Is Costco Worth It? Here's What a First-Time Shopper Learned



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Costco 101

Fans of Costco are quick to praise its prices and products, especially when it comes to groceries — and stocking up on essentials in one quick trip, from toilet paper to frozen pizza. I had long resisted the warehouse store because of the membership fee, and instead did my shopping at Target, Meijer, and Kroger. I decided to finally see if a Costco membership is worth it — here's what I noticed on my very first visit.

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Costco holidays

It Closes Only 7 Days a Year

The first thing you notice walking in is a sign stating the days Costco closes. There are only seven — information you may want to sock away if months from now you find yourself still scurrying around for last-minute gifts on Christmas Eve. Now you know where to go. (Costcos may close early before holidays, though, so check your store's schedule.) 

Related: 20 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Costco

Costco membership card

You Must Be a Member

The biggest catch to shopping at Costco is the membership fee. For $60, you'll be a Costco Gold Star member, a fancy term for the lowest tier. For $120, you can become a Gold Star Executive member and earn 2% cash back on purchases. Both types include a membership card for you and an extra card for your household. To save money on membership, look for Groupon and LivingSocial deals. Those often include a gift card and free items when signing up, effectively making a $60 membership fee lower. Or, if you have a friend with a membership, ask them to get you a Costco Shop Card to make purchases without a membership. Bear in mind that the current membership prices could go up this year: Will Costco Raise Membership Fee in 2023? All Signs Point to Yes

Not already a Costco member? You can apply here.

Service Desk at Costco

There's One Service Desk to Handle Everything

You'll need to show your Costco card to enter the store, but if you're signing up like I was, you'll be directed to a membership desk just inside the exit area. The customer service reps were friendly and efficient in signing me up and taking my photo for the back of the card. If you ever have to return an item — Costco has a very generous return policy — this is where you'll come as well. 

Related: Costco's Return Policy: 28 Products You Can Return With Ease

Bath tissue Costco

Almost Everything Is in Bulk

Items such as food, paper goods, office supplies, diapers, and personal care products are all sold in large packages — this isn't the place to come to buy a single orange or loaf of bread. That means that if you live alone or in a very small apartment, a Costco membership may or may not be worth it. For large families or shoppers who are interested in buying in bulk, a membership makes more sense. 

Related: Is Costco Worth It for Singles and Couples?

Costco aisle

You Take Products Right Off the Pallets

Because everything is in such large packages, and to save time, goods are usually sold right off the pallet it was shipped on. The aisles are wide so carts loaded with items — and, after hours, forklifts — can get through. I didn't notice any employees helping people load things into carts, but I'm sure if you asked for help with that 40-pound bag of dog food, someone would step up.

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Carts at Costco

You Might Want to Grab a Flatbed Cart

Those bulky items demand a choice for carts when you walk in the door. Choose either an oversized grocery store style cart, or go with a flatbed. If you're buying lots of heavy beverages, for instance, you'll probably want a flatbed. It'll be easier to move things on and off.

TVs at Costco

The First Thing You See Is TVs

You'll be bombarded with images from huge LCD TV when walking in. These big-ticket electronics grab the attention, whether you're in the market for a new television or not. Expect big sales around the holidays and right before the Super Bowl.

Laptops Costco

You Can Replace Your Computer

The computer selection at Costco isn't huge, but unlike if you bought online, you can actually try computers before buying. Chances are you'll see a kid or two playing with them while waiting for their mom to finish shopping.

Meat Costco

Red Signs Mark the Departments ...

Store layout isn't intuitive, so departments along the outer walls of the store are marked with big red signs that can be read from practically anywhere. It helps if you're looking just for meat or paper goods, which are in the back of the store.

Costco interior

... But Aisles Aren't Marked

Aisles don't have signs identifying what's there. So as you walk past huge, long, towering aisles, you just have to look down them as best you can for what you're looking for. Items are at least grouped, so all the cereal is in one aisle, and all the spices in another, but beyond that, there's little help for finding what you need quickly.

Washing machines Costco

There Are Large Appliances ...

Costco sells large appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, but you can buy them only online. The items in-store are for display only, to let you browse before you buy. But there are many more Costco options to choose from online.

Small Appliances Costco

... And Small Appliances

Small appliances, such as microwaves and toaster ovens, are available to buy in-store. There's only a small selection; if you're looking for a specific model, check online to see if the stores even carry what you're looking for.

Jewelry at Costco

Jewelry and Watches Sparkle

There is a jewelry and watch kiosk near the electronics. It's well lit so the diamonds and gold really sparkle and attract attention. To buy anything from jewelry, take a merchandise slip to the checkout counter, because there are no employees dedicated to the section. 

Related: Surprisingly Expensive Products From Costco

Office supplies Costco

You Can Equip Your Home Office ...

I wasn't really expecting to see a lot of home office supplies, but there were quite a lot. From filing cabinets and office furniture to huge packs of pencils and labeling machines, you can really get a home office set up and organized.

Mattresses at Costco

... And Your Bedroom

I was also surprised to find mattresses. Like a lot of the larger items and appliances sold by Costco, there are a few in store, but you can find more selection online. Most are well-known brands, such as Sealy, selling at a discount at Costco.

Tools Costco

Some Items Are Practical

I found a small selection of tools, including a large tool set that would make a nice gift for a new homeowner, and a pressure washer. Again, the selection wasn't large, but it's worth checking out if you're looking for something specific to save a few bucks.

Wine Glass decor Costco

Some Are ... Not Practical at All

On the other hand, I also saw items I'd never have any use for, and don't know what anyone else would do with them. Case in point: a 42-inch wine glass. You'd have to be one heck of a wine enthusiast to have this in your home. Maybe it'd make a good wedding decoration?

Fresh Produce Costco
Walk-in cooler in Costco

There Are Walk-In Coolers

One of the tricks for keeping the more delicate produce fresh was a giant walk-in cooler. In it, I found all kinds of berries, greens, grapes, pre-cut fruit, and salad kits. (It's also a great place to hang out for a couple minutes if it's super hot out.)

Bakery Costco

Most Baked Goods Are Made in the Store

It's hard to miss the huge ovens and racks of just-baked breads behind the bakery, and the section smelled like freshly made cookies. That smell is a great way to entice shoppers into buying bread, pastries, and muffins. (Speaking of muffins, they're enormous, and you can mix-and-match two flavors.)

Costco Pies

Pies Are Humongous

Have you ever seen a 4.5-pound pie? I hadn't either, until I saw them at the Costco bakery. They looked delicious, but I need an occasion to buy one, or I'd be eating 3 pounds myself.

Related: Best Store-Bought Desserts From Costco

Cakes Costco

There Are Cakes Aplenty

I've heard rave reviews of Costco cakes, and they sure looked lovely. While half-sheet cakes weren't available during the height of the pandemic, they're back now, and you can order them. One caveat: The cakes now cost $25 rather than $19 previously. They come with flavors and decorations of your choosing. There are also plenty of smaller, round cakes ready to go. It's clear the stores do a lot of cake business.

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Each advisor has been vetted by SmartAsset and is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interests. If you're ready to be matched with local advisors that can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Kirkland Turkey Breast

Kirkland Is the Store Brand

... And people love it. Unlike in many grocery stores where customers tend to avoid "generic" or store-branded items, Costco customers love the Kirkland brand. It appears on everything from lunch meats to mouthwash. 

Cheese Costco

Cheese Was Really Cheap ...

One of the best departments to score real deals: the cheese section. For instance, Jarlsberg, a cheese similar to Swiss but imported from Norway, was only $5.50 a pound during my visit. At Target, it was $18 a pound. While inflation has changed prices for a lot of goods, cheese is still a bargain.

Kerrygold Butter Costco
Rotisserie Chicken Costco

Rotisserie Chickens Are $5

One of the busiest spots in the store was the rotisserie chicken counter. The whole chickens are cooked all day long in big ovens with rotating spits, leaving them tender and juicy. They're packaged and kept hot until you take them home, and they're only $5. (If you're extra thrifty like me, use the carcass to make chicken stock when you've eaten all the meat.) 

Related: 10 Quick Recipes to Make With Costco's $5 Rotisserie Chicken

Steaks Costco

Steaks Are Pretty Cheap Too

Beef and pork were the best deals on fresh meat. New York strip steaks were $8 a pound during my visit, a great price around here. Some packages had steaks with better fat marbling than others, so be sure to hunt for the best package. Boneless skinless chicken breast, on the other hand, was a little under $3 a pound, but was regularly $2 at Sam's Club and local stores. Since inflation has taken hold, it's worth it to check against your own grocery store. 

Chicken Parmesan Costco

You Can Pick Up an Easy Dinner

The in-store deli makes heat-and-eat meals ready to go. I was tempted by a few, including beef- and rice-stuffed bell peppers and a giant chicken parmesan sandwich that looks like it could serve four people after a few minutes of heating in an oven.

Related: Costco Prepared Meals That'll Feed Your Whole Family

Salads at Costco

Fresh Salads Are Family-Style

To go along with that chicken parm, how about a salad? They're made in huge containers of 2 or more pounds each, so you can serve them family-style right out of the container. I liked the variety of toppings on the spinach salad.

Party Trays Costco

Party Trays Are Available All the Time

Naturally, Costco is the place to shop if you're throwing a big party. Some party trays are available all the time, such as chicken tortilla sandwich roll-ups; if you plan, you can order party platters ahead of time. Look for order forms to fill out and a box to put them in near the deli's prep area.

Kirkland Plastic Cups

You Can Get Everything Else for a Party Here Too

Besides food, Costco carries practically everything you'd need for a party: folding tables, paper plates, serving utensils, and maybe most importantly, Kirkland brand red party cups.

Freezer Aisle at Costco

The Freezers Are Huge and Intimidating

Taking up an entire back corner of the store are the freezers and coolers. They are really imposing, but not much different than the smaller ones at other grocery stores. These are just designed as walk-ins for employees that get stocked from the back instead of the front. 

Related: Costco's Best Buys for Packing Your Freezer

Sample Costco

You Eat Your Way Through the Aisles

Warehouse stores are big, so you'll need a little extra energy to get through them — or at least that's what I told myself after my fourth free food sample. Every day, not just on weekends, there are carts cooking up products to snack on. It's not only fun, it's a great way to sample new products, though some people go over the top when it comes to filling up. 

Related: Costco Brings Back Free Samples

Wings Sauce Costco

They Carry Favorite Brands

Just because everyone raves about Kirkland doesn't mean Costco lacks in brands. There are plenty of popular name brands, including Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Frank's RedHot, and Horizon Organic. I even spotted Buffalo Wild Wing sauces, something I've never seen outside the restaurants themselves.

Spices Costco

Even Spices Are Huge

Dry herbs and spices such as Mrs. Dash and Lawry's seasoned salt come in huge containers, too. They're very cheap per ounce this way, but can start to lose flavor if not used within a year or two. If you don't go through a lot of spices, this may not be the best place to buy them.

Related: 10 Pantry and Freezer Staples Worth Buying in Bulk

Liquor Aisle Costco

There's Liquor, Too

My local Costco has a sizable liquor department that spills into the produce section. There are quite a lot of whiskeys, beer, and wine. Most were reasonably priced and came in 1.75-liter sizes. A handle of Jack Daniels was $40, about $10 less than other stores in the area. There was also a locked case with a few rare items, including a $700 bottle of Johnnie Walker Private Collection.

Related: 15 Best House Wines From Costco, Aldi, and Trader Joe's

Clothing section of Costco

The Middle of the Store Changes Often

In the middle of the store are things such as clothing, toys, housewares, and seasonal items. Clothing changes seasonally — for instance, in September, winter coats are displayed by the last of the grills and patio furniture and some random Halloween decorations. Unlike the rest of the store's aisles, this middle section changes often, depending on the time of year.

Books for Kids

Kids and Adults Can Find New Books

A book section with kid and adult titles is a little hard to navigate. There's a lot in a small space, with books kind of on top of each other. Still, that makes it a little like a treasure hunt.

Packers jerseys at Costco

Each Store Has Local Goods

Here in Wisconsin, the seasonal section was full of Badger- and Packers-themed merchandise, from sweatshirts to pop-up tailgate tents. Each store gets a stock of local sports-themed or other local-interest merchandise. I suspect Florida stores won't be getting sidewalk ice, and Minnesota stores won't have flip-flops in January.

Gift cards Costco

It's a Great Place to Buy Gifts ...

Everyone (except maybe your spouse) appreciates gift cards. Get a bunch of shopping done at once and buy a pack of gift cards — most come in packs of four of equal amounts at a savings of about 25%. That's essentially buy three, get one free. I'll be buying stocking stuffers here this holiday.

Ferrero Rocher Costco

... And Pick Up Last-Minute Host Gifts

If you're heading to a party, there's a lot of options for host gifts. Some items, such as boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, are in a pretty, crystal-like display box. A bottle of wine is always appreciated, and there are also bouquets of fresh-cut flowers to choose from as well.

Organic Protein Powder Costco

Organic Items Are Marked Clearly

Costco carries a lot of organic products — clearly marked on the price labels, usually highlighted in green. If you prefer to buy organic, that makes finding options much easier than reading the item's packaging. 

Related: Health Products and Services That Cost Less at Costco

Watch Costco

You Can Tell Which Items Are Closeouts

If a price sign has an asterisk printed in the upper right, that means it's almost gone — whatever is in front of you is all the store has on hand. If an item's price ends in .97, that means it's a closeout item, and chances are that price won't be going any lower.

Instant Savings Costco

Look for Instant Savings

There are monthly ads and other limited-time savings events throughout the year. I found an ad for the monthly savings at the membership desk, but that wasn't until after I was done shopping. Luckily, items with instant savings have the discount marked clearly on the price labels, along with the discount end date. 

Shopping Bags Costco

They Sell Shopping Bags

... which could come in handy, considering there are no bags at the checkouts, but since most items are so large, they don't always make a lot of sense. And you can always bring your own reusable shopping bags, but the common fallback is to hunt around in the box bins near the checkout area: Items get shipped in smaller boxes that get put there so customers can more easily carry purchases home.

Costco Pharmacy

You Can Get Prescriptions Here ...

Most Costcos have a pharmacy. It works just like any other pharmacy, but some medications may be cheaper here, especially for people without insurance. And since federal law prohibits stores from denying health services to anyone, you don't have to be a member to use the pharmacy.

Medications Costco

... Along With Over-the-Counter Medications

Besides prescription drugs, there's also a large stock of over-the-counter medications, from NyQuil Severe to Zyrtec and other allergy meds. Like at most stores, the biggest savings come when you buy the Kirkland brand as opposed to the name brands. There are also tons of vitamins and supplements.

Costco Optical

You Can Buy New Eyeglasses ...

Most stores have an optical center that includes a staff optometrist. They offer eye exams and tests, and when you've got a prescription, you can buy glasses and contacts at Costco as well.

Hearing Aids Costco

... And Get Your Hearing Tested

If you feel like your hearing is getting bad or you have a parent you suspect is hard of hearing, hearing tests are free. Hearing aids aren't, of course, but the tests are a great free service and can be a surprisingly busy spot in the store.

Costco checkout

Checkout Is a Little Confusing

Because most items are so large and heavy, the checkout lanes are set up a little differently than a grocery store. They split you from your cart once it's unloaded, as indicated by a sign on the end of the item belt. Put anything small on the belt and leave anything large in the cart or on the flatbed. The checker will grab your cart on their side of the lane and scan anything big without you having to move it. It was a little confusing my first time, but it makes sense as soon as you see it in action.

Cafe Costco

The Cafe Is Always Busy

Every store has a cafe and eating area on the other side of the checkout. People are kind of obsessed with it — so much so that when Costco discontinued the Polish sausage a few years ago, people went a little crazy. The food I ate was good and inexpensive, and used to be a feature you didn't have to be a member to participate in. The cafe policy switched to members only in 2020.

#8282 Costco hot dog with mustard, onions, and relish
#8282 Costco hot dog with mustard, onions, and relish by Nemo's great uncle (CC BY-NC-SA)

Hot Dogs Are Huge and Cheap

The most popular item on the cafe's menu is probably the hot dog combo. For $1.50, you get a quarter-pound hot dog and a 20-ounce soda with free refills. It's pretty hard to beat (unless you're in Wisconsin, where you can get a locally made brat combo for the same price). 

Pizza Take and Bake Costco

You Can Buy the Pizza to Take and Bake

That same pizza sold by the slice in the cafe is available to buy whole in the deli section to bake at home. I like that you can try a slice before deciding to buy a whole pizza — though at only about $10, it's not a huge investment anyway.  

Car Costco

You Can Buy a Car Through Costco

There's usually a car parked inside Costco stores — advertising not only the tire service centers, but that you can actually buy a car through Costco. Members can go to Costco Auto Program website, choose a vehicle to research, and get sent information for a dealership where the car is available. It's a good program for people who want a competitive price without shopping around or negotiating. The average discount on cars is reputed to be more than $1,000. 

Related: Is Costco the Best Place to Buy a Car?

Costco membership perks

Membership Gives Access to Other Services, Too

Members have access to all kinds of services, including Costco travel; home, auto, and life insurance; mortgage services; Budget truck rental discounts; and home bottled water delivery, just to name a few.

Costco cart

Hold on to Your Receipt

Warehouse club stores such as Costco check your receipt as you leave. Employees generally just glance at it and at your cart to do a quick item count, but it's still a bit of a hassle if there's a line and you're in a hurry. Try to avoid putting the receipt away before the checker without thinking.

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Costco gas station

Fill Up on Gas on the Way Out

Many Costco parking lots are equipped with gas stations open only to members. Prices at mine were a couple of cents cheaper than other stations in the area. But if you're at Costco often or you pass by a lot, those few cents can really add up over the course of a year. 

Sponsored: Find a Qualified Financial Advisor

Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn't have to be hard. SmartAsset's free tool matches you with up to 3 fiduciary financial advisors in your area in 5 minutes.

Each advisor has been vetted by SmartAsset and is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interests. If you're ready to be matched with local advisors that can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.