Huge Mistakes Everyone Makes When Shopping At Sam's Club

To bulk, or not to bulk, that is the question many consumers grapple with. Is it more cost-effective to buy at a discount in large quantities, even when paying an annual membership fee at a warehouse club?

Fortunately, in the 400-something years since Shakespeare wrote these famous lines for his tragically cost-conscious shopper Hamlet, we've compiled data to help people make smart decisions about where to purchase groceries, toiletries, cleaning products, electronics, and other goods.  

Generally speaking, many items are cheaper at Sam's Club than at supermarkets and big box stores. You can usually save around 30 to 40 percent over the same trip to most grocery stores or about 20 percent compared to Walmart (Sam's Club's parent company). It would seem, then, that you could save enough over a year to make it worth the membership fee, which starts at $45 at Sam's Club as of this writing.

It's not quite so simple, though. Between membership fees and all the common mistakes people make when shopping at Sam's Club, warehouse clubs don't always save consumers money over time. But if you're hip to these missteps, you can certainly make membership worthwhile.

Assuming everything costs less at Sam's Club

The single biggest mistake people make while shopping at Sam's Club (or other warehouse clubs) is blindly assuming everything there is cheaper. It's not. And if you pick up items that cost more than they do elsewhere, it cancels out some, or potentially even all of your savings on other items. 

For example, according to Kiplinger, you typically pay more for name-brand cereal, soda, diapers, tissues, and printer ink at Sam's Cub. Canned goods, toilet paper, pasta, laundry detergent, multi-packs of single-serving snack bags, disposable party supplies, books, and DVDs, also tend to be more costly, says Business Insider. According to Forbes, you're usually not better off buying dryer sheets, sports drinks, or office supplies at a warehouse club.

Also consider sales and coupons. Sam's Club does not accept any manufacturer or competitor coupons — making them even cheaper when they're bought at grocery stores, big box stores, or Amazon. Plus, these and other items are frequently offered on sale or as buy-one-get-one-free (BOGO) deals at other stores, something that rarely happens at Sam's Club.

Spending more at Sam's Club to make it worth it

You might not think of the seemingly innocuous floor of Sam's Club as the front lines of a raging psychological war... but it is. The Sam's Club masterminds have cleverly pitted you against yourself. Emotions versus logic. Beast versus brain. Id versus ego. And too often, the former wins and your financial planning loses.

Why did you pay $45 for a year's membership? You bought the opportunity to save money. So it's in your head that you have to earn that money back in savings so you're not a sucker.

Therein lies the trap: You spend more to save more. If you fork over $7 for something you wouldn't have otherwise purchased, who cares that you got it for 48 cents less than it costs at Target? You haven't saved 48 cents... You're just out $7.  

This phenomenon gets uglier if you spring for the Plus membership, which costs $100 per year as of this writing. You have more upfront expenditure to make up, plus you earn 2 percent cash back on qualifying purchases. This "reward" makes it even more tempting to get a bunch of stuff you wouldn't otherwise buy.

Buying more from Sam's Club than you can use

Buying something cheaper isn't necessarily the same as spending less money. Since package sizes aren't the same, to make fair price comparisons between Sam's Club and another store, you look not at purchase prices, but at cost by standardized units (e.g., per ounce, per pound, per can, etc.).

At warehouse clubs, you can only buy large packages of most goods. If you use it all, you successfully saved some cash. But if not, and you toss some because it spoils or expires, you wasted money.

This means some products aren't smart purchases at Sam's Club — especially those with quickly approaching expiration dates. For example, buying tons of produce, certain dairy, and other highly perishable food likely leads to waste. Think twice about buying massive containers of anything, because if you throw something away before it's used, you're wasting money — no matter how little you paid for it.

Bypassing OTC medicine at Sam's Club

Of course, not everything necessarily needs to be used before it's expiration date. In fact, if you're not buying medicine from Sam's Club because of the expiration date, you're making a huge mistake. 

We're talking about over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, sold in gargantuan quantities and representing some of the best opportunities for savings at Sam's Club. The issue is that expiration dates on medicine are usually just arbitrary dates ranging anywhere from one to five years after production, included simply because they're required by law. In most cases, they don't indicate a point when the drug loses efficacy or becomes unsafe. In fact, about 90 percent of common medications remain safe and effective even 15 years after their expiration date.

We're only talking about OTC products; for prescriptions — especially the life-saving-type stuff — respect the use-by date (or at least talk to your pharmacist).\

Buying more unhealthy packaged food from Sam's Club

Most mistakes we cover here relate to money, and whether or not you're getting good bang for your buck by shopping at Sam's Club. But let's take a minute to talk about something that's almost as important as money: your health.

So many of the over-sized offerings at Sam's Club are giant packages of ultra-processed foods, which are usually high in undesirable ingredients like refined grains, sodium, added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives, and artificial flavors and colors. They're also generally high in calories and low in nutrients. A diet consisting of lots of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose levels, diabetes, heart disease, and other unpleasant conditions, according to The Washington Post.

Sam's Club shoppers buy more of this junk food out of the drive to save — Sam's Club carries a lot of those foods, and they tend to have a longer shelf life. Research has found that, on average, warehouse club consumers spend five percent more per person in the household per month on packaged foods, and that each person eats eight percent more calories. 

Succumbing to impulse purchases at Sam's Club

Most environments where you buy things include subtle encouragements to buy more things. Sam's Club is no exception. 

Warehouse clubs employ the tricks of the retail trade to get their shoppers to buy more expensive items, like clothing, fancy kitchen gadgets, and electronics. They use careful placement in an intricately designed floor plan to make sure you trek through most of the store before you find the basic items you're looking for. That means you probably see and notice items you normally wouldn't, increasing the likelihood that you'll buy them. 

They also often spur you along by triggering some fear of missing out, labeling pricier products positioned for impulse purchases as "limited quantity" or "limited time only."

If you're succumbing to these impulse purchases and buying things you hadn't planned or budgeted for, chances are you aren't saving money. In fact, you're probably making a big mistake by purchasing a huge package of something you don't need and the rest of your family might not even like. In that case, your Sam's Club membership isn't helping you at all.

Going to Sam's Club without a shopping list

So far, most of the mistakes you make at Sam's Club fit into the theme of buying stuff you don't need. 

There's a simple trick to prevent this: Make a shopping list beforehand. Oh, and remember to take it with you. 

Armed with a shopping list, you only need muster the strength to stick to it. If it's not on the list, don't buy it. If you see something in the store you really need but forgot to put on the list, make an exception — but no cheating by softening the definition of "need."

Having a list while grocery shopping is a good habit with compelling benefits, anyway. It saves time in the store because you're not trying to remember what you need and do your meal planning. That eliminates browsing that can cause you to buy more, and unhealthy food decisions are often made impulsively. The list keeps you from forgetting items too, preventing wasted time going back to the store, and probably buying extra stuff since you're there.

Overlooking non-grocery items at Sam's Club

Not every mistake you can make at Sam's Club involves buying things you don't need. Lots of people don't buy things they should at Sam's Club, and that's another big mistake.

When you need certain more expensive non-grocery items, your warehouse club may be the best place to buy. For example, you can save $20, $40, even over $100 getting a new set of tires at Sam's Club instead of an automotive shop. Some televisions cost hundreds of dollars less than at an electronics retailer. 

Sam's Club probably won't be the first place that comes to mind when you want a new designer watch, but it may very well have the sweetest deal you can find. And where do you usually go for your caskets? The funeral parlor? Savvy consumers save hundreds on final resting vessels at Sam's Club.

Not filling up your gas tank while you're there

Your Sam's Club gas station is another good place to enjoy that warm, fuzzy, elitist members-only feeling. Laugh haughtily at the passing motorists who patronize regular old gas stations, knowing that you're filling up your tank at prices that are often 10 to 20 percent lower than what they're paying.

Take the time to appreciate the ease of getting in, gassing up, and getting out of a Sam's Club gas station, too. While Sam's came in second place overall in a national survey of best places to get gas in its category for warehouse clubs, big box stores, and supermarkets (getting edged out by Costco), it ranked first for this consideration. That's thanks to its streamlined setup with a single designated entrance and exit, eliminating the typical nonsense of vehicles coming, going, and approaching pumps from every which way. Sam's took second place for other important factors like price, pump speed, fuel quality, and appearance.

If you're buying your gas anywhere but Sam's Club, you're making a big mistake.

Not purchasing gift cards at Sam's Club

If you've never paid any attention to the gift card selection at Sam's Club, you may be missing out on prime opportunities for significant savings. Especially if you're one of those people who buys everyone gift cards as presents instead of giving your family, friends, and Secret Santa designee something thoughtful that shows you know and care about them.   

Normally, of course, you purchase gift cards for the exact amount of their value. But not at Sam's Club. The store sells gift card at up to a 25 percent discount on the total value of the card. Full disclosure: Most of the discounts aren't that high, but there are certainly decent savings available on gift cards to help you earn back the expense of that annual membership fee and benefit further.

And of course, when you're buying gift cards at a discount like that, it would also be a mistake to only buy them as gifts. If you see a selection of cards for places you frequent, stock up and save big down the road. 

Not buying wine and other alcohol at Sam's Club

Sure, not buying wine and other alcohol is pretty much always a mistake. But if you're a cost-conscious consumer, failing to pick up booze at Sam's Club is extra mistakey. And, if you're not a member, you can still purchase alcohol at any Sam's Club; thanks to a law prohibiting beer, wine, and liquor sales to members-only groups, this part of the store is open to all in some states.

There are good deals to be had, and on good drinks. Sam's Club made some waves in the wine world a few years ago when they introduced their Member's Mark Chardonnay for $8 and people actually liked it. The hallowed Beverage Tasting Institute even gave it an "Exceptional" score of 92 points. Plenty of wines retailed at twice as much don't get nearly that high a score. Sam's Club has since released other store-brand wines, like a Cabernet, prosecco, and sparkling wine. Not partaking in all of those would be a huge mistake.

Member's Mark wines aren't the only alcohol bargains at Sam's Club. For instance, you might score macro beer for 25 percent less than you'd pay elsewhere, or vodka for 15 percent less. And no matter what anyone tells you, there's no shame in buying booze in bulk. In fact, some would say it's admirable.

Making hasty electronics purchases from Sam's Club

You can definitely find winning deals on TVs at Sam's Club. But savvy shoppers also know to do their due diligence before buying high-ticket items, including electronics. There are definitely some regrettable mistakes to be made when purchasing electronics at a warehouse club. Only fools rush in. Or get suckered making expensive impulse buys.

Getting the best price on a television is much more about timing than where you buy, according to Consumer Reports. Buying a TV on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, two weeks before the Super Bowl, or in early April when older models are phased out to make room for the new ones, can yield significant savings. Similar strategies work with other electronics, too.    

Also, pay close attention to exactly what you're getting when you purchase electronics at Sam's Club. Before simply being wooed by the price tag, check all the specs to be sure it's not a lower-quality version of the same product you intended to get. Make sure it comes with everything it should come with, too. Sometimes, the models sold at warehouse clubs don't come with the accessories you expect; for example, printers don't always include the necessary cables to connect to a computer, and might only come with a teeny bit of ink.

Not taking advantage of Sam's Club's app

If you just can't bear to wait in line to pay at Sam's Club, or if you're legitimately pressed for time and don't like the looks of all those people stacked up at the cash registers, there's an app for that. Download the store's Scan & Go app to your phone. It lets you scan items' bar codes as you shop and then pay through the app when you're done. You need to flash the digital receipt to an employee before waltzing out with all that stuff though, so don't get any ideas. The app also lets you track your spending, so it helps you budget and notice if you're making mistakes and wasting money on extraneous purchases.

You don't even have to squander your precious time shopping in the store at all. With Club Pickup, you can order everything you want and pay for it online, then pick it up as soon as four hours later. As an added bonus, removing yourself from the in-store shopping experience eradicates the risk of impulse purchases and other wasteful spending. Also, you can do quick price comparisons online before placing your order to confirm that you're getting the best deal on everything you're buying.

Going to Sam's Club without your bargain buddy

What if we told you there's one common mistake people make while shopping at Sam's Club that, if eliminated, could spare you from making a bunch of the other mistakes we've talked about. And what if we told you that it would save you even more money? Well, we're telling you that now. Going to Sam's Club alone is one of the worst mistakes you can make. 

Find yourself a shopping buddy — someone to go shopping at Sam's Club with you. This is a particularly good idea for single people, or couples without kids... or really just anyone who likes to shop at warehouse clubs. Split the cost of membership, and split those enormous quantities of stuff you can't possibly get through (and their cost, as well). 

But the benefits don't end there. You and your shopping buddy can act as enforcers, or the voice of each other's conscience or financial adviser. Prevent each other from straying from your respective shopping lists, falling madly in love with something you sample, or purchasing a new washer/dryer set as an impulse buy.