Honoring our Presidents (and America) at Costco

I celebrated Presidents Day through a number of non-work activities, including a trip to my local Costco. On a day where we celebrate famous (and infamous) American leadership through the years, the most patriotic thing to do (aside from buying an on-sale mattress) may be going to Costco. I am a Costco fan. I’m not a Costco fanatic, but I respect those who are. My friend Amy says she likes a trip to Costco more than a day at Disneyland. Fighting words to some (my wife Jill included), but I like it.

I considered this week’s trip a win. I’ve called Costco “The $300 Store” for years – though it’s probably the $400 store now with inflation – but I got out this time for “just” $236. And nothing I bought was an impulse buy. Well, I did buy something unplanned – refrigerated tomato soup for $12 (call me crazy!) – but that’s it!

Here’s the thing. I am a highly informed grocery shopper. I actually enjoy grocery shopping. I look forward to reading the grocery mailers that come to my mailbox each Thursday.  I know the brands I like. I know the prices I expect. I know the layout of the stores where I shop. And I know what to stock up on when there is a great deal. With that in mind, here are the things I purchase at Costco that make the $60 membership worth it for me:

  • Tires. I know. Not a grocery item. But they are a great deal, and they only sell high quality brands.
  • Rental Cars. Another non-grocery item. I get all of my rental cars through Costco. Again, spectacular deals and easy shopping.
  • Appliances. (I will get to groceries, I promise!) Over the years, when I’ve needed a new washer/dryer/dishwasher/fridge, I’ve gone to Costco. The prices are great, they do a beautiful job of delivery and installation, and the return policy is unbeatable.
  • Rao’s Tomato Sauce. I have recipes, but I can’t make it much better without a lot of work.
  • Pesto Sauce. This one I do prefer making from scratch (it’s a little less salty), but the stuff they sell at Costco is awesome.
  • Frozen Atlantic Salmon. It makes a mid-week meal so easy, and again, it’s good stuff.
  • Frozen Spinach-Mozzarella Ravioli. Another long time mid-week staple in our house.
  • Other small items: Cholula, olive oil, chili garlic sauce, nuts, Halloween candy, eggs ($6 for two dozen in this shopping trip – half the price I would’ve paid at a regular grocery store!), Cheerios (plain), wine, and meats for the bbq.

Costco is a great deal, as long as you don’t get tempted by the items that sparkle and shine. That being said, there have been blips of weaknesses. Jill remembers a time when she and then 10-year-old Ryan went on a Costco run. They pushed the cart into the store and within five minutes, had a giant stuffed dog (at least she did not buy the Costco bear) and a cashmere sweater in the cart, well before they even got close to anything on the list. While I’m on a mission when I go to Costco, Jill is more of a browser on a fascinating exploratory journey. Journeying through Costco is dangerous and potentially expensive. (In Jill’s defense, that sweater was her favorite sweater for over a decade, and the dog was a 15-year favorite of Ryan, Dawson, and our last dog, Penny.)

There’s also the huge rotisserie chicken that is still just $4.99. “You’d think a chicken’s life would be worth more than that,” quipped Ryan one time. It is, Ryan. It’s worth much more, and they make you walk through the whole store to get it. That’s why you have to be strong. Stay focused. If you’re not, then you walk in for the chicken, and exit with a dog and a sweater.

Costco is passionate about its leading items. The chicken is one of those, and the $1.50 hot dog and soft drink combo is another. That price has not change since Costco started in 1985. Prices have increased 280% since then, so it would make sense if today’s price was a still-bargain $4.20. Dude! But not at Costco. Year after year, the price remains $1.50. In fact, when the current CEO was reported to be considering a price increase, the founder of the company reportedly said, “If you raise the price of the effing hot dog, I will kill you.” I’m sure he meant that in a loving and non-violent way, but you can see an unwavering commitment to core values there.

When I’m walking into a Costco, I’m always struck by the people coming out of the store with two huge TVs, and grocery carts overflowing with excitement and goodness. It seems like every cart looks like the Holderness family video (pretty darn funny, and sadly accurate.) I get a bit of ‘purchase envy,’ as I know my cart will be nowhere near as exciting as that one. (See non-exciting list above.) And my mind tells me that kind of cart, resembling Santa’s overflowing bag, is what most people are walking out with. But it turns out the average Costco purchase is just nine items and roughly $114. So, on my most recent trip, I actually doubled the purchases of the average shopper. Maybe I am more normal than it seems. At least in that regard.

Costco stores are big (90 houses like mine would fit into a typical Costco), clean, well-stocked, well-organized, and staffed by employees who tend to keep working there for years. Trader Joe’s (another store I know and love) employees seem a little more relaxed, but both score high on the employee retention scale.

And what does all of this fascination with Costco say about America? We like getting a good deal. We like knowing that we are being treated fairly. We like being in places where employees are treated well. My friend Dawnalyn says that for the person looking beyond the list, every trip seems like spinning the lottery wheel. They have short time deals that are gone once they sell out. So many Americans love playing the lottery and Costco trips can satisfy that craving.  Finally, we buy way too much stuff that we don’t really need.

As for my take on Disneyland vs. Costco, I’m on the fence. The lines are shorter at Costco and I get more for my money. And it is organized like a theme park  . . . But if you haven’t seen Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars Land) or Radiator Springs in Cars Land, you are missing out. And, since I know Jill reads this, it is super clear to me . . . Disneyland is way better! (But the hot dogs are WAY more expensive.)

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Halloween, Closed Drawers, and Empty Nests

Halloween is a big deal in our neighborhood. Our area is one of the few places in Malibu where streets are lined with houses arranged on traditional blocks, on a semi-traditional street grid.  Malibu is dotted with large houses and properties spaced far apart, many of which are second homes that are dark at Halloween, making it very difficult to trick or treat – so we are a destination neighborhood on Halloween. I hate to brag, but as a kid, I was a very accomplished trick or treater, so I know the key to a successful trick or treating night is quantity. Hitting as many houses as possible makes for excellent trading opportunities later, and a good deal of variety as well. I’ve talked before about the people in my neighborhood, so it will be no surprise that with our smaller and mostly festive homes filled with friendly and generous people who are home every night, you can expect to get a lot of treats from a lot of houses. Every year, we greet between 300 and 600 trick or treaters – this year was more in the 400 area, so I’ll be bringing a few bags back to Costco. I’m not a guy-who-buys-a-big-screen-TV-at-Costco-just-before-the-Super-Bowl-and-returns-it-the-next-week guy, but I do love their return policy.

For me, the holiday season officially begins in October, as Halloween approaches. Each year, when October 1 rolls around, I strike up a friendly conversation with Jill, who knows exactly what I’m after. As the conversation meanders, she is well aware that I will eventually ask, “So. When do you think I can put up the Halloween Tree?” Jill will sigh, and say something like, “I need two weeks.” I run as fast as I can to mark October 15 on the calendar, and, once again, I have something to look forward to in my life.

A side note. I know that when my dad sees that this blog is about our Halloween Tree, he will cringe in shame. Nothing brings him less joy than me mentioning or showing pictures of the Halloween Tree. He claims that it’s an embarrassment to our family. I of course disagree. There’s nothing quite like getting out the artificial holiday tree and beginning three months of celebration. First, it’s the Halloween Tree, then the Thanksgiving Tree, and finally the Christmas Tree. It’s a beautiful thing. And once we start trimming the tree with skeletons and pumpkins, Jill gets into it. She is usually the lucky one chosen to put the traditional witch on top of the tree. We put some pumpkins underneath too, and the holidays are off and running. With all of the use I get from our tree – three holidays a year for so many years – I think I’m now actually making money off of that tree! I’m not great with the whole money and profit thing, but it makes sense to me.

Trick or treaters love the tree when they come to the door, and contrary to my dad’s thinking, I never hear any parents pulling their kids away and whispering, “Let’s get away from these crazy Halloween Tree people!” Anyway, it was once again a fantastic Halloween, and next week, the Halloween Tree will magically transform into a Thanksgiving Tree.

The big difference this year, of course, is that for the first time ever in this home, none of our children were part of the festivities. Putting up the tree was a stark reminder of the empty nesters’ reality we are living. Ryan was 11 when we moved into this home, and Dawson was born while living here. These walls have seen 18 Halloweens with our children dressing up, trading candy, and entertaining friends. On Halloween night, we usually open our home to friends and our children’s friends. Jill makes a huge batch of her award-winning veggie chili (Jilly’s Chili recipe can be found on principalchef.com), I make cornbread, and we offer hot dogs, hot links, bottles of water, and a few other libations. Sadly, that did not happen this year, but it will hopefully return in ’22.  What that means is, with the exception of 400 kids coming to our door, Halloween was q-u-i-e-t this year. And neither Jill, nor I, liked the lack of decibels.

I wrote my most popular blog post ever, Taking My Youngest to College, about 10 weeks ago. The minute we came back into our empty nest, Jill immersed herself into teaching, and I started figuring out what is next in my life. Things are certainly different. We see Dawson’s empty bedroom every day and unlike when he lived here, the drawers to his dressers are all closed. Dawson has six large drawers in his dresser, and until 10 weeks ago, at least five of them were open with something hanging over the edge at all times. I would dramatically close at least one of them when I woke him up, glare at him with a stern look, and he would tell me how much more efficient it was with the drawers always open. Exhibit 254 in my ineffective dad case. Now the drawers are always closed. Success does not always feel the way you think it will.

Putting up the Halloween Tree was a closed drawer moment. I love that our home is festive and fun, but it would be 10 million times better if Dawson (and Ryan) were here. I’ve written before that, even after 12 years, our home still seems emptier with Ryan gone, and now, with both of them out, the house feels like there is a lot of space in it. Because Jill is a more sensitive and deeper person than I, she felt it more than I did as we kicked off the holidays. But there are lights at the end of this new tunnel, and they’re not just the orange lights of our Halloween Tree. We go to see Dawson in Colorado for parents’ weekend next weekend! And Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday, is on the horizon, and all of us – Dawson, Ryan, and Ryan’s fiancé Yesenia – will be together for that holiday. In the meantime, we are just living and actually enjoying our new life.

Empty nesting is just fine. And I don’t mean fine like my friend Jen means it. When she says “It’s fine,” you know you’ve screwed up. I mean that in spite of missing Dawson, we are doing well. It’s definitely a simpler existence. Our house is WAY cleaner and the drawers are all closed. Marie Kondo’s shadow looms large in our house, as we (mostly I) seek even more simplicity and organization. It’s a little sickness I have, but more about that in some other blog post. I feel beyond lucky to be nesting with a fun and positive wife and life partner, and we are living well and laughing a lot in our new existence.

That being said, I can’t wait for the band to get back together again.