Shopping (and Saving) at Costco: A Missoula Staple

By ERIN TURNER

In Missoula, Costco is as popular as Grizzly football!

It seems everyone loves going to this warehouse store and stocking up on Costco sized items. It’s common to hear at parties this conversation, “Oh, I love these chips and dip! Where did you get them?” Then the hostess replies, “Costco!”

This super store has become the solution for many shoppers. You can get clothing, tires, TVs, gourmet food, canned food, frozen food, toilet paper, printer ink, diapers, and the list goes on. Plus, you can get your pictures processed there while you pick up your medicine at the pharmacy or stop in to get a new pair of glasses. It services many needs for the consumer in a one-stop shop.

One of the most common questions I am asked when talking about couponing is this: “Do you shop at Costco and do you think it saves money?” My answers? Yes I shop there and yes you can save money there. But you have to approach it wisely.

I currently don’t have a membership at Costco because I really don’t need to go there enough to justify spending the money for a membership. When I do need something, I can usually ask other family or friends to get me what I need. That’s not to say I wouldn’t ever purchase a membership, just right now it doesn’t make financial sense.

I’ve learned to be wary of the overriding mindset that just because you are buying in bulk means you are saving money. That just isn’t true and if you’re really serious about saving money, then you need to be smart about Costco shopping. Sure you may be getting six months’ worth of toilet paper for what seems to be fairly cheap. But when I find toilet paper at other stores on sale and I match up a coupon, I can usually get a 12 big roll pack for $4 or less. That is a huge savings compared to Costco’s price.

A Costco-sized supply of toilet paper.

A Costco-sized supply of toiletpaper.

Price comparing is the first step when you shop at any warehouse store. I had a student in my last couponing class who did an entire spreadsheet of cost comparisons between Costco and other local stores where she used manufacturer coupons matched up with sales. She did this because her family thought Costco was cheaper. She was shocked at the higher prices at Costco on items she normally bought there.

When price comparing, you want to break the prices down to the smallest unit and then compare. So how much is one roll of toilet paper, an ounce of olive oil or a pound of meat? This will give you a better inside look into the price differences.

Costco does have the cheapest milk on a regular basis. Right now, their milk is $2.75/gallon. Walgreens has milk for $2.29 but that sale only occurs every couple of weeks. So, if you’re buying milk on a weekly basis and you don’t want to wait for a Walgreens sale, Costco would be your best bet. The same is true about butter. Local stores will occasionally have a killer sale on butter but it does not happen very often so for a regular stock of butter, Costco is the cheapest.

I have a few items that I buy at Costco because they are super cheap there. The main one is yeast. Last year, I was bemoaning to a friend that I had to pay $4.79 for a small jar of yeast even AFTER a sale and a coupon! She told me Costco has yeast for super cheap.

Being skeptical, I had my mother-in-law check it out. Sure enough, they had a one-pound bag (can you say huge!?) for $3.99! I also like to stock up on white vinegar, bread flour, and Greek yogurt. All of these items end up less expensive at Costco than any other store. And I have to admit, their Pub Snack Mix is always on my list as well…regardless of cost! It’s just a yummy snack that our family loves.

Other than a handful of items, there just isn’t a lot of other things which justify shopping there for me. When I can get toothpaste for free, toilet paper for under $4, copy paper for free, bags of shredded cabbage for 77 cents, canned beans for 39 cents and Ziploc bags for $1, I really can’t rationalize paying for a membership only to pay higher prices.

My father-in-law nicknamed Costco the “100 dollar store” years ago. And it’s true, an average person doesn’t usually leave without spending $100. Now if that covered all your grocery needs for the month and you didn’t go to any other store during the whole month, I’d be super impressed. But I don’t think $100 goes very far at warehouse stores. Costco also does not accept outside manufacturer coupons, only the coupons they provide to their members are accepted.

Now, I know Costco is a Missoula icon and Missoulians love their Costco, so let me be clear that I’m not telling you to not shop there. I am simply telling you to be smart and do your homework before spending money there. As I mentioned, some things are great deals and you won’t get them for any cheaper in town but many things will suck the cash right out of your wallet.

You can make warehouse shopping fit into your frugal budget when you compare the prices per unit, shop with a list and enjoy all the delicious samples!

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Erin’s got tons of tips for saving money, couponing, and sticking to a budget in her previous posts: What I Love About MissoulaSave Money and Do It Yourself with Pinterest, and Frugal Cold and Flu Season Remedies. Be sure to check out the Missoula Save it Club.

   Visit the Coupon Queen’s “Save It”archive.

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Erin Eisenman-Turner is proud to be a native Missoulian. Along with her husband and three sons, they raise chickens, pigs, rabbits, and vegetables at Turner Family Farms in the Orchard Homes area. When the farm chores are done, the coupons clipped, and the blog written, you can find Erin exploring Montana, collecting antiques, and trying to maintain a well-run, happy, and organized home for her family.