My first trip to Costco; how cheap and “green” is it really?

I’ve been curious about Costco for a while as we are still looking for ways to save on our food and household variable costs.  Some of the US FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) gurus swear they save hundreds or thousands of dollars a year by shopping at Costco, but it’s not as established in the UK so I wasn’t sure if the choice or the savings opportunities would be so good.  I also had some other reservations about how cheap or eco-friendly it really was:

  • It wasn’t clear whether I would qualify for membership as I don’t really fit into any of the categories on their website
  • I was worried that the temptation to buy things I didn’t need would be too high, so I’d go in for a basic shop and come out with a flat screen TV (or more likely, lots of random garden stuff)
  • I also suspected that I’d end up getting versions of the things I do need but that were less eco-friendly or not as good quality.
  • Our closest is about thirty minutes away and having two young kids isn’t conducive to browsing a new shop, so I wanted to wait until we had childcare.

So, I finally bit the bullet on Good Friday – spurred on by the idea that I was doing this as “research” for this blog, so I could justify wasting the membership fee if necessary.

Membership

As membership cards are scanned at the door, so we needed to go to the membership counter before entering the main shop.  I was fairly confident that I could join as a colleague of mine goes, but it seemed like she had joined on a bit of a loophole, i.e. that the private sector company we work at is in a sector related to one of the public sector industries that qualify.  It turned out that our company was on an “approved list” which meant that I did qualify.  

For about £30 a year I was able to join and to also get a membership card for my partner.  We are each allowed to bring a guest each.  There is also an “executive option” which means that you can get 2% cashback on purchases, but it costs an extra £x a year, so the lady recommended upgrading if I was planning to make a large purchase.  She also explained that if you don’t end up making enough cashback to cover the upgrade costs then you get the difference back as credit towards the next year’s membership. 

As an alternative you can get an online membership, which is £15 a year with a delivery fee of £x.  In the shop the signs say that there are more products available online, but I also found that a number of the things I bought in store could not be found on the website.

Temptation factor

On entering, the first things you see are all the shiny house and garden things, so it is pretty treacherous in terms of unintended spend.  I did ooh and ahh as I saw a few things I wasn’t expecting (like giant olive trees) but my defences were up and I reminded myself that I did not need any of those things.  

This was easier to do with the bigger ticket items, but some of the things that I almost ended up buying were smaller household/kids items that were a good price and I’d been thinking about getting or would probably need in the future, like glass tupperware and some fancy colouring pens for the kids.  I resisted because I noticed the fastening on the tupperware didn’t seem as good quality as our current ones, and we also don’t need pens right now, so I just made a mental note for the next trip.  I’m glad I was disciplined as this would have come to around £30, so cheaper than those brands would have cost elsewhere, but £30 I don’t need to spend right now.

Quality of food and “eco-friendly” options

I was determined not to buy things that I wouldn’t normally either because there were more eco-friendly versions or because they didn’t meet the same food standards and overall I think we did manage to stick to that.

One of our strategies was to try to save money on our meat expenditure by buying in bulk and dividing into portions for the freezer.  We don’t eat a lot of meat and have gone through periods of being vegetarian for a few months at a time, but overall we find a good balance for us is to have a small amount of meat a few times a week.  

We did manage to find some Aberdeen Angus beef mince and thought that it worked out similar in price to what it would be on special offer at our usual supermarket, so picked up more than 3kg. The chicken seemed suspiciously cheap and we couldn’t see the same welfare assurances as we saw for the beef so we didn’t pick any up. When we got home we divided the meat into smaller portions than you would typically buy in the supermarket so that it would last us longer (and so that we have a greater proportion of vegetables and grains in our dishes).  

We also tried to stay clear of things that had more plastic packaging than we would normally get.  We managed to pick up dishwashing tabs in cardboard boxes and otherwise went for options in tins or glass.  For example, the olive oil was a good price but in a plastic bottle whereas we usually get it in a glass one, so decided to stick with our slightly more expensive usual option.  They also had biodegradable food caddy liners so we pick up some of them on offer (£8.99 for 240).  

Shopping experience

It was packed, which was quite stressful given we are still in lockdown to some degree, but it was Good Friday.  I would not want to go with kids, which really limits how often we would go over the course of the year.  There are plenty of tills and were no queues on entry, so I didn’t feel that I was wasting time.  

Cost savings

After our shop I wasn’t really sure how much we had saved compared to going to a mainstream supermarket, and I wasn’t sure if we had “made back” the money we had spent on our membership on that initial shop.

I feel like I need to make a disclaimer here that I am not the sort of person who checks their receipts against Recommended Retail Price when they get home, but on this occasion as a one off I did and am very glad of it.

I compared the price we paid against both the online Costco price and the price I would normally pay for that item somewhere else (or the nearest equivalent.  If an item is easily available elsewhere at a lower price than RRP I recorded that.  We bought two items that were difficult to compare as I no longer had the weight, so I excluded them.  

Here is the breakdown:

ItemCostco codeUsual/online Costco priceIn Store Costco priceRRP/common priceSavingRRP based on…
Finish all in one x 20035857916.6913.494026.51Amazon
Napolitana kidney beans x 123339837.696.8910.83.91Sainsburys
Heinz baked beans710369.999.99155.01Tesco
short ribs6207N/A16.2417.41.16Waitrose
510g blueberries57554N/A5.496.671.18Waitrose essential
Aberdeen Angus Steak Mince76635N/A2421.84-2.16Waitrose, third off
24 Naked Bars29266912.198.5917.719.12Amazon
10kg Tilda basmati rice30350715.7915.79226.21Tesco
12 pk organic tomato paste633564N/A6.3913.87.41Ocado (Cirio, not organic)
Biosack compostable caddy bags33150512.798.99101.01Amazon
San Francisco Bay Organic Rainforest Blend Whole Bean Coffee1939989.497.499.492Amazon (RRP 11 but sell for 9.49)
Nando’s Medium Peri-Peri Sauce, 1L1318476.195.9982.01Ocado
1kg nectarines75348N/A2.9930Sainsburys (not per weight – slightly more in Costco pack)
Red grapes – equivalent of 2 punnets95196N/A3.9940.01Waitrose essential
1kg Salsicciamo Toscana sausage308461N/A6.9912.55.51Italian speciality retailers – £5 for 400g
TOTAL151.42143.31Savings total68.89

My main learnings from this post Costco post mortem were:

  • I had saved a whopping (almost) £70 on an approximately £150 shop.  I really did manage to stick to only getting things I’d actually use, after few close calls, so it was all things I would have bought in the next few months, except for the Naked bars which my kids are loving so turned out to be a great buy
  • Not all of the meat options worked out as such a good deal.  In fact, better quality (lower fat content) mince at Waitrose (of all places) works out cheaper, even when it’s not on special offer.  Fruit also wasn’t an especially good deal.
  • I made the biggest savings on dishwasher tabs, tinned items, those Naked bars and the bumper bag of Tilda basmati rice.  Alcohol is also a good deal there and there’s also lots of party food.  I would definitely stock up there with macarons and prosecco if I were hosting a fancy boozy afternoon tea.

Am I glad I joined, and would I recommend?

I deliberately dialled down the first trip to avoid Costco regret, but now that I know where the best savings are I would probably do a bigger stock up on our next trip, picking up a lot more tinned items, especially different types of pulses, and maybe some wine or spirits as gifts.  

I can see us going only three or four times a year as it’s a good 30 minute drive away.  Based on the savings at the last trip and after deducting the membership, I can see us saving between £250 to £350 a year, bearing in mind that we would be getting quite a limited range of food there.  For people who live or work nearby and see themselves going more regularly, I can see them making much bigger savings.

The potential for much larger savings comes with some of the bigger ticket items, such as electricals, but that also brings a danger of spending money that you would not otherwise spend.  

I did contemplate doing some shops online but my totting up of the prices showed that a lot of the items are not available online (despite the posters in the shops shouting about how there is more online) and the online prices are often higher.  

From a sustainability perspective, if you avoid things that you don’t need and go for recyclable packaging then I think you can feel that you are still broadly shopping in line with your values.  However, as it’s a fair drive away for me and we went in our car, it doesn’t make it a very environmentally friendly outing.  

As a company, Costco have said that they are trying to minimise their environmental footprint through using more energy efficient lighting in their stores, etc, but their infrastructure obviously involves a lot of emission intensive transporting of goods and maintenance of large stores..  Their website does set out their Climate Action Plan (https://www.costco.com/sustainability-climate-action-plan.html), which is clearly a positive step, but they seem at the early stages and are focussing on measuring and understanding their impact, rather than taking significant steps to reduce it.  There is also no published target for carbon neutrality.

So in summary, starting to shop at Costco will help cut down our food budget but we won’t be starting regular trips there and will keep avoiding the temptation to pick up things we don’t need.  It could be an even better option for other people who can visit more often, particularly  know your prices well and if you don’t assume that everything is a bargain.  

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