I love Costco.
I remember, as a kid, going to Price Clubs in Setauket, New York; and being marveled at how massive the store was.
Price Club would merge with Costco in 1993, becoming PriceCostco, and then finally becoming Costco in 1997.
Many years later, we would take our kids to marvel at these massive warehouse stores.
Our family loves Costco. 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:
Be an Executive
Let's quickly recap how much a Costco membership costs:
- 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!) as well as access to their gas stations and Travel portal.
- Business Membership: Business costs $60 and also comes with two membership cards, but you can add up to six extra cards if you need them for various employees. It's like the Gold Star membership with more cards.
- 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.
Is Costco Executive Membership worth it?
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.
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.
The offer isn't structured as a direct discount though, they will offer a membership plus a Cash Card ($20 or $30), plus perhaps some other bonuses like a rotisserie chicken ($5 and delicious!) or some other products.
Know Costco's Lifetime Return Policy
Costco has a lifetime return policy with a few exceptions, including their memberships! You can cancel and refund the membership fee in full at anytime.
Costco will accept returns within 90 days of when you received the product for televisions, tuner-free displays, projectors, major appliances (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 and cell phones.
They will not accept diamonds 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.
What Credit Cards Does Costco Accept?
Years ago, they only accepted Discover Card. Then they partnered with American Express. Now, it's Visa's turn. In the store, you can use any Visa card or debit card. No other card is accepted, so use the best Visa card you can find!
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. Use the one that gives you the greatest in rewards!
Shopping Without a Membership – Costco Cash CardsDon't have a membership but want to buy something? Have a friend who is a member buy you a Costco Cash card – only members can buy or reload them but non-members may use them to shop at any Costco location or online. 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!)
You Don't Need the Coupon Book
Costco sends out the monthly coupon book 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.
Forget Your Card but Need Gas?
The attendant at the gas station has a generic gas card that you can use! You still need to pay with an approved method, like a debit card (no cash!), but you won't need your member card. The attendant may ask you for your name and log it to prevent abuse so if you're not a member, I wouldn't recommend pretending to be one to get cheap gas.
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.
I wish I knew this a few weeks ago when I forgot my card! (and yes, I waited in line too!)
Generous Price Drop Policy
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 drops. The “unspoken” price drop rule for an adjustment is about two weeks. 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.
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!
Shop Without Being a Member
If you want to buy something at Costco without paying the membership, 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)
If you don't want to do that, you can always join Google Express and get Costco delivered for $95 a year or $4.99 per order, plus 10% on your order. If you are a Costco member, the 10% access fee is not applied.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. FYI, food court only takes cash.
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.
- An 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.
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.
Chase Freedom 5% Cashback
Costco now accepts all Visa cards and when 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.
For the 4th quarter of 2016, the Chase Freedom card offered 5% cashback on wholesale club purchases, which includes Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's. This was on top of the existing bonus categories of restaurants in the third quarter and holiday shopping in the fourth quarter.
While we are in early-ish 2019, chances are I'd expect to see a similar bonus category later this year.
If you don't have the card, you can also earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening. It's a nice juicy credit card promotion to get your day going!
Treasure Hunting – 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 other otherwise no longer being sold in the store but 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!)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.
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.
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.
2nd Year Warranty on TVs, projectors, 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.
- Kirkland Signature Brand is Name Brand… Rebranded – Costco doesn't make its own products, they rebrand other company's product while requiring it to be equal or better quality than that name brand. Often you'll see name brands sell their lower quality products as store brands, 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.
- Rotisserie chicken is da bomb dot com – Not a hack but worth mentioning, I love the rotisserie chicken. 🙂