Don't buy a Costco membership until you read this

Groucho Marx famously declared that he didn't care to belong to any club that would have him as a member… but we're willing to bet that he'd think differently about a Costco Wholesale membership.

Costco has grown to have a cult following since it first opened in 1983 in Seattle. Back then, archival photos show individual memberships cost $30, plus $15 for a spouse (quite a bargain compared to today's prices!), but anyone who's shopped at the warehouse club recently will recognize the same industrial shelving, oversized packages, cement floors, and crowds of eager shoppers scoring awesome deals.

Today, Costco has more than 500 warehouses across the United States and is fondly known for its food court with the $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, its private-label wines that rival award-wining vintages, and its giant-sized packages of just about everything. Even Mr. Marx might agree that this is one membership investment that can pay off big-time… and anyone can join if they have $60 for the basic fee.

But before you head to your nearest Costco to get your card, read on to learn all you need to know about joining the club.

You can check out the store for free before you invest

Here's a secret that just might blow your mind: You don't need a membership to get in the doors. There are a few ways even nonmembers can check out the fabled aisles of savings. The easiest way is probably finding a buddy who's a member and tagging along on their next shopping trip. Technically, only members can make purchases, but as long as your friend lets you scan her member card at the register, you'll be able to pay for your own 30-pack of toilet paper.

Another way to get in is to get a Costco Cash card. This gift card lets you shop without a membership, using the value on the card to pay for your gallon-sized bottle of maple syrup and your three-pound sack of lemons. Only members can buy Costco Cash cards, so, again, you'll have to know someone who is a member to get the hookup. But once you have that gift card in hand, you can give the store a real test drive — and even take some of those must-have bulk items home with you.

Know that not everything is a deal at Costco

If you're getting a membership simply because you want to save big bucks on everything you buy, know that some items sold at Costco are not much cheaper than if you bought them in a traditional grocery store. Certain cheeses and organic milk, for instance, don't seem to be that great of a deal compared to buying them at your local supermarket. In a comparison test, one report shows that certain produce, fresh chicken, and coffee were also cheaper at a regular store.

This is why it's a good idea to do a quick recon of the store before you invest in a membership. Make a list of some of your most frequently purchased items and check the prices at Costco, then compare them to what you normally pay. You might find that the savings isn't significant enough to offset the annual membership fee and, maybe, a longer drive to get there.

Another thing to consider: Like any warehouse club, most of Costco's products are sold only in larger-sized packages. It might be cheaper when you calculate the price per ounce, but for perishable items, if you can't eat it all before it goes bad, you're actually losing money (not to mention wasting food!). We're not saying a Costco membership doesn't have it's benefits, but those benefits vary based on what you regularly purchase.

You can sometimes get a membership at a discount

Does the $60 price tag seem too steep? Occasionally, Costco memberships can be found at a discount or with a bonus for new members, in the form of a gift card. In 2018, a Living Social deal, priced at $60, included the membership, a $20 Costco Cash Card (hey, you could give it to a friend who wants to check out the store without a membership!), and assorted goodies ranging from a package of batteries, to discounts on meat and online shopping.

Keep an eye on Groupon and Living Social for these types of deals, and be sure to grab them when you see them, as they're often in limited quantities. We've also seen savings like these through banks and other organizations. And occasionally there are even special deals offered for teachers, where they can get a coupon booklet with the purchase of a new membership. The booklet is good for $60 worth of merchandise, offsetting your initial investment. 

If you're not to antsy to start spending at Costco, being patient could gain you a cheaper membership — or at least a cheaper bill on your first shopping trip.

You can only pay at Costco via these methods

If you prefer to pay for your shopping with an American Express, MasterCard, Discover Card, or Diner's Club Card, you're out of luck. Costco only accepts Visa network cards for credit card payments. You can also pay via debit card, cash, check or EBT. 

Costco had a longtime relationship with American Express starting in 1999, but discontinued that partnership around 2016, which is when AmEx was no longer accepted in the warehouse stores, and Visa was phased in. While AmEx customers might be frustrated that they can't flash their plastic at Costco, Visa charges a lower fee… so hopefully those savings are passed onto members.

So, when you head to the store, make sure your debit card is loaded up or your Visa has plenty of balance available just in case some of Costco's less conventional offerings catch your eye: a digital piano or an inflatable stand-up paddleboard, perhaps?

Springing for the executive membership might be worth it

The first thing you need to know about Costco memberships is that there are a few options. The basic membership is called the Gold Star membership. Priced at $60, it's the minimum you can spend to get in the door and start throwing some of that Kirkland-brand goodness –which is often 20 percent cheaper than most other brands in the store– into your extra-large shopping cart.

The Gold Star Executive membership is the other option for individuals. It costs twice as much as the Gold Star membership, but before you dismiss it outright, think about how much you might spend at the store each year. Because you get 2 percent back on your purchases (in the form of a Costco gift certificate to spend in the store), spending around $3000 a year (that's $250/month) is enough to offset that extra $60 you spent on the higher-priced annual membership. Think about it: If you, say, buy a set of tires, book a vacation, and invest in a new iPhone or HDTV, you'll rack up that $3K in no time. Executive members also get extra benefits on certain Costco services, too.

Finally, if you own a business, Costco has Business Gold Star and Business Gold Star Executive memberships available. The business memberships cost the same as individual memberships, but you can buy items for resale, and purchase additional member cards for your account. What's more, special Costco Business Center locations stock everything from vending-machine snacks, janitorial supplies, office equipment, electronics, and commercial equipment.

If you think you'll be a true Costco fan, the Costco credit card offers even more benefits

When Costco discontinued its aforementioned AmEx partnership, it quickly aligned with Citi to offer an official Costco credit card. The Costco Anywhere credit card can be used not only at Costco (and it works in place of your membership card), but anywhere else that accepts Visa, too.

And there are plenty of perks and rebates, too, such as a percentage back for just about everything you buy with it, ranging from four percent back for certain gas purchases to one percent back for everything else. According to a review, these rebates are higher than the original American Express Costco card.

You need a membership to get the Costco Anywhere card, but if you plan to apply for the credit card, just spring for the basic Gold Star membership, since purchases with the card will get you that same 2 percent back you get with the Executive level membership.

The reward gets paid out every year in the form of a certificate, which you can redeem for cash at a Costco store, or use in the store towards more stuff… perhaps even a package of Costco's number-one selling item: toilet paper.

If you're not happy with your membership, you can always get a refund

Let's say you've weighed the pros and cons, and finally purchased a membership. But perhaps you quickly discover that the store is too far away to make it worth the long drive, you're having trouble storing all the giant packages in your small house, or you just have grown weary of fighting the free-sample-hungry crowds when you're just trying to get to the checkout with your bottle of Kirkland wine.

According to the company, if you're dissatisfied with your membership, they'll refund the fee in full at any time. No questions asked. It's not even unheard of to buy and return a Costco membership in a single day! 

So, go ahead and treat yourself to that Costco membership. What have you got to lose? Only, perhaps, a dress size if you stock up on some of Costco's priced-to-sell exercise equipment!

You can share your membership

With a Gold Star or Executive membership, you can get a second card for another member of your household; they just need to live at the same address as you do. These household members get their own photo ID membership card, and can use it to enter the store and make purchases on their own — you don't even need to be with them.

In addition to their additional household member, business members can also add members for $60 each (which, since membership costs $60 in the first place, isn't much of a deal!).

And, since shopping is usually more fun with a buddy, know that you can always bring up to two guests with you every time you shop. It's a great way to introduce Costco to potential new members… and to have an extra hand or two to load up all your bargains into the back of your SUV.

Student and members of the military can get extra perks with memberships

Are you in college, or do you someone who is? A Costco membership can help budget-challenged students with well-priced beer, Cheerios, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, and other staples of college life. And you can save even more by buying your membership through UniDays, where you are eligible for a $20 Costco card (that'll buy you a lot of ramen noodles!). Of course, your other option is to wait until you go home to visit your parents, and convince them to take you shopping with their own membership… maybe you'll get lucky and they'll even pay for your stuff!

Veterans and active members of the military are rewarded for their service to the country with a special promotion of their own. New Costco members who sign up still pay $60 for their basic membership, but they'll get that $60 back in the form of a booklet full of coupons for free and deeply discounted items.

You don't need a membership for all of Costco's services

You don't necessarily need to be a member to enjoy all of Costco's many benefits. Anyone can grab lunch or dinner at the food court. It's usually located near the exit, so just enter through the exit or near customer service to grab your favorite menu item, whether it's a slice of pizza, the giant chicken bake, or a soft-serve ice cream.

In some states, liquor must legally be available for sale to the public, without any membership restrictions. In that case, even Costco nonmembers can shop Costco's extensive liquor department — some even have their own entrances — where you can find name-brand spirits as well as the company's private-label Kirkland brand offerings, mostly in larger, 1.75-liter bottles. Keep your eye out for one of the most sought-after finds for whisky lovers: an 18-year-old single malt Scotch that sells for around $40.

Finally, nonmembers can take advantage of some of Costco's health-related services. They can get eye exams, since the optometrists are not employed by Costco (but they can't buy glasses). And, in most states, nonmembers can fill prescriptions at Costco pharmacies, enjoying lower prices on both human and pet medication. One report ranks prices on Costco medications second-lowest among a range of other pharmacies.It's important to note, though, that prices on meds are even lower for club members, thanks to the Costco Members Prescription Program.

And if you really need a way to get your hands on some of those great Costco-only products, you can shop Costco.com or via Instacart, but nonmembers pay slightly higher prices, as well as delivery fees, if applicable.

Your Costco membership gets you into any store in the world

That's right, while visiting a Costco might be the last thing on your itinerary while you're traveling internationally, tucking your membership card into your fanny pack could come in handy. You could replace a broken suitcase, grab a couple of cheap beach towels, or buy a few outfits if your luggage got lost by the airlines. Or maybe you're just missing the taste of Costco's cheap and delicious hot dogs from the food court.

There are more than 200 Costco locations outside of the U.S. as of 2019, and the company has an aggressive growth plan in Europe. And while the European Costco locations sell a lot of similar products to their American counterparts, you might be able to score some locally produced foods or other merchandise. (And actually the similarities in selections may have their perks: one homesick American in Paris found that Costco was a great place to stock up on hard-to-find items from home, like marshmallows and pumpkin pie)

Make the most of your membership with other services

Your Costco membership nets you way more than just the opportunity to buy a 30-pack of your favorite granola bar or a three-pound cut of steak. If you buy a membership, look beyond the awesome deals in the grocery aisles and see what else Costco has to offer in the way of services.

Like to travel? As a Costco member, you have access to its exclusive travel service, which offers negotiated rates on vacation packages, cruises, hotels, and even rental cars. And the company recently changed its policy so that Executive members get 2 percent back on travel purchases after the trip has been completed.

Costco services also extend to savings that aren't quite as glamorous as travel. You can get special member pricing on new or used cars (a recent promotion claimed to give Costco members the same pricing on Volvo cars as the manufacturer's own employees). More than 1 million Costco members have bought cars through Costco in the past five years (as of February 2019), with discounts being estimated at around $1000 off a more traditional car-buying avenue.

There are also savings on home repair services, appliances, insurance, and even smaller services like check printing or photo developing. Costco's automotive departments are an affordable place to buy new tires and car batteries.

Finally, you can even get prescription glasses or contacts in Costco's optical department, which are staffed with opticians and optometrists to get eye exams (and yes, they accept many forms of insurance).