Everybody loves Costco.
The low prices, large bulk, and free samples are all just some of the reasons why Costco is such a great wholesale membership club. Their stores are always in tip-top shape and the customer service is great. Even their employees are treated well, making $17 an hour, while their Walmart counterparts make just $12.40 an hour (and that's only if they're full-time).
What's not to love?
As with all things good, it comes at a price—an annual one to be specific. Costco's yearly paid memberships range anywhere from $55 to $110, which isn't really that much if you have a large family, considering the benefits.
As someone who doesn't frequent Costco all that much, is there anyway I can still benefit from their low prices without having to pay for a membership?
What Costco and other warehouse clubs such as Sam's Club don't tell you is that there are a couple of items that they are legally obliged to sell to anyone in the general public—EVEN IF YOU DON'T HAVE A PAID MEMBERSHIP.
As it turns out, a membership is not required to purchase alcoholic beverages from a retailer like Costco and Sam's Club. Membership stores cannot exclude the general public from purchasing alcoholic beverages (assuming that the person purchasing the alcohol is 21 years of age or older) because they're issued a public license. In most cases, that's a Type 21 – General Off-Sale License in California.
I took this picture at my local Costco, and you can see that it says OFF-SALE GENERAL at the top.
This means that such membership stores can require a membership as a condition to purchase any merchandise other than alcohol in the store, but being that they hold a public license, they MUST allow the general public to purchase alcoholic beverages at such stores without the need of a membership.
They generally have conditions attached to their alcohol license regarding the public's accessibility to alcoholic beverages inside the locations.
Most think that a "membership"-type establishment needs a club alcohol license like the Knights of Columbus and Veterans' Clubs have, usually type 51, 52, or 57. These licenses restrict the sale and service of alcoholic beverages to members and guests. However, state laws restrict for-profit organizations like Costco and Sam's Club from getting this type of private license.
Costco employees on this Reddit thread have confirmed all of this information, but have also said that most door employees will not know about this, and will call the manager if you persist. When I went into my local Costco, one of the managers I spoke to told me:
"We are quite aware that you can purchase alcohol without a membership. Once you retrieve whatever alcohol you want to buy, you can get in line or come get one of the supervisors, as we need to give you a 99 (a generic membership number), which requires one of us to override."
As the law does range from state to state, you'll have to check with your local government to see if it applies where you live. Some of the states where you can currently purchase alcohol without a club membership include California, New York, Hawaii, and Texas.
If you want more information, or want to download hard proof the next time you walk into a Costco or Sam's Club, check out:
- Bottle club 25604
- Club, guest, definition 23037
- Club licenses 23425-23430
All of these codes can be found online, through the California Business and Professions Code Book.
Note: Code numbers might vary from state to state.
The other items that you don't need a membership to purchase is prescriptions at the pharmacy located inside of membership warehouse clubs. Why would you want to? Because they're freaking cheap. Go ahead, compare prices with CVS, Rite-Aid, Target, etc. Costco will hands down always be cheaper.
The pharmacist that I spoke to at Costco said, "Yes, you can purchase any prescriptions without a membership, as long as you have a doctor's note for medication. There's a state law that prohibits pharmacies from being member only."
She then went on to tell me that she doesn't know the exact law, but that you can find all of the information you need in this California Pharmacy law book. If you want to find the one specific to your state, just look up Board of Pharmacy online. You should find the law book, with all the regulations online.
Note: Unlike the alcohol regulations, purchasing medication without a membership is nationwide and is very well known.
Many people online believe that they can purchase tobacco without a membership, but this is ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE. There's a rumor that anything that is regulated by the government can be bought without a membership, since drugs and alcohol can be—but cigarettes are not the case.
Another online rumor that seems to have spread is that anyone can purchase anything from the optometrists inside of the membership clubs, since they are third party. This again IS COMPLETELY NOT TRUE.
If there are things you want to purchase but still don't want to get a membership, there are alternative ways to purchase items from Costco without having to pay for a membership:
- Shop online
- Use a Costco cash card
- Get a one-day free shopping pass trial
- Or piggyback off of your friends with a membership
Freeloading off of your friends is always the best way to go.