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Is Shopping at Costco Worth It? It Saved Me Big

We do the math to calculate exactly how much you can save by shopping at Costco compared to a regular grocery store.

Costco Wholesale exterior sign
Shopping in bulk at Costco or another wholesale store can save you a ton of money.
James Martin/CNET

When it comes to budget-minded grocery shopping, there are a bunch of questions to consider. Are store brand products less expensive than name brand? What about buying groceries online versus shopping in-store? And, where is the most cost-effective place to shop? Is it Costco? We take on stockpiling (responsibly) to see how much you can save by buying in bulk from the wholesaler.

We Do the Math badge

Most of us inherently understand the principle of bulk buying, but when it comes to our normal grocery shopping habits, how many of us actually take advantage of bulk economics? 

Stores such as Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale deal mainly in bulk products, and department stores such as Target and Walmart typically offer a number of bulk options, but even conventional grocery stores often carry bulk or larger sizes of staple items. However, Storage may be an issue when buying in bulk, and not all groceries are suitable for bulk purchasing if they have short shelf lives. 

But it does raise the question: How much money can you save by buying groceries in bulk? By my calculations, you'll save over $1,000 shopping from a wholesale retailer. Below is a breakdown of how I reached that figure.

Costco (bulk) vs Stop & Shop

Groceries, yearly consumption Stop & Shop, per item Costco, per item Stop & Shop, yearly Costco, yearly
Eggs, 26 dozen $6.39 for 12 $6.21 for 24 $166.14 $80.73
Organic milk, 26 gallons $8.59 for 1 gallon $14.92 for 3 half gallons $223.34 $258.50
Block cheese, 208 ounces $3.69 for 8 oz $8.70 for 32 oz $95.94 $56.55
Greek plain yogurt, 26 quarts $5.69 for 1 quart $7.20 for 48 oz $147.94 $124.80
Pepperidge Farm whole grain bread, 26 loaves $5.79 for 1 loaf $7.08 for 2 loaves $150.54 $92.04
English muffins, 26 packages $5.79 for 1 package of 6 $8.70 for 3 packages of 6 $150.54 $75.40
Potatoes, 26 pounds $5.49 for 5 lbs $13.67 for 10 lbs $28.55 $35.54
Yellow onions, 26 pounds $1.49 for 1 lb $13.67 for 10 lbs $38.74 $35.54
Carrots, 26 lbs $2.29 for 2 lbs $8.07 for 6 lbs $29.77 $34.97
Chicken stock, 12 quarts $2.79 for 1 quart $13.67 for 6 quarts $33.48 $27.34
Mayonnaise, 12 15-oz jars $5.79 for 15 oz $11.18 for 64 oz $69.48 $31.44
Ketchup, 12 32-oz bottles $5.69 for 32 oz $14.67 for 3 44-oz bottles $68.28 $42.68
White rice, 26 pounds $3.19 for 2 lbs $16.16 for 25 lbs $41.47 $16.81
Peanut butter, 26 16-oz jars $3.79 for 16 oz $13.67 for 2 48-oz jars $98.54 $59.24
Whole bean coffee, 26 12-oz bags $12.69 for 12 oz $24.87 for 3 lbs $329.94 $161.66
Penne pasta, 26 1-lb boxes $1.79 for 1 lb $11.18 for 7 lbs $46.54 $41.53
Rao's marinara sauce, 26 24-oz bottles $10.29 for 24 oz $14.79 for 2 28-oz bottles $267.54 $164.80
Cheerios, 26 12-oz boxes $6.99 for 12 oz $7.95 for 2 20-oz boxes $181.74 $62.01
Ground beef, 26 pounds $5.49 for 1 lb $37.85 for 5 lbs $142.74 $196.82
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs, 26 lbs $10.33 for 1 lb $30.91 for 5 lbs $268.58 $160.73
Frozen salmon fillets, 12 lbs $24.99 for 2 lbs $41.04 for 3 lbs $149.94 $164.16
Frozen berries, 26 12-oz bags $5.19 for 12 oz $19.52 for 4 lbs $134.94 $95.16
Frozen peas, 26 16-oz bags $3.49 for 16 oz $11.81 for 5 lbs $90.74 $61.41
Potato chips, 26 7.5-oz bags $5.29 for 1 7.5-oz bag $7.20 for 32 oz $137.54 $43.87
Cheez-It crackers, 26 12-oz packages $6.19 for 1 12-oz box $10.87 for 48 oz $160.94 $70.66
Total $159.19 $375.56 $3,253.93 $2,194.39

How we did the math: Stop & Shop vs. Costco

Using grocery list templates available online, I assembled a list of 25 typical, staple grocery items that are suitable for longer storage, either in the pantry, refrigerator or freezer. This ruled out most fresh produce, with some exceptions, though if you're hosting a large gathering buying produce in bulk may be worthwhile also. Bulk shopping doesn't mean buying a year's worth of groceries all at one time, but I didn't include anything that wouldn't hold up well for at least a month, with the notion that bulk grocery shopping can be done less often. Bulk buying also requires a greater upfront spend, which is why Costco's per-item total is considerably higher than Stop & Shop's.

Assuming either bi-weekly or monthly consumption of those staple grocery items for a household of one or two people, I came up with the approximate yearly consumption for each. I chose Stop & Shop to represent a conventional grocery retailer, as it's largely considered to be a quality store with median prices, and Costco to represent bulk buying, as its Kirkland Signature products have a bit of a following in their own right -- Costco is the Trader Joe's of the bulk set, for sure.

Unless a national brand is otherwise indicated, I used Stop & Shop's SB brand, or the least expensive name-brand product for a given item, to compare to Costco's Kirkland Signature brand. For the Stop & Shop items, coming up with the yearly price for each item was a simple matter of multiplying by 26 for bi-weekly consumption, or 12 for monthly consumption. For Costco's items, I scaled the prices accordingly based on whatever package size Costco offers to indicate a yearly cost for the same amount of a given item.

Above the shoulder view of woman holding a pack of beef mince in a supermarket.

If you can afford the freezer space, buying meat in bulk will save you big money over the course of a year.

Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Since I was primarily interested in food cost savings, I didn't factor in cleaning supplies, paper products or other items, but you can safely assume these also amount to big saving potential over the year when bought in bulk. Also, since my calculations were based on a small household, the bigger your household, the bigger the savings. 

Costco membership fee

Costco requires a membership to take advantage of its bulk savings and low-cost signature brands. A basic membership costs $60 a year and is valid at all locations. Read more about the different Costco membership options.

Why buying in bulk is cheaper

The economics of buying in bulk is simple: The more you buy of something at one time, the less it costs per count or unit of weight. Producers, distributors and retailers are able to offer lower prices in this way not only because bulk items often require less packaging, but also because for them it's a sure sale over a potential sale -- they'd rather have your money now, even at a discount, than parsed out over a period of time.

costco cereal on shelves

Shelf-stable items including cereal, sauces and coffee make up some of the biggest savings when buying in bulk. 

View press/Getty

The verdict: Bulk savings are huge

Given this particular grocery list, buying in bulk would allow you to save over $1,000 during the course of a year, representing a 33% savings overall over conventional groceries. (In today's economy, it is worth mentioning that you also save gas money with fewer trips to the store.) In a few cases, the Stop & Shop item ended up being the cheaper option: organic milk, carrots, potatoes and frozen salmon filets, for example. In all of these cases, there wasn't a huge size difference between the conventional and bulk items. Milk is an especially good example, as it's still offered in a larger quantity at Costco, but there's only so much of it you can buy at one time without risking it spoiling, and so the bulk offering is comparatively modest. Costco also doesn't have a Kirkland brand offering of organic milk, whereas Stop & Shop does.

produce section

The savings for bulk fresh produce were not as significant as pantry staples and shelf-stable groceries. 

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Generally speaking, the larger the scale on the bulk item, the larger the savings. If you buy a 40-ounce quantity of Cheerios, for example, rather than the 12 ounces you get in a typical box, they become nearly 75% cheaper. Buying 25 pounds of white rice all at once instead of 2 pounds at a time saves you 60%.

With at least a grand in savings available yearly for just a portion of your grocery list, even if you need to buy additional home storage to accommodate it, the verdict is clear: Bulk grocery shopping is well worth the effort.

Shelf-stable items bring some of the biggest savings

Some of the biggest savings by percentage come from shelf-stable and pantry items including chips, crackers, jarred sauce, rice and whole bean coffee. These items are typically easier to store and less likely to spoil or deteriorate in quality. Buying pantry items in bulk from a discount grocer such as Costco represents a clear and risk-free strategy for saving money on your grocery spend over the course of a year.

For more We Do the Math, check out how much you can save by shopping at Trader Joe's compared to other grocery stores, and if it's cheaper to buy meal kits than groceries.