Costco Anxiety: It's Real And You're Not Alone

There is no question that shopping at Costco can save you money on your groceries, if not your furniture, electronics, t-shirts, towels, pharmaceutical needs, travel arrangements, etc. And that, in theory, should feel good and make you eager to go there. But therein also lies a very real catch-22. With so many departments to shop in, so many choices in each, and so much in the way of bulk offerings, there is also no question that the thought of a trip to Costco could bring up feelings of anxiety and dread. So much is at stake, after all. 

There are deals to be had, but which are the ones that are right for you? Should you be focusing just on groceries? You've heard the rotisserie chicken is the best deal on chicken anywhere, but should you spend time waiting in the deli for the next batch to come out? Or should you be using your time to hit up the outdoor furniture display? Or is the rotisserie chicken really just a loss leader that gets you in the door for some budget-sucking impulse buying of outdoor furniture? Or a flat-screen television?

Yes, Virginia, Costco anxiety is real. You are not alone. 

That feeling when size matters, and it's just too gosh darn big

One of the most terrifying things about Costco, at least for some people, is the sheer size of its warehouses. The average Costco store registers at around 146,000 square feet, according to Cheapism. To offer a bit of perspective on how gargantuan that actually is, we did a bit of research and found that the average Whole Foods is comprised of between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet (via the Whole Foods website), and the average Trader Joe's is 15,000 (via UX Collective). "There were giant TVs to my left, stuffed animals and toys to my right, then a sea of massive aisles of stuff (for lack of a better word) for what felt like miles in front of me," wrote Lauren Wicks of their anxiety-inducing first trip to Costco (via EatingWell). "I took a big gulp and entered the maze." 

But it's not just the square footage of Costco's stores that can feel overwhelming. As Wicks went on to say, "the shelves were absolutely massive — and they had to be to fit the 10-pound bags of rice stacked on top of each other." Speaking of which, it's easy to imagine that hoisting such large-sized bulk items from the shelf to cart would easily overwhelm someone for whom 10 pounds is a significant load. 

Buying in bulk can force you to choose between undesirable options

One of the reasons Costco is able to offer such good deals on its items is that it sells them in bulk. That means, among other things, that Costco doesn't have to pay anyone to unpack its warehouse-sized boxes and arrange them neatly on its shelves. Ostensibly, some of those savings are passed along to the customer. The only problem is that even the most skilled Costco shopper will occasionally be faced with the decision of whether to buy something in bulk when they know that they really only need a fraction of the bulk size. 

Writing for EatingWell, Lauren Wicks recalled facing that dilemma: "I began searching for 'semi-normal-sized' amounts of my usual staples ... Would I even be able to eat through these bulk items prior to reaching their 'Best Before' date in 2022? (Looking at you, 18-ounce container of garlic powder.)"

Of course, such questions can lead to so many others. For example, would it be worth calling a friend to see if they want to split said bulk item, as Business Insider recommends? And if so, what will the logistics of that look like now that you have to coordinate your bulk purchases with at least one other person? And there's still the question of whether you have the space to store a bulk-sized version of an item of which you really only need a small amount. 

As all the questions and unknowns mount, so too could the anxiety.

Buying in bulk can lead to tedious or possibly embarrassing complications

Let's say that you've battled your way through the anxiety of making your way through a seemingly endless maze of aisles packed from floor to ceiling with enormous boxes. And let's say that you've already used up the brain cells required to calculate that it is, in fact, more likely than not that you will use up two 48-ounce canisters of peanut butter before they go bad (sometime around two to three months after you open them, according to Healthline, which you had to consult while standing in front of said peanut butter display). 

Even then, there's still the matter of how you're going to handle and store massive tubs of [insert bulk item], not to mention the matter of how you're going to feel about carrying those tubs to the trunk of your car. That daunting prospect dawned on Lauren Wicks while shopping at Costco. "There was no way I was going to be able to haul more than a few items at a time to my car," wrote Wicks, who later said, "I felt like everyone was laughing at me as they watched me try to fit (read: wrestle) a two-quart jar of soy sauce next to a three-liter tin of extra-virgin olive oil into my little canvas bag" (via EatingWell).

In other words, to paraphrase Gloria Estefan, in one way or another, eventually, the anxiety is "going to get you."

Costco makes you stand in line just to LEAVE the store

You might want to come a little closer as we talk about this one because we're trying to keep our voices down seeing as this is a topic that most devoted Costco shoppers don't seem to like to talk about. What we're talking about here is the weirdness of being required to stand in line in order to leave Costco – after you've already endured a hellishly long checkout line. But that's exactly what the deal is at Costco. 

When all you want to do is get in your car and drive home, Costco sits in the driver's seat, and some dude in a red vest is standing there demanding to check your receipt. And being "trapped" in a giant warehouse until it's your turn with Red Vest could arguably feel like a threat to one's autonomy. After all, you can't leave on your own terms. According to Psychology Today, losing autonomy is one of the five primal fears we all share. Who even knew such a massive, sprawling space could sound so claustrophobic?

For some people, checking receipts might feel accusatory. A Cheapism piece complained that although the process is apparently meant to prevent overcharging customers, the receipt check "makes us feel like criminals, and waiting in yet another line after we just got done checking out is especially irritating." In a Reddit thread addressing the issue, some commenters used phrases like "get so up in arms" or "hate it so much" to describe customer reactions.

So many people

"Hell is other people," wrote existentialist philosopher John Paul Sartre in his play, "No Exit." Contrary to popular belief, Sartre was not suggesting that people suck and interpersonal interaction is inherently problematic (via Vox). What he was suggesting is that the presence of other people can have the tendency to strain one's ability to maintain delusions about one's self. But putting that rather esoteric notion aside, the fact is that at Costco, hell is other people for the simple reason that there are just too ... many ... of ... them.

It doesn't matter if their presence is challenging your personal belief that you're, say, a patient and tolerant type, or something else. What matters is that there are just so many other people. Any lab rat would probably tell you that overcrowding is a serious bummer if they could (via a 2000 study published in the journal of Metabolic Brain Disease). And some people may feel exactly the same way, according to The Cut

So much pressure

There are a lot of reasons why you might feel anxious during a shopping trip to Costco or even contemplating one, and many have to do with the whole "enormity" of it all. But this one has to do not with the size of the store, but rather with the amount of importance we've come to place on getting a bargain on groceries. Of course, staying within one's budget is important, which should not be minimized. And while bargain-hunting should be a personal endeavor with benefits that are personal to you, thanks to the influence of social media, it can sometimes feel like a competition to see who saved the most money and who found the best deals. One could argue that Costco gets people to spend more money by appealing to the fear of missing out (FOMO) on deals and the chain's ever-rotating inventory. 

Someone who feels anxious from FOMO might want to blame the media, pointing to articles like "Costco Hacks You Need To Know," "Costco Food Court Hacks You Need to Know," and "Secrets of the Costco Bakery You'll Wish You Knew Sooner" as contributing factors. But please allow us to say the intentions behind such pieces are pure. We genuinely want you to know how to make your way through Costco in the most economically advantageous manner possible. What we don't want is for you to experience Costco anxiety. So perhaps now that you know some of its possible root causes, you'll be able to find a way to outsmart it.