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the Costco effect

I have a complicated relationship with Costco.  When I was young, my brother and I would spend Saturdays there with my parents, shopping for food and cigarettes for the smoke shop that my parents owned inside a tall office building called the Pacwest Center.  A smoke shop is a convenience store that sells food and cigarettes and lottery tickets.  A lot of smoke shops are owned by Koreans.  We spent every weekend unloading inventory on the loading dock where the trash bins are kept, and I spent a lot of hours working the cash register and selling Snapples to lawyers and architects who often looked down their nose at my family and talked really sloooowly to us while buying their Powerball tickets.  Two years after my dad died, the property managers decided they wanted a change, and kicked my mom out of the store to which she’d given more than ten years of her life.  That’s a real immigrant story.  I became a lawyer so I’d never have to feel that powerless again.

Anyway, spending time in Costco reminds me of those years of my parents’ backbreaking labor, which put me through four years of an Ivy League education.  In case it is not evident, I feel a debt to my parents that I know I can never repay.  The point of all this history is to explain why I don’t enjoy shopping at Costco, when I am capable of enjoying shopping almost anywhere else, including GNC and Hot Topic.

Personal stuff aside, I also don’t enjoy shopping at Costco because it has been my experience that it is not possible to leave that store without spending at least $300.  I’ve tried it, and failed, repeatedly.  Eventually I cut myself off completely, and didn’t step into a Costco for years.  But recently, my family’s vast consumption of fruit got me thinking about Costco again.  And when my friend Suzanne told me that she treats Costco like her grocery store, and can get out of there on her weekly visits without paying more than $100, I decided it was time for a reappraisal.

I’ve gone twice since I got a new Costco card.  And here’s my reappraisal, with all due respect to my dear Suzanne: it is still not possible to get out of a Costco for less than $300.  It was exactly as I remembered.  Now, as then, Costco makes me do some crazy ass sh*t.  Like this:

20120805-220704.jpg

I eat garbonzo beans like ten beans at a time.  At that rate, I will get through this bounty in approximately four years, during which time these cans will take up a lot of valuable pantry space.  I like garbonzo beans.  I do.  But liking has nothing to do with it.  When I see a flat of eight cans of garbonzo beans being sold for less than $6.00, I feel that it would be morally wrong not to buy them.  I feel this emotion often at Costco.  I call it the “Costco Effect.”  When other people see things being sold for extremely low prices, they think: bargain.  When I see things being sold for extremely low prices, I feel the extreme guilt associated with stealing.  I mean, how is it possible to pick, process, and can eight cans of garbonzo beans and sell them for $6.00, and still make a profit?  It can’t be.  And though it is completely irrational, the only way to assuage my feelings of guilt is to buy the product, and lots of it.  It’s how I play my part in a completely messed-up capitalist society.  My role is to buy.  And so I do.

At Costco prices, you just keep loading up your cart, because everything seems so damn cheap.  And everything they sell is so damn good.  The insidious thing about Costco, of course, is that it doesn’t take that many items at $12 or $15 each to add up to $300.  There are few shopping experiences worse than the feeling you get at Costco when all your items are on the conveyer belt and the cashier is scanning all your items, and as you watch the tally, you feel the urgent need to start removing things from the conveyer belt.  When I was younger, I was too self-conscious to do anything about it, but now I have a mortgage to think about.  So this time around I pulled off a whole fillet of salmon, a flat of Vitamin Water, and Tom’s Fusion razorblades.

It’s sad, but if something’s gotta give at Costco, it’s usually gonna be Tom’s stuff.  Especially if the item is a package of razor blades that costs $45.  You can buy 50 cans of garbonzo beans for $45.  That’s a whole lot of hummus.  While I’m on the subject, what is the deal with Gillette razor blades?  Unless each of the five blades on each cartridge is hand-sharpened by some blacksmith in some forge in Scotland, I fail to see how Gillette razor blades can cost as much as they do.  You can get a KNIFE for $45.  Like, a Wusthof.  I just don’t get it.  Which is why, until Tom can justify the expenditure, he can enjoy some Bic disposables.

Anyway, Costco.  For cheap.  I say it can’t be done.  If you think it can, please share your tips, for the benefit of all.

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62 Comments Post a comment
  1. THey just opened in A2 a couple months ago and I started going again. I have some posts coming up about their Kirkland-brand booze – in short, the wine’s a terrific buy and the tequila is better than Patron at a third of the price. So it’s been a fiesta here for a while.

    Anyway, I was averaging 200-300 as well but that’s gone down to 125-150 for necessities. What happens is I plunk down the money on something and I don’t have to buy that thing again for months. Eventually the tab goes down. Notice I said necessities? Because I still end up buying stuff I don’t need – like the Kirkland down jacket. SWEEETTTT!

    November 27, 2012
    • let me know how this works out in six months. i, for one, will be avoiding Costco until the holidays are over. because they have amazing holiday stuff

      November 27, 2012
  2. OMG I just started following you and you are hilarious! But this post right here makes me want to go out and get a Costco card! Haha!

    August 24, 2012
    • they have good jewelry. so beware

      August 24, 2012
    • Liz Driscoll #

      As Costco has the cheapest organic boneless chicken breasts around, I went yesterday to purchase ONLY this one item.
      However, of course as I made my way to the registers I passed and passed up many tempting items…until I saw winter vests on a table for $39.99 that were REVERSIBLE with ski fabric on one side and various faux furs like leopard on the other. These were the ugliest vests I’ve ever seen, BUT they were only $39.99 and so soft, and the longer I stood there, yes, kinda cute. I was caught in the Cosco grip and stood there for an absurdly long time deciding which one I “should” get.
      Don’t be surprised family and friends if you find the perfect regift under your tree!

      September 13, 2012
      • it never pays to stand around at costco, looking at something. because you will inevitably find yourself compelled to buy. i think this is how they sell so many vitamixes. stand around and watch one of those demonstrations where they pulverize a whole pineapple, and then try to say no

        September 13, 2012
  3. SuzMW #

    My Costco experience that kept my budget under $40 per visit: I used my mom’s card, back before they put pictures on them. They’d also spelled her name wrong which I used as further justification that it didn’t really matter. But, ultimately, I’m a goodie two-shoes so the few times I tried it I panicked and avoided all the workers. That meant I never grabbed a cart so I could only buy what I could carry. And I had to pay cash. And I would sweat when I went through the checkout line. But $10 for the world’s largest brick of Dubliner cheese!

    August 12, 2012
  4. Heather #

    Sorry, but I’m with Tom on the Fusion razors. Superior shave. Better than any men’s orwoman’s razor out there, IMHO. Don’t try them, or you won’t be getting out of Costco for less than $350!

    August 7, 2012
    • i’ve tried them. they are indeed capable of producing a shave about ten times as close as my Venus razor. but so what? that only means they should cost more than my Venus razor, which they do

      August 7, 2012
  5. my favorite thing about cosco is, when i was a teenager (long ago), my mother would go and come home w a giant tub of red vines and a case of reese’s peanut butter cups. my brothers and i would feast on them for weeks until the supply was gone.
    as it is now, the last time i went w my mom, who will be 80 soon, we were there for 3 hours and i almost had to go into traction from the spasms in my back and legs from slowly shuffling up and down every aisle. don’t get me wrong, i love her and am glad to be able to take her places, but after the 45 minutes she spent comparing several mega jars of mega vitamins for the best deal i thought i might have to blow my brains out or something. fortunately i was unable to locate the “arms and ammo” section, and ate 30 samples of pizza bagels instead. still recovering from that, btw.
    sweet story about your parents.

    August 7, 2012
    • this is very funny. if i had to accompany someone else’s Costco trip that would totally blow

      August 7, 2012
  6. Thanks for the morning laugh!
    It is a moral obligation to buy when you find a super bargain! It’s also a sickness: Hello, my name is…
    I have a similar problem at Ikea. Don’t get me started on real clearance sales. I have several dresses in sizes I have never been BUT I will encounter someone (or group) that needs them!

    August 7, 2012
    • it’s helpful to have a range of sizes for my own use. thanksgiving pants, for example

      August 7, 2012
  7. That is the Costco secret. There are always great buys at Costco SOMEwhere in the building. Just maybe not in an aisle near you. The discount liquor can be especially dangerous for those determined-to-buy-ahead drinker types among us. I typically found myself making nervous checkout comments about how it “looks like we are throwing SOME party” (we never were) and was always slightly surprised not to find actual barrels of wine on offer.

    That said maybe we all need to redefine our idea of what constitutes a bargain? If I buy it for a great price but don’t need, want, or have a real use for it, is that still a bargain? If I buy it and have to sleep standing up because I have no storage left other than on top of my bed, is that still a good deal?

    I admit we willingly drank the Costco koolaid for years. Once our nest emptied and after doing a little math we made the painful yet obvious decision to enter the Costco protection program. We let our membership lapse and simply…..disappeared……

    August 7, 2012
    • i find that the entire store is filled with great buys. you don’t really have to look for them, do you? hence my problem

      August 7, 2012
  8. Before we moved to Moscow, and then again before we came to China, we did a massive Costco shop. Kind of like being on a game show, running around like crazy filling up multiple carts. I wont even tell you how much we spent. But now, here in Beijing, we have almond milk, canned salmon, and pickled asparagus!

    August 7, 2012
    • i have so many questions. are you saying you moved a bunch of heavy costco canned goods from moscow to china? is this even legal? i am tired just thinking about it

      August 7, 2012
    • but your comment reminds me i need to try that pickled asparagus

      August 7, 2012
  9. I’ve only accompanied my mom to Costco a couple of times, and the last time we went she spent about $300.00 on just one thing, BUT she bought a kayak! My parents live on the lake, so it wasn’t just the Costco effect kicking in and they use the thing almost daily. It was the biggest Cosco win I’ve witnessed to date.

    August 6, 2012
    • kayaks are one of those things i always want to buy, just to say i own one. not a clue what to do in one, and i have poor upper body strength, but still the desire persists

      August 7, 2012
  10. changeforbetterme #

    I haven’t been to a Costco in years! There is only 2 of us here, so I don’t feel the need to spend 300 every visit. It’s way too tempting to buy a whole flat of garbanzo beans! 😉

    August 6, 2012
  11. Love this post, as I also have Costco conflict. Love the bit about the razor blades. My husband Kyle uses the same ones and I completely despise buying them. I actually get mad. What I’ll never figure out is the guy who waits in the longest line ever to buy a $3.00 bag of apples.

    August 6, 2012
    • because you get 24 apples. which no family is capable of eating before they go bad

      August 7, 2012
  12. One time I went there and bought period pads that were several big boxes taped together. It’s been three years, and there’s no end in sight. I’ve started teaching my kitten to fetch.

    August 6, 2012
  13. you’re supposed to go with no money and just eat the free snacks they put out as lunch. duh!

    August 6, 2012
    • right. with two kids in tow this seems a lot less compelling than it used to in my youth

      August 7, 2012
  14. I go to Costco about once a month, and $300 sounds about right. I consider it a significant part of my grocery shopping though, and a lot of the stuff I get lasts me through the month. I admit we are heavy on the produce for a week or so, but my daughter loves fruit, so it doesn’t go to waste.

    But I am jealous that your Costco still sells garbanzo beans–mine has kidney beans instead. Kidney beans are the only bean I don’t really like! I miss the garbanzos, :(.

    August 6, 2012
  15. You were right to trust your instincts. Costco is a slippery slope, and when I was a member I shared your $300-per-trip phenomenon. Pallets of toilet paper and kleenex were somewhat justifiable, why did I ever think I needed a liter of Neutrogena body oil? Ridiculous. The Costco Effect.

    Anyway, we let our Costco membership lapse long ago, and even though I sometimes feel un-American for doing so, I have to say we’re a lot happier for not playing that game anymore. I like to think of it as an experiment in minimalism.

    Thanks for another great post Yoonanimous!

    August 6, 2012
    • I don’t even let myself visit the beauty aisle after seeing that they sell the $250 Shiseido cream. I must admit that the organic produce section is much improved. I think of you and your juicer!!

      August 6, 2012
  16. I can go in for exactly what I need if and only IF the Hubby is NOT with me! A couple weeks ago we went in for some tri tip steak and came out with a memory foam bed. Ugh.

    August 6, 2012
    • this is the dark side of Costco, carrie. it’s always the tri-tip or the fish that gets them in. i bet the bed is great though, huh?

      August 6, 2012
  17. Meg #

    But why even try to get out for less than $300? You’ll just run out of fizzy water or paper towels and have to go back sooner – who wants to go to Costco more than once per quarter?

    And it made me feel so proud when I got a gigantic ball of twine and Dwight said, “well, we’ll never have to buy twine for the rest of our lives.”

    August 6, 2012
    • i’m sure what Dwight meant to say was, thank you meg, thank you.

      i appreciate your fresh take on the issue. purchase with impunity, to avoid more trips

      August 6, 2012
  18. samantha jillian #

    i share your love/hate relationship with costco. i used to love going. now i loathe it. but, i can get out without spending over $100. how? i pretend like i’m in race – whoever can get in and out the fastest wins. it takes practice, hard work and dedication. you have to commit to a plan of attack and not deviate – even if that apple strudel toast sample is calling your name. my all-time personal best is about 20 minutes. with this kind of focus, you don’t have time to zig-zag through the aisles willy nilly and get stuck lugging a 10-lb bag of avocados into your cart because you’ve convinced yourself your family really does love guacamole that much.

    August 6, 2012
    • i tried this approach. i tried it so hard that i actually showed up at costco 30 minutes before it opened, hence the photograph at top. it just ended up being a race to $300

      August 6, 2012
  19. Tami #

    Costco is the only place my father ever took me shopping, so my memories of that giant warehouse are good ones. The man loathes any kind of shopping but adores Costco. You are correct though, you cannot get out of that damn place without spending $300 on stupid things like a human-sized teddy bear for $30 bucks.

    PS: Look up the book “My Korean Deli.” Interesting summer read about a guy (along with his wife and mother-in-law) that opened up a deli in Brooklyn, while simultaneously writing for The Paris Review.

    August 6, 2012
    • just bought it on amazon. it looks good, I’m excited

      August 6, 2012
    • i just wanted to report that i read “My Korean Deli” and it was really, really good. hilarious but also very keenly observed. thank you for the recommendation!

      August 22, 2012
      • Tami #

        So glad! Happy summer!

        August 22, 2012
  20. Kristin #

    We just went over the weekend and spent over 300 only because our membership was due and I went a little crazy with the salmon and flank steak….but I can usually keep it around 100. If you really want a challege: go with cash only. We had to do this during a couple of stints of unemployment and it was hard. I really sharpened my math skills after having to send back hoses and clothing and produce several times! After my $320 trip this weekend – I may be going back to the cash route even though its not enirely necessary…but it helps avoid the 15 pound bags of halloween candy currently displayed!

    August 6, 2012
    • you know, it’s very heartening to hear that the $300 thing is not some particular flaw of mine. i don’t even venture into the clothing because i’m scared that i will find stuff to buy there

      August 6, 2012
  21. Bora #

    The only reason to frequent Costco is for their sample days, when you can eat like it’s Thanksgiving.

    Also, can you please save those garbanzo beans for my perma-visit? I down like 2 cans a week.

    August 6, 2012
    • they don’t have “sample days.” they are called “weekends.” i don’t go on weekends anymore. good news, i have 8 cans left

      August 6, 2012
  22. Like your friend Suzanne, I can get out of Costco spending $100 or less. However, it takes a lot of willpower. I make a list ahead of time and don’t buy anything that is not on the list. This is the hard part, because it means you basically have to walk through Costco pretending you can’t see all the amazing deals right in front of your face. If my husband comes along, all bets are off. At that point I just hope we get out of there for less than $250.

    August 6, 2012
    • yes you are correct that it is difficult to walk through a costco with blinders, especially because it can seem like costco somehow got inside your brain and figured out all your favorite things to buy. like gold toe socks and 12-ounce bottles of tabasco

      August 6, 2012
  23. Suzanne #

    Ok, so I didn’t say $100… But I often get out for $150. I buy eggs, milk (about once a month), meat, veggies, fruit and cheese there. I stay away from flats of garbanzos – though I have been known to buy flats of black beans. Plus, where are you going to get your yogurt dip if you don’t shop there? We’ll go together. I will show you this can be done. I suspect that two visits is not enough. You have to get the staples and other stuff out of your system before you can pass it by.

    August 6, 2012
    • for some reason $100 is what i heard, probably because that’s what i want to spend at costco. you are absolutely correct that the first visit is always the most painful, especially as i was out of detergent and other household cleaners. now that i have my four gallons of windex i imagine future shopping trips will become more manageable. we will go together soon and toast our success with giant costco hotdogs

      August 6, 2012
  24. I have always said that one of my favorite things about living in the suburbs is all of the money I get to save by going to Costco to buy my regret in bulk.

    August 6, 2012
    • this amuses me

      August 6, 2012
      • like a sad clown

        August 6, 2012
      • never! although it sort of goes without saying since you always make me laugh

        August 6, 2012
  25. missmarple69 #

    I agree with you, the bargains just seem too good to pass by, and it sends us all a little shop save dilerious, its deliberate by all types of retailers, and it works well, for them anyways….

    August 6, 2012
    • it’s especially brilliant with costco because everything is so low-frills and non-threatening that it’s hard to imagine that costco is purposefully targeting your wallet

      August 6, 2012
  26. I was in Costco stocking up on nappies (daipers) yesterday and scarily even looked at a set of Wusthof knives that seemed a bargain for only £179gpb, I don’t know if King of Shaves have made it to the states yet, but I’m over the moon with their razors and the blades cost a third of Gillette.

    The only thing I can be happy about when it comes to Costco is the fact that they don’t accept credit cards (at least in the UK) meaning we can’t go really over board, phew.

    August 6, 2012
    • king of shaves!!! i have no idea what it is (yet) but it sounds like it could be very good for my marriage

      August 6, 2012
  27. It’s not possible to spend less than $300 there – you are absolutely right. I rationalize it this way – I can’t spend get out of the grocery store without spending $150 on food for a family of 4. I can’t get out of Target/Walmart without spending $150 on our health/beauty/household/clothing items. Costco = Target + grocery store. Therefore, $300 is just about right!

    August 6, 2012

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