Walmart vs. a Sam’s Club Membership: Is it Worth it?

When you think of paying cover, you probably think of the fee to get into your your favorite nightlife spot, not a grocery store.

Paying to shop for groceries might sound like a ripoff to the uninitiated bulk shopper. But you know the saying: You gotta spend money to make money. (Or in this case, save money.)

Warehouse clubs charge you to get in, but the deals are better. At least, that’s the idea.

But is it true?

Exterior of Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017.
Customers shop at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Is a Sam’s Club Membership Worth it When You Can Just Shop at Walmart?

Buying in bulk to save money on groceries and household items is a pretty entry-level rule of thumb for aspiring penny-pinchers.

That’s where warehouse clubs come in. You can shop to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content to find discounts on large quantities of your favorite groceries.

But is it worth paying for a Sam’s Club membership when you can just shop at its free-to-enter sister store, Walmart?

We’ve compared the two stores to find out how their sibling rivalry stacks up.

Sam’s Club vs. Walmart: Store Prices

Between rising inflation and regional price differences, prices will vary between stores, but our investigation found a clear winner.

We compared identical or similar items between the two stores and Sam’s Club was cheaper on nearly all of the products.

Though you’re paying for a membership, the fee could pay for itself with what you save on diapers, dog food and your favorite pantry staples.

Just gives you a good excuse to shop more often, right?

However, coupon clippers out there will find that Walmart has one advantage. Sam’s Club doesn’t accept coupons, while Walmart has a pretty open ended coupon policy.

Here’s What You Can’t Get if You Don’t Have a Membership

So once you’re pushing a cart full of dog food and oversized pantry staples, you’re probably wondering what else you can get for your membership. (Other than a decent arm workout.)

There are a few key benefits you get with the cost of your Sam’s Club membership that Walmart doesn’t offer.

Renee Flowers shops for bulk items at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017.
Renee Flowers shops for bulk items including paper towels and coffee at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

1. More Bulk Options.

If you prefer to stock up on your groceries, warehouse clubs are the way to go.

There’s the obvious bulk options like toilet paper and diapers, but you can also find bigger packs and better per-unit prices on your kids favorite lunch box snack packs, vitamins and even frozen pizzas.

You’ll also get better prices with bulk or multipack options on staples like bread and cheese.

And just because you’re buying in bulk, you don’t have to lug around prepper-sized cans. You’ll find great deals on multipacks of canned vegetables or only slightly enlarged containers of ground coffee. Sam’s Club offers one popular coffee chain’s ground coffee with twice the bag size of Walmart’s option but at 20 cents less per ounce.

2. Store Brand Wine (and Liquor) Selection

One thing that sets Sam’s Club apart from Walmart is the warehouse club’s exclusive line of store brand wines.

Member’s Mark Wine comes in your typical wine varieties and can be had for less than $10 per bottle.

Sam’s Club also offers their own Member’s Mark vodka, rum, tequila and other liquor at affordable prices.

The warehouse club also stocks the offerings you’ll find on typical liquor shelves, though only for a dollar or two cheaper.

It’s just up to your taste buds if that particular perk is worth it.

Ben Fulle reads on a sofa for sale at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., as his car which was being serviced on Wednesday August 16, 2017.
Ben Fulle reads on a sofa for sale at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., as his car which was being serviced. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

3. More Non-Grocery Goods, Like Furniture, Electronics and Housewares.

If you’re furniture shopping or in the market for a laptop, Sam’s Club will likely have more options on display than Walmart.

But in today’s buy-everything-online market, this is pretty mitigable. The selection and prices online are comparable.

Sam’s Club and Walmart both offer protection plans through Allstate that cover TVs, cell phones, laptops, tablets, jewelry, general merchandise and more.

However, the Sam’s Club protection plans are more comprehensive and the plans for electronics can also include tech support.

The Real Perks of Warehouse Club Membership

Even the above-mentioned items might not seem worth the price of a Sam’s Club membership. You can get furniture at any furniture store.

But the real reason to pay for a Sam’s card has less to do with the items you’ll regularly buy there and more to do with the peripheral perks.

Here are a few of them:

A truck fills up at the gas station at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Sam’s Club members fill up on discounted gas in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sharon Steinmann/ The Penny Hoarder

1. Gas

As gas prices keep going up, a Sam’s Club membership could be worth it just for the gas prices. Gas prices at warehouse clubs tend to be cheaper than other gas stations.

Unsure if the drive to your local Sam’s Club is worth it for the gas? Check GasBuddy before you go.

And although you don’t have to be a member to fill up at certain locations, you also won’t get the discount or the sweet cash-back rewards we’ll talk about next.

Sam's Club employee Amber Ewing scans items at checkout in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
Sam’s Club employee Amber Ewing scans items at checkout. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

2. Cash-Back Rewards

All members are eligible for a Sam’s Club Mastercard, which offers a whopping 5% in Sam’s Cash rewards on gas purchases, including the club’s already-discounted fuel, in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Say you put $100 in your tank a month. That’s $60 per year straight back in your pocket on gas alone, more than paying for the cost of your basic membership.

You’ll also earn 3% cash back on dining and travel purchases. Plus members also earn 3% on Sam’s Club purchases, while Club members earn 1% back on almost everything else. You can earn a maximum of $5,000 in Sam’s Cash per calendar year.

Additionally, members who upgrade to Plus receive $10 for every $500 they spend, up to $500 annually, through Sam’s Cash Rewards program.

Sam’s Cash is issued onto your membership card each month and doesn’t expire.

You can use those rewards to buy stuff at Sam’s, pay for your membership, or just have them cut you a check.

3. Pharmacy

If you regularly buy prescription medication, it may very well be worth the $100 buy-in to get Sam’s Club’s Plus member pharmacy benefits. (They’re not offered to the regular $45-card holders.)

You can get five free 30-day fills of select generic prescriptions, and over 600 generics on Sam’s extra value drug list for $10 or less.

You may even save 8 to 30% on certain brand-name drugs — which, of course, are almost always crazy overpriced.

If you have a pet that needs a prescription, you can get that filled at Sam’s Club, too— and you’ll receive 8% off the pet’s medication.

4. Optical

Many Sam’s Club locations offer affordable eye exams, and all members get 20% off their purchase of a complete pair of prescription glasses or sunglasses at regular price — without vision insurance applied.

Mechanics work on cars at Sam's Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday August 16, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
Mechanics work on cars at Sam’s Club in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

5. Automotive Services

Sam’s Club members whose locations offer it can get flat tires repaired for free, even if they bought their rubber from another vendor. They also enjoy complimentary wiper blade installation and battery testing.

If you do purchase tires at Sam’s Club, you can get $40-80 off an eligible purchase of four tires. Installation is $20 per tire and includes road hazard protection, tire rotation and balancing for the life of the tire and waste tire disposal. You’ll also qualify for Emergency Roadside Assistance for three years from the date of installation.

6. Free Curbside Pickup and Free Shipping

Plus Members get free ground shipping on most items online with no minimum purchase and free curbside pickup.

Club members have a $4 fee on curbside pickup purchases and only get free shipping on items specifically marked with “free shipping.”

In comparison, Walmart has free curbside pickup, but there’s a $35 order minimum. The $35 minimum also applies to online orders and orders shipped from the store. You can upgrade to W+ for free shipping, but it only applies to items marked “shipped from Walmart.”

Both Club and Plus members can get free shipping for up to 10 addresses.

Need something fast? Some locations offer Delivery From Club or Same-Day Delivery. Club members pay $12 for the service, while Plus members pay $8.

7. Scan & Go App

Don’t feel like waiting in the checkout line? You can download the Sam’s Club Scan & Go app.

You can scan items while in the store, pay on your phone and show your digital receipt at the door.

If you have an alcohol purchase, you’ll be asked to show your ID at the door and your transaction won’t be completed until your ID is verified.

You can also use the Scan & Go app to pay at the pump by scanning a QR code on the pump screen.

Scan & Go purchases are limited to $750 per day, but there’s no minimum purchase.

8. Early Hours for Plus Members

Do you go shopping early to avoid the crowds? Plus members can shop earlier hours than Club members.

Early shopping is from 8-10 a.m. Monday through Friday and 8-9 a.m. on Saturday — even on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

Early shopping hours also apply to curbside pickup. Time slots for Plus members start at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. on Sundays. Club members’ time slots begin at 10 am. daily.

A Warehouse Club Membership is What You Make of it

As you can see, if you play your membership card right, you stand to gain a whole lot of value. As long as you regularly buy gas, your membership is almost certain to pay for itself.

But here’s the thing: Whether or not a warehouse club membership is worth it totally depends on how you’ll use it.

If you know you’ll forget to use your cash-back card every time you buy gas and have a bad habit of letting charges revolve and accrue interest, the rewards don’t mean a darn thing.

And if you need to buy some peanut butter, you’re not going to get rich by paying the annual membership fee to save 2 cents an ounce at Sam’s.

But if you’ll regularly take advantage of offers and discounts, and make sure you get your money’s worth, a Sam’s Club membership is absolutely justifiable — unlike spending $10 just to walk into a bar.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, VinePair, The Write Life, Wonderfilled Magazine, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.

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