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Membership clubs can save you money

While bulk buying is a major draw for big box stores like Sam's Club, Costco and BJ's Wholesale, the perks of being a cardholder go beyond feeding an army. Many nonbulk items can often be found for much less than at supermarkets and retail chains. Membership fees range from $40 to $100 annually, yet the cost is quickly devoured by savings of 30 to 70 percent on everything from food to electronics. Here are some products you should almost always buy at big box clubs, along with a few things to avoid.

TVs: Flat screen televisions are proof that technology moves at a faster clip than ever imagined. What once cost two or three grand can now be found for under $1,000. Aside from occasional rebate deals, the initial prices on many TVs at big box retailers won't be much different than at equally affordable department stores. Where the clubs shine, however, is with generous warranties and return policies.

AA batteries: What it comes down to is pure, unadulterated per-unit price. A comparison by WalletPop whittled the price at Costco down to 36 cents per battery, while the damage at a nearby grocery store was $1.12, nearly 70 percent more. Enough said.

Pre-ground coffee: Granted, this is more of a bulk-buy type item, but with the way early-morning zombies go through java, a 48-ounce canister is lucky to last several weeks. Large coffee cans cost up to 30 percent less per pound at a big box store than the local supermarket.

Tires: While not every location has a full-service mechanic, the trend is picking up along with in-house gas stations. All three major merchants have tire stores, but Costco offers the best overall deal.

Pet food: Cat, dog, dry, canned — it doesn't much matter when it comes to pet food. With the exception of occasional sales at Walmart, you're almost guaranteed to snag a better deal for your four-legged significant other at warehouse stores.

Alcohol: Several money-savvy sites have made an unexpected discovery at big box stores: They carry a wine and beer selection on par with some of the finest restaurants and brew pubs. Most brands and varieties can be found for 20 percent less than at liquor stores or supermarkets. And some states allow anyone of legal age to buy from warehouse clubs; cardholder or not. The big winners are high-end spirit connoisseurs. Bottles regularly priced over $150 can be found for 30 to 50 percent off the going rate.

Prescription drugs: Similar to your local supermarket, nearly every wholesale club comes equipped with a full-service pharmacy. But what's the difference? An average of 50 percent on most prescription meds, including common necessities like inhalers. Though it varies by store and location, most even let nonmembers fill prescriptions online or in person. That said, some experts warn against buying supplements and vitamins from big box retailers. If you must, try them in small doses before committing to a year's supply.

Cell phone plans: Setting up or changing a cell phone plan through a big box store is much like buying a TV. The base rates are almost identical to what you'd get with a service provider, but it's the fringe benefits that make it worthwhile. Along with a convenient, hassle-free way to compare providers — the in-store kiosks are operated by an independent vendor, meaning no pushy salesmen — you'll find more instant and mail-in rebate deals than anywhere else. Each major cell company offers at least one free smart phone with a new plan, plus the store usually includes a free accessory kit just for doing business through them.

Milk: Milk is one of the few nonbulk food items that's nearly always cheaper at a club. A gallon will typically cost $1.50 less, even organic varieties.

Quality meat: At the big box stores, there's no pressure to buy in bulk and most carry the same selection as supermarkets, from seafood and sausage to filet mignon and roast chicken. BJ's, Costco and Sam's Club all have an online ordering and distribution service for certain meats. Most orders come with free shipping and the prices are comparable to specialized delivery companies.

Gas: Filling up at your local club can be anywhere from 5 to 10 cents cheaper per gallon than surrounding gas stations. That said, be judicious and pay special attention to dips or jumps in gas prices. When the cost of a gallon falls, big box stores reap the benefits. However, when prices take a sharp spike, they typically get hit hard and end up being more expensive. Gas prices nationwide are relatively stable at the moment, but it pays to be cautious.

Membership clubs can save you money 11/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 4:30am]
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