WalletPop has rounded up ten types of memberships worth the cost, including one you literally can't afford to miss. Whether you consider yourself a "joiner" or not, sometimes paying for privilege really does add up in your favor.
Cavernous, cement-floored warehouse stores stocked to their exposed rafters with pallets of bulk merchandise are the definition of a "no frills" experience. Still, millions of people pay annual fees at Costco, Sam's Club and BJs for the privilege of shopping sans elevator music, soothing decor, or in many cases -- cell service. Does shelling out for spartan style really make a difference?
According to a recent mystery shopper comparison by Consumer Reports (2009), it does. The non-profit consumer watch dog organization sent 28 undercover shoppers to more than 130 stores in 15 states (including: Target, Walmart, Costco, Sam's Club, and local grocery stores) to compare things like napkins, Ritz crackers, Corona, Domino sugar, trash bags, batteries, cereal, peanut butter and diapers. The results? "Warehouse clubs had the best deals by far almost every time (the one category in which the clubs didn't shine was drinks)," wrote Consumer Reports.
Overall, club stores were found to be 30% to 60% cheaper than non-club stores. In addition, club stores also proved a good bet for bargains on mattresses, books, eyeglasses and luxury goods, although the comparison study suggests shopping around for electronics.
Ranging in annual fees upwards from $50 (up to two household members) at Costco, $40 (up to two household members) Sam's Club, and $45 for East Coast chain, BJs, the club stores also offer services including optical departments, pharmacies, travel and roadside assistance services, cell phone plans, auto and home insurance, gas stations and more. The memberships are refundable if consumers are not "100% satisfied."
For those who might take years to use a thousand trash bags or have trouble storing 36 rolls of TP or paper towels, Consumer Reports suggests the buddy system. Divvy up the mega-packaging and split the costs. An added bonus: you have an extra person to help lug it all to the car.
A food-buying club is another way to get groceries cheaper with a little help from your friends. Members of a food-buying club pool their buying power -- sort of like Costco, but with a more homey, virtuous vibe -- to procure natural, usually organic, farm fresh products at a better price than the local Whole Wallet grocery.
Coop Directory Services (CDS), a Minnesota-based non-profit resource dedicated to promoting natural food co-ops, defines a buying club as, "Typically ... composed of seven or more families, who share the chores of collecting money from the member families, placing the order with the distributor, helping unload the truck when it arrives at the drop-off site and dividing up the individual orders."
Comprised of friends, neighbors or groups (i.e., churches, temples, schools), buying clubs are member-owned and operated and vary from informal associations to larger, formal non-profit organizations. Sometimes the food-buying club is also part of its own co-op grocery store. Co-ops with stores provide members with benefits including standing discounts on each purchase, member-only events, newsletters and the right to vote on operating decisions.
According to Consumer Reports it's a membership worth considering, "You might have to pay a membership fee and/or volunteer a few hours a month, but you'll get a good discount on fresh food."
Local Harvest, the California-based online resource championing the Buy Local movement writes, "All food co-ops are committed to consumer education, product quality, and member control, and usually support their local communities by selling produce grown locally by family farms."
The cost of membership is usually minimal. Magpie Natural Foods and Buying Club in Prescott, AZ charges $25 for the first year's membership, and $15 to renew. Bountiful Harvest/Coop Buying Club in Apple Valley, CA requires a $25 non-refundable membership fee. At Ocean Beach People's Organic Food Market in San Diego, CA, membership and the right to call yourself a business owner is a thrifty $15. Wolf Lake Wellness -Organic Buying Club in Palmer/Wasilla, Alaska charges $10 per year to join.
To find a food buying club near your, or information how to start one, go to www.coopdirectory.org or www.localharvest.org/food-coops.
American Automobile Association (AAA)
Becoming a member at AAA costs $20 for new admission plus annual dues of $47 for a "classic membership." It adds up to a little more than a dollar a week and could result in some serious savings.
Best known for its roadside service plan and rescuing drivers from dilemmas big (roadside breakdown) and small (flat tire, keys locked inside, dead battery), members who make the most of their dues also take advantage of features like: Triptik, the online interactive travel planner, domestic maps, tour books, a free magazine subscription. Also included: GPS solutions and iPhone apps like AAA Discounts, AAA Roadside, and AAA Triptik Mobile app which shows users where to find the cheapest nearby gas stations, calculates and displays the route to a selected address, and will talk you through it turn by turn. AAA FindMe is for Sprint users who can use the function to help AAA tow truck locate them when it's hard to describe exactly which part of the deserted highway they have broken down on.
In addition, membership allows drivers to skip long DMV lines and take care of vehicle registration, lost plates and stickers, transfer of out-of-state vehicles, and disabled placard pick up inside local AAA offices. And recently, the company added free identity theft monitoring with fraud resolution support (you do have to sign up for the free program).
One of the best ways to save with AAA, however, is simply by flashing the card at businesses that give members a discount. Card carrying members can save 10% 20%, even 30% on amusement parks, restaurants, shopping, sporting events, hotels, rental cars, gym memberships, museums, aquariums, fitness centers, cultural events and even prescription medicines ... to name a few.
AAA member Candy Johnson was buying a prescription for an upcoming trip to China (to prevent Typhoid) and the medication was not covered by insurance. "The pharmacist asked if I was a AAA member," said Johnson, "and it saved me almost half the cost of the med! AAA -- not just for flat tires and hotel reservations ... who knew!"
One could argue that AARP is the upside of aging. Once there are officially 50 birthday candles flaming away on your cake, you are eligible to join the ranks of millions of people around the world who can remember things like Rolodexes, phone cords, double features, MASH, and what it was like to not take your shoes off before every flight. Good times. Funny, how 50 just doesn't seem so "old" anymore. Did you know Valerie Bertinelli is an AARP member? True.
AARP acknowledges the shift in our attitude about aging, as well as new realities. After scouring its website for the official meaning behind the acronym, I discovered that although the group has maintained its four-letter name, it is no longer identifying itself as the American Association of Retired Persons. After all, who retires at 50 these days?
Luckily although retirement is postponed, the benefits of AARP are not. For only $16 per year, less if you opt for a five year membership, you are eligible for significant discounts on everything from gym memberships and personal trainers (I wonder if Oprah and Bono are using their discounts?) to more than 14,000 restaurants nationwide, hotels, cruises, travel packages, cell phone/Internet services, home security systems, rental cars and groceries to name a few.
Discounts on legal services, insurance and health care are also biggies for which AARP not only obtains price breaks, but also actively advocates regarding legislation that affects their members.
A free magazine subscription, AARP Bulletin, and website round out membership offerings with information on everything volunteer opportunities to lifestyle, health, finance, travel, relationships, home and garden, politics and world news.
AARP members are also eligible for discounts on movie tickets, and with the ever-increasing cost of cinemas, that benefit alone could pay for the price of membership. BYO candy.
"People join AARP because they want to live their best lives after 50, " AARP spokesperson Drew Nannis told WalletPop. "As they strive to improve their lives as they age, AARP is there to provide information on the best of what's next -- in their own lives, in their families' lives, and in the world around them."
Lions, and tigers and bears -- oh, my! The next time you've corralled the family and organized a trip to the local zoo, museum or science center consider purchasing an annual Association of Science and Technology Center Passport instead of individual tickets.
Similar to buying an annual pass, the ASTC Passport allows free access to the site where the passport is purchased, as well as free- or reduced-price entry to more than 600 museums and science centers -- including zoos, aquariums, planetariums, botanical gardens, children's museums, and nature centers in 45 countries around the world.
There is a catch, however. The ASTC Passport is valid at the place where it was purchased, and at science and technology centers located outside a 90-mile radius from where you live. According to the ASTC, many centers work out agreements with other participating museums within the 90-mile radius to allow reciprocity. The best bet: know before you go by always calling ahead.
The ASTC Passport is a great deal for families who plan to visit friends, relatives or vacation in another city. Having the Passport would ultimately save significant money on all trips planned within that year. Here is a complete listing of science and technology centers that participate in the ASTC Passport program.
On the flip side, if you're more apt to be staycationing closer to home, a membership to the local science or technology center could buy the most "Wows!" from your wallet. Membership to the local attraction not only serves to support something cool and worthy within your community, but also provides member discounts on merchandise from the gift shop, food, parking, and possibly local restaurants as well. In addition, annual membership holders usually score invitations to special member-only events at the center, free guest passes, not to mention local pride.
In most cases annual memberships provide funding toward research, education and conservation -- money well spent.
Is there really a cheaper way to spend time at the Happiest Places on Earth? The answer depends on how often you can get there. Riding the coasters only once a year is going to cost some serious "mad" money, however, visiting a theme park two to three times within a year makes annual passes worthwhile, and the cost per visit drop dramatically. When available, buying park passes at discounted prices at Costco, Sam's Club, or B.J.s affords additional savings.
Costco is currently selling 3-month memberships (think: summer!) to Legoland California and Sea Life Aquarium in Carlsbad, CA priced at $69 for adult, and $62.99 for a child or senior pass. It's a great deal when you consider a day pass to the park is $67 for an adult and $57 for a child or senior -- and those prices do not include the aquarium. For Southern California visitors or locals looking for some staycation fun, the 3-month passes offer tremendous savings. If you can go more than three times in a year, the annual passes make sense because each pass offers free parking, a complimentary one-time ticket for a friend, 20% discount on dining and 10% off retail purchases. The pass also allows free access to all of the Legoland parks worldwide.
Deborah Walsh told WalletPop, "I've been a Legoland member since it opened, and every year the benefits get better. .. when the kids were little and I was going stir crazy, we would just go over and walk around." She added, "the discount on food alone can make buying the passes worth it." After moving from the area, Walsh recently purchased the Resort Membership which also provides discounts on nearby accommodations. An added bonus: there's an outlet mall down the street, and a water park coming soon.
Similarly, when you buy a Six Flags Season Pass and become a "Funatic" membership includes a "Skip the Line Pass," free soft drinks (which could be worth the price right there ...), extra Bring-A-Friend ticket, admission to all Six Flag parks nationwide, a "value book with $300 in savings," in-park discounts and, of course, unlimited visits. Members are also invited to special Passholder Only events. Currently, there are tremendous discounts if you become a Funatic before May 31.
Not to be outdone, Disney theme parks also have several levels of membership and even the option of a monthly payment plan with no finance charges for Southern California residents. Now that's fun.
Although locals can make the most of their money by using memberships year round, visitors may benefit with extended 5 or 6-day "park-hopper" passes to be used between Disneyland and the adjacent California Adventure. These passes also offer an exclusive "Magic Morning" feature that allows passholders to enter the park once during their stay before the rest of the general public. Very cool.
Disney World's four theme parks in Florida offer a variety of discounts on food, accommodations, merchandise and depending on which membership you choose -- backstage passes and special events. Visitors, however, might consider Walt Disney World's "Magic Your Way" tickets, which are priced on a sliding scale of how long you will be staying. For instance: One day, $79; five days $45.60 per day; ten days, $24.30 per day. Mickey really is trying to work with us here. These tickets don't offer the benefits of membership, however, and parking, popcorn and mouse ears are all going to add up.
Bottom line: amusement park memberships could be an E-ticket to savings as long as everyone's on board for the ride and you're able to go several times to get your money's worth. I can guess how the kids would vote.
This year, 2,686 YMCAs in the United States will be marking nearly 160 years as one of America's largest not-for-profit community service organizations -- not to mention celebrating 125 years of happy camping! Dedicated to uniting men, women and children of all ages, faiths, backgrounds, abilities and income levels, the membership means different things to the 21 million people who use it.
Rates vary according to location, but a membership at one usually guarantees free guest admission to the others when visiting another region. An introductory rate and competitive monthly fees allow members access to the facility -- which may include a gym, pool, basketball courts, play area or childcare center-- and discounted rates on a wide variety of classes, workshops, services, events, after-school care and of course -- camping!
Recently more than 80% of the 2,663 YMCAs nationwide adopted the Activate America program dedicated to encouraging healthy lifestyles. Other programs are offered in the areas of: teen leadership, sports, scuba, older adults, health and fitness, community development, camping, childcare, family, arts and humanities, aquatics, and Adventure Guides.
The Armed Services YMCA and Department of Defense Outreach Initiative offers free YMCA memberships to eligible military families and personnel who may not have access to a nearby military facility. Eligible military families and personnel include family members of deployed National Guard and Reservists; active duty independent Duty personnel and their families (as approved by their Military Service Headquarters); relocated spouses and family members of deployed Active Duty personnel.
In addition, the Outreach Initiative offers respite child care services for children whose parent or guardian needs temporary respite from their role as primary caregiver in the absence of a deployed spouse.
All in all, a pretty good deal. Although singing along with the Village People is always optional.
Former musician turned Internet pioneer, Tim Westergren, founded Pandora in 2000 because he envisioned an online service that would enable users to create personalized radio stations. A decade later, Time Magazine has included him in The 2010 Time 100: The World's Most Influential People, and ABC Nightline reported, Pandora can "read a music lover's mind." Okay, we're listening.
In fact, on April 1, 2010, the company hit an all-time high of 50 million registered members. Jennifer Van Grove reported in Mashable: "Now the popular service is poised to hit $100 million in revenue this year and even make its way inside 2011 auto vehicles."
Utilizing the Music Genome Project, Pandora asks users to type a song, artist or musical group they would like to hear. Then, like magic, or really clever computer engineering, the site streams music that has been analyzed to possess up to 400 similar musical attributes (such as: melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics) to that which was requested. Users can create up to 100 personalized "stations." It's sort of like having a personal DJ who's not going to raise an eyebrow when you request the oldies but goodies.
Registered listeners who tune in for free are subject to ads, and musical "time outs." However, for $36 per year, upgraded Pandora One members enjoy ad-free listening, five hours of uninterrupted streaming (i.e. playing without touching the site to "let it know you're still listening"), unlimited "skips" (forwarding through a song you don't like), and the option of selecting a personalized appearance for the site.
Pandora One member, Tony wrote on the company's blog, "Almost everyone I know who's tried Pandora.com loves it. Those who don't tend not to know how to use it or are too cheap to pay the subscription fee and don't like the free service limitations." Personally, I prefer the word "thrifty" and I don't have anything against it, but the point is made.
For $3 per month, a fraction of the cost of a new CD, this membership rocks.
Online Photo Sharing
Similar to other free online services, photo sharing sites offer additional benefits for paying members. For a $5 fee per year, the shutterbugs who favor Picasa.com will score 20 gigabytes of storage (approximately 10,000 photos or one summer vacation with the kids) while maintaining the ability to create sideshows and collaborative albums. Brendan Spiegel reviewed the site for Budget Travel magazine in an article entitled, Photo-Sharing Showdown (April 2010) and said the Picasa upgrade was, "worth it." Spiegel rated the two-year subscription to Photobucket.com the same.
At Photobucket.com, $40 buys two years of unlimited photo and video storage, but it will not exempt users from banner ads. This site was also rated number one at TopTenReviews.com for best photo sharing sites of 2010.
TopTenReviews described the "Pro" upgraded account at Photobucket as, " The pro account features 10GB of space, FTP uploading, up to 10 minute video (5 min. with free account), up to 100 albums on custom URLs, and unmetered bandwidth usage. Furthermore, pro users get 10% off goods they purchase through the site, like prints, mugs, mouse pads, t-shirts, posters, photobooks and more."
However, storing photos on a personal or external hardrive is alway a cheaper option, but if it crashes beyond repair so do your images.
For those who love looking through a lens, these memberships are something worth smiling about.
If it looks like a bank, and acts like a bank, but it's actually a non-profit organization owned by the people who have accounts there -- it's a credit union.
According to Randolph Brooks Federal Credit Union, "The credit union movement began with a simple idea -- that people could achieve a better standard of living for themselves and others by pooling their savings and making loans to neighbors and co-workers."
The concept was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, and today more than 90 million Americans are members of the not-for-profit institutions that are exempt from most state and federal taxes. As a result, credit unions are able to offer free accounts, reduced and fewer fees, better interest rates and better mortgage rates to their members. Instead of shareholders reaping the benefits, the dividends are given back to the membership.
Since the focus of a credit union is to make the best deals for their members -- not the most profit for their shareholders, credit unions are clubs worth considering.
In writing about financial safeguarding, Suze Orman acknowledged that many people have debt on credit cards and spoke in favor of the rates charged by credit unions in Suze Orman: You Have to Save Yourself (Feb. 2010), "What I want all of you to do is go to creditcardconnection.org and find a good credit union near you. Anybody can join a credit union... get a credit union credit card." Just FYI, she meant if you have to, not, "Woo-hooo, Neiman's here we come!"
Orman continued, "Do you know by law federally-charted credit unions cannot charge you more than 18% interest rate?"
CreditLoan.com reported, "Credit Unions are insured by the NCUA, or National Credit Union Administration, which offers the same federal insurance limits on deposits as the FDIC program."
To find a credit union, contact the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) at 800-358-5710, or check the online database of credit unions at JoinACU.org.
This might be a membership you can't afford not to join.