I thought I wasn't a 'Costco person' until my friend showed me what I was missing, and I've never looked back

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  • I bought a Costco membership a while back, but I found the store so overwhelming that I barely made use of it.
  • After a friend showed me the ropes, though, I started planning my family's meals to get the most out of my savings.
  • Now I'm a Costco pro, spending about half of what I used to on some of my family's meals.
  • You can use the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi to earn 2% back on eligible in-store and online purchases »

"Thanks, I got it at Costco!" I'd heard this so many times over the years in response to compliments I'd given that I began to realize a club of people were buying their winter coats at the same place they were buying delicious pizza, and I wanted in. So, I went to Costco and bought a membership.

On my first shopping trip, though, I was so overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place that I found myself wandering the endless aisles staring bug-eyed at brands I had never heard of and couldn't be sure I liked.

I couldn't tell if the prices were good or bad, and I had no way of knowing because I'd never bought 600 vitamins in a single bottle before. I ended up leaving the store with only a box of chocolate almonds and an oversized pack of lightbulbs. It wasn't much, and it certainly didn't justify the $60 membership fee, but it's all I could find.

In the months that followed, I made a handful of mostly futile trips to Costco, and at the end of the year, I sighed with relief when my membership expired. I decided I simply wasn't a Costco person.

Getting some help from my friend

When I told my friend Amanda this, I think she may have gasped audibly. I explained to her that while I felt silly admitting it, I didn't think I knew how to shop at Costco. She promised to take me to Costco and teach me how it's done.

Our trip together was mostly centered on groceries. As busy mothers, we don't have time to gawk at flat screens, although we did double back to check out the clothes.

We stopped first at the produce section, which is when I remembered why Costco hadn't worked for me. Sure, $3.69 for a pound of blueberries is a steal, but who needs a pound of blueberries?

"Freeze them," Amanda told me, "Or better yet, think of all the ways you can use blueberries. Smoothies, by themselves as a snack, on oatmeal ..." She was right. My children love blueberries and would eat a pound in a single sitting if I allowed them to, but typically I'm so busy rationing out the contents of a quarter of a pint from my local grocery store that the final few shrivel up waiting to be distributed.

The Costco Anywhere Visa earns 2% cash back on in-store and online purchases and has no annual fee. See Business Insider's review of the Costco Anywhere Visa card for more »

Things were just as overwhelming in the baked goods section: A dozen Einstein Bros. bagels for $6, or a dozen enormous muffins for the same. I've often spent $5 at my local grocery store for four comparable muffins, so the savings were undeniable, but I couldn't imagine needing so many jumbo-sized baked goods.

"I always brought them to the office," Amanda told me. As a freelance writer, I have no office, but my husband does, or I might bring them as an easy contribution to my next book club. Or, as Amanda would say over and over throughout the course of our shopping trip, "Freeze them!"

As we continued shopping, the deals were so good I found myself taking pictures of the price tags, all while Amanda suggested the ways I could use a jumbo vat of coconut oil or peanut butter. But while buying bulk is a significant component of shopping at Costco, it isn't the only part.

Saving money on family dinners

We make six out of seven of our weekly dinners at home, and while it's a savings over takeout, I can't tell you how many times I've longed for something between sweating over the stove all afternoon and dropping $40 on Grubhub.

While many meal-kit delivery services posture themselves as the solution for families like mine, I find myself wincing every time I go over their price plans. Costco offers a real alternative. Its pre-made meal section is massive and packed with variety - plus, it's affordable.

It is famous, of course, for its $4.99 rotisserie chickens and $9.95 18-inch pizzas, but it also sells dinner salads that will easily feed a family of four, large tubs of soup, ready-to-bake pasta, and street taco kits, with the average price of dinner coming in at $15. It's affordable and convenient, and maybe enough of a justification for the membership fee on its own.

However, if I'm being honest, Costco is such a large store that "Costco runs" aren't a thing, only "Costco trips." So, personally, I would need more reasons to hike through the store beyond a few days of pre-made dinners to make the trek.

Understanding Costco's assortment of brands

Of course, Costco offers no shortage of reasons to stop in, but in the past, I'd struggled with buying brands I didn't recognize. Amanda helped me find the familiar in the unfamiliar.

Much of this came down to recognizing what items I already use in bulk quantities without pre-existing brand loyalty. For example, to my uncultured palate, one olive oil is much like another, and our family pours through it quickly. Picking up a two-liter jug for $15.99 from Costco saves me both time and money.

That said, Costco has brand options beyond Kirkland and, on some items, the brand really matters. I love baking and I use King Arthur flour exclusively. At my local grocery store, a three-pound bag is usually $5. Costco sells a 12-pound bag of King Arthur for $6. Even Amanda, my Costco guru, was surprised to see some of her favorite brands, at one point shouting, "Shut your face!" as she lunged for a package of Kite Hill yogurt.

Finding my savings

I had to stop myself from a similar exclamation when the cashier announced my total. It felt like a big number for a few items, especially considering I'd recently been geeking out over all the deals. But when I broke the numbers down into meals, snacks, and family members fed, I found my savings.

I only had 10 items on my receipt, and my total was $105, but when I calculated how many meals were included in that 10 items and compared it to my typical $150 weekly grocery bill that covers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for the week, I realized that while my while my Costco bill was not a direct comparison, meal to meal, it was much more affordable for my family.

For instance, the $10 box of individual pho servings would cover nine of my husband's lunches. The large bag of precooked, frozen chicken sausages I purchased for $13 and the box of frozen blueberry vegetable muffins I also got for $13 would provide my family with easy, nutritious breakfasts for less than $2 a day for the next two weeks. Typically, I spend at least $35 a week on our breakfasts.

There were other savings as well. My grocery shopping always includes more than just groceries. My daughter's teacher recently asked parents for pencils for the classroom. With the 96-count box I bought at Costco for $9, I was able to provide pencils for the entire classroom.

Another store would have sold a 12 pack of the same pencils for $2.39 a piece. Not only would I have spent much more money at another grocery store, I would have never bought 96 pencils at another grocery store at all.

As someone used to running to my neighborhood grocery store on an as-needed basis, this mindset shift was the most important part of my Costco lesson. Because in so many ways, Costco is not just a grocery store, it's a way of life. It's a one-stop shop that has just about everything you need, but buying it in bulk also requires a degree of planning and commitment.

And a deep freezer helps.

Earn 2% back on eligible purchases: Click here to learn more about the Costco Anywhere Visa »

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