The genius ways to buy Costco items without being a member

For all the benefits you're afforded by being a card-carrying Costco member, there is still that annual membership fee to contend with. Sure, it's only $60 on the low end, or $120 on the high end (though you do recoup some of that higher cost in rewards), but if you only find yourself in the market for value packs of toilet paper and jumbo-sized cans of black olives a few times each year, it's probably not worth it. Even the greatest of deals can't make up for the cost of the membership fee if you don't have a steady Costco habit.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to take advantage of many of the warehouse store's member benefits and bargain prices without being an actual member. From filling prescriptions to noshing at the food court to buying ultra-cheap booze, here are all the ways that you can shop Costco without paying an annual fee, and no, it's not just piggybacking on another member to get you in the door (though that definitely does work).

Use Instacart

Not only can Instacart be a lifesaver when you're short on time, it also allows you to shop Costco's groceries and household supplies (a selection of approximately 2,000 items) without a membership — but there is a catch, and it's a pretty big one. According to Costco's website, "Non-members can also shop directly from Instacart.com but pay a higher price than members." Aside from that higher than member price, you'll also notice that the products cost a bit more due to the added service and delivery fee. Worth it?

For those of us in need of a big once-a-year Costco grocery haul, Instacart may be a good solution — but if you find yourself getting deliveries on the regular, you're probably better off just paying the membership fee rather than those inflated prices. 

(At one time Google Express also offered this membership loophole, but the service now requires users to input an active Costco membership at checkout.)

Use Costco Cash

What's as good as a $60 per year Costco membership? Costco Cash. You're going to need a willing accomplice for this one, and that accomplice must be a Costco member, but if you find can someone to aid and abet you, then you can shop at the warehouse store anytime you want, no membership required. 

That's right — flash a Costco Cash card (the company's gift card) at the door, and it's the same as having a membership card. You'll waltz right in, and can then use the gift card to make any purchase at the register at the same prices as all those suckers paying an annual fee. You can even use it to fill up your car with cheap Costco gas.

Using the card is the easy part though — according to the company's website you must be a member to buy or reload a Costco Cash card, and that's where your accomplice comes in. You front the cash, they buy the card, you enjoy all the membership perks and keep the $60 in your pocket. Win, win.

Eat at the food court

The $1.50 hot dog and soda combo at the Costco food court seems like reason enough to fork over the money for the annual membership fee, but it turns out that you can chow down on all the dogs you want even if you're not a member. 

The path of least resistance here is finding a food court that's located outside. Just beware that although you don't need a membership card at the register, you may need to pay with cash. If your only option is an in-store food court, Cooking Light confirms that all you need to do is tell the employee at the door that you're there to eat, and you'll be allowed entrance sans Costco card. You may still need cash though, unless your store has digital kiosks that accept credit cards (or even better, unless your store has registers at the food court that accept cards). And if all else fails, flash that Costco Cash card. Even if it's got a zero balance, it will get you in the door and on your way to delicious eats.

Buy booze

Throwing a party and in need of embarrassing amounts of alcohol? If you happen to live in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Texas, or Vermont, you can take advantage of Costco's bargain basement booze prices and you don't even need to be a member. (Though as SFGate points out, if you find yourself buying enough beer, wine, and spirits, the price of the membership would easily pay for itself — that's how competitive their prices are.)

How did those 12 states get so lucky? According to the Los Angeles Times, it dates back to a "post-Prohibition blue law that was intended to curtail speakeasies." Establishments that sell alcohol "cannot legally require a membership for purchases," and must make it available to the general public. Just tell the employee at the door what you're there for, and you'll be granted entrance without a Costco card.

One Michigan Redditor tested this booze-buying hack out and reported that while they were indeed able to enter the store and make the purchase without a membership, they felt unwelcome and even experienced some eye-rolling from the manager. But hey, at those prices, a little membership shaming might just be worth it. 

Fill prescriptions

A prescription is as good as a Costco card when it comes to getting through the door, member or not, thanks to a federal law that says membership stores cannot prevent non-members access to pharmacy services. That's good news considering that the warehouse store's prescription drug prices are hard to beat, according to a 2018 survey by Consumer Reports. When it comes to brick-and-mortar pharmacies, Costco's prices are lower than those of drugstores like Walgreens, Rite Aid, or CVS/Target, and it's not by mere pennies, it's by hundreds of dollars. The report details that a cash price (meaning without insurance) of five commonly prescribed generic drugs would run you $105 at Costco compared to $752 to $928 at the aforementioned drugstores.

Keep in mind though that this doesn't entitle you to buy over-the-counter pharmacy items like Advil and Claritin — you will only be able to fill a prescription from the pharmacist. (Unless you have a Costco Cash card, then you can go to town.)

Also important to note is that while Costco's drug prices are generally lower, members do enjoy even lower prices than non-members through the Costco Member Prescription Program. Just one more perk to membership you'll have to weigh for your household. 

Get health and wellness services

Just as Costco can't deny a non-member access to their pharmacy to fill a prescription, they also can't deny them other health and wellness services. And as with their prescription drug prices, their prices on these services are hard to beat (and in some cases, even free).

According to CBS News, non-members are eligible to receive free screenings for diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart health, as well as free hearing tests at locations with a hearing aid center. When it comes to flu shots, members and non-members alike will pay just $19.99 at the Costco pharmacy, compared to up to $70 at the CVS Minute Clinic (without insurance, as of 2019). And for eye exams, non-members can visit the opticians located within stores since they work independently. The bad news here is that because the eyewear and contact lenses are sold by Costco, you can't purchase those without a membership (or a Costco Cash card).

Shop online

There are so many perks to online shopping: No need to brush your hair, no need to put on pants, no need to leave your warm and cozy couch on a Sunday afternoon. And in Costco.com's case, no need to be a member. As with most of these Costco shopping hacks though, there's a catch.

You can shop all you want on the warehouse store's website, and proceed to checkout without a membership number. However, you will be subject to a five percent surcharge on all items, and — this is a big one — not all items are available to non-members. If you come across a "member only item," you're out of luck entirely, and oftentimes it seems that the best deals on electronics, appliances, and jewelry are member only items. 

But look at it this way… If the item you're in the market for is available and still cheaper than anywhere else even with the surcharge, you win — and you just saved yourself a $60 membership fee.

Use the ol' bait and switch

It is a well-known fact that Costco will refund your money on just about anything — even a dead Christmas tree in January. (Yes, that really happened.) And it turns out that their membership fee is no exception. According to the company's website, "We will cancel and refund your membership fee in full at any time if you are dissatisfied." 

Does that mean that you could pay your membership fee, shop to your heart's content, and then demand a refund of your $60? Apparently, it does. But considering that 91 percent of the members in the U.S. and Canada renew their annual memberships, it doesn't sound like too many people take advantage of this particular loophole, and of course we would never condone willfully scamming the store out of a membership fee. But if you're legitimately unhappy with the benefits that come along with being a Costco member, it's always an option.