Shopping at warehouse clubs, such as Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club, is a great way to save money. They have good per-unit prices on nearly everything they sell. However, consumers often make the mistake of assuming they're getting the best price at a warehouse club or of buying things they don't need just because the price is good.
In general, it's best to avoid bulk purchases of perishable items at warehouse clubs, no matter how good the price, if there aren't enough people in your household to consume them quickly. Plus, you should always shop with a list to avoid impulse purchases, which can be whoppers at warehouse clubs.
When making your warehouse-club shopping list, keep these 11 things off it. You can find them cheaper elsewhere, or you won't reap value by buying them in bulk.
Books and DVDs
It's tempting to pick up books to read on vacation or DVDs for the kids while you're shopping at the warehouse club. But the deals on these items aren't as good as you can find elsewhere, says Andrew Schrage , co-owner of the personal finance blog Money Crashers. You can usually buy books, CDs and DVDs for 15% to 20% less online at sites such as Amazon.com, he says (and get free shipping on qualifying orders of $35 or more). Better yet: Don't pay a thing for books or DVDs by borrowing them for free from your public library. There also are several ways to read e-books for free.
Clothing and Shoes
Just because an article of clothing or a pair of shoes is cheap doesn't mean you're getting a deal. There's a reason clothing and shoes sold at warehouse clubs are so inexpensive: Even with designer brands, they're often lower quality, using cheaper fabric and weaker embellishments, such as buttons and zippers, that won't last as long. See Cheap Clothing Is a Costly Mistake to learn more about budgeting for clothes.
Schrage specifically cautions against buying flip-flops at a warehouse club; you can get them for much less at the dollar store. Flip-flops, which aren't meant to be high-quality footwear, cost $1 at the dollar store versus about $10 at the warehouse club, he says.
That one-gallon jar of mayonnaise or three-pack of 44-ounce ketchup bottles might seem like a good buy if you're having a cookout or you eat sandwiches or burgers on a regular basis. But most condiments have a shelf life of only six months to a year, says consumer expert and Offers.com founder Howard Schaffer. Unless you're running a restaurant (or have a condiment-only diet), you probably can't consume such a large volume before it goes bad. Plus, you're not saving that much by purchasing condiments in bulk, Schaffer says.
Also be careful with bulk purchases of olive oil (which has a six-month shelf life) and spices (which are good for about a year), says Trae Bodge, senior editor of money-saving site RetailMeNot. Stick with smaller containers of these items if you don't use them on a regular basis.
Generic diapers from the warehouse club can be a big money-saver because they work as well as the name-brand ones at a much lower cost. But if you're really pinching pennies, you won't find the best deal on generic diapers at warehouse clubs. In fact, they're typically about 4 cents more per diaper than Target and Walmart's generic diapers, says Lauren Ward, a research analyst for personal finance site CreditDonkey.com. What seems like spare change can add up quickly when you're buying hundreds of diapers.
The prices on televisions, computers and other electronics are good at warehouse clubs, but you usually can get even better deals elsewhere, says Offers.com's Schaffer . Comparing prices can be a little difficult because electronics sold at warehouse clubs tend to be bundled with accessories or have slightly different features than similar models sold at other retail outlets. So you might not find the same product, but you'll likely find something similar for 10% to 15% less at Best Buy, Sears and other electronics retailers, he says. For example, Sam's Club recently had a 15.6-inch Toshiba laptop with 8 gigabytes of memory for $837. Amazon.com had a nearly identical model for $740.04, and Best Buy was selling a similar model for $785.99.
Liquid Bleach and Detergents
These products lose their efficacy after six months, says RetailMeNot's Bodge. So if you don't have a big family and don't wash lots of laundry, you won't get through a warehouse club's supersize bottle of bleach or detergent fast enough. Instead, Bodge recommends looking for deals on these items at the grocery store or big-box store. The dollar store also is a great place to buy cleaning supplies (see What to Buy at Dollar Stores). Or buy the supersize box of warehouse clubs' powdered detergent, which won't lose its efficacy, Bodge says.
Warehouse clubs' prices on name-brand cereal are comparable to cereal prices at grocery stores, Ward says. However, warehouse clubs generally don't have sales on cereal. So you're better off stocking up on your favorite cereal when it goes on sale at the supermarket, she says.
You usually can buy a gallon of milk for 50 to 60 cents less at the grocery store, Ward says. Plus, you can find this perishable item in much smaller quantities at the grocery store, which will lower the risk of it going bad before you can drink all of it.
Although a warehouse club might seem like the logical choice for a big pack of paper towels or toilet paper, consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch says you'll actually get a better deal on paper products at the grocery store the first and third weeks of the month, when they typically go on sale. She recommends using manufacturer coupons to get an even deeper discount.
You can always find soda on sale for less at a grocery store than at a warehouse club, says Jeff Yeager, author of four popular books on frugal living, including his most-recent How to Retire the Cheapskate Way. For example, Yeager says that Coke products go on sale every other week for $2 or $2.50 per 12-pack at the grocery where he shops. However, a 24-pack costs $7 or $8 at the warehouse club -- which can be twice as much as two discounted 12-packs purchased at the grocery.
Sunscreen, Lotions and Creams
These items are often cheaper elsewhere. Schrage says that you usually can find sunscreen at a drugstore for 10% to 15% less than at a warehouse club. Plus, if you're buying sunscreen just for a short beach vacation, you might not need the volume you'll be required to buy at a warehouse club.
Bodge also cautions against buying large quantities of beauty products -- especially facial cream -- at warehouse clubs because they have a limited shelf life. For example, anti-aging creams expire in three months to a year.