At the time, the beets seemed like a good idea. Precooked and vacuum-packed, the big package of reasonably priced organic veggies beckoned to me from the refrigerator case at Costco. I tossed them in my cart, envisioning all the nourishing salads and other healthy meals I’d make for myself. But most of those beets eventually ended up in the trash, not on my plate. I’d seriously overestimated my enthusiasm for the root vegetable. I did eat some of them, but once opened, the contents of the individual packets quickly turned moldy. Soon the remaining beets got pushed to the back of the fridge, where they languished way past their expiration date.
I’m hardly the first person to have bought something at Costco only to discover it wasn’t the bargain I thought it was. Promises of big savings encourage consumers to load up their carts with pallets of toilet paper and massive quantities of canned goods. Overall, American shoppers spent more than $79 billion at the popular warehouse club in 2014, making it the third largest retailer in the United States. But stocking up at Costco doesn’t equal automatic savings.
For products that have a long shelf life, buying in bulk at Costco is a no-brainer. Unopened frozen vegetables will stay good for up to two years, according to Real Simple, and alkaline batteries are good for seven years. Cleaning supplies like wood polish and Windex can last a couple of years.
Other Costco products have a much shorter useful life, or can be found for less at stores like Amazon or your local supermarket. In other cases, the low price tag is also a sign of lower quality. Before you load up your cart, check out this list of 10 things you should never buy at Costco.
1. Name brand clothing
Some people swear by Costco’s Kirkland brand underwear and socks, but the name brand clothing sold at the discount retailer isn’t always a bargain. Savvy shoppers know that much of the designer clothing and accessories sold at outlet stores and malls is specifically made for those outlets. The same is true for Costco.
“Beware that whenever you see name brand clothing or shoes at Costco, they are often made specifically for the warehouse club and are of lesser quality,” according to Kyle James of Rather Be Shopping. In other words, don’t snap something up just because it has a designer label slapped on it. The good news? Costco’s generous return policy means you won’t be stuck with a dud if you change your mind after you get the garment home.
2. Large quantities of produce
Costco sells more organic produce than Whole Foods, but just because a bag of Brussels sprouts or bananas is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. If your family can eat all that food before it starts to go mushy, great. But too often, produce ends up in the trash. Roughly 25% of the fruits and vegetables we buy are tossed in the garbage bin, according to a study by University of Arizona researchers. Overall, food waste costs the typical American household $590 per year.
“You should only purchase the quantity of food that you and your family can consume,” Jeremy Kranowitz, the executive director of Sustainable America, told The Cheat Sheet in 2015. “Purchasing a big sack of sweet potatoes rather than just a few individual ones may be less expensive on a per potato basis, but if you end up throwing out half of the sack, you are worse off economically,” he explained.
3. Printer paper
Unless you print a lot at home or are shopping for your office, office supply stores often have better deals on paper than Costco. At Staples, you can sometimes get a ream of copy paper for 1¢ with a coupon or rebate. The same goes for supplies like notebooks, pens, and pencils, which can be found for rock-bottom prices, especially around back-to-school time or if you combine coupons with in-store sales.
4. Laundry detergent
Who knew laundry detergent went bad? An opened bottle of Tide, Gain, All, or other detergent starts to lose its effectiveness after six months, according to Mary Marlowe Leverette, About.com’s laundry expert. Unopened, it’s good for about nine months to a year. Bleach lasts about six months after the bottle is opened — after that, you basically have a bottle of useless liquid.
For families who wash multiple loads per day, buying massive containers of detergent is a good deal. But smaller households will save more, waste less, and have cleaner clothes if they buy smaller containers of detergent using coupons, or when such items go on sale at other retailers.
5. Toothpaste, lotion, shampoo, and other personal care products
Costco isn’t the best place to shop for toiletries, bargain hunting experts say. “If you are a coupon and deal shopper, supermarkets and drugstores feature these types of items with coupons frequently, so you can stock up on multiple quantities of smaller sizes for pennies,” Stephanie Nelson, The Coupon Mom, told Bankrate.
Buying smaller sizes is a smart money move since beauty products start to break down once opened. “Unopened, well-formulated cosmetics can remain stable for a couple of years at room temperature,” Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist at Cosmetech Laboratories, told Good Housekeeping. “But the clock starts once you bring a product home and open it. When air hits the formula, certain ingredients start to oxidize and degrade.”
Unless you’re in immediate need of a beach read, skip the piles of books displayed at Costco. Warehouse stores aren’t going to stock the same variety of titles as your local indie bookstore — you’ll mostly find bestsellers the store knows it can sell quickly, according to Today. Amazon usually has better prices on new releases, independent bookstores have a better selection of lesser-known authors, and used bookstores and thrift stores are the place to go for older titles. Or there’s always the public library, which has plenty of books available for the best price — free.
7. Certain condiments
Lining your pantry shelves with jumbo-size bottles of ketchup could be a waste of money, unless you’re eating french fries at every meal. Once opened, ketchup starts to change color or lose flavor after four to six months (though it’s still safe to eat), according to Real Simple. Unopened ketchup will last about a year.
What about other condiments? Opened jars of mayo last two to three months, though like ketchup, it’s still safe to eat after that time. Soy sauce is best within three months of opening. Mustard, on the other hand, will keep for about two years, steak sauce will last for 33 months, and Tabasco sauce will keep for five years.
At first glance, Costco seems like the perfect place to stock up on diapers, but that’s not always the case. For one, parents may be able to get a better deal on diapers at other stores. Amazon’s subscribe-and-save deals can be a particular bargain, according to Rather Be Shopping. Plus, going overboard with bulk diaper purchases could mean you’re stuck with a bunch of too-small Pampers once your kid graduates to a larger size.
9. Huge quantities of things you haven’t tried
Whether it’s an unfamiliar brand of body lotion or a new-to-you snack food, snapping up large quantities of products you’ve never tried is a risky move. You have no way of knowing if you’re actually going to like the item, and if it turns out to be a dud, you’re going to be stuck with 10 pounds of snack mix you don’t want to eat or a gallon of moisturizer that gives you a rash. Pick up smaller sizes of products you’ve never used before at other stores to try them out. If you like them, you can stock up during your next trip to the warehouse club.
10. Vats of cooking oil
Unless you’re in the habit of deep-frying everything you eat, the jumbo containers of cooking oil you’ll find at Costco are no bargain. Olive and vegetable oil last just three to five months after opening, according to the USDA’s FoodKeeper app. Some even recommend using your olive oil within 30 or 60 days of opening. The longer an opened container of oil sits in your pantry, the greater the chance that it will go rancid. Your nose will tell you if your oil is bad. Food cooked with rancid oil may have a soapy, metallic, or bitter aroma, according to Epicurious.