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How Joining Costco Taught Me to Make Better Choices

Emma Johnson  |  March 30, 2020

Joining the bulk grocery store Costco had a surprising effect on me: It taught me to be a better decision-maker. Reducing my choices from 100 to two means less stress and a clearer mind for me.

Unlike most of my mom peers, I resisted joining Costco. Too commercial, I said. Prevents me from supporting my local retailers. Forces me to hoard bulk quantities of planet-destroying consumer goods in my small New York City apartment. 

But then a friend shared her shopping strategy for her family, which includes small children. She would buy mass quantities of organic milk and other staples, which freed her from all but an occasional stop at her local market. Almost immediately I moseyed over to my wholesaler and signed up.

And my life has never been the same. 

Salted or unsalted

Sure, the price per ounce makes the shampoo a steal compared to buying it in smaller bottles at the drugstore. And the giant sacks of raw sugar that save me, like, $0.04 per cup of joe. That’s all swell.

But what I really love — why Costco adds true value to my life — is that there is little choice. When I go shopping at my local grocery store, if I want butter, I have to stand in the dairy aisle and contemplate so many decisions. Do I want salted or unsalted? Name-brand or generic. Whipped, spreadable, sprayable? Irish, Danish or organic? There are at least half-a dozen brands for each sub-variety. 

I stand there in that chilly aisle, one hand on my hip, the other scratching my head as I feel overwhelmed, confused and fearful of making the wrong decision

At Costco, the choice is easy: five pounds of salted butter or five pounds of unsalted butter. I grab the shrink-wrapped mega-package of salted, and merrily shove my giant cart on to the 40-pound sack of kitty litter — one of two options in the category. 

Costco makes my life easier not so much that it saves me money, but because it saves me time. My time is more precious than money. Also: reducing my butter choices from a bazillion to two reduces my stress and frees up headspace. 

Making choices is exhausting

It’s not just me that prefers having fewer options in favor of a less stressful life

The phenomenon is so prevailing that sociologist Barry Schwartz wrote a whole book on it: “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” The author notes that “a bewildering array of choices floods our exhausted brains, ultimately restricting instead of freeing us.” 

Today, the number of items carried at the average American grocery store is 33,055, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Shoppers are often actually less satisfied when they make a good choice because they harken back to the zillions of other options that could have been superior to the one they selected. 

Once you recognize how excessive choices are a mental health landmine, you start to see this pressure everywhere — from mundane daily choices to giant political ones. When I became a divorced mom, I found myself feeling enormous guilt and stress around whether or not to hire the occasional evening babysitter — whether it was for a professional event, date or evening out with girlfriends. 

Every time an invitation presented itself, I found myself thrown into fits of anxiety: If I hire a sitter, does that make me a selfish, negligent mother? If I forego a social or business opportunity to wrestle my young children through the rote dinner-bath-bedtime routine, am I succumbing to a life of drudgery and resentment?

A rule to provide relief

Eventually I settled on a self-imposed rule: I can hire a sitter once per week without shame or guilt. Everything else must be scheduled around my daytime childcare hours or the times my kids are with their dad. Once I embraced this law, I was relieved of the constant choice. I occasionally got out during the week, free from any negative feelings about the matter and void of having to make a painful decision.

And I started to apply that same rule to many of my decisions, like deciding whether to go for that career-boosting out-of-town meeting or attend my child’s basketball tournament; use a bonus for a home renovation or Roth IRA; cook tailgate or rigatoni for dinner. The decisions are endless. 

4 steps to make better decisions

Which brings me back to Costco. I am now a loyal Costco fan. I am also a fan of examining every angle of your life to see how you can simplify it. Yes, declutter your kitchen and give away clothes you no longer wear, but also examine your daily routines and find the strife inherent in navigating our world.

The next time you find yourself overwhelmed by decisions, take these steps:

  1. Ask yourself: How can I eliminate all but two choices within 60 seconds?
  2. Without thinking too hard, which option seems most practical?
  3. Commit to that choice. 
  4. Exercise that choice, guilt- and stress-free until that decision no longer works for you — or forever. Whichever comes first. 

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