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Sam’s Club Vs Costco: The Difference & Which Is Cheaper?

Sam’s Club Vs Costco: The Difference & Which Is Cheaper?
Ryan Luke Feb 26, 2020
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With the ever-increasing popularity of membership bulk warehouses, two main players remain at the top: Sam’s Club vs Costco.

In this post, we will go over these two warehouse giants and compare their price structures and the overall quality of their products and services offered.

Lastly, we will give you our overall consensus of Sams’s Club vs. Costco, who is cheaper and who deserves your hard-earned money.

Full Disclosure: I Have Both Memberships!

For this review, I want to let you know that my wife and I have memberships to both Costco and Sam’s Club.

However, we only actually pay for the Costco membership because my dad added us onto his Sam’s Club account – one of their perks.

Luckily we get the best of both worlds but realize not everyone may have the budget or luxury of having both memberships.

With that being said, I have the unique insight of being able to personally compare these two companies side by side.

Find out which one we like better!

Sam’s Club Vs Costco: The Difference And Which Is Cheaper?

Now let’s go ahead and dive right into the comparisons.

Costco: A Brief History

Costco originally began in 1976, in San Diego under the name Price Club.

It began primarily selling to small businesses and was housed out of an old airplane hanger.

Shortly after targeting this audience, it became apparent that there was a need to offer items in bulk to the everyday consumer. 

Costco, a separate bulk sales company, opened its first warehouse in Seattle, Washington in 1983. In less than 6 years, the company recorded $3 billion dollars in sales.

With the success of both Price Club and Costco, they merged in 1993 to form the name PriceCostco. (Thank goodness that name didn’t stick)

In 1997, the company abandoned the “Price” part of its name and returned to the original name of “Costco” with the power of the two companies now combined. 

Today, Costco operates 785 warehouses in the following countries:

  • The United States / Puerto Rico
  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • United Kingdom
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Australia
  • Spain
  • Iceland
  • France
  • China

Sam’s Club: A Brief History

Sam’s Club, named after Sam Walton and owned and operated by Walmart and the Walton family, opened their first warehouse in 1983, in Oklahoma.

From there, the membership warehouse chain began to purchase other wholesale warehouse clubs and quickly expanded its territory.

In a similar history as Price Club, Sam’s Club originally catered to small business owners.

However, after seeing the potential profitability of targeting regular consumers, Sam’s Club changed its business practices to provide bulk items to individual customers in 2006.

Today, Sam’s Club membership warehouses total 599 clubs in the following countries:

  • The United States / Puerto Rico / U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Mexico
  • China
  • Brazil   

With so many stores operated by each company, it’s likely you live near one, if not both, of these warehouses.

Related: 17 Sam’s Club Hacks To Save Money On Your Next Shopping Trip

Can You Save Money With A Membership Wholesale Warehouse?

The quick answer to this question is an absolute “yes.” If you actually use everything you buy in bulk and don’t let half of it rot in your refrigerator because you couldn’t eat it all, it is totally worth it.

However, on more than one occasion my wife and I bought something in bulk and later realized we had to give some of the food items away.

We learned there was no way we would be able to eat 10 pounds of beans in a reasonable amount of time… 

For the most part, if you compare the price per ounce from the items sold at Sam’s Club or Costco to the price per ounce at your local small grocery store, these warehouse prices are considerably cheaper.

Even with the membership fee added in, we usually save much more money than we spend on the membership fee each year. 

Membership Fees

Each club requires you to pay an annual membership fee in order to shop inside their stores. Both companies have a tiered membership structure with different fees.

Costco Membership Fees

Costco offers two separate membership options:

  • Basic Gold Star or Business Membership – $60 a year
  • Premium Gold Star Executive or Business Executive Membership – $120 a year
What’s Included:
Basic Plan:
  • One Free Household Membership Card
  • Valid At All Costco Locations Worldwide
  • Add Additional People To Membership – $60 per person (business account only)
  • Purchase Items For Resale (business account only)
Executive Plan:
  • One Free Household Membership Card
  • Valid At All Costco Locations Worldwide
  • Annual 2% Reward Cash Back On Eligible Costco And Costco Travel Purchases
  • Extra Benefits On Select Costco Services
  • Add Additional People To Membership ($60 per person – business account only)
  • Purchase Items For Resale (business account only)

Costco Membership Fees and Plans

The biggest difference between the two plans is the ability to access the 2% cash back by using the CITI Costco Visa card.

Sam’s Club Membership Fees

Sam’s Club offers two separate membership options:

  • Select Club Membership – $45 a year
  • Select Plus Club Membership – $100 a year
What’s Included:
Select Club Membership:
  • Instant Savings – access to the club’s low prices
  • Sam’s Club Mastercard 
    • 5% cashback on gas
    • 3% cashback on dining and travel
    • 1% cashback on other purposes (up to $5,000 per year) 
  • Access to Sam’s Club gas pumps
  • Free flat tire repair, battery testing, and wiper blade installation
  • One free household membership to share
  • Add-on memberships ($40 per person up to 8 people a year)
Select Plus Club Membership:
  • Get 2% back on qualifying purchases (up to $500 a year)
  • Free shipping on items
  • Early shopping hours (get in at 7 am Monday – Friday)
  • Instant Savings – access to the club’s low prices
  • Sam’s Club Mastercard 
    • 5% cashback on gas
    • 3% cashback on dining and travel
    • 1% cashback on other purposes (up to $5,000 per year) 
  • Access to Sam’s Club gas pumps
  • Select prescriptions are free
  • Prescription Eyeglasses Discount (20% on complete pair)
  • Free flat tire repair, battery testing, and wiper blade installation
  • One free household membership to share
  • Add-on memberships ($40 per person up to 16 people a year)

Sam's Club Membership Fees and Plans

Sam's Club Membership Fees and Plans Part 2

The Winner Between Sam’s Club Vs Costco?

Assuming all things are equal, Sam’s Club is the cheaper option when looking strictly at membership price.

In addition, throughout the year, Sam’s Club regularly offers discounts to their yearly membership fee to lower the price even more.

Return Policy

Costco:

Return policies often can make or break a company. I personally have returned a couple of items to Costco when we found mold on our produce or had other issues.

With Costco, it was extremely easy to return the item. After speaking briefly with the merchandise return desk, they quickly returned the money back onto my card. 

Costco offers a risk-free 100% satisfaction guarantee on their membership and most of their merchandise. The following are the more restrictive return items:

Electronics – 90 day return policy, unlike the more generous general return policy.

Diamonds – 1 carat or larger must present all original paperwork. After that, a jeweler will inspect the diamond within 48 hours before a refund is given.

Cigarettes & Alcohol  – no returns accepted where prohibited by law

For more information, check out Costco’s Return Policy Here.

Sam’s Club:

Sam’s Club offers a 30 day no question return policy on all unopened items. Items returned after this window may be eligible for in-store credit or cash back depending on the item and reason for the return.

Items that are not able to be returned:

  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Tires and Batteries
  • Cigarettes & Tobacco
  • Prescription Eyeglasses
  • Gift Cards
  • Hearing Aids
  • Prescriptions
  • Tickets

The Winner?

Costco’s return policy is by far the winner. I have even heard of people returning items years after their initial purchase. Costco is much more lenient on their return policy than Sam’s Club.

Accepted Payment Options

Each club has put a limit on the type of payments they will accept. Here is a breakdown of each club.

Costco

Costco membership warehouses accept payment via:

  • Cash
  • Personal Check
  • Debit
  • Visa

Sam’s Club

In the past, Sam’s Club only accepted Discover cards. However, over the years they have added additional payment options:

  • Cash
  • Personal Check
  • Debit
  • American Express
  • MasterCard
  • Visa
  • Discover
  • Sam’s Club Credit Cards

The Winner?

It’s clear Sam’s Club takes the spot on this one. They accept many more different forms of payment than their rival Costco.

Overall Shopping Experience

Do you ever walk into a store and just feel dirty? Perhaps it’s the lighting, unorganized merchandise, cleanliness, or overall feel of the store.

Whatever it is, there are certain stores I like to shop in more than others. 

In 2019, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reviewed the major department and retail stores across the United States and found that Costco was the top-ranked retailer – just ahead of Sam’s Club.

In addition, Consumer Reports also scores Costco slightly higher than Sam’s Club in their customer satisfaction survey.

From my own personal experience, the overall vibe and experience I feel at Costco is much better than that at Sam’s Club. 

The Winner? 

Costco edges out ahead of Sam’s Club by a thin margin.

Store Credit Cards

Each club offers members the option to enroll in their own credit cards if you pay for the premium memberships. These credit cards offer additional member benefits on purchases within the clubs as well as external purchases.

Costco

After recently ending their relationship with American Express, Costco launched its new Citi Visa card. These are some of the perks of this card:

  • $0 Annual fee
  • 4% cashback on gas when you fill up at Costco (up to $7,000 spent each year)
  • 3% cashback on restaurants and travel 
  • 2% cashback on purchases at Costco.com
  • 1% cashback on all other purchases
  • The maximum cashback is $1,000 per year.

Sam’s Club

Sam’s Club offers a store-branded Mastercard. These are some of the benefits:

  • $0 Annual fee
  • 5% cashback on gash when you fill up at Sam’s Club stations (up to $6,00 a year, then 1% after)
  • 3% cashback on restaurants and travel
  • 1% cashback on other purchases
  • The maximum cashback is $500 per year.

The Winner?

The deal-breaker for me is the $500 limit on cash back from Sam’s Club.

I love credit card rewards and make it a point to put every purchase on a reward card and pay it off the same month.

Last year we received over $600 cash back from our Citi Costco Card. Due to the larger limit on both gas and the total rewards, Costco comes out ahead on this deal.

Pharmacy Services

With the ever-increasing cost of pharmaceutical drugs and medical care, medical costs are usually a great way to measure differences in companies.

We evaluated the pharmacies at both Costco and Sam’s Club to see who would get the better deal if you didn’t have insurance.

According to a study done by Consumer Reports, they pulled a random five commonly prescribed drugs and compared their pricing across many different retailers.

The winner was healthwarehouse.com which was able to save people the most money. However, looking at physical locations gave Costco a slight edge.

Costco

(1-month pricing for the following medications)

  • Actos – $16
  • Celebrex – $26
  • Cymbalta – $35
  • Lipitor – $13
  • Plavix – $16

Total for these 5 drugs = $105

Sam’s Club

(1-month pricing for the following medications)

  • Actos – $20
  • Celebrex – $38
  • Cymbalta – $31
  • Lipitor – $20
  • Plavix – $45

Total for these 5 drugs = $153

Sam's Club Vs Costco Pharmacy Prices

The Winner?

Again it’s Costco with an overall savings of $48.

Bonus tip – you may use both Costco and Sam’s Club pharmacies without being a member!

Travel Comparison

If you are an avid Costco shopper, you may be aware of their great deals on travel. If you’re not aware, prepare to be informed.

Costco

Costco provides significant travel discounts to include:

  • Hotels
  • Rental Cars
  • Vacation Packages
  • Cruises
  • Theme Parks
  • 2% Cash Back Rewards on Travel Purchases for Executive Members

Sam’s Club

Sam’s club no longer provides discounts on travel services. 

The Winner?

You guessed it – Costco, hands down.

Apples To Apples, Who Is Cheaper?

Ok, let’s get down to the core of this post.

When you compare the same items at both Sam’s Club and Costco, which one is cheaper? There have been several studies conducted for this and you may be shocked to see the results.

Yahoo Finance conducted the most recent study in 2019 that compared direct prices on the club’s signature brands. Costco sells Kirkland products while Sam’s Club sells Member’s Mark products.

The products that were cheaper are bolded.

Costco

  • Milk 2% = $2.63 per gallon
  • Organic Ground Beef Hamburger = $5.07 per pound
  • Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts = $3.09 per pound
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil = $8.30 per liter
  • Paper Towels = $1.70 per roll
  • Dish Soap = $0.07 per ounce
  • American Cheese = $1.90 per pound
  • Frozen Vegetables = $0.07 per ounce
  • Greek Yogurt = $0.11 per ounce
  • Toilet Paper = $0.13 per 100 sheets

Sam’s Club

  • Milk 2% = $2.68 per gallon
  • Organic Ground Beef Hamburger = $5.99 per pound
  • Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts = $1.72 per pound
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil = $6.66 per liter
  • Paper Towels = $1.13 per roll
  • Dish Soap = $0.07 per ounce
  • American Cheese = $2.10 per pound
  • Frozen Vegetables = $0.08 per ounce
  • Greek Yogurt = $0.12 per ounce
  • Toilet Paper = $0.18 per 100 sheets

The Winner?

As you can see from the data, Sam’s Club and Costco are very close in their pricing on some things but farther apart on others.

However, the larger picture shows that Costco is a slight bit cheaper than Sam’s Club with this information.

Keep in mind that this is subjective and there are plenty of other things Sam’s Club may offer at a lower price.

The moral of the story? Both of these chains are considerably cheaper than your local supermarket.

Automotive Services

Both Sam’s Club and Costco offer automotive services at their stores. The following is a breakdown of what is offered at each.

Costco

  • If you purchase tires from Costco, you get:
    • Free rotations
    • Balancing
    • Free flat repairs
  • Costco Auto Insurance
  • Car Buying Services
  • Discounted service and parts

Sam’s Club

  • If you purchase tires from Sam’s Club, you get:
    • Free rotation
    • Balancing
    • 24/7 roadside tire assistance
  • Car Buying Services

The Winner?

If you look at all of the services offered, Costco is the winner – BUT – the 24/7 roadside tire assistance is a pretty amazing perk.

The peace of mind this can give you may be worth it to declare Sam’s Club the winner.

Business Services

Last on our list is a comparison of services geared toward small businesses. Both of these companies started out focusing on small businesses – let’s see how they compare.

Costco

Costco offers the following business services to members:

  • Check printing
  • Credit monitoring
  • Mortgages and refinancing
  • Home and life insurance
  • Identify protection
  • Health plans, payment processing, payroll
  • Small business phone services

Sam’s Club

Sam’s Club offers the following business services to members:

  • Check printing
  • Identify protection
  • Small business loans
  • Health plans, payment processing, payroll, and legal services

The Winner?

When it comes to the comparison of Sam’s Club vs Costco, the leader tends to be Costco.

They skirt ahead of Sam’s Club due to the overall amount of services offered to businesses and individuals.

Wrapping It All Up

After writing a side by side article about Sam’s Club vs Costco, I can’t say that I’m surprised Costco came out on top.

While I shop at both clubs, I do enjoy my experience at Costco much more than I do at Sam’s Club. The atmosphere, organization, and overall vibe of Costco is a plus.

In addition, I personally prefer the quality of Kirkland products over Member’s Mark products.

With all that being said, you can’t go wrong by becoming a member at either club – provided you actually use your membership and don’t buy way more in bulk than your family can personally consume.

What are your thoughts, do you agree with our conclusion?

Do you have anything to add to our Sam’s Club vs Costco comparison? Let us know in the comments below.

Ryan Luke

Ryan Luke is a father of three, a husband, finance blogger at ArrestYourDebt, and full-time police officer. Through proper budgeting and money management, they have been able to live off one income and build wealth at the same time. As an active member of the personal finance community, his goal is to educate and help people get out of debt and build wealth!

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