Shopping at stores like Sam’s Club, Costco, and other “wholesale” retailers may or may not be a good use of your dollars. Many times, the annual membership costs more than any savings that occur, and most shoppers are tempted to spend more than budgeted for (or to buy more of any one product than they can reasonable use up.) Assuming you’re savvy with your strategy, there is no reason to ditch the idea of buying in bulk, however. Here are a few of the little-known facts about bulk stores that can help you stretch that buck.

Photo: David McKelvey

Memberships are Meant to Be Shared

Feeling guilty that you’re shopping with your mom or sister so you can benefit from their club card? Don’t! The companies behind warehouse clubs understand that in today’s world of extended families, it’s quite common for grandmothers, daughters, aunts, and uncles to do their household shopping together – especially since many families are living together in one home. If the only way you can justify buying an annual membership is under the assumption that two or more heads of household may be using it together, go ahead and work that out. Just be sure to follow the rules of buying: bring your membership card, don’t lie about your identity, and enjoy your savings!

Shopping Online Can be Easier (and more affordable)

Most membership retailers also have thriving online sites. While the offerings will differ from the items sold in the store, there is the same potential for savings, without the required drive to the store. Items that typically get sold on a wholesale buying site include: exercise equipment, lawn and patio, office supplies, clothing, and other big ticket items. Always check the purchase price to see how it compares to your brick and mortar store before buying. While the price may be a few dollars more online, what you save in gas to the store and back may easily justify the difference.

Check Out Their Clearance

Many people falsely assume that just because warehouse stores don’t follow the same traditional pricing models as regular retailers, there isn’t much opportunity to get a better price than what’s typically offered. While it’s true that you can’t use manufacturer’s coupons or price matching at most bulk outlets, there is still the chance to buy on markdown. After each holiday, for example, many stores like Sam’s Club will make drastic cuts to the prices on their gift baskets and seasonal décor. Food items are more likely to be marked down throughout the year. Check after each season for lawn and garden items to go on sale. Don’t delay if you see something on sale, however. They don’t last long!

They Aren’t the Only Game in Town

Don’t ever assume that the biggest package of any product will be found at the warehouse store. Sam’s club, for example, often sells similarly packaged items at Walmart (where it’s possible to use coupons to get the price down further.) Also, Target has introduced aisles of jumbo-sized packaging to its retail locations, giving customers the chance to buy 3 boxes of cereal bundled together for significant savings or extra-large containers of aspirin or vitamins. While these offerings change regularly and vary by location, the chance to save is significant – no membership cost required!

Ask for Incentives

Many times throughout the year, big box bulk clubs will offer freebies to jump-start their membership drives. Even if your membership hasn’t lapsed yet, you may be able to get in on the offer. If they are offering a free $40 gift card to new members, for example, see if you can get a similar reward without having to let your membership expire and be restarted. Depending on the club, they may be more than happy to honor their introductory offer for those who have chosen to remain loyal.

Do you shop the wholesale clubs often? What tips and tricks have you discovered?