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Membership Options

The first step in our comparison: purchasing Sam's Club and Costco memberships. Both stores are wholesale clubs, meaning you must buy a membership in order to become a regular customer.

Sam's Club membership comes in four levels: Advantage ($40), Advantage Plus ($100), Business ($35), and Business Plus ($100).

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We purchased the simple Advantage Membership, which comes with a primary card and another for a named member of the household. Other advantages (no pun intended) include free flat tire repair, battery testing, and wiper blade installation, as well as the Click N' Pull program, which lets members shop online and pick up at a store next day. Upgrading to the Advantage Plus Membership would have gotten us all these perks plus early bird shopping (starting at 7am instead of the regular 9am or 10am opening time); eValues coupons loaded on the membership card and redeemed at checkout; extra pharmacy savings, such as 8 percent off name brand medications and 40 percent off of generics; and an extra year warranty on select items when a warranty is purchased.

The basic Business Membership includes 11 cards, Click N' Pull, Fax N' Pull, early bird shopping, and access to small business loans through an outside partner. (One wholesale club review on Viewpoints says the early shopping hours are a big draw and the dollar savings really help small businesses.) Business Plus members get these perks plus the eValues coupons, pharmacy savings, and extended warranties. Companies can offer employees the opportunity to join and they'll receive a $25 gift card, which effectively cuts the price of the Advantage Membership to $15. Sam's Club's Collegiate Membership for college students includes a $15 gift card when signing up (or renewing) and another gift card when making qualifying purchases through textbooks.com.

Costco membership comes in three levels. The first is the Gold Star Membership ($55), which comes with discounts on car purchases from select dealers, auto and home insurance, travel insurance, travel destinations, car rental, check printing, online investing, Medicare Part D pharmacy costs, phone services, small business 401(k) plans, identity protection, merchant credit card processing, payroll services, and health insurance in select states. Members can earn a Costco gift card by refinancing boat or RV loans. A Business Membership ($55) offers all the same benefits and allows for six additional cardholders. The Executive Membership ($110) provides extra savings on the above services, plus 2 percent back on all purchases (i.e., spending $200 a month gets you $48 cash back for the year, which just about covers the extra cost of this membership level.) There's a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee, so if you don't spend enough to make up for the higher membership fee, Costco makes up the difference. The Executive Membership is a risk-free proposition if you can afford the initial outlay, particularly because the more you shop, the more you earn -- up to a maximum of $500, which means spending $25,000 a year. But even at lower spending levels, My Money Blog notes there are enough other perks for Costco Executive members to justify the upgrade.

Bottom line: Your shopping preferences and needs will play a big role in deciding which wholesale club is right for you. Basic Sam's Club memberships are cheaper up front and offer more in-store perks. Costco membership costs are a tad higher and include fewer in-store benefits, but the slightly higher fee is a good buy if you take advantage of the extended services, like discounted travel or auto or home insurance. Additionally, refunds through the Executive Membership at Costco add up and may make this the cheapest deal of all for big-time shoppers. Both wholesale clubs give full refunds if you're unhappy with your membership and shopping experience.

Coupons and Extra Savings.

Frugal shoppers look for any and every way to save a buck, and coupons equal extra savings. The only coupons Sam's Club offers are eValues coupons, which are available only to Advantage Plus and Business Plus members (as described above, they're loaded onto your membership card). Costco is the clear frontrunner here. For starters, we received Costco coupons in the mail enticing us to join the club the day before beginning our research. (Neither Costco nor Sam's Club was apprised of our plans or had any input into this report.) The coupons were mostly for in-store grocery items, but there were tire coupons and online coupons as well. When buying the membership, we asked about the coupons and were told members periodically receive coupons in the mail. And once you register online as a member, Costco sends emails with coupons for online savings.

Review continues below

by Raechel Conover (Google+ Profile)

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