frames you get 100 free prints included which is killer. Also, they often times have $5 or $10 off photo books in their coupon books.
  • Plants, outdoor equipment, sporting equipment – when in season. Even if it’s not the most rock-bottom price, their return policy makes it worth buying there in my opinion!
  • Socks
  • Garbage bags – The big, sturdy black ones – with coupon. Trust me, you get what you pay for with garbage bags!
  • Paper plates, utensils, cups – With coupon. You can actually run their clear cutlery through the dishwasher, see HERE.
  • Hand soap, body soap – With coupon.
  • Rotisserie chicken – Great quick, healthy, cheap dinner idea.
  • Pancake mix & pancake syrup
  • Frozen salmon - With coupon when possible.
  • Hamburgers, and foot-long hotdogs – Smaller hotdogs are nearly always cheaper at Walmart, but their Kirkland foot-long ones are to die for.
  • Lunch meat – See HERE for this killer deal I found once.
  • Vegetable oil - I buy the huge container,  pour some into a smaller container that I keep by my stove, and keep the huge container in my cold storage. I simply refill it when needed.
  • Chocolate chips – With coupon
  • Dog beds, bones, and treats
  • Ziplock bags – with coupon
  • Those awesome Kirkland chocolate diet drinks (like Slim Fasts kinda). Great meal on the go!
  • Gasoline – will save you major $$ over time, and is 3% cash back on your card!
  • Electronics – We bought our nice DSLR camera from there after shopping around for months. It went on sale around Christmas time, so not only was the price good, but their return policy is awesome. BUT…shop around because not all their electronics are cheaper.
Now, keep in mind, it depends on why you are buying. Costco may be more expensive than Walmart (that’s where I am comparing my prices because those are the two places I shop), but their quality might not even compare in some people’s minds. To me, the quality of the things I buy isn’t different enough for me NOT to save the money. Does that make sense? That being said:

What I avoid buying at Costco:

  • Ground beef – I can almost always price-match it for $1.60 or less, and get the super ultra lean stuff for less than than $2/lb. I stock up like crazy when it’s on sale at other stores and freeze it, so I always have it on-hand (I often times cook it up first, put it in 1lb quantities in freezer baggies, and freeze it so it’s ready to go for recipes). Costco’s is upwards of $2.50 or $2.99/lb. Good quality, but much more expensive. Ground beef is a cheap, fatty meat by nature, and is rarely ever eaten alone. Since it’s usually mixed into the meal, why pay a lot?! I save my money for the nice meats.
  • Other meat (roast, steak, etc.) – This is personal preference. Costco’s quality is unmatched, but based simply on price, you can get better deals when they go on sale at the grocery store. For me, I’d rather buy good food (and maybe not THE BEST food) and stretch my dollar to get MORE food. But, once again, personal preference.
  • Cereal – They have coupons occasionally, but still more expensive at Costco.
  • Small cans of canned food – It’s convenient to have them in a big box of 8 or 10 cans, but price per can is higher than Walmart, especially if you price-match a good deal.
  • Condiments – Condiments go on sale like CRAZY in grocery stores around holidays. Stock up on ketchup, mustard, and BBQ sauce at stores when they go on sale and you’ll save way more.
  • Pasta & sauce – You can typically get 1lb of pasta for $1 (often times much less) on sale. It’s usually always more than that at Costco.  Sauce you can usually get for $1 per jar (or much less) at Walmart, Costco is nearly always more expensive. I buy cheap pasta sauce and use it as a base to making my own sauce. I make large quantities and freeze it. Much cheaper, and better!
  • Most produce – Once again, personal preference. Costco’s produce is awesome, huge, often organic, and high-quality…BUT it’s typically more expensive. Once again, I’d rather stretch my dollar and get MORE for my money. There are times when their produce is cheaper, but you just need to learn your prices (see below for more on that). For example, their 3lb bags of spinach is a great deal. And when in-season, their strawberries are competitively priced. They might not be the cheapest, but the size and quality make them a good deal. However, their apples, oranges, grapefruits, grapes, and other produce will cost you a lot more.
The most important tip:

LEARN. YOUR. PRICES!!!!

I canNOT stress this enough! I carry around a little “price notebook” with me and mark price per ounce, pound, or ‘price per each’ of things. Learning your prices is really the ONLY way you’ll save money at Costco. See HERE for all the info about my Price Notebook.
Remember: Just because it’s bulk and/or from Costco doesn’t mean it’s cheaper. There are many staples at Costco that are NOT cheaper at Costco so I usually deal-shop for those at other stores. Get to know pricing so you can really only buy the things that will actually save you money.
Additional tips:
  • Make it last. If you opt for the huge container of strawberries and they start to go bad, don’t toss them! Get creative!
    • Make strawberry spinach salad for dinner. Make smoothies. Make freezer jam. Do what you can to NOT let anything go bad, because you’re just throwing money away. My tip? FREEZE. EVERYTHING. If it’s on it’s way out, freeze it! If it ends up being funky when you thaw it out, hey…at least you tried. This goes for everything – produce, meat, bread, sauces, fruit, buns, milk (yup. freeze it.), you name it.
    • Buying bulk WILL save you tons of money…unless you only use half then throw away the rest. See some of my creative uses for food HERE.
  • You might not need 800 toothbrushes. If it’s just you and your spouse, it would probably take you a few years to go through a Costco sized container of toothbrushes. Don’t get too excited about the convenience of Costco. If you only need 2 toothbrushes, maybe buy a $1 toothbrush and put the money you would’ve spent on Costco toothbrushes toward other things

…however…

  • Don’t be afraid to store things. Some people might not want a Costco-sized pallet of toilet paper because, well, that’s a lot of toilet paper to hold onto! But guess what? It’s cheaper. Deal with it ;) haha. Hide it under a bed, in a rubbermaid bin in your garage, under your stairs. Don’t be afraid to hold onto things. The savings are worth it many times!
  • Don’t be afraid to return things. Costco has a great return policy! They will take back just about anything. So if you buy the solar lawn lights and they don’t fit right in your yard, don’t be afraid to take them back. Now, that being said, please don’t abuse the system. Returning things unnecessarily or dishonestly (using it with full intention of returning it after using it, for example) only increases prices for the rest of us. No fun-o. Try your best to make it work. If it doesn’t, get your money back.
  • The non-food side of the store holds the best deals. Many of us think FOOD when we think Costco. But really, the best margins in price are on the non-food side of the store! Furniture and housewares tend to have the highest markups – anywhere, all the time. But with Costco they will never have higher than a 14% margin on ANY of their products, at ANY time. Thus, they drop the price dramatically to stay within that 14% margin. So cleaning supplies, diapers, dog food, vacuums, rugs, pot & pan sets = all great deals. However, learn your prices and don’t impulse buy on furniture and appliances, those are NOT always the best deals at Costco. To see a great video showing other great insider tips of shopping at Costco, click HERE.
  • USE. THE. COUPONS!! For heaven’s sake people, use the coupons! Don’t get them? Ask the membership desk. They even have them online many times.
    • When there’s a coupon for something you need or would buy anyway (very important) then stock up. Limit 2 on diapers but you only need 1 box? Buy 2. Then go back and buy more.
    • Why? The coupons rotate. So yes, the Huggies coupon will be back, but not for another 2 or 3 months. What happens when I run out of diapers in the meantime? I end up paying full-price…unless I have them on-hand.
  • Make a budget and shopping list and stick with it! If you don’t need it, you’re wasting money…even if it is a good deal. Be disciplined. Make a budget, make a list, and don’t be afraid to take stuff off the conveyer belt when checking out. Use some self-control, people! :) Once again, click HERE for how I work shopping at Costco into my tight budget.
  • Get the most out of your membership. Click HERE for more on that.
As you can see, most things on my list aren’t necessarily for specific meals. Rather, they are staples that we try to keep on-hand at all times.
By keeping up with the coupons and stocking up on the items that are on sale that month at Costco, we tend to always have the things we need on-hand so we don’t have to pay full-price for them in a time of need.
Most of my other produce, meat, and pantry items, HERE’s how I grocery shop based on:

1. what is on sale, and 2. what I plan to cook that week.

By doing this bulk shopping trip once a month I tend to always have on-hand what I need, and can plan ahead with their coupons.

Once again, for a video of a TV segment I did on this subject and additional Costco buying tips and tricks, click HERE.

To Summarize:
  • I buy bulk “staple” items that I always want to have on-hand, and use deal-shopping throughout the month as-needed to fill in the gaps of what I need for meals.
  • I try to keep with Costco’s coupon cycles and stock up on the items I need when they have a coupon, even if I’m not all the way out of that item yet.
As for having meals planned out in advance, my answer is…I do, when I can! Let me tell you…making a meal plan at LEAST one week in advance will save your family hundreds over time. Dinner was often a last-minute thought in my house. Since really trying to think through a few meals in advance based on what’s on sale, I have saved my family tons!…and have made my life a lot easier.

I have a big list of 101 dinner ideas that I keep near my fridge for last-minute ideas. Most of them can be made with the staples I keep on-hand, and the produce deals I get that week from deal-shopping. It’s amazing what can be whipped up if you keep “general items” on-hand!

(*click HERE for a full summary on how I budget and grocery shop)
Hope that helps, let me know if you have more questions!

Thanks, Sarah!

 

additional photo source HERE,

Comments

  1. says

    We buy typically the same things you listed. We do, however, get the ground beef because it’s consistently cheaper than other ground beef, especially for being 97/3 fat. But otherwise, good list for others who haven’t figured it out for themselves yet.

  2. says

    We LOVE Costco! Being in northern California, the fresh produce is plentiful and cheap here. We eat a lot of fruit and purchase it almost exclusively at Costco. Pricing it out around here it is not only cheaper at Costco, but better quality. If we do not go through it fast enough it all freezes (except watermelon) and we use it for our smoothies. The meat is also a better price and quality than that of our local grocery stores. Our stores around here do not double coupons and I almost never find a coupon for items I actually use so no extreme couponing here. :-(

    • Sue Ann says

      While freezing watermelon may not be an option, dehydrating it is. I’ve gotta say, it’s one of the best treats ever, too! It comes out (160 degrees, about 8-10 hours) as watermelon-flavored fruit strips, that retain all the best taste of the watermelon. So far, mine has lasted 2.5 years in Foodsaver bags, and counting. Really *very* yummy. I know, I know, my first response was, what??? But, it’s really good, give it a try :)

  3. says

    Too fun! I did a best of Costco list a while back. Not nearly as extensive though. Well done! I did hear (from a Costco employee) however that Pampers makes Kirkland diapers. Which really only matters if my source was correct and if the baby does better in one brand than the other. I stick to whats on coupon, but if I run out and have to buy off coupon I have found that Kirkland are slightly larger than Huggies, so I use them as a half size up when my babies are on the top of the weight for a size.
    The Mean Mama recently posted…Dave Ramsey & my Depressing RealityMy Profile

  4. kayla says

    If you dont get the coupons mailed to you. Is it true you can show them the coupon from your phone or tablet and they will take the coupon off? Thank you for your help.

    • FunCheapOrFree says

      Yes! They have moved to instant savings and will eventually be doing away with the coupon book altogether, from my understanding.

  5. BVT says

    Great tips, Jordan. I am also a big Costco fan. Everything in bulk. The price point notebook is invaluable. It is well worth the effort to familiarize yourself with price comparisons for every item you shop for… how else can you know you’re getting a good deal?

    I will freeze everything we can’t use within a week/10 days. I find it’s best to freeze foods FRESH — right after you bring them home, if you know you’re not going to use it up before it starts to go. i.e., we buy two huge loaves of bread — I will wrap & freeze the second loaf immediately. That way it will be best when I pull it out of the freezer.

    Bottom line is, there is a little prep work in dividing your groceries and storing them (ie, packages of meats, cheese, etc) but the cost savings is so worth it. Try not to let your bulk groceries just sit in the fridge. Before you know it they will spoil and you’ve wasted money.

    Love me some Costco!!

  6. Thersea says

    I have been finding your site sooo helpful! I budget similarly and have been wondering if Costco would be worth the membership and since I would have to travel to the nearest one (about an hour and a half long drive) I don’t want to go often and need to make sure when I do, I’ve got it well planned.

    A tip I use for ground beef is that I often find a whole pound of cooked, crumbled meat isn’t necessary for a meal. We’re a family of 5 and if I pre-cook it, I will divide it up with 1 1/2 cups of cooked meat per baggie and then freeze. That for us is generally the perfect amount for a spaghetti sauce or casserole or soup, and it stretches that fatty meat even just a little bit further!

  7. Jess says

    Love the article. Mostly what I already do anyway excepting the meats for both quality and convenience reasons but one thing I noticed that saves tons in my opinion is the tomato sauce. I make alot of pasta with red sauce so I go through quite a bit. I buy two large cans usually one tomato puree and one diced tomatoes (the puree is thicker thank the sauce so I can add a bit of water to make it stretch even farther!). The cost is about $5 for the tomato base then I’ll add minced garlic and seasonings.. Maybe another $1? and can it all currently in pint jars though I should in quarts. I end up with at least 12 pints plus extra that I end up using that night or the next so it just ends up in a tupperware temporarily but for $6 it’s already seasoned exactly how I’m going to use it and still a bit cheaper than buying a jar I’m going to fix up anyway.

  8. Marjorie says

    Contacts are what we save a ton on at Costco. Just with what I save on mine annually more than for our membership. My husband’s contacts save us even more. Sometimes if you can buy a year’s worth at a time, you qualify for a rebate when they run specials on your brand.

  9. JayJay says

    I use the ‘out of date’ frozen meats from our local Piggly-Wiggly.
    I have always gotten 13 pieces for $20–last time I got 2 filet-mignon!!!
    That’s about $1.50 for nice steaks and roasts. My neighbor said she gave $12 for a roast the week I got my last box of goodies.

    Check with your local grocer and see if they use this practice.

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