18+ Costco Money Hacks, or, How Costco Pays Me to Be a Member

I love Costco.

I remember, as a kid, going to Price Clubs in Setauket, New York; and marveling at how massive the store was. Many years later, we would take our kids to marvel at these massive warehouse stores. We love the prices. Our kids love the churros (and the samples!). 🙂

Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that have made our Costco experiences more enjoyable and affordable. Nowadays, Costco pays us to be members!

To get you the best of the best Costco hacks, we have friends at Costco headquarters in Issaquah, WA who’ve assisted us in bringing the most accurate inside money hacks to our readers.

WE HAVE INSIDERS!!! 

Without further ado, here are our favorite Costco money hacks:

1. Be an Executive

Costco technically has four different membership choices. There is the Gold Star membership and an Executive membership. Then each of those has a personal or a business option.   

Gold Star Membership: Gold Star costs you $60 a year and gets you two membership cards, which you can give to a spouse/partner or family member. The Gold Star gives you access to all Costco warehouses worldwide (yes, they are international!) and online as well as access to their gas stations and Travel portal.

Gold Star Business Membership: The Gold Star Business also costs $60 and also comes with two membership cards, but you can add more cards for employees at $60 each. This is also the membership level you need if you intend to resell your Costco purchases. (In reality, they can’t know what you do with your purchases after you leave the store but since it’s the same price as the personal level there’s no reason not to be on the up and up.)

Executive Membership: Executive is $120 a year and an upgrade to Gold Star and Business. You also get two cards but the kicker is you get 2% rewards on purchases. In addition, you get additional savings on certain Costco services and on some travel benefits.

Executive Business Membership: The Executive Business Membership is the same as the personal, you get access to everything Costco has to offer and earn 2% cash back on purchases. With the business edition you can add employee cards for $60 each per year and you’ll need this level if you intend to resell your purchases. 

Is Costco Executive Membership worth it?

When is it worth it to get the Executive Membership? How much did you spend at Costco last year? If the answer is “more than $2,750” then you need to be an Executive Member.

Executive Membership is just like the regular membership except you get 2% back on nearly all purchases (what’s excluded.)

If you spend $3,000 a year, that’s $60 back. That’s the difference in the membership fee between the regular and the Executive membership.

If you spend $6,000 a year, that’s $120 back. That’s the cost of an Executive Membership. We spend over $6,000 a year at Costco so we always end up getting a check!

$5,500 sounds like a lot but it’s only a little more than $450 a month.
When you get the check, you can use it to pay or get it cashed out at a register.

Not sure if you’ll spend enough to get a rebate of more than $60? (the difference between Gold and Executive Gold) If you don’t, you can go to the customer service desk and get the difference back. So if you only earn a $20 rebate, you can get $35 from Costco. You really can’t lose.

2. Find a Costco Membership Discount

Costco rarely offers a membership discount directly but sometimes, very rarely, they offer one through discount buying sites like Groupon. Sometimes you can get membership deals directly at stores too.

The offer isn’t structured as a direct discount though. Instead, they will offer a membership plus a Visa Gift Card ($20 or $30), plus perhaps some other bonuses like a rotisserie chicken ($5 and delicious!) or some other products.

3. Costco’s Lifetime Return Policy

Costco has a lifetime 100% guarantee return policy on most product purchases, including their memberships! You can cancel and refund the membership fee in full at anytime.

There are certain items that Costco will only accept returns for within 90 days of when you received the product. This is mostly electronics and appliances.

  • Televisions
  • Tuner-free displays
  • Projectors
  • Fridges above 10 cubic feet
  • Freezers
  • Ranges
  • Cooktops
  • Over-the-range microwaves
  • Dishwashers
  • Washers, and dryers
  • Computers
  • Tablets
  • Smartwatches
  • Cameras
  • Aerial camera drones
  • Camcorders
  • MP3 players
  • Cell phones

They will also not accept diamonds back unless they are 1.00ct or larger, then you need to present it with all the original paperwork and you’ll get a Jewelry Credit Memo. A Costco gemologist will inspect it within 48 hours for authenticity.

Finally, they can’t accept returns of cigarettes and alcohol if it’s prohibited by law as well as anything custom.

4. Know which Credit Cards Costco Accepts

Years ago, they only accepted Discover Cards. Then they partnered with American Express. Now, it’s Visa’s turn. Costco now accepts all Visa cards and they replaced their old American Express card with the Costco Anywhere Visa Card. It’s a pretty good card (and one of the better store branded credit cards) but it’s not the best card to use.

We love the Chase Freedom Flex.

The Chase Freedom Flex card has a welcome offer of $200 after $500 in purchases in the first 3 months. It also gives you 1% on all other purchases. This is on top of 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter (must be activated).

Learn more about the Chase Freedom Flex Card here.

If you don’t have the card you can open one and take advantage of current opening bonuses. These change all the time but you can check out the current promotion here. It’s a nice juicy credit card promotion to get your day going!

If you already have this card, you’ll need to activate any cashback bonuses by going to the Activate 5% Cash Back page. Enter your information, click Activate, and you’re all set. Enjoy the bonus cash back!

On Costco.com – you can use any credit card except American Express! This also means that you can use any credit card to buy a Costco Cash Card and use that card in the store to get around the payment limitations.

5. Shop Without a Membership – Costco Cash Cards

Don’t have a membership but want to buy something? You can technically walk into any Costco and shop there, even without a membership. However, you will pay 5% over the posted prices.

If you want to buy something at Costco without paying the membership or the surcharge, get a member to get you a Costco Cash Card. Diane at The Penny Hoarder shares this strategy and the page on the Costco website that explains that non-members can use it to shop at Costco!

Get a friend to buy you a card and shop without regrets! (max value is $1,000 on a Costco Cash Card and you can use it on gas too). They even say so on their website! You might run into trouble if an employee doesn’t know the corporate policy, but stand firm. (Honestly, the membership is totally worth it though!)

There are a lot of Costco services and products you can buy without being a member, including:

  • Optometrist: You can get your eyes checked by appointment, though you won’t be able to buy any glasses, contact lenses, etc. without a membership.
  • Pharmacy: Prescription medicine and immunizations do not require membership, which is great because a 2013 Consumer Reports report discovered Costco had some of the best prices.
  • Alcohol & Cigarettes: Many states have laws against “alcohol clubs,” so you can often buy alcohol without membership (in those states, the alcohol section will likely be segregated).
  • Food Court: You can buy food without a membership card, so outdoor food courts are fair game. The inside ones will require some creativity to get into the store, but once you’re in you can buy all the hot dogs and pizza you want.

6. Take Advantage of Member-Only Savings

Costco sends out monthly member-only savings coupon books to all members but you don’t need the coupon book to get the discount.

In past years, the coupons all had a barcode on the back (the same barcode!). If you look today, there are no bar codes anymore. Every coupon now says “Instant Savings” at the top — the booklet is just a brochure that lists the monthly discounts. You don’t need it to get the savings, it’ll be automatically applied.

7. Take Advantage of Costco’s Generous Price Match Policy

If you buy something and it goes on sale or gets a reduced price, you may be able to get the difference back in cash.

It might surprise you to know that Costco does not have a set policy on this and each warehouse manager decides how he or she will handle price matching. The “unspoken” price match rule for an adjustment is about two weeks from original purchase date.

However, the reality is that because of the liberal return policy, you could conceivably return it at regular price and re-purchase at the sale price. This creates a hassle for everyone and could create havoc in vendor relations. Costco would much rather offer an adjustment.

If the price drops for any reason, including if it’s been given an Instant Savings coupon, you can get a price adjustment at the Membership Desk (bring your receipt to facilitate!).

So if you see a product will be eligible for instant savings in a week but you need it now, buy it now. Wait for the Instant Savings to activate, then return to the Membership Desk to ask for the adjustment.

8. Load Up on Kirkland Signature Brand

Costco doesn’t make its own products, instead, they sell Kirkland brand items. Kirkland brand items are rebranded items of other companies’ products and sold at much lower prices. However, a secret is that Costco requires the rebranded Kirkland items to be equal or better quality than that name brand.

Often you’ll see name brands sell their lower quality products as store brands. This is not so with Costco! When you buy Kirkland Vodka, that’s actually Grey Goose. Their tuna is Bumble Bee. Their beer is Gordon Biersch and the dishwashing detergent is Cascade.

The easiest way to tell is to look at the manufacturing location, it’ll often match one of the other name brands.

9. Buy Store and Restaurant Gift Cards at a Discount

Costco offers a variety of gift cards to nationwide restaurants. Depending on when you shop, you can get gift cards to Olive Garden, Acapulco, Jiffy Lube, NutriSystem, and a variety of other stores and restaurants.

The cool thing about these gift cards is that they’re discounted. For instance, I saw $100 worth of Acapulco Restaurant gift cards at Costco the other day for $70.

Check out their gift card selection the next time you shop. Purchasing Costco gift cards is a great way to save money on gift-giving too.

10. Fill Up at Costco with Low Gasoline Prices

We buy our gas almost exclusively at Costco. Why? Because the prices are often lower than other area gas stations by 20 cents per gallon or more.

Bonus: If you forget your Costco card, just show the attendant your ID. He or she will verify you’re a member and use their Costco card to let you fill up.

Costco Gasoline is one of the best. It has the industry certification of Top Tier and Consumer Reports has written that the detergents and additives within Top Tier gas makes a difference.

11. Check Out the Costco Auto Program

Costco has partnerships with car dealerships everywhere. When you are shopping for a new or used car, check out the available deals through the company’s auto program.

Certain brands and dealers offer Costco members-only low, prearranged prices all year long. That way you don’t have to worry about haggling or shopping around. But you’ve got to access the dealership through the Costco auto program or you won’t get the deals.

Costco doesn’t specify exact deals because they’re always changing. Check out the Costco website for more details.

12. Order From the Costco Food Court “Secret Menu”

There isn’t a “secret” menu but there are some things you can request that aren’t immediately obvious.

Are you a vegetarian? You can ask if they’ll make you a vegetarian pizza – it’s just the Combo Pizza minus the meats. You’ll have to wait a little bit longer (only about a minute or two) because they have to make the pie and cook it up, but it’s usually something they’ll do. They probably won’t make you a single slice but a whole pie is trivial.

You can also request some sauerkraut to go with your hot dog. Sauerkraut isn’t anywhere on the menu but they’ll give it to you in a cup if you ask politely. Shhhhhh!

13. Decipher the Pricing Codes

It’s all about the cents:

  • An asterisk * on the sign (top right) means this was a seasonal order and it may not be re-ordered until next season. Once they sell out they’re gone.
  • A plus sign + on the sign (top right) means this item is discontinued.
  • 99 cents means regular member price.
  • 97 cents means it’s a clearance/markdown by the warehouse manager. Often has an asterisk too.
  • x9 cents (59, 69, 79, etc) is a special offer from the manufacturer, it reflects competitive pricing over other discount retailers.
  • My contact didn’t know why the Turbotax price in the image above is 85, but she thinks it might be a local price adjustment to compete with local retailers. Costco will send out an hourly employee to comparison shop to make sure the warehouse is the lowest price on certain foods and big-ticket items. You drive around town for two days filling out a clipboard of hundreds of items.
  • 00 or 88 cents is something they want to clear out of inventory, a decision made by warehouse management.

Two things to keep in mind – Costco pricing is based on “cost-plus.” They only mark up products by a maximum of 14% from their own cost, most prices are 8-10% markup. The exception is the Kirkland Signature brand with a 15% markup.

What’s good to know is that during Valentine’s Day, when the roses are more expensive than at other times of the year, Costco isn’t jacking up the price on you just because you waited until the last moment. The cost they’re paying is up too — so you know you’re never paying more than that markup. Plus, if you’ve ever gotten flowers on Valentine’s Day… Costco is still a LOT less. Like multiple times less. 🙂

Most of the products at Costco will end in 99 cents but even then the markup is at most 14% at “full price.” I use this coding scheme to know when to buy seasonal items. Costco often sells seasonal items ahead of the season (so swim trunks in late winter), so I want to wait until they’re about to discontinue them before I buy summer apparel.

14. Go Treasure Hunting at Costco – YMMV

One of the big parts of the Costco experience is the idea of the “treasure hunt.” Costco’s product lines are based on the idea of triggers and treasures. Triggers are staples – products you’ll buy all the time and these don’t often change. Toilet paper, tissues, coffee, … you get the idea.

Then you have the treasures. The stuff that rotates and whose discovery gets you excited. Almost crazed.

The best of the best? Returned but saleable items… since Costco has a great return policy, people will naturally return stuff!

And some of that will be discontinued, seasonal, or otherwise no longer being sold in the store. Costco doesn’t want to return it to the vendor when it could just sell it.

A few years ago, Costco started realizing that they could devote a small section of the warehouse to shelves “saleable” items rather than sending them back to the vendor or a liquidator. There are enormous price cuts on these returns and you might even find something you missed before it was sold out!

The special section in most Costcos will be in the hardline items, near automotive and household goods. That’s where it is in our local Costco… though surprisingly that’s next to the bread, which is not hard. 🙂

Go find the shelf in your Costco and see if you can find any gems! (one of our friends at the mothership reported being able to buy a returned $39.99 product for just $9.97!)

Seafood Road Show dates are always posted above the meat case.

Another piece of the treasure hunting experience is the “Road Show.” Unfortunately, those are not on a fixed schedule. The demo folks don’t even know (you can ask, they won’t know) because it’s based on sales data.

You could ask the warehouse management team about new events and roadshows but a lot of times they are only told a short period before a vendor is given the “green light” to set up shop at a warehouse.

The regional offices make these determinations and then it flows down to the warehouse level. The only exception is the Seafood Road Show. The dates of the next Seafood Road Show are posted in signs above the refrigerated meat cases.

15. Take Advantage of Free Health Screenings

Costco offers Healthy Heart, Diabetes, Osteoporosis,  and Lung Health Screenings throughout the year – free to members.

Just go to the Costco Pharmacy page and look for Health & Wellness Clinics in the lower left (below the plane and to the left of the pharmacist – here’s a link to the PDF but check the webpage if the link is broken). Click on View Schedule and it’ll download a PDF with a list of the screenings.

16. Call for Free Technical Support

If you buy something electronic, you get free technical support. Anyone who has ever bought a TV, computer, tablet, projector, camera, camcorder, MP3 player, home theater system, DVD or Blu-ray player, standalone printer, standalone monitor, router, pressure washer OR security camera system will have seen the free technical support sticker right on the box.

You’ll also have probably ignored it.

But you can call 1-866-861-0450 anytime from 5 AM to 10 PM Pacific any day of the week, except holidays, and get help. No charge but have your name, Costco membership number, item number, model, serial number and purchase date handy.

17. Use Costco’s Travel Services

Costco’s travel services department has deals on airfare, hotels, and travel packages all over the world. From golf adventures to spa resorts, to cruises, you can get great deals on vacation destinations and all that go with them, including rental cars.

Go to the Costco travel website and design your next vacation.

18. Get the 2nd Year Warranty on TVs, Projectors, and Computers

Oh yeah, and Costco extends the manufacturer’s warranty on TVs, projectors, and computers (excludes tablets; refurb computers get a 1-year warranty) for two years after purchase. Usually, the manufacturer gives you up to one year, Costco will make it an even two. Call the same number, 1-866-861-0450.

A Few More Quick Hitting Costco Hacks

Split Your Membership: – Each membership comes with two cards, you can split a membership with a friend. The second card is supposed to be for a household member but they’ve never checked whenever I shared a membership with a friend or relative.

Buy Online, Use Any Credit Card – If you buy something online, you can often get free shipping on eligible items and you can use any credit card you want.

Rotisserie chicken is da bomb dot com – Not a hack but worth mentioning, I love the rotisserie chicken. 🙂

Look at all these guys!

Oh, and before you go, please enjoy this shopping cart full of MASSIVE BUNNIES. I took the photo and I didn’t know what to do with it… so now it’s yours to enjoy.

 

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Jim Wang

About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of three who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and a farm in Illinois via AcreTrader.

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  1. mason noor says

    Excellent info and tips. thanks a bunch. I’ve been a long term member of price club or costco now. I’d like to shop online now. however, the online prices are higher than the store prices even for over $75 total purchase. I know, I get a 2-days free shipping but how Costco is going to compete with folks like Amazon in this case.

  2. Nicole says

    In regards to splitting the membership with a friend, is it better to get the cards in store together or get them online? I guess, I’m trying to figure out the best way to avoid being turned down. Thanks!

  3. Rene Juarez says

    Hi Jim,

    Question: can you buy a Costco shop card online and gets 2% cash back as an executive member and then use the shop card in store to get 2% for those purchases?

    Rene

  4. Sara says

    Costco’s Kirkland Chardonnay is the best, we buy it in bulk due to the driving distance. Is there a reason why we can’t purchase it online? We live in Asheville, NC and have to drive to Spartanburg, SC or Greenville, SC to buy it, the drive is up to 90 minutes away.

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