Maximize That Costly Sam’s Club Membership With These Tips

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Samuel George and his grandchildren Jonathan George, 3, and Alayah George, 1, shop at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
Samuel George and his grandchildren Jonathan George, 3, and Alayah George, 1, shop at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
Honest Abe

Disclosure:

Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. We’re letting you know because it’s what Honest Abe would do. After all, he is on our favorite coin.

Frankly, I don’t usually pay cover.

I’m no celebrity, and in only specific (and strange) company would I be considered “very important.”

I’m just cheap. So I avoid events and venues that require cash just to walk through the door.

But every rule has its exception. And for the dedicated cheapskate, warehouse clubs raise a conundrum.

You’ve got to pay to get in, but the deals inside are better. At least, that’s the idea.

But is it true?

Is a Sam’s Club Membership Worth it When You Can Just Shop at Walmart?

Exterior of Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017.

Customers shop at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Buying in bulk to save money on groceries and household items is a pretty entry-level rule of thumb for aspiring skinflints.

That’s why we’ve written so much about warehouse clubs here — from their weird, hidden perks to their not-so-scary price hikes to their best deals for couples and parents.

I even did some quasi-scientific research to figure out which of the three biggest warehouse club chains is the cheapest. (I was also photographed lovingly cradling a loaf of bread. All in a day’s work!)

But after reading my comparison post, a reader — hi, Jeannie! — responded with one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” questions.

Spoiler alert: Sam’s Club won the day in our warehouse club contest.

But is it worth paying for a Sam’s Club membership when you can just shop at its free-to-enter sister store, Walmart?

“I let my membership lapse years ago… because I never felt like I was getting a better deal than I could get at Walmart,” Jeannie wrote to me in an email.

Just like that, I knew it was time to put my detective cape back on and figure out the answer.

For science. Cheap, cheap science.

Sam’s Club vs. Walmart: Store Prices

This time around, I’ll save you the nitty-gritty breakdown on individual prices. Not only is it boring, but they’re bound to vary depending on where you are.

Rest assured, however, that I spent a couple interesting afternoons painstakingly detailing and cross-referencing the per-unit price of everything from broccoli to dog food to vitamins. (To note: People look at you funny when you meander sans cart, furtively scrawling down diaper prices.)

As it turns out, Jeannie’s assessment is pretty much on the money, at least in my Jacksonville, Florida-area stores. Each location had a couple of knock-out deals — I found grass-fed ribeyes at Walmart for a buck an ounce (!) and four-packs of spray-on sunscreen for $20 at Sam’s Club.

But the vast majority of common grocery items were priced within a few cents of each other.  

In other words, totally not worth paying a cover. Or hauling around bags of rice that look like they were made for the Jolly Green Giant, for that matter.

One caveat: Sam’s Club doesn’t accept coupons, whereas Walmart’s coupon policy is pretty open ended. So if you’re a coupon-clipper extraordinaire, your mileage may vary.

Here’s What You Can’t Get if You Don’t Have a Membership

At first, my discovery floored me. Why were people shelling out $45 to pay the same price for coffee that they could for free — and more for tomatoes?

But there are a few key benefits you get with the cost of your Sam’s Club membership that Walmart doesn’t offer.

1. More Bulk Options.

Renee Flowers shops for bulk items at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017.

Renee Flowers shops for bulk items including paper towels and coffee at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

There’s no such thing as a giant bag of quinoa at (my) Walmart.

And if you’re looking for individual-serving snack packs to stick in your kid’s lunchbox, Sam’s Club’s 50-count value packages dwarf Wally World’s, which only come with 20 packs — and cost about 5 cents more per bag.

But Walmart does have 5- and 10-pound bags of rice and dried beans at per-unit prices on par with the crazy 50-pound prepper versions at Sam’s Club.

Value-size cereals, both name and off-brand, were also comparably priced.

I will say that disposable paper items, like toilet tissue, paper towels and diapers, are actually cheaper at Sam’s Club… but only if you purchase the truly humungous package.

Even then, the discount is generally about 20 to 50 cents, which you might be able to score as an Ibotta rebate on a human-sized amount of TP from the grocery store.

2. More Fancy Food.

Manchego and Edam cheeses at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017.

Manchego and Edam cheeses are some of the imports available at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Yes, it’s arguable that I’m a wine snob. (It may be the only thing I’ve written about more than warehouse clubs, come to think of it.)

But Walmart’s selection of vino is just plain sad. I mean, there are multiple varieties of boxed wine and nary a bottle that isn’t mass-marketed, overpriced junk, even at $10 and under.

Sam’s, on the other hand, is an oenophile’s paradise, with well-priced selections from all over the world. Plus, it just introduced its own line of house-brand wines, which, if they’re anything like the competition’s, will be tasty despite their rock-bottom prices.

Sam’s Club also offers artisanal and gourmet cheeses, including actual imports like Parmigiano Reggiano and Manchego.

They’re pricier than the two-pound bricks of sharp cheddar at Walmart, for sure… but it’s also basically criminal to put them in the same category to begin with.

3. More Non-Grocery Goods, Like Furniture, Electronics and Housewares.

Ben Fulle reads on a sofa for sale at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., as his car which was being serviced on Wednesday August 16, 2017.

Ben Fulle reads on a sofa for sale at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., as his car which was being serviced on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

If you’re furniture shopping or in the market for a laptop, Sam’s Club will likely have more options on display than Walmart.

But in today’s buy-everything-online market, this is pretty mitigatable. The selection and prices online are comparable, although Sam’s Club Plus members, who pay a $100 membership fee instead of $45, do get one extra year of coverage for free when they purchase a protection plan.

Unfortunately, that extended coverage deal excludes pretty much every electronic I can think of: smartphones, computers, tablets and cameras.

The Real Perks of Warehouse Club Membership

Even the above-mentioned items might not seem worth the price of a Sam’s Club membership. You can get fancy wine and cheese at the fancy wine and cheese store.

But the real reason to pay for a Sam’s card has less to do with the items you’ll regularly buy there and more to do with the peripheral perks.

Here are a few of them:

1. Gas

A truck fills up at the gas station at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Sam’s Club members fill up on discounted gas in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sharon Steinmann/ The Penny Hoarder

Sam’s has it, and it’s pretty freaking cheap — some of the cheapest in the country, per GasBuddy’s 2016 study.  

And although you don’t have to be a member to fill up at certain locations, you also won’t get the discount or the sweet cash-back rewards we’ll talk about next.

2. Cash-Back Rewards

Sam's Club employee Amber Ewing scans items at checkout in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Sam’s Club employee Amber Ewing scans items at checkout. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

All members are eligible for a Sam’s Club Mastercard, which offers a whopping 5% in cash-back rewards on gas purchases, including the club’s already-discounted fuel, in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Say you put $100 in your tank a month. That’s $60 per year straight back in your pocket on gas alone, more than paying for the cost of your basic membership.

You’ll also earn 3% cash back on dining and travel purchases, and 1% back on almost everything else. You can earn a maximum of $5,000 in cash back per calendar year.

Additionally, members who upgrade to Plus receive $10 for every $500 they spend, up to $500 annually, through Sam’s Cash Rewards program.

You can use those rewards to buy stuff at Sam’s, pay for your membership, or just have them cut you a check.

3. Pharmacy

The pharmacy at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

If you regularly buy prescription medication, it may very well be worth the $100 buy-in to get Sam’s Club’s Plus member pharmacy benefits. (They’re not offered to the regular $45-card holders.)

You can get five free 30-day fills of select prescriptions, and over 600 generics on Sam’s extra value drug list for $10 or less.

You may even save 8 to 30% on certain brand-name drugs — which, of course, are almost always crazy overpriced.

4. Optical

Prescription sunglasses on display at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Many Sam’s Club locations offer affordable eye exams, and all members get $40 off their second pair when they purchase two complete pairs of regularly priced prescription glasses without vision insurance applied.

Plus members get $50 off their first pair with the purchase of a year’s supply of contact lenses.

5. Automotive Services

Mechanics work on cars at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Mechanics work on cars at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny HoarderSharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Sam’s Club members whose locations offer it can get flat tires repaired for free, even if they bought their rubber from another vendor. They also enjoy complimentary wiper blade installation and battery testing.

A Warehouse Club Membership is What You Make of it

As you can see, if you play your membership card right, you stand to gain a whole lot of value. As long as you regularly buy gas, your membership is almost certain to pay for itself.

But here’s the thing: Whether or not a warehouse club membership is worth it totally depends on how you’ll use it.

If you know you’ll forget to use your cash-back card every time you buy gas or have a bad habit of letting charges revolve and accrue interest, the rewards don’t mean a darn thing.

And if you need to buy some peanut butter, you’re not going to get rich by paying the annual membership fee to save 2 cents an ounce at Sam’s.

But if you’ll regularly take advantage of offers and discounts, and make sure you get your money’s worth, a Sam’s Club membership is absolutely justifiable — unlike spending $10 just to walk into a bar.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, VinePair, The Write Life, Wonderfilled Magazine, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

Honest Abe

Disclosure:

Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. We’re letting you know because it’s what Honest Abe would do. After all, he is on our favorite coin.