Grocery

Behold The Magical, Money-Saving Powers of Sam’s Club

February 16, 2017

For as long as I have known about membership-only warehouse shops like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s, I assumed their biggest attraction to be their bulk items at discounted prices. Perhaps because my mother never shopped at these places when I was a child or, more likely, because I discovered Amazon’s subscribe-and-save program and never looked back, I never felt compelled to join a warehouse club. Diapers, wipes, trash bags, hand soap, toothpaste—nearly all of my family’s consumables get delivered right to our front door.

But despite the many online resources offering the convenience of shopping from home with free shipping to boot, I know many people who belong to either Sam’s Club or BJ’s (the closest Costco is 80 miles away), and they go there primarily for food—for packaged snacks for their children’s lunches as well as for apples, avocados, baby carrots, salsa, and hummus, to name a few.

In the past five years or so, too, my mother became a Costco devotee, and when I saw her last, I asked her why she loved the store so much. Without pause, she rattled off her favorite items: Tellicherry peppercorns, vanilla beans, canned San Marzano tomatoes, organic tomato paste, Parmigiano Reggiano, Jasper Hill Farm cave-aged cheddar, Dodoni feta in brine, sliced almonds, pine nuts, capers, Medjool dates, Marcona almonds, Pellegrino, wild smoked salmon, Australian rack of lamb, Prime beef tenderloin, 25-pound bags of King Arthur flour, Fage yogurt, buffalo mozzarella.

In other words, it wasn’t the bulk household goods that made my mother a loyal Costco shopper—it was the quality food at great prices.

As someone who subscribes to a CSA year-round and tries hard to supplement produce and other foods from shops that source from local farms and producers, I had a hard time thinking about stepping foot into one of these warehouses, let alone becoming a member. But I did, and here’s why: While I strive to stay local, there are a host of foods I buy from a number of stores that aren’t being produced locally—nuts, olive oil, vinegar, cheese, spices, butter, quinoa, flour and other baking ingredients, to name a few. I buy lemons year-round, and during the winter, a variety of citrus fruits are in constant supply. I buy cumin seeds in teensy bags that I deplete with a single batch of chili and jars of vinegar that disappear just days after opening them—I would welcome larger packages for many of my pantry staples.  

So, last week, I became a member of Sam’s Club, and on my first visit, this is what I came home with:

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Almond Butter:

  A 1.5-lb. jar for $7.98. This works out to be $5.32/lb. I typically pay closer to $9.50/lb., but I’ve seen it sell for as high as $22.65/lb. Rightly so.  

Almond Flour:

  A 3-lb. bag for $12.98. This works out to be $4.33/lb. I typically pay $11.99 lb. Yikes!

Peppercorns:

  A 1.22-lb. tub for $9.56 (This works out to be $7.84/lb. I typically pay $22.80/lb. Gasp!  

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Cheese:

  • A 2-lb. block of Cabot Cheddar for $8.48. This works out to be $4.24/lb. I typically pay $5.98/lb.
  • 1.77-lb. block of Kerrygold Ballyshannon for $10.58. This works out to be $5.98/lb.—and it was first time buying this.
  • A 0.8-lb. wedge of Gruyere for $9.19. This works out to $11.49/lb. I typically pay $16.99/lb.

Quinoa:

  A 3-lb. bag of organic and Fair Trade quinoa for $9.98. This works out to be $3.33/lb. I typically pay $11.98/lb. for the same exact bag. Oye!

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Skyr:

  A 1-qt. tub of Siggi’s skyr for $5.58. This works out to be $0.17/oz. I typically pay $0.75/oz.  

Organic salted butter:

  2 lbs. for $7.98. This works out to be $3.99/lb. I typically pay $6.98/lb.  

Honey:

  A 2.5-lb. jar of honey for $13.28 (This comes out to be $5.31/lb. I typically pay $9.99/lb.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Nuts:

  • A 2 lb. 1 oz. tub of cashews for $12.98. This works out to be $6.29/lb. I typically pay 11.98/lb.
  • 2-lb. bag of pecans for $13.32. This works out to be $6.66/lb. I typically pay $15.97/lb.
  • 2-lb. bag of sliced almonds for $13.79. This works out to be $6.90/lb. I typically pay 15.97/lb.

Maple Syrup:

  A 1-qt. jug for $9.98. I typically pay $15.99/qt.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Lemons:

  A 3-lb. bag for $4.98. There were 6 large lemons in this bag, which works out to be $0.83/lemon. I typically pay $0.89/lemon.  

Pellegrino:

  A 15-bottle case for $16.88. This comes out to $1.13/bottle. I pay $1.99/bottle for singles.

Note: For this story, I was assigned a $100 limit. If I had only purchased one of the cheeses (the Cabot Cheddar) and one of the nuts (the cashews), and if I didn't purchase the Pellegrino, I would be at $103.86. But, you can’t blame me—this stuff is too good to pass up!

What are your favorite deals at Sam's Club (or other similar warehouse stores? Tell us in the comments!

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

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21 Comments

E February 17, 2017
Kind of a cheat, but I shop at Costco with my parent's membership. Mostly go to the Astoria or UES one. It might seem silly for a single person to shop there, but my grocery list without fail is almost always : frozen wild seafood (individually wrapped so it's soooo easy to defrost one for dinner at a time), fresh organic chicken thighs and breasts (comes three attached packages to a pack, so I freeze them), fresh wild seafood, broccoli (I eat one bag every 2-3 days), spinach or power greens (I eat one bag ever to every other day), brussel sprouts (I eat a bag every week), butternut squash cubes (I just can't cut a whole squash without nicking myself so I stopped trying, and I eat a whole package a week), organic eggs (2 dozen for the price of 1? count me super in), egg whites, bananas (I eat one banana every day), plain oats, better than chicken bouillon paste (one supersized jar is the same price as one of the teeny dinky ones at the regular store), canned pole caught tuna in water. I seldom deviate from this unless I already have x or y left to finish, or when I get suckered into buying holiday junk food or Nordicware sheet pans (3 American made pans for $20??? UM ok sign me up!). <br /><br />So simply put... I CAN'T QUIT COSTCO! But I still make an effort to then buy everything else from local mom and pop's esp immigrant owned businesses, and the NYC farmer's markets for the rest of my perishables, just to sort of even out my shopping habits.
 
E February 17, 2017
Forgot to add the most important part : If I didn't buy the items listed from Costco, I would be spending 3-4 times that amount a week! So as a single person who meal plans all breakfasts, snacks (I'm one of those weirdos that eats vegetables for snacks), and most lunches... It's a lost more cost effective to buy a $5 bag of 4 lbs of broccoli, instead of one lone bunch of broccoli that's about 1.5lbs for $3 ish depending on the place. Or greens - one huge Costco bag is $5, while the same brand and type of greens in a bag that is 1/3 the size is also $5.
 
Fresh T. February 17, 2017
Can I ask how much that costs per week? Sorry if that's too personal..... I'm just trying to strategize. Your meal planning sounds like what I want mine to be.
 
E February 18, 2017
Of course! The items I buy weekly (broccoli, butternut squash, power greens, brussels, tiny cukes, red bell peppers, bananas, berries, greek yogurt) run me $40-50 a week but without fail last 7-10 days worth of breakfasts, lunches, snacks. <br /><br />Once but sometimes twice a month, I buy babybel cheeses (~$12 for 30 cheeses), organic eggs (~5.49 for two dozen) and egg whites (~$6 for 6 boxes of whites). These last me 2-3 weeks at a time. <br /><br />Every other month to every three months, depending on what I'm running low on, I buy organic chicken breasts and thighs ($5.99 and $4.99 per pound, respectfully. I buy the packages that are $20 or less, and then I freeze them right away), frozen wild unseasoned salmon (~28 for 3lbs of individually cryovac'd portions), frozen wild cod and mahi mahi (~12-18 for 2 to 3lbs of individually cryovac'd portions), frozen wild flounder (~10 foe 2-3lbs, but unfortunately the fish isn't individually cryovac'd so it's sometimes hard to grab only two fillets. And since flounder is thin, and there are a lot in the bag, there are a lot of fillets stuck together), canned pole caught tuna (~12 for 8 larger than standard supermarket sized cans), Kirkland brand olive oil (AMAZING and its ~$20-25 for 5 gallons), Canola oil sprays (~8-9 for two huge spray cans), quinoa (~$20 for a huge bag that lasts me 5-6 months), and some other non-perishable and freezer friendly things that I am forgetting. I've never bought all these at the same time though, I usually stagger it so one week, I'll tack on a bag of fish, and a different week, I'll buy chicken thighs, but never both the same Costco trip.<br /><br />So long, long post short, this is only my grocery items for Costco... it's so very, very easy to spend on the non food items there as well! I shop at my local markets and farmers markets for things I need in smaller quantities, things that aren't at Costco, and for when I'm cooking for intimate company. But for large parties, I shop Costco all the way. Made the worst mistake this past Winter by making braised lamb shanks for 20+ people... using a fancy shmancy butcher, and nearly cried after paying for the meat.<br /><br />Hope this helped!
 
Fresh T. February 18, 2017
You are awesome beyond awesome! Both you and Alexandra. I love this community so much. Thank you!
 
Roslyn R. February 17, 2017
Milk, eggs, vitamins, rotisserie chicken, tomatoes, half & half, heavy cream, butter & wine and Costco! Told the hubby, if we move, it must be near a Costco!
 
E February 17, 2017
That rotisserie chicken is NO joke! I've waited around for new batches to come out so I could take home a super piping hot chicken.
 
SusieQue2222 February 17, 2017
Where is the disclaimer for sponsored content?
 
Riddley G. February 17, 2017
HI! This is not a sponsored post. We've been doing a "how would you spend $100" series for different stores recently (Aldi, Whole Foods) and with more to come. If this were a sponsored post, we would note that. Thank you!
 
Fresh T. February 16, 2017
Hi Ali! This was such a great article. Great insight. I have mixed feelings as well, and I'm very much contemplating a Costco membership. How can the small businesses, the mom and pop stores compete? I wish I could figure out some sort of balance between the two. I can't afford to keep shopping at small stores. On a good note, Costco is really pushing hard for more organic everything. From potato chips to produce and even went so far as to buy land to grow some of their own. It's not in the US, but still..... going in the right direction. I think I need meal time/budget advice from you. Lets have more of these articles! :)
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 17, 2017
So great to hear this, Dana, re organic/farm/etc. Is there a Costco near you? And I know, I have mixed feelings as well—finding a balance is tricky, but maybe that's the answer....just finding a balance. Sam's Club can't compete with my co-op when it comes to produce (much of which is local), eggs and milk (local), meat (local), coffee (roasted locally), chocolate, beer, to name a few.
 
Fresh T. February 17, 2017
Hi Ali! Yep, there are 3 Costcos on the island. Can you believe it? And estimated 85% of the food here is imported (that's the low estimate). There is some local, but there is a large agro company that owns a huge chunk of this island (and other companies do the same on another island)..... It makes eating organic local near impossible and very scary (to me). That's why its so important to me to get my garden strong (still a work in progress, but better). But, a strong garden and Costco could be a decent plan.
 
Carol S. February 16, 2017
costco is great for fresh salmon, avocados, dates, big bags of spinach, lettuce, mushrooms, blackberries, organic eggs, walnuts, almonds, quinoa, and for my dogs, the giant bags of mixed organic vegetables, in the frozen section.<br />
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 17, 2017
Nice, thanks!
 
EmilyC February 16, 2017
I buy many of the things you wrote about! : ) I have a love-hate relationship with warehouse clubs (in my case, BJ's). I get so excited by things like HUGE, cheap bags of turbinado sugar, and then I get said bag home and think I must be crazy for taking up precious pantry space with it. And I've learned to put my blinders on so I don't throw things I don't need in my cart (and stay clear of the toy aisle if my kids are with me)! But I keep going back for big bottles of California Olive Ranch olive oil, cheese, flour, etc. -- things that we use up even in the larger quantities.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 17, 2017
Emily, I hear you! I really never imagined joining one of these places. I love shopping at my local Co-op, and I feel I'm doing so much more for my community by supporting it and putting my dollars there. But, I do find I spend so much money on olive oil, cheese, flour, etc when I buy these items from any of my local grocery stores, and so I'm thinking a trip to one of the membership places every so often definitely will save $$ in the long run. But, yes, I came home with an enormous bag of coconut sugar, which I have never used before. I have no idea what I am going to do with it. Blinders—I need them!
 
magpiebaker February 16, 2017
Agreed that Costco and similar outlets have way better prices on these items, and it's great that the quality of the items is definitely higher than I remember growing up. But TBH our little family would just not be able to get through these quantities (and we have limited storage space in our freezer/fridge) and I would hate to waste the food. Anyone else run into this? Maybe the calculus will be different once our kids are older and able to eat more. Costco is also way more tiring/stressful for me than our regular grocery store!
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 17, 2017
It definitely would be hard to shop at these places with limited space at home! I'm lucky to have lots of storage space. Totally agree—warehouse shopping is exhausting!
 
Jr0717 February 17, 2017
Magpiebaker, I've found that with some of the items I want that come in quantities that my family would never get through before they expired, I'm able to split it up with a neighbor. My father is a diehard fan of the muffins and pies (sigh), so we buy those huge quantities and halve the packages with neighbors, who are more than happy to split everything with us!
 
Niknud February 16, 2017
We came for the diapers and wipes and formula and stayed for the quality food you talk about above. I love our Costco - plus they pay their employees really well and have good benefits so I feel good about shopping there. And seriously, for a day to day olive oil, you can't do better than the Kirkland's brand they sell there. Great article.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 17, 2017
I've read how Costco treats their employees well as well as the companies they do business with well, which is so great. I wish I had one nearby—from what I can tell, Costco seems to have the best selection/highest quality of goods.