Big Box retailers like Sam’s Club and Costco can sometimes save you a lot of money, but if you aren’t careful you can end up spending more money than you planned to. I suspect most people do go over budget at these places.

We are avid coupon clippers and deal shoppers, and often our receipt from the regular grocery store shows we saved 25 % – 45%, so I think we can tell when something is a good deal or not.

What I like about Costco: Take for example batteries. It is easy to buy an average size package of batteries at most places for $8; even if they are the smallest AAA you often get fewer than 10. Last time we bought double and triple A batteries at Costco we paid less than $15 for a huge package–I think it had about 40.  The savings is not unusual. We find good deals on hummus, some frozen and produce items, jeans, prescriptions and some health and beauty items, such as an unbelievable price on a Claritin generic. I also like the fact that some food products are organic and don’t have MSG added, and many of their deli meats don’t have nitrates. Don’t get me wrong, they are not anything close to an organic grocer. However, if you are like us and can’t afford to shop organic exclusively, you might like the fact that they make some effort, at a price you can manage, to avoid some of the things organic shoppers don’t want in their food. It is probably not good enough to satisfy those that shop organic exclusively, but it is good for those on a budget that like to be able to get some products that are more healthful.

A few other Costco savings examples: Last month they had top-brand windshield wipers, buy-one get-one free for $7.99. That was about 1/3 of the normal price. A friend of mine recently bought a new Honda Accord through Costco, and, after negotiating with several local dealers in the area, was still able to save money through Costco.

What I don’t like about Costco: I have noticed that almost every item in the store starts out at nearly $10, so it is easy for the things in your cart to add up to $100. Of course there are a lot of exceptions, but Costco is a masterful marketer, so you may be drawn impulsively to buy things you don’t need. I don’t like the fact that some of the containers are so big, such as canned goods. Americans throw away a lot of food, so you have to be careful to buy only what you will realistically consume. Emotionally our brains tell us that if the package is big, it must be cheaper. However, we find that some things, such as laundry detergent and some dry goods, are cheaper elsewhere, especially when we use our coupons and our organized system of  using sales and grocery cycles. Don’t be drawn to buy something that seems cheaper without doing some price checking.

Do people save money there? Sure they do, but I would venture to guess that most people end up spending more money. Generally observing what people are pulling off the shelf, we can see quickly the things people are overspending on. My wife teaches a class on couponing, which is actually more like home economics. She finds that most people lack proper knowledge about pricing and sales, buy out of habit, and don’t plan because they feel they are too busy. However, she estimates that for every hour she spends planning and cutting coupons she saves $50. For us this adds up to $200 in savings each month. Try asking your boss for a $200 monthly raise.

In summary, groceries are one of the biggest parts of monthly budgets; however, if we plan and shop smartly, we can prevent big box retailers from breaking our budgets.

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