14 Things Not to Buy at Warehouse Clubs

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Worst Buys at Warehouse Clubs

By Cameron Huddleston

Shopping at warehouse clubs, such as Costco (COST), Sam's Club (WMT) and BJ's Wholesale Club, is a great way to save money. They have good per-unit prices on nearly everything they sell. However, consumers often make the mistake of assuming they're getting the best price at a warehouse club or of buying things they don't need just because the price is good.

In general, it's best to avoid bulk purchases of perishable items at warehouse clubs, no matter how good the price, if there aren't enough people in your household to consume them quickly. Plus, you should always shop with a list to avoid impulse purchases, which can be whoppers at warehouse clubs.

When making your warehouse-club shopping list, keep these 14 things off it. You can find them cheaper elsewhere, or you won't reap value by buying them in bulk.

What Not to Buy at Warehouse Clubs
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14 Things Not to Buy at Warehouse Clubs

It's tempting to pick up books to read on vacation or DVDs for the kids while you're shopping at the warehouse club. But the deals on these items aren't as good as you can find elsewhere, says Andrew Schrage , co-owner of the personal finance blog Money Crashers. You can usually buy books, CDs and DVDs for 15 percent to 20 percent less online at sites such as Amazon.com, he says (and get free shipping on qualifying orders of $35 or more). Better yet: Don't pay a thing for books or DVDs by borrowing them for free from your public library. There also are several ways to read e-books for free.

Just because an article of clothing or a pair of shoes is cheap doesn't mean you're getting a deal. There's a reason clothing and shoes sold at warehouse clubs are so inexpensive: Even with designer brands, they're often lower quality, using cheaper fabric and weaker embellishments, such as buttons and zippers, that won't last as long. See Cheap Clothing Is a Costly Mistake to learn more about budgeting for clothes.

Schrage specifically cautions against buying flip-flops at a warehouse club; you can get them for much less at the dollar store. Flip-flops, which aren't meant to be high-quality footwear, cost $1 at the dollar store versus about $10 at the warehouse club, he says.

That one-gallon jar of mayonnaise or three-pack of 44-ounce ketchup bottles might seem like a good buy if you're having a cookout or you eat sandwiches or burgers on a regular basis. But most condiments have a shelf life of only six months to a year, says consumer expert and Offers.com founder Howard Schaffer. Unless you're running a restaurant (or have a condiment-only diet), you probably can't consume such a large volume before it goes bad. Plus, you're not saving that much by purchasing condiments in bulk, Schaffer says.

Also be careful with bulk purchases of olive oil (which has a six-month shelf life) and spices (which are good for about a year), says Trae Bodge, senior editor of money-saving site RetailMeNot. Stick with smaller containers of these items if you don't use them on a regular basis.

Generic diapers from the warehouse club can be a big money-saver because they work as well as the name-brand ones at a much lower cost. But if you're really pinching pennies, you won't find the best deal on generic diapers at warehouse clubs. In fact, they're typically about 4 cents more a diaper than Target and Walmart's generic diapers, says Lauren Ward, a research analyst for personal finance site CreditDonkey.com. What seems like spare change can add up quickly when you're buying hundreds of diapers.

The prices on televisions, computers and other electronics are good at warehouse clubs, but you usually can get even better deals elsewhere, says Offers.com's Schaffer. Comparing prices can be a little difficult because electronics sold at warehouse clubs tend to be bundled with accessories or have slightly different features than similar models sold at other retail outlets. So you might not find the same product, but you'll likely find something similar for 10 percent to 15 percent less at Best Buy, Sears and other electronics retailers, he says.

These products lose their efficacy after six months, says RetailMeNot's Bodge. So if you don't have a big family and don't wash lots of laundry, you won't get through a warehouse club's supersize bottle of bleach or detergent fast enough. Instead, Bodge recommends looking for deals on these items at the grocery store or big-box store. The dollar store also is a great place to buy cleaning supplies (see What to Buy at Dollar Stores). Or buy the supersize box of warehouse clubs' powdered detergent, which won't lose its efficacy, Bodge says.

Warehouse clubs' prices on name-brand cereal are comparable to cereal prices at grocery stores, Ward says. However, warehouse clubs generally don't have sales on cereal. So you're better off stocking up on your favorite cereal when it goes on sale at the supermarket, she says.

You usually can buy a gallon of regular milk for 50 to 60 cents less at the grocery store, Ward says. Plus, you can find this perishable item in much smaller quantities at the grocery store, which will lower the risk of it going bad before you can drink all of it.

Surprisingly, stores that you might consider high-end can have the best everyday prices on specialty milks. When we recently compared the costs of selected products at several grocery chains, we found the best prices on organic milk at Whole Foods and the best prices on almond and soy milks at Trader Joe's.

Although a warehouse club might seem like the logical choice for a big pack of paper towels or toilet paper, consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch says you'll actually get a better deal on paper products at the grocery store the first and third weeks of the month, when they typically go on sale. She recommends using manufacturer coupons to get an even deeper discount.

You can always find soda on sale for less at a grocery store than at a warehouse club, says Jeff Yeager, author of four popular books on frugal living, including his most-recent "How to Retire the Cheapskate Way." For example, Yeager says that Coke products go on sale every other week for $2 or $2.50 a 12-pack at the grocery where he shops. However, a 24-pack costs $7 or $8 at the warehouse club -- which can be twice as much as two discounted 12-packs purchased at the grocery.

These items are often cheaper elsewhere. Schrage says that you usually can find sunscreen at a drugstore for 10 percent to 15 percent less than at a warehouse club. Plus, if you're buying sunscreen just for a short beach vacation, you might not need the volume you'll be required to buy at a warehouse club.

Bodge also cautions against buying large quantities of beauty products -- especially facial cream -- at warehouse clubs because they have a limited shelf life. For example, anti-aging creams expire in three months to a year.

There's the obvious reason not to buy fruits and vegetables in bulk: You might not be able to consume them all before they go bad. But there's another reason you should buy your produce at the supermarket rather than the warehouse club: Prices on produce tend to be static at warehouse clubs, whereas prices drop dramatically at the supermarket when fruits and vegetables are in season, says Teri Gault, CEO and founder of TheGroceryGame.com. For example, when asparagus is in season during March and April, it usually costs about 99 cents per pound at the grocery store but it tends to run $2 more a pound at warehouse clubs, she says.

You can score better deals on canned goods when they're on sale at the supermarket. Expect to pay 20 percent to 40 percent less per unit than what you'd shell out at the warehouse club, Gault says. Prices are especially hard to beat when supermarkets put their store-branded canned goods on sale. Plus, unless you're hosting a big cookout, do you really need a 117-ounce can of baked beans?

You can score better deals on canned goods when they're on sale at the supermarket. Expect to pay 20 to 40 percent less per unit than what you'd shell out at the warehouse club, Gault says. Prices are especially hard to beat when supermarkets put their store-branded canned goods on sale. Plus, unless you're hosting a big cookout, do you really need a 117-ounce can of baked beans?

Buying printer paper in bulk might seem like a smart money-saving move, but you'll keep even more cash in your pocket if you get your paper for free from an office-supply retailer. That's right: free. Most office-supply chains offer customers who sign up to receive e-mails from them a 100 percent cash-back rebate on printer paper a few times a year, Schrage says. Special rebates also apply to other office supplies, such as Post-it Notes, pens, pencils, folders and notebooks.

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