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10 tips for saving money (and your sanity) at Costco and big box stores

TODAY logo TODAY 2/12/2017 Karen B. Gibbs

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If you regularly shop membership warehouse clubs like Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club, or big box stores like Walmart and Target, you understand why they offer headache remedies in the front of the store and booze in the back. Sometimes you need both to endure the experience!

But Jordan Page, mother of five and popular blogger at Fun, Cheap or Free and Budget Boot Camp manages to do it all and not only stay sane, she also enjoys it.

Click ahead as she shares her tried-and-true tips for shopping the mega stores.

1. Decide which store is right for you

    © Rogelio V. Solis/AP; John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images     Membership stores: If there are only one or two people in your household, Page suggests you weigh the cost of membership against money saved. If you feel you've not saved enough money over the year to pay for the membership, ask the manager if you could get a refund.

Sometimes, between the cost of membership (Costco: $55 for Gold membership and $110 for executive membership; and Sam's: $45 for Sam's Savings, Business and Military membership and $100 for Sam's Plus membership) and buying more items than you really need, you don't really save. "When a baby comes along," says Page, "it's another story because you can really save on diapers and formula."

Big Box stores: Unlike membership stores, Page says big box stores are a great choice for everyone. "I think if you have one of these stores within a reasonable drive, it's worth it to shop there."

Big box stores honor manufacturer's coupons. "I don't believe much in couponing — I prefer to shop sales—but for those who do use coupons, these stores usually accept them."

Big box stores offer apps that give extra savings to customers. For example, the Cartwheel app at Target gives special discounts on certain items scanned with the app. Walmart's Savings Catcher app refunds the difference in price as compared to top local competitors' advertised prices.

2. Make a smart shopping list

    © Walmart     One of the smartest ways to navigate these monster stores is to make a list before you go. Not just any list, says Page. "If you're going to a warehouse store, think about those items that you can buy in bulk to save money but which won't break your budget or end up getting wasted or unused."

For example, unless your family can realistically consume five pounds of bananas in a couple of days, you'd do better to buy exactly the number of bananas you need at your local grocer.

Download a shopping list app and keep your shopping list in your phone and not on paper. "You always have your phone with you," says Page, "so you can add to the list as needed. I keep two lists: one for Costco and the other for my local grocery store."

Check-out app: Sam's Club spokesperson Tara Raddohl describes Scan & Go, an app that allows members to scan their own items by phone as they shop. When they're finished, they pay on the app using a debit or credit card. The greeter at the door checks the purchases against the online receipt before the customer leaves. No cashier and no long lines! At this time, this is not available at Costco or BJ's.

Your phone also has a calculator, which comes in handy when figuring out the price per unit of an item. It can also keep a running total of what you're buying so you won't go over budget.

Even your camera can help you find the best deals: "Someone told me how her phone's camera helps her shop for the best prices," says Page. "She takes a photo of an item along with the price on the shelf. When she's in another store, she pulls up the picture, compares prices and knows where the bargain is."

3. Discover the best time to shop

Tips for saving money at Costco and big box stores:    © Getty Images    Since every store is different, talk with workers at your favorite store for tips on when to shop. Looking for the freshest produce? Ask workers in the produce section when they get deliveries. Want to make sure your favorite grocery items are in stock? Ask stockers what day shelves are usually stocked. Don't like long lines? Ask the cashiers for the best shopping days and times.

Some stores honor the sales in two week's ads on a certain day. For example, on Wednesdays, Sprouts shoppers can reap the benefits of the sale ad from the previous week as well as those from the current week, says Page.

Of course, if you're shopping online, any time's a good time to shop.

- Sam's Club members can shop online and either have their order delivered to their home for a fee or pick up purchases at the store the next day at no extra charge — and there's no minimum purchase required.

- Costco offers online shopping and home delivery for a fee. They do not have online shopping/in-store pick-up at this time.

- Walmart offers free same day pick-up but requires a $50 minimum purchase.

- Target offers free shipping on purchases over $25 and same day pick up at stores, with no minimum purchase.

4. Take advantage of rebates and sales

   © Danny Johnston/AP    While Costco and Sam's Club do not accept manufacturers' coupons, BJ's does accept them. In addition, all three stores have their own coupon and rebate offers that can be extremely valuable.

Coupon discounts are automatically taken at the register. Keep the sale booklet handy when making your list or shopping; or get the app for their sales items for the month — including special seasonal sales like Christmas.

Keep in mind that stores like Costco rotate sales every two to three months. That means that, if there's a coupon on coffee, for example, buy enough to last until coffee goes on sale again two to three months later. Ask your local store how often sales are rotated.

Learn to read the codes: At Costco, if an item is not going to be restocked, there will be an asterisk on the price label on the shelf front. So, if you love pitted dates, for example, and you see an asterisk next to the price, it's time to stock up.

Likewise, if an item is marked down at Costco, the price will always end in $.97. If you find an item that you like marked with an asterisk and ending in .97, grab all your budget can bear before it's gone. (At Sam's, sales prices end with ISB and are in the Instant Savings Book that comes out several times a year.)

5. Utilize 30-day-low-price guarantees

    © PhotoAlto/James Hardy/Getty Images     Check to see if your warehouse or big box store refunds customers the difference in price if the item purchased goes on sale within 30 days. Costco does, but check with your local Costco store to see if it requires the original receipt or if employees will look up your receipt using your membership number.

Raddohl says Sam's 100% customer satisfaction allows customers to return the higher priced item and re-purchase it at the lower price, essentially offering the same advantage to customers.

6. Compare prices at the pharmacy

    © Fuse/Getty Images     At both Sam's and Costco, shoppers do not need a membership card in order to purchase prescription medicines. Compare their prices with those at your local pharmacy. You may discover a substantial savings on your prescriptions, plus they sometimes offer free health screenings for high blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.

7. Check out store brands

    © Tim Boyle/Bloomberg     Warehouse and big box stores do not stock every brand of every item made. If they did, they'd lose money, says Page. To guarantee the best price for customers, they usually stock the most popular brand of an item, like Bounty paper towels, as well as the store brand of paper towels.

Here's what you don't know: At Costco, many times the same company makes both products. They are not identical — one may be thinner or larger — but they are close in quality.

Raddohl says Sam's store brands are made by an established manufacturer, as with paper towels, or an independent provider, as with wine and olive oil. In either case, the consumer gets a quality item at a reduced price.

"If you haven't tried a warehouse store brand item, give it a try," says Page.

8. Score in the meat department

    © Image Source/Getty Images     You can often find very good meat at warehouse stores, including the kind of prime beef you'd find at a restaurant.

"The meat may not be the cheapest price per pound," says Page, "but the quality is very good."

9. Look beyond food

   © Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images    Most people shop for food at warehouse stores but the biggest dollar savings are often on the other side of the store, in the non-food section, says Page. By purchasing bulk sizes of non-perishables like laundry detergent and baby diapers (one of Costco's biggest sellers), you save the most money — and these products won't spoil.

Other money-saving non-perishables that offer substantial savings are electronics, jewelry, eyeglasses, photos, tires and gasoline.

"The savings on one of these items often pays for the membership for a year," says Raddohl.

RELATED: What to buy and skip at warehouse stores

10. Plan ahead for seasonal items

    © Paul Sakuma/AP Photos     Warehouse stores operate on an early in/early out method. That means that seasonal items, like yard and lawn products, appear in their stores months ahead of their competitors. You need to think ahead, too, and stock up when seasonal items become available. If you buy one or two such items each time you shop, you won't have to pay full price at your regular store later.

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