Just $50 — give or take — gains you entry into an inner sanctum of large stuff — a land of 5-gallon tubs of peanut butter, giant crates of tampons and enough junk food to feed a Third World country.
But is bigger always better?
The only way to know for sure is by calculating the price per item or ounce of that case of diapers and jug of mayonnaise and comparing it with regular retailers.
Some say you can save just as much — if not more — at the regular grocery store using coupons and discretion.
So, if you shop at BJ’s, Sam’s Club or Costco, what’s a good deal, and what isn’t?
Is a club store membership a passport to savings or a gateway drug for spending more than you need?
We asked local women to weigh in.
Lindsay Bartleson, 36, admits: “You can get better deals at the grocery store.”
But the mother of five children — ages 10, 7, 5, 2 and 7 months — does most of her shopping at club stores, including BJ’s in West Manchester Township and Costco.
“If you prefer brand names like we do,” she said, “you save more money.”
Bartleson and her husband started shopping at club stores a decade ago.
When they moved to Manchester Township five years ago, they dropped their Costco membership. The closest Costco stores are in Lancaster and Harrisburg.
Recently, the couple has decided that Costco is worth the 25-mile drive.
“We decided to give it a try again,” she said. “There are some things that Costco has that BJ’s doesn’t have.”
She snagged some recent Costco deals on Hannah Anderson dresses, which normally cost more than $40. Costco, she said, was charging less than $20 per outfit.
“My husband also buys all his workshirts there,” she added.
Either store, she said, is good for stocking up on the essentials — groceries, diapers, baby wipes and milk.
“There are other items,” she said. “Around Christmas time, they have toys. They’ll do bundles.”
When you have five kids, that comes in handy.
“If we can buy it at the club store, we usually do,” she said.
Bartleson belongs to BJ’s Rewards program — a higher-cost store membership that gives customers back 2 percent of every purchase.
“With what we earned back,” she said, “we basically paid for our membership and then some.”
‘Just about everything’
Dawn Lemen’s engagement ring is from Costco.
So is her TV, her swimming pool and her mortgage.
The East Manchester Township woman’s husband started working for the Seattle-based warehouse store 20 years ago. Today, he’s an assistant warehouse manager at the Lancaster store.
“Literally,” Lemen said, “we’ve gotten just about everything there.”
And while she doesn’t pay for her membership, she would if she had to.
“They don’t take manufacturers’ coupons,” Lemen said. They do have a coupon book they send out once or twice a month (to members).”
Lemen plans her week of meals based on what’s in the coupon book.
“You keep an eye out for new stuff,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”
Making up the membership
At first, Theresa Young said she was hesitant to pay for a BJ’s membership.
“It feels like you’re paying for nothing at the moment,” she said, “but you make it up in the end.”
Young is a 29-year-old single mom who lives with her mother and 8-year-old daughter.
She joined BJ’s 10 years ago.
“We love salads, but we hate paying so much for such a small amount of lettuce,” she said. “There you get four romaine heads for a really good price.”
It’s the deals on non-food items, Young said, that keep her coming back.
“We get all our DVDs there,” she said. “They are way cheaper than Walmart or Target. My daughter just got the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ TV series.”
And when it comes to club stores, she’s a die-hard BJ’s fan — leary of Sam’s Club and its affiliation with Walmart.
“We stay away from Sam’s Club,” she said. “Why would we join when we can go to Walmart for free?”
As for Costco, the crowds and large selection seemed too overwhelming for her small family.
“It’s twice the size of BJ’s. We just thought it was a little too big for us,” she said. “We don’t need that much stuff.”
Put your money where your meat is
At club stores, some people put their money where the meat is.
Large packs of steaks or poultry are a sticker shock up front, but worthwhile in the end.
“When I’m buying pork chops for Matt and I, it’s going to cost me $25 at Sam’s Club,” said Jess Ensminger, 30, of York. “If I break it down, it’s less than I spend at Giant.”
Ensminger and her husband, Matt, purchase non-food items such as toilet paper, paper towels and cat litter regularly at the store.
The couple’s membership is part of a membership her parents purchased for their business.
Certain things, Ensminger said, she won’t buy there.
Large portions of produce might spoil before they can eat it all.
“For us, it makes more sense to buy it at Central Market or Giant,” she said.
Multi-pack bags of potato chips are another thing that doesn’t make it into the cart at Sam’s Club.
“We don’t eat enough chips to justify that,” she said.