How to survive a shopping trip to Costco

If you live anywhere in North America (and parts of Asia and Europe) you probably have heard of Costco before. Costco is a huge wholesale store that sells pretty much everything and anything you can imagine. Since it’s a wholesale store, 90% of the items are in bulk. Buying in bulk means the prices are often cheaper than your every day grocery stores.

Shopping at Costco is like going to the mall on Boxing Day (or Black Friday for American readers). There’s people EVERYWHERE! The crowd is worst during the weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, it seems that everyone is having their weekend picnics at the local Costco store. People are everywhere and the cashier lines are ridiculously long. If you don’t have much patience, it can be a frustrating outing going to Costco on the weekend.

After years of shopping at Costco, sometimes at the expense of my sanity, I’ve finally come up with some tips on how to survive a shopping trip to Costco. Follow these important steps will ensure your personal and financial safety.

Survival Tip #1 – Go in with a shopping list
It is very easy to grab things that you don’t need when you’re shopping in Costco. The best way to avoid this phenomenon is to have a shopping list in hand so you know exactly what you need. It is recommended to keep your list below 10 items (below 5 is highly recommended) for reasons to be explained later.

Survival Tip #2 – Do not go on weekends
This one is pretty trivial. Don’t go to Costco on weekends. Period. On weekends, you are often faced with the lack of parking spots, so you have to circle around the parking lot a few times just to find a spot… then someone cuts in and takes you spot. Not cool.

Frustration level = high.

Once you manage to get in Costco you’ll find people and shopping carts everywhere. Walking speed is as slow as a turtle. This will only increase your frustration level.

Survival Tip #3 – Avoid noon and dinner time
Around lunch and dinner time Costco usually has free samples. If you’re a starving student this is a good time to go to Costco and load up on free food. Be warned though, the free samples are often high in fat and salt, not good for your health.

While free samples are good, what you’ll find is massive crowds by each sample stand. 99% of time there will be at least 2 or 3 shopping carts parked by the sample stands, further restricting the already slow traffic flow. So the already slow turtle like traffic flow slows down further to become snail speed. Go luck getting anywhere.

Survival Tip #4 – Avoid shopping carts like a plague
The reason why you want to keep your shopping list below 10 items is so you can carry everything by hand. This will avoid the need for a shopping cart. You can walk around the store very quickly without having to navigate through multiple small cart traffic jams. This will also limit the amount of things you end up buying, saving your grocery bill in the end.

Survival Tip #5 – Go early in the morning or before closing time
If you go on weekends, go early to avoid the crowd because people like to sleep in. If you go on weekdays, go before closing time because most people are home already. Less people in the store means you can go in and get out quicker.

Survival Tip #6 – Shop with your spouse and split up the shopping list
Divide up the shopping list with your spouse or a friend so you can finish shopping twice as fast. Set a specific time to meet at a specific cashier line to further improve efficiency. This is something Mrs. T and I do quite often. We want to be in and out of Costco as quickly as possible. Move fast like Flash.

Survival Tip #7 – Compare costs
Although Costco is often cheaper than your everyday grocery stores, things could be cheaper at local stores when items are on sale. It’s important to take notes on item prices and compare them with your local grocery stores. It makes very little sense to buy some items in bulk because they can go bad quickly. For these items, you’re better off buying in smaller packages to save money.

Do you have any Costco survival tips that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them.

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43 thoughts on “How to survive a shopping trip to Costco”

  1. If possible, don’t bring the kids! I remember how my parents brought me and my younger sister to Costco and the sensory overload really overwhelmed her. She would get fussy and my mom would try to console her while navigating a sea of shoppers. People get really stressed out there – don’t drag your kids into it too!

  2. We love Costco, and it’s about the only place where we do grocery shopping. One thing that we do is go through the exit and eat first, we like their hot dogs and pizza, that way we’re full when we’re shopping. If shopping on an empty stomach, I noticed I tend to buy more stuff.
    Some great finds, I think: organic chicken breast, Kerrigold butter, their big jars of fire-roasted peppers (yummy!), artichoke and jalapeño dip, feta in brine imported from Greece, their on-the-vine tomatoes (omg) and I could go on and on. I like the quality of their stuff and buying in bulk is often cheaper.

    • Hi Felix Money,

      Good point on shop on a full stomach. I’ve certainly noticed that myself too. Costco certainly has some good quality products.

  3. I don’t like stale things so I don’t go to costco. I manage to keep my grocery to $50/week, so no need to go crazy at $100 store. Good tip on no cart, I hate cart. I like basket. If the basket start to get heavy, that means it’s time to wrap up, or I shopped too much. It probably drag on to over a week. Not good for my pocket or my stomache.

  4. My friends and colleagues swear by Costco. The one time I went, it was because my boss had to pick something up and asked if I wanted to tag along. “You’ll save tons of cash,” he said.

    Famous last words.

    Faced with so much choice, I ended up spending loads (put some on my credit card too!).

    Granted that I did use everything that I bought in the end but the point you make about going there with a shopping list is such an important one!

    I’ve not been back since!

    • Haha weenie, it’s so easy to over purchase when you’re in Costco. “Oh I just that item, and that item, and that item.” Next thing you know you’re paying a $300 bill at the cashier. Not good. Having a shopping list is a great idea to prevent this.

  5. The wife and I hit Costco often and have found the perfect system…and you are right it is before closing time. We head out at like 7:30 or 8PM and it is EMPTY AND AWESOME. We tried the weekends, but it was a mad ocean of people…and this guy doesn’t do well in crowds any more. Awesome advice!

  6. I’ve only been a member since December, but I have quickly learned to avoid Costco like the plague at any time except an hour before close on weekdays.

    On a day off during the weekday, I made the unfortunate mistake of going at noon thinking that no one would be at Costco at 12pm on a Monday. How naive I was.

  7. Whenever we go to Costco our bill ends up between $150-$200. I also love going to the fast food restaurant attached to our local store as the hot dogs and fries are incredibly cheap but good tasting. 🙂

    • I used to get hot dogs and fries too but have been staying away from them as an effort to eat healthier. I agree though, Costco hot dogs and fries are cheap and taste good.

  8. Ahhh, the samples! Don’t even get me started! This is my favorite part, but the sample stations make me lose my faith in humanity! I’ve seen adults nudge children out of the way to get their hands a friggin’ Taquito sample. Really dude? I love the folks who grab 2 or 3 too. Sigh…

  9. My experience with Costco is that it’s the most expensive place to save money. Seriously, the product placements are so smart that it’s hard not to buy more than you need.

  10. One of my favorite shopping stores. Excellent service, great return policy, consistently lower prices. I have also bought many items from their online store, delivered within days. Online store has items not found in walk in store. Saved a tonne of money on lighting, flooring, plumbing fixtures Ever got your tires changed there in the spring/fall? Half price compared to the tire shops. Line ups move fast as every checkout has a helper. Gas is the cheapest in town.

    • Hi NRG,

      Costco’s return policy is really good and their service is generally pretty solid as well. I got my tires changed at Costco a few years ago and it was excellent price and service.

  11. My wife was asking me if we should get a Costco card recently. I really truly can’t stand the lines…and it would be tough to find time to go on the weekends. There are some good deals, but with coupons and sales, and also if you buy generics, I think I can do fine without Costco. That and I don’t have the room to buy things in bulk!

    • Hi Andrew,

      For us we definitely see the savings by shopping at Costco. We do also shop at local stores as we know which stores have better deals. It’s all about knowing what you’re buying and which store has the best deal.

  12. Tawcan,

    I haven’t been to a Costco, but they just opened up one here in Houston. If it is anything like Walmart, I’ll just avoid it. I don’t like paying extra for groceries and household products, but I will just to avoid the insanity inside those box stores.


    • Hi MDP,

      I think Costco is a bit nicer than Walmart but I don’t frequent Walmart that much even though there’s a store near our place.

  13. I’ve never set foot in a Costco, but frequent Sam’s for our regular shopping often. My favorite advice for all grocery shopping is to go first thing in the morning. If you are fortunate enough to go on a weekday morning, even better. But get up and get moving. After enjoying an empty store, you’ll have even more confidence to tackle the rest of the day!!

  14. Tawcan,
    My family has a Costco just a few minutes from home. I like a lot of things about it, especially the selection of Costco only products. We were really surprised about the amoun of organic stuff they have (my wife care a lot about that). Beer is priced great, cereal too.

    As for the crowds, yeah I went on Saturday and it was pretty bad. But the aisles are very wide. I found the produce area to be the worst. Usually I go after work and the crowds are much better. But weekends are when the best free samples are out!

    • Hi RBD,

      Unfortunately Canadian Costco do not carry alcoholic beverages. It would be nice if they do.

      I typically go right after work and they usually have quite a bit of free samples to try. I only go for samples that do not have any lineups so I can get out of the store quickly.

  15. Whenever I shop, I bring a list and assure I am the first person to enter the area to have more time to compare prices and get the best products out there. Love the advice, Tawcan.

    • Having a list will keep you focused so you can get in and get out quickly. No point wondering around the store for an extra hour only to find yourself buying unnecessary items.

  16. I think these tips work great for other retailers, too. Really love the advice, I think that carrying a list and shopping as efficiently as possible will help save more money and stress less.

  17. We’re not Costco members, so whenever we do go with someone we end up loading up on questionable items… Definitely need to compare prices, but there are some great deals.

    You’ve got this things worked out pretty well it sounds like!

  18. Tawcan,

    I’d recommend using shoulder pads and wearing a helmet as well. The idea of purchasing Costco stock based on the absolute madness of their store in comparison to Sam’s Club, which might as well be a ghost town, has crossed my mind many times.

    A low yield and high entry point keeps many of us away, myself included. I must admit that the recent special dividend announcement, their first in three years, perked my ears up a little. But not enough to dive in.



    • Hi DWC,

      Good point on having shoulder pads and wearing a helmet. It can certainly get very dangerous! Getting Costco stock is certainly quite appealing to me. It is definitely a low yield but high dividend growth potential stock.

  19. I think you gave a great list of survival tips for shopping at Costco, some of them can also be applied to shopping at regular grocery stores. I love Costco for their free samples and bulk sizes, but yes, it is ridiculously busy every weekend. I think people go to Costco so they have something to do on the weekend. Lol. We had a membership for a year, but found that we didn’t use it very much or buy a lot since we’re only two people.

    • Hi Karen,

      Maybe going to Costco is a suburban weekend must do. Good for you on canceling the membership if you found you didn’t use it very much.

  20. I can never bring myself to go to Costco or Sam’s Club. I’ve maybe gone two or three times ever, and we have one only a few miles from our house. Those kind of places really depress me!

    • I haven’t been to Sam’s club but it sounds like similar concept as Costco. We try to go to Costco once a month if not once every two months.

  21. I am a Costco loyal member and whenever I visit Costco I always feel that I should buy their stocks. Tonnes of people lining up to purchase grocery cart full of goods from the stores? It’s any business man’s fantasy. I gotta get my hands on it soon. Come on bad news, corrections or whatever to bring down the current price of stock. Hahaha


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