CostcoOdds are that at the start of every term, you find yourself running to the store and getting the same household basics that you just ran out of: toilet paper, laundry detergent, maybe pens and notepads for your classes. Beer.

But there's a better, smarter way of buying many of those goods than grabbing what's on sale at the grocery store or big-box office supply store. It's called shopping at warehouse stores, such as Costco, and it isn't just for restaurants that need to load up on gallons of cooking oil. By making a strict shopping list and knowing ahead of time what's a good value at warehouse stores, you can save a lot of money on things you'd buy anyway.

How it works
Warehouse stores charge a yearly membership fee (usually about $50) for the privilege of wandering their aisles and loading your oversized shopping cart. You'll find some of everything (household gadgets, clothes, snack foods, bathroom products, cases of beer), but usually not the wide selection of different brands and models that a drugstore, grocery or electronics store stocks.

Madeline Giangrosso, a senior at the University of Missouri, says she stocks up on supplies for her apartment at the end of every break – toilet paper, toothpaste, granola bars and cereal, for example. "It's just easier for me to go and get it in one big swoop and not have to worry about it for literally months," Giangrosso said..

Giangrosso is the first to admit that she's succumbed to Costco's tactics, impulse purchasing plates, a salad bowl and even a Magic Bullet blender set. "I use it every once in a while, but it was like $50, and it comes with different sizes (of containers) and different caps and stuff," she said. "I mean, I don't need it, but I can't really get rid of it."

Once you pay the membership fee, you can shop as often as you want. But there are a number of pitfalls, especially when you impulse buy. Make some strategic purchases and you will easily recoup that $50 fee and then some -- maybe on your first visit -- compared to what you'd pay elsewhere.

Make a list, check it twice
JoBeth Davis, a University of Missouri senior, relies on Sam's Club to get snacks for her chapter of the Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity. That means every couple of weeks, picking up cheese balls and fruit, vegetable and cookie trays for recitals.

"You're saving 5 to 10 bucks a pop (per item) every time you do it, plus it's already prepared," Davis says. Just last year, she saved $400 getting frozen and prepared foods at Sam's Club, based on an annual statement the store mails to her.

Walk into a Sam's Club or Costco and you might feel visual overload at first: dozens of flat-screen TVs showing the same image cluster around the front door, and beyond that, metal shelves 30 feet high hold pallets of everything in stock. It may be tempting to grab a Blu-Ray DVD player, a nice leather office chair or a 5-pound tub of jelly beans, but it's those kind of buys that will get you in trouble at a warehouse store.

Experts agree that you should make a strict shopping list and have an exact budget in mind with you before you head to the warehouse. Pay with cash so you aren't tempted to spend more than you can afford.

"Going to a warehouse club could actually break their budget, simply because they're getting such large quantities," said Derek Sisterhen, the lead financial coach at Lukas Coaching in Cary, N.C. "They have to be very, very selective going to a place like that."

School supplies, toiletries, frozen foods and cooking ingredients with long shelf lives are good places to start. Unless you can eat 10 pounds of apples in a week, perishable produce may not be the best bet.

"You can get some very good deals as well on alcohol, and it's a lot cheaper when you're trying to stay on a budget" and if you're over age 21, says Manisha Thakor, an expert and author on personal finance in Houston.

As you make your list, it may help to go to the stores you typically shop at: Write down the total price and the unit price (that's the cost of each serving or each ounce, usually displayed on price tags attached to the shelves). Warehouse stores also print the unit prices for most items, making it easy to compare and determine how much you're saving.

Some good bets for savings:

  • Toilet paper: You get 36 rolls in a package for about the same price has less than half as many rolls at a store like Target.
  • Laundry detergent: Most come in packages of 100 or more loads, which could easily be enough for an entire school year.
  • Chicken breasts and pork chops: Basic proteins freeze well and will keep for months.
  • Olive oil: A 2-liter container costs about $11 and will last the entire school year, assuming you cook a few nights a week.
  • Allergy medication: Costco's private label (Kirkland Signature) versions of Claratin and Zyrtec contain the exact same medications as the brand-name equivalents for a fraction of the price. A year's supply of Zyrtec would cost more than $200 at most drugstores. 365 pills with the same chemical content and the Kirkland label, Aller-Tec, will set you back less than $20.
By avoiding impulse purchases and sticking to a list, warehouse stores can add up to big savings over the course of a term or a school year.

"Maintain discipline, which can literally be as anal as having a dollar amount that you can afford to spend and walking around with a calculator ... and don't go above that dollar amount," Thakor said.

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