Want to save money? Join the club.
Price increases on everything from groceries to amusement park tickets can make annual memberships look more attractive than paying à la carte.
In February, for example, both Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando raised their one-day, one-park ticket prices to as much as $99 and $96, respectively.
(NBCUniversal, the parent company of Universal Studios, is also the parent of CNBC.)
Amazon has hinted that it may soon raise the price of its Prime service—which offers members free two-day shipping, streaming videos and e-book lending—by as much as $40 from the current $79.
"Fee-based programs really encourage people to do the math," said Jeff Berry, a research director for Colloquy, an Ohio-based research firm. "You have to calculate how much benefit you can get, because you're actually prepaying for those benefits."
Three points to consider: Whether you'll do enough transactions with a business to justify membership, whether the benefits represent real savings and how soon you'll reach the break-even point.
The answers aren't always clear-cut.
To some extents, annual memberships are aspirational—like the gym that New Year's resolution-makers sign up for, said Kit Yarrow, chair of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Joining doesn't guarantee using something enough to justify the cost.
Or save any money. Membership programs that carry a fee tend to encourage shoppers to spend more with that business, and maybe more overall, said Mike R. Levin, partner and co-founder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Amazon Prime members spend an average $1,340 a year, while nonmembers spend $529, according to a December study from CIRP.
"For your $80, what you're basically getting is the privilege of spending more at Amazon," he said. When programs raise prices, enrollment tends to grow more slowly, he said, but many existing members will buy or visit more to justify their membership.
If the price of joining seems daunting, there are plenty of ways to cut costs for annual memberships. Amazon Prime, for example, can be shared by up to four people per household, and nonmembers may be able to tag along for deals at warehouse clubs and zoos. Many companies also offer free trials.
Here's how to crunch the numbers on six different kinds of annual memberships:
How much you might save at a warehouse club depends on what you buy—and your usual shopping strategies.
Warehouse Club Focus, a trade publication, compared unit prices on 49 name-brand foods at the three major clubs, as well as at Wal-Mart and Publix, in Jacksonville, Fla., last October. By their calculations, BJ's beat prices at Publix by 39 percent and at Wal-Mart by 24 percent. Sam's Club and Costco beat BJ's by another 4 percent to 5 percent.
"It's not really that difficult to make a membership pay off," said Michael Clayman, president of HHC Publishing, parent of Warehouse Club Focus. Clubs also tend to have competitive pricing on gasoline, as well as extra savings on travel, automobiles and even bank products, that could help justify the cost of an annual membership, he said.
But if you're the type of consumer who already shops the sales circulars and occasionally even clips coupons, it's easy to beat warehouse club prices on many items, said Teri Gault, CEO of The Grocery Game. In some of the site's comparisons, warehouse club prices were twice as expensive per ounce on produce, as well as packaged on cookies and crackers.
(Read more: Clipping grocery bills without coupons)
Again, a few workarounds might help you save without paying for a membership. Warehouse clubs often allow nonmembers to buy alcohol and prescription medications at member prices, Clayman said.
They may also sometimes offer day passes to nonmembers, who pay a surcharge at the register. (BJ's, for example, charges 15 percent.) For those who visit only once in a while, that still offers some savings on deeply discounted items.
Price: Varies by park. Passes to Cedar Point in Ohio, start at $120, while Six Flags Great America in Illinois charges $71.99 and up.
"An annual pass can be a really great deal for regional amusement parks," said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. Even considering that it's easy to pay less than the face price for one-day admission, most passes pay for themselves with two park visits. Some passes also include parking, dining discounts and free guest passes, which can be valuable.
A few parks, such as Six Flags, also give passholders free access to other parks around the country.
Destination parks like Universal Studios and Disney Parks & Resorts are a harder sell for visitors who fly in for an annual vacation, Niles said. For example, at Walt Disney World, even a 10-day park-hopping and water park pass costs $220 less than the $634 price for an annual pass.
But those parks often offer locals-only deals that can help an annual pass pay off faster, he said. Disney has a $62 pass for accessing water parks after 2 p.m., and a weekdays-only park pass for $219, among other options. Visitors to Universal Studios Hollywood can buy a one-day pass for $84 and get free access (with some blackout dates) for the rest of 2014.
The important question here is if the value of the card benefits eclipses the price.
"Annual fees are a little bit taboo," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com. "But don't rule it out."
That AmEx Platinum, for example, comes with a $200 airline fee credit, free Priority Pass airline lounge membership (worth $399) and a $100 credit to apply for Global Entry travel screening clearance, among other benefits—which could be more than worth the fee for a frequent traveler.
(Read more: TSA, airlines speed up security—for a price)
Ongoing rewards and new-cardholder bonuses can be another incentive, Papadimitriou said. (The Chase Sapphire Plus comes with 40,000 bonus points, worth $400.) Plus, many cards also waive or reduce the fee for the first year. Be sure to reassess the value once that fee kicks in: At redemption, points are worth about a penny each, meaning without bonuses you'd need to spend almost $10,000 a year just to offset a $99 annual fee.
And of course, any benefits' value dwindles fast if you're carrying a balance. If that's the case, he said, a fee-free card is likely a better option. Cardholders should also weigh the likelihood of program changes that could devalue rewards. That's more likely with a hotel or airline card—United and Delta, for example, have recently made program changes that require more miles for a free flight on some routes.
Price: Varies by program, region and membership level. In Maryland, for example, an annual AAA membership starts at $71.
Most roadside assistance programs pay for themselves with one lockout, jump-start or tow, said Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. (Past experience may be a good guide, he said. Do you tend to lock yourself out of your car? Do you drive maintenance-intense vehicles?)
"We do really recommend, particularly in urban areas, for people who commute, for people who have intensive driving habits, that they have some kind of coverage," Reed said. "It's a small price to pay for a pretty useful service."
Programs also tend to offer other perks—such as hotel discounts and free passport photos—that could help defray the cost even if no roadside assistance is required.
That said, don't be quick to pay up. You may already have roadside assistance coverage under an auto insurance policy, a premium credit card or as a freebie from the auto manufacturer, said Reed. Compare those terms against paid programs to see if there's a coverage gap (say, a longer towing distance) or other benefits (travel discounts) worth paying for. Then compare auto club prices and coverage for the best deal.
Zoos, aquariums and museums
Price: Varies by location. Family memberships for the Philadelphia Zoo start at $115 and at $199 for the California Academy of Sciences.
As with amusement parks, annual memberships to a zoo or museum typically pay for themselves with just two visits. Many also wrap in valuable extras such as parking, free guest passes and in-house extras like IMAX movies, rides and tours.
Members may also get discounted access at other institutions in the network: Join a museum that's part of the Association of Children's Museums, and you'd get 50 percent off admission at member museums. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums members might get free access or half off, depending on the zoo.
Keep in mind that if the institution is a nonprofit, some of your annual membership may qualify as a deduction. For example, $97 of that $115 Philadelphia Zoo pass is deductible.
Price: Varies by club, though Amazon Prime and ShopRunner both cost $79 per year.
Whether paying for free shipping works out depends largely on how often and what you order online. ShopRunner works with 80-plus sites. If you're shopping at Neiman Marcus, where two-day shipping costs $15, the annual membership pays off in eight orders. (Fewer with returns—return shipping is also free for members.)
At Amazon, two-day shipping rates run $5.99 to $12.49 per shipment, depending on the item category, which means Prime could pay off in seven to 14 single-item orders.
(Read more: Amazon Prime membership could be a budget-buster)
Prime has some unique benefits, including a lending library of e-books and streaming video of more than 150,000 movies and TV episodes. The streaming video alone is worth more than the price of Prime compared with Netflix's streaming offer of $7.99 a month, said Levin at CIRP. (You'd save about $17 a year.)
But his research has found that Prime members are apt to keep their Netflix subscriptions and buy more video content on Amazon, so you may not realize that cost savings.
Keep in mind that not every item is eligible for the fast, free shipping. It's also easy to hit the free shipping threshold at most merchants, which may make joining less beneficial for shoppers who wouldn't be paying for shipping anyway.
And in some cases, you might not need to pay. Select American Express cards include a membership to Amazon Prime or ShopRunner as a free benefit. Amazon also offers discounted memberships to students and new mothers.