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Costco (NASDAQ: COST), Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT) Sam's Club, and privately held BJ's Wholesale all operate essentially the same business.
That gives consumers lots of choice. Sometimes geography provides the answer, and others it's a favorite product stocked by one of the the three, but not the others.
In many cases, however, the decision to join Costco, Sam's, or BJ's comes down to which company offers the best rewards credit card. All three have cards that reward loyalty, but the perks vary between the chains. Knowing which warehouse club makes the most sense for you involves examining what each of the three credit card programs has to offer, then balancing it against your actual uses.
Getting 4% off on gas, for example, may not be much of a perk if you don't drive, and free travel insurance or rental car benefits means less to people who travel infrequently. All three programs are generous, but different, with the "best" not necessarily being the same for everyone.
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What is Costco offering?
Costco's card has been in the news recently because of the company's switch from its longtime provider American Express to the new Costco Anywhere Visa, serviced by Citigroup. That transition had its share of bumps, but now that the card has been moved over, cardholders receive some enhanced perks.
Costco Anywhere does not come with an annual fee, but to get one you need to pay the warehouse club's $55 annual membership. Once you qualify for the card (all three of these cards, of course, require credit checks), it then serves as your membership ID.
The new card's benefits include 4% cash back on gas purchases for the first $7,000 spent in a year. Costco Anywhere also offers 3% back on eligible travel spending and 2% cash back on all Costco purchases, with 1% returned on anything bought elsewhere. Aside from the gas benefit, none of the others has a cap.
The new Visa card also offers worldwide car rental insurance along with worldwide travel accident insurance. In addition, it includes damage and theft protection.
What is Sam's Club offering?
Sam's has a cheaper membership price than both its rivals. The Wal-Mart company charges $45 a year compared to $55 at Costco and $50 at BJ's. Sam's Club members can also get nearly the whole membership fee back if they spend $100 on the day they open a Sam's Savings MasterCardaccount because the company will credit any customer who meets that initial spending threshold with $40.
Members also get 5% back on gas -- on spending up to $6,000 a year (then it drops to 1% with no limit) -- 3% back on dining and travel, and 1% back on all other purchases. Cardholders also receive price protection on some purchases, as well as identity theft resolution services.
Like Costco's card, Sam's does not have an annual fee and it doubles as your membership ID. A maximum of $5,000 in cash-back rewards can be earned in a calendar year.
All three warehouse clubs have slightly different rewards offers. Image source: Wal-Mart.
What is BJ's offering?
The My BJ's Perks MasterCard offers 3% cash back on in-store and online purchases from the warehouse club. It also has a slightly different take on the gas reward, giving consumers $0.10 off per gallon with no limits. How that compares to 4%-5% off on gas varies based on the price of fuel, but with current prices hovering around $2 in much of the country, it's comparable.
In general, given that current prices are near historic lows, it's fair to say BJ's offers a worse gas deal than its rivals unless your gas spending is more than Sam's $6,000 ceiling for its 5% giveback or Costco's $7,000 cap on its 4% reward.
The BJ's credit card also offers 1% cash back on all other purchases made on the card and a $10 discount when it comes time for cardholders to renew their membership to the warehouse club. Like the rival cards, the My Perks MasterCard has no annual fee and serves as your membership card.
Which is the best deal?
These are all very similar overall deals. In fact these offers are so similar that, for consumers, it likely comes down to other factors beyond the card perks -- such as which warehouse club has a location closest to your home, or which one offers a product mix that's more to your liking.
These are all good deals for frequent shoppers at the three chains, and the gas benefits can add up to a significant perk if you drive enough and can manage to fill up at your warehouse club of choice regularly.
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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He is a Costco member who rarely remembers to get gas there. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Costco Wholesale, MasterCard, and Visa. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.