Shop At Costco Without a Membership

Costco is known for their large quantities, cheap prices, and great return policy. They’re also known for their membership fees, which start at $50 a year and can get as high as a hundred (Executive Membership). Did you know that you can shop at a Costco without a membership?

The key is to get a Costco Cash Card, which is their gift card. If you have the Costco Cash card, you don’t need a membership. The gift card lets you go into the store and buy anything you want. You’ll need to use the cash card to pay for your purchases and, if it doesn’t have enough on it, you can use cash or debit card to pay for the rest.

The downside to this strategy is you can’t buy a new card or reload the card without a membership. You’ll have to find a Costco card-carrying friend to buy them for you and the minimum is $10. If you don’t know anyone, you can always try to buy the cards off Craigslist or eBay, but proceed with caution.

Oh, and if all you want is some alcohol, you don’t need a membership to buy booze in certain states.

Jim writes about money at his personal finance blog Bargaineering.com.

Comments

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  1. twophrasebark says:

    Great tip…

    • Julia789 says:

      I wonder if you get the extra charges with the gift card? If you use their one-day non-member pass it’s about 5% or 10% “non-member charge” added to your total bill. Same thing if you shop on their website as a non-member.

      I remember trying both methods, hoping to get around the membership. I only wanted a few items because I have a small condo and no storage room. I ended up having a friend pick up the items for me instead..

      • zacox says:

        I used mine today, and I paid no extra charge. I think it’s probably because someone with a membership already spent their money at Costco, and whether the recipient is a member or not, Costco is legally obligated to redeem it.

    • trentblase says:

      … with a caveat. I tried this and they needed to get a supervisor to authorize use of the card without a membership. Since they were busy that day, I ended up waiting 10-15 minutes extra for someone to come over and make it happen. They were perfectly nice about it, it’s just that the register wouldn’t let the cashier do it without approval.

  2. Sir Winston Thriller says:

    You don’t need to be a member to use the Pharmacy, either.

    • Hardwired says:

      Their pharmacy is useless for all but the most widely sold drugs, and they are usually “out” of those when I need them. I gave up.

      • mandy_Reeves says:

        hmm…yeah, I tend to swing by there after an ER trip or DR. Percocet ( the endocet generic version) is like 7 dollars and penicillin is 11 dollars

      • mandy_Reeves says:

        hmm…yeah, I tend to swing by there after an ER trip or DR. Percocet ( the endocet generic version) is like 7 dollars and penicillin is 11 dollars

    • brianguyy says:

      Wal mart, Target, and CVS all have the same prices on most drugs. going to Costco to pick up some relief in a pill form just isn’t worth it for me. and I’m a Costco member!

  3. AlexTNOA says:

    It’s a yearly fee so call it $4.17 a month if that makes it more palatable. It seems like less of a pain than having to wait for a family member or friend to go and get a cash card for you. I’d rather be able to decide I want to go, then go.

    • The Marionette says:

      my thoughts exactly. Besides they said those cards don’t have much on them, so after a little while you’ve gotta spend another $10 on a card and so that means if on average you spend $100 yr from the cards, you’re better off just getting the membership for half the cost.

      • Whata_kBear says:

        The difference is that if you spend $100 on gift cards you still get the $100 in product from Costco. If you pay the $50 membership fee, you don’t get $50 of product.

        • El_Red says:

          And how much time do you waste getting gift cards? If you shop at Costco on regular basis, 50$ membership saves you a lot of hassle.
          And if you have a big family, getting their executive membership is even better. 100$ for 2% return on all purchases. Often we will get a return 2-3 times money spent.

          • Dopaz says:

            Executive pays for itself every year we use it. Last year we got a multi-hundred dollar check from Costco (I don’t remember how much, somewhere between $200-$400) that more than paid for the membership. It probably helps that we shop at Costco several times a month too…

        • sqlrob says:

          Here’s another difference: Get the $100 membership. Get $200 back, so there’s $100 you couldn’t have spent if you used the gift card trick.

    • perruptor says:

      Also, if you’re a member, they send you coupon books so you can save more. A gift card won’t get you those.

  4. Cool Story Bro says:

    since you’re not subject to their membership contract, I wonder how they’ll react when you refuse to show your receipt?

    • El_Red says:

      If you want to be an as@%$# go ahead.

      Costco had receipts checks for years, and considering their consumer friendly return policies AND living wages for employees… I hope they throw you out their store and ban you forever.

    • strathmeyer says:

      Wow, what makes you think Gift Cards don’t have Terms and Conditions?

      • tootberg@spam.la says:

        And just what are they going to do about it when you leave the store with a depleted card? Cancel it? lmao

  5. dwohio says:

    If you live near one, it’s worth the 50 bucks a year. More than worth it. Between them, Tuesday Morning, Big Lots and Meijer I save thousands off regular retail prices for the same merchandise.

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      We do have Big Lots here. I love them but for stuff like cookware or dishes, I usually hit the flea market first.

    • Veeber says:

      even better if they have the gas station. the one near me is easily 10 cents per gallon less.

  6. TWSS says:

    You can order off of Costco.com without a membership, IIRC.

    • dorianh49 says:

      but you’ll probably have to pay a little bit more.

      • Aesteval says:

        I think it’s 10% or so. Depending on what it is, it’s well worth it. Their generic Zyrtec is way cheaper than other’s even with an extra 10% and expensive shipping.

  7. bkdlays says:

    Anyone can walk in off the street and ask for a 1 day card. You pay a 5% surcharge on all purchases, but you don’t need a membership.

    • crazydavythe1st says:

      Really? I find it hard to justify a Costco membership, as I doubt I would buy enough for it to be worth it. It seems like there would be a catch though, as you would be able to spend up to $1000/year and still come out ahead…

      • Megalomania says:

        Costco also sells stuff like TVs, furniture, clothing… it’s not hard to go over $1,000 a year.

        • crazydavythe1st says:

          Well yeah, but I’m guessing there’s probably quite a few members that don’t spend that much.

        • bhr says:

          And gas. Considering my county has rules keeping the Wawa and Sheetz type gas stations out I save $.10/gallon+ each time I fill up at Costco, figure 15-20 times a year and Im already up to about $35 or so in savings.

          Plus you can have a second card, which in my case went to my father, effectively doubling my return on investment since its 2 households.

          • coffeeculture says:

            the two card thing makes it worth it for single people…i used to split it with a friend so effectively it was $25/yr for me.

            There used to be one next to my office and I’d scoot over for lunch and grab a $1.50 hot dog + drink and walk around eating samples.

            The $1 churros are the deal breaker for me!

      • Salty Johnson says:

        We typically go to Costco once every 2 weeks or so and spend about $150, and that seems to be the going trend for a lot of people I know.

        • crazydavythe1st says:

          I’m just a single guy though, I don’t think I could hit that much…?

          • Erich says:

            If you need a new computer, TV, DSLR, or any other expensive item, then the membership is well worth it. Even at $50, you’ll save enough on virtually anything you buy to make up the membership cost, and still come out ahead.

          • mac-phisto says:

            trust me, you can’t LEAVE costco w/o spending ~$150 (or more). still, it’s pretty easy to make back the $50 membership. paper towels, TP, tostitos & lysol. those 4 things alone save me enough to pay for my membership in a couple months.

          • whogots is "not computer knowledgeable" says:

            I’m single (sorta) and my apartment is far too tiny for bulk shopping. However, my Costco membership pays for itself every other time I buy a case of Red Bull. I am not exaggerating — that’s how big the price difference is on some items. If you’re willing to use house-brand OTC drugs, there is a huge difference there as well, even compared to house brands at CVS or Walgreens.

            I also take friends shopping occasionally — I don’t have room for 12 rolls of paper towels, but my friend and I can each find space for 6. You have to do some planning to make that worthwhile, though.

            The biggest tradeoff, as far as I am concerned, is lack of selection. I’m finicky about soaps and animal products, so I don’t get as much benefit from warehouse shopping as someone who likes Tide and Dial and doesn’t get squicked about industrial ranching.

    • humphrmi says:

      Do the gift cards incur the upcharge?

      • god_forbids says:

        I know for a fact that Sam’s Club gift cards DO incur the 10% non-member surcharge. Consumerist should really fact-check this article because if Sam’s doesn’t do it there is no competitive reason for Costco to.

        • dpeters11 says:

          Costco is very different from Sam’s. They don’t charge the surcharge on the cash card. But the minimum is $25, at least online.

    • ronbo97 says:

      Can you get a one-day pass, then buy yourself a gift card and use it some other time ?

    • dreamfish says:

      One assumes the price discounts on products more than makes up for the cost of the card and 5% surcharge.

    • P_Smith says:

      If you live anywhere near a Costco and are likely to visit more than four times a year, you might as well get the damn card.

      Trying to finagle ways around membership is silly unless you’re not shopping there regularly.

  8. [MG]LooseCannon says:

    So the tip is “mooch off your friends that did buy a membership to Costco!”?

  9. Geekybiker says:

    Costco is one of the few worthwhile memberships you can buy. And its a great company on top of it.

  10. HotAirConsumer says:

    I have been a member for years I am aware of the cash card. My favorite thing about Costco is they always have the lowest gas prices in the area. I never have to drive around trying to be the cheapstake I am. Did you know you can also use the cash card to purchase GAS? Their pumps take it.

    I used to live in Brooklyn, NY but currently Los Angeles, CA. While Pizza places in California are HORRIBLE I am happy to report Costco has the best pizza here!

  11. Charmander says:

    That sounds like such a hassle. Just buy a membership already!

    I’ve been shopping there for nearly 20 years and I’ve been very happy with their products, services, prices, etc.

  12. Cant_stop_the_rock says:

    This takes being a cheapass to an extreme, sad level. Also, there is an easier way to shop at Costco without the cost of the membership.

    If you’re just looking to buy one thing, have the friend buy it for you. If you want to shop there regularly, pay for the membership. It’s worth it. They have great prices, great customer-friendly policies, and it’s a pleasant shopping experience.

  13. moses says:

    I eat enough in food samples at Costco to justify the $100 membership cost each year!!

    • Bob Lu says:

      Problem is, their food samples are good enough to make me actually want to buy the products.

    • wagnerism says:

      Those sample-givers are a nuisance!

      They clog up the aisles. Idiots leave their carts wherever they’re at when the “free food” idea finally sinks into their heads.

      If they leave a cart in the middle of the aisle with only merchandise in it (no personal belongings), I’ll push it a few aisles away and leave it.

  14. Not Given says:

    The nearest Costco is 150 miles away but I save enough at Sam’s Club on cat litter alone to pay for the membership and gas to drive 50 miles to get it.

  15. Daverson says:

    I’ve got an Executive Membership, because it rebates a percentage of your purchases at the end of the year. So far, the cash back every year has paid for the next year’s Executive Membership. Win.

  16. Bane of Corporations says:

    My girlfriend once previously tried this because she didn’t want to pay her renewal at the time and she had a gift card.

    They still asked for her membership card at checkout and sent her to customer service to get a “day pass” before she could complete the transaction.

    So, the article should say at the bottom, “Results may vary”

  17. MedicallyNeedy says:

    BJ’s has guest coupons as you walk in the door> Instead of saving you 10% you pay an extra 10%.

  18. joycecarolgoats says:

    anyone know if this work-around would be valid in canada?

    • jamar0303 says:

      Also in Taiwan or Japan? Though they don’t even have cash cards available there so maybe not.

    • dyzlexiK says:

      Im not sure if it is, ill look into it tomorrow. Last I checked, you had to have a membership to even get in the doors.

  19. jeff_the_snake says:

    costco dog food is the best deal ever. it’s actually really good quality, at least as good as Iams and such probably a little better but it’s still priced like a store brand. i save enough on food for my mastiff to cover the membership. their gallons of milk are infuriating though the way they’re shaped too awkwardly to pour.

    • El_Red says:

      When I was doing research on dog’s food quality, I was surprised to discover that Costco’s is very close to Vet’s brands, quality wise. But a lot cheaper to buy.

    • spanky says:

      Iams is actually really awful food. The first ingredient in most formulations is corn meal. It used to be a well made brand, but they and several other brands were bought out by cheap pet food manufacturers, and are just skating by on brand recognition.

      So Kirkland is actually a LOT better than Iams or Science Diet or any of those other grocery store brands. From what I’ve heard, it’s the top of the line before you move up into the considerably more expensive grain free brands you get at specialty stores.

    • maka says:

      My (wonderful) vet says the Kirkland cat food is excellent. It’s so cheap it makes me nervous.

  20. mandy_Reeves says:

    meh save the trouble and get a membership…it is worth it!

  21. mkpva says:

    You can shop Costco on line without a membership also, but you pay an additional 5% on any purchase. Since have no need for bulk purchase, I do not want to pay the membership fee. So when I bought a patio umbrella from there, I just paid the additional 5%. It was worth it because the umbrella was still a lot cheaper there than anywhere else!

  22. mandy_Reeves says:

    I Lurve costco! The kirkland vitamin waters are a super bargain as well as all the kirkland stuff. I am a total costco bakery whore! I love the muffins and chocolate chip cookies and cakes….not so much as years past what with being on Weight watchers, but yeah…yummy. And their video games are a sweet deal too. Some nice bundles and obscure titles. my most vivid Costco memory is 9/11 2001.

    Everyone was in my neighborhood was at the local Costco watching the big screen tv’s and stocking up on food as folks are wont to do during a panic. Strangers crying and hugging. Very emotional day.

  23. HighontheHill says:

    Or don’t be a cheap bastard and simply buy your own goddamn membership. If you shop wisely you can recoup the fifty beans in savings on a single purchase, not to mention the two year warranty on electronics…

    The lengths some will go to avoid paying their own way in life. Ponderous.

  24. 47ka says:

    If you are too cheap to pay a company that doesn’t gouge its customers, treats its workers decently, and has excellent customer service, then please go back to Walmart. They have super-low prices.

    If you can’t pay an 50 dollars a year to save significantly more than that ($4.17 as someone else pointed out), then the whole “educated consumer” idea (and the theoretical point of this site) is not your thing.

  25. Warble says:

    A couple people have mentioned that you can shop at costco.com without a membership, and that’s true, but what I was shocked to discover was that if you have a friend with a Costco card who is willing to lend you their membership number, the website does absolutely no verification on whether that number belongs to you! So you can get the membership discount (or rather, you can avoid the non-membership markup) without being a member.

    Their website really isn’t very well designed in a lot of ways, and this is just one. The prepaid gym memberships though are an incredible deal.

  26. lanigan911 says:

    If you take OTC Zyrtec, the cost of a membership is NOTHING! They sell 365 count bottles of generic Zyrtec for less than $20. 30 day supplies are more than that at any other store. There’s your cost savings right there!

    • grumpygirl says:

      That and generic ibuprofen. You can get 2 bottles of 500 pills each for $8.00. Their generic soft contact lens saline solution is also amazingly cheap and high quality.

    • theblackdog says:

      365 generic Zyrtec for only $16 for the win!

  27. ChimmyChai says:

    We have a Costco American Express card which gives us cash back on all of our purchases (not just the Costco ones). The several hundred dollars we get back every year more than pays for our Costco membership.

    • CyGuy says:

      We get about $150 back on our CostCo AmEx, and that’s only using it for purchases at CostCo itself (which doesn’t take VISA or MC) and for the purchases that give 3% Cash Back: Gas, travel, and food.

      The one caveat is to make sure you spend that cash back check, after 60 days it’s worthless.

  28. gargunkle says:

    They check your membership card when you enter. Do you show them the cash card instead?

    • Allison Wunderland says:

      Not only do you show your “membership” card or “cash card” at the door, you also provide the card at the register when you purchase anything. Only exception to showing the card is “food court” purchases.

  29. Clint says:

    Costco Executive Membership is an easy call: It costs $100 and you get 2% back. You break even at $5000 and come out ahead beyond that. Depending on your spending situation, it can make sense. We gave it a try and joke that we came out ahead on diapers alone.

    • miss_chevious says:

      I agree! Also, if your rebate at the end of the year isn’t at least $50 (the difference between the regular membership and the executive membership), they will refund you the $50 you paid for the executive, so you don’t lose anything. I’m single and only go to Costco once or twice a month, and I still come out a little bit ahead on the rebate every year. This year, for example, my rebate was $85, so the $100 membership almost paid for itself, not counting the savings on food and other products. Of course, I have plenty of storage for bulk products — if you don’t, a membership may not be a great value.

  30. oldtaku says:

    Well this is interesting, but also seems penny wise but pound foolish. How much is your time worth compared to how much Costco will save you over the course of a year? Or the goodwill of your Costco membership owning friends as you pester them for cash cards and leech off their membership? This is the sort of thing you should only do if you’re really desperately in the hole, and hopefully then your friends will understand the need.

    • grumpygirl says:

      Considering how awful the economy is, I wouldn’t mind in the least picking up Costco gift cards for my friends and family if it helped them save some money.

  31. Allison Wunderland says:

    You don’t need an “Executive Membership” to get a rebate on purchases. Just open a CostCo American Express acct. This gets you membership at $50/yr. and a rebate on purchases — 3% on gasoline, 2% on some purchases, 1% on others. I don’t keep track.

    Bottom line — since we’re watching the bottom line here — is that typically CostCo members get their membership fees returned in purchase rebates.

    Additionally, it’s easy to eat $50 worth of CostCo samples in a year while you’re out on their sales floor.

    Finally, if at ANY TIME, you’re dissatisfied with your membership (like at the end of the year and you’re not getting $50 in rebates) CostCo will refund your full purchase price of membership.

    CostCo Service Desk will tell you at any time how your rebate credits total up.

    • rizzo33 says:

      Yeah… The Costco Amex rules. Rebates easily cover the cost of the membership and then some.

      And you don’t need to bother going to the Costco Service desk to find out how much rebate money you have accrued. That info. is easily accessible on your statement and/or online.

    • Admiral Byrd says:

      It is not CostCo. It is Costco.

  32. ArmitageShanks says:

    If your family can manage with just one card, you can split your membership with a friend or family member. That saves $25 — 50%!

    I split the membership with my neighbor, as our wives only go accompanied by us. In Costco’s eyes, my friend and I are domestic partners.

  33. HogwartsProfessor says:

    I wish we had a Costco here. I would have a membership if we did. I don’t want to have a Sam’s membership. Toilet paper and stuff like that I could buy in bulk; it could go in the garage. Food and other perishables I probably wouldn’t bother with.

    And I would definitely like to do the electronics thing there, since they seem so good about returns and stuff.

  34. Ben says:

    Can you recharge the gift cards when they’re used up? Over the phone or internet?

  35. ldub says:

    Great info – thanks! Since we rarely buy new ‘stuff’, eat local/organic, and are trying to limit our use of any and all disposable products we would only need a Costco run 1-2x yearly. This is a perfect solution for us. We will be able to access the store without it costing us $25 a visit.

  36. iambarrykatz says:

    Actually I tried this a year ago. I had a membership there (have switched to BJs since then) and was curious if it would work. When it was time to pay, I gave them the cash card. The cashier said, “where’s your membership card?” as if to imply that it wasn’t good enough. I asked, “Do I have to give it?” She said yes. So I don’t know if this is accurate. Perhaps this guy’s cashier was lenient.

  37. dickmac says:

    I don’t have a Costco membership because the closest store,even thought its only 30 miles away, is in another country. I live in western NY, and the nearest store is in St Catherines, Ontario. I bought a Toshiba laptop, and paid the non-member surcharge because the web site said that the warranty would be doubled to two years, and that I would have Costco “Concierge Service” to assist in any technical problems. After receiving the laptop, I called for the “Concierge Service”, and was advised that the two year warranty and “Concierge Service” was only available to MEMBERS, not non-members.

  38. Shaftoe says:

    So let me understand this
    A large multinational company that by and large everyone but Wallstreet loves.
    a large multinational company that makes sure the majority of their employees make a living wage, have enough hours for their generous healthcare benifits and provide internal opportunities for growth.
    A large multinational company that has probably the most liberal return policy around
    A large multinational company that requires all foreign manufacturers obey local labor laws and explicitly rejects Slave or Prison Labor and audits each supplier on an annual basis
    A large mutlinational company that is a shining example of the best of capitalism
    And you want to find ways to game them.
    Shame on you. This sort if Cheap regardless of who it hurts attitude in America is exatly how that Abomination Wallmart came into existence

  39. paulrich says:

    In Canada they even encourage you to do it !

    Members can buy Costco Cash cards for non-members**, though only members can reload the cards. This card is not a negotiable instrument and it may not be resold.

    Costco Cash card balances may be used toward membership or merchandise or gasoline at any Costco location in Canada, the United States or Puerto Rico.

    http://www.costco.ca/Browse/ProductSet.aspx?Prodid=10284381&whse=BCCA&Ne=4000000&eCat=BCCA|22629|22419&N=4010639&Mo=17&pos=1&No=15&Nr=P_CatalogName:BCCA&cat=22419&Ns=P_Price|1||P_SignDesc1&lang=en-CA&Sp=C&ec=BCCA-EC13130-Cat22629&topnav=

    Paul

  40. theblackdog says:

    This tip is why the Costco near my house now has a policy that if you are not a member, you can’t purchase anything, even if you’re using cash, your debit card, an AmEx, and (I need to verify this one for sure) the Costco cash card. I get the feeling there were too many people who had figured out this loophole and were abusing it.

    Just buy the membership already people!

  41. Keith is checking the Best Buy receipt of a breastfeeding mother (for tips!) says:

    Wow, lots of haters out today. I’ve got a Sam’s Club right across the street, have a membership and shop there all the time. Costco is across town, but occasionally I’d like to go in there on a recommendation or to comparison shop. Not worth $50/yr for the occasional trip.

    This is a perfectly valid tip- and just like anything else, will be abused by some.

    I wonder if Sam’s has this same policy- if so, my sister and I can swap; she’s in the opposite position above. I’ll find out next time I’m there.

  42. PleaseKickMeOffConsumerist says:

    My Costco only accepts Amex, cash or check.

    I would kill to be able to use my debit card…

  43. MrBounce says:

    This must vary by location, because the checkers at the entrance of my local costco’s will not let you into the store without showing the actual membership card. They will not take a cash card as a substitution “costco membership id”.

  44. DjSnipSnip says:

    Costco’s membership is $50 for both regular and executive: if you pay $100 for executive; you get some % cash back on groceries end of the year, with minimum of $50 EVEN IF YOU DON’T ACCUMULATE AS MUCH!! I love costco and won’t even compare it with Sam’s Club because it is MUCH cleaner and staff MUCH nicer ..

  45. The Wise Squirrel says:

    Makes a nice gift to someone without a Costco membership. If someone in your family has a membership, let them buy one for you at a high value, or multiple cards. Just reimburse them though :)

    Why not work around the system like this? As long as it doesn’t lessen your self-respect, then go for it. This one seems like no big deal.

    If you have a large household, however, and need to buy in bulk often – it may be better to just get the membership. But otherwise, if its a matter of 3 or 4 trips per year, why not do it this way and save some $$$.

  46. backinpgh says:

    If they are anything like Sam’s Club, they charge you a service fee to shop without a membership. If you use a one-day pass at Sam’s and don’t join and you want to buy somethin, there is a fee of 10%.

  47. EyeintheLAsky says:

    i was hassled by this old lady who was standing ‘on door patrol’ one afternoon/evening, for going in and paying for a pizza i had ordered over the phone.

    Her mantra was “you have to have a membership card to enter the store”, after i passed her and entered the warehouse door to retrieve my pizza.

    When i asked her about the company policy, she wouldn’t/couldn’t comment on the membership requirement for just picking up a pizza.
    She DID say that i could ask the membership desk – i declined, stating that since SHE was the one making the claim, SHE could find – and show me – the alleged ‘policy’.

    Finally, i asked her why she had such a stick up her ass.
    “Did they kick you off of the local ‘neighborhood watch’ program at home or something?”
    She looked as if she might cry right there, and walked off.

    i enjoyed every bite of my pizza.

  48. Talorin says:

    If the idea of using the advice in this article does not work for you, so be it. But, this is something I will be asking someone to do for me the next time I see them. It is super convenient and will allow me to go there at my leisure. Seriously, where is the down side? This method benefits Costco by introducing more customers to them. Some of those customers may even find themselves going enough that a membership makes more sense to them.

    I can see by the comments that this article has rubbed some of the hard core Costco fans the wrong way. They just need to get over it.

  49. some.nerd says:

    I was awe-struck when I went in a few months ago to buy my brother a gift card (he shops there religiously, I am not a member) and was denied this purchase.
    “WHY DON’T YOU WANT MY MONEY, COSTCO??”
    Now, I understand… because they’re dumb.