Commissary Shopping Tips

I received this email from a military spouse the other day…

I’m a new military wife (married last June), so I don’t even know what a case lot sale is. Can you please explain it to me?
We aren’t active duty right now, but I have a feeling we may be in the near future. The closest commissary to us is 40 minutes away (Carlisle Barracks in PA), and we probably wouldn’t go there except that my in-laws live in the same town as the commissary, so we attempt to pack a cooler or 2 and stock up when we can for the two of us. However, after that service charge is added and I tip the baggers, sometimes I feel like I haven’t really benefited by shopping there even after the “discount” deals I find! I’m definitely a coupon clipper and don’t care about brand names, but I still feel like after those extra costs and the price of gas, I can normally just shop at a local grocery store for the same $ or sometimes less. Maybe I’d see most cost saving if I were buying for a family instead of just the two of us. Any tips for commissary shopping?

First of all, a case lot sale is basically when the commissary sells items in Costco quantity at commissary prices. Commissaries usually have two or three case lot sales a year. The best deals sell out quickly at many stores so it is good to go the first day or two. You can also use coupons at a case lot sale, which will increase your savings. Much of the food at the case lot sale is prepared food, like canned fruits and veggies, boxed drinks, cereals, and snacks. They also have cleaning items and cleaning products for sale too. The thing to remember is that these are all sold in large quantities, you cannot separate them. You could go in with another military spouse to purchase the items.

As far as the surcharge, I think it depends on where you live, if this cuts into your savings. Certain states charge a sales tax on their food, so if you live in one of those states the surcharge probably doesn’t make a difference. I live in Maryland, which does not charge sales tax on food. The 5% charge may make a difference for someone who is driving an hour each way to the commissary and has to factor in the cost of fuel.

Tipping the baggers is a controversial topic, so I want to chose my words carefully. I always tip the baggers, but I do think it is hard to determine a fair amount. There are several factors to consider; weather, number of bags, distance to the vehicle. The more bags I have the higher the tip, but I have never tipped more than $5.

Now down to the really important stuff. Is the commissary really cheaper? I would have to say yes, item for item, pound for pound the commissary is cheaper. I only shop at other grocery stores when I am getting things for free, or close to free. There will be times when using double coupons and bogos, you will be able to beat the commissary’s price, but unless all your shopping, including meat and produce, is done that way you will save money overall at the commissary.

Here are some tips for getting the best deals at the commissary

Do not shop on a payday weekend. These are the busiest shopping days at the commissary. It is almost impossible to walk down the aisles, not to mention figure out coupons if you shop during this time.

Take advantage of the tear off coupons. These are the coupons that are attached to the shelves. Many times these coupons match up with items that are already on sale. Combining sales and coupons this way can almost get you items for free. For example, last month there were many rip off coupons in the taco aisle, and all the Old El Paso items were on sale. I bought 3 jars of salsa, 4 boxes of shells, 4 cans of refried beans and 2 seasoning canisters for $6.

Plan your menus around the Commissary sales. The Commissary rotates its sale items every two weeks, starting on Thursdays. I usually try to post the sales at the Grocery Gathering, but sometimes individual commissaries run their own specials so I don’t catch all the deals. You can look up your individual Commissary here.

If you live far from a Commissary, try making one bulk trip every 4 to 6 weeks. At one point we lived about an hour a way from the Commissary. I went every 4 weeks to purchase in bulk; milk, yogurt, formula, diapers, bread, cereal and meat. I would also pick up the groceries I needed for the week. As far as I know, stateside commissaries do not ration items so you can really stock up on things that are a great price.

The Commissary will save you more money if you live in a high cost of living area. I live in the D.C. metro area. There is no other store that can compete with the Commissary’s prices. I also found this to be the case when I lived in the Virginia Beach area. If you aren’t sure about your commissary savings try making a price book. This will help you to determine whether or not making an hour or so drive to the Commissary is worth your time and money.

What is your best Commissary shopping tip? Leave a comment and let us know.

The Happy Housewife

This post may contain a link to an affiliate. See my disclosure policy for more information.


  1. This isn’t really a tip–but most things at the Commissary are going to be cheaper than a regular grocery store b/c commissaries are not ALLOWED to make a profit! They can only make enough to keep their store running and pay their employees, and there is an organization that compares prices of the commissary to those at regular grocery stores a couple of times a year. If the commissary isn’t cheaper then it can be shut down. So YES a commissary IS cheaper on MOST products.

  2. Now that we’re back in the states and have more than one choice to shop for groceries, I’m still shopping at the commissary as our primary grocery store. Yes, there are some bargains in other places, especially stacking sales and coupons. I’ll head out with a very specific list and buy ONLY those items unless I’m searching for a specific specialty item.

    Living overseas for four years we’ve learned about substituting or just plain doing without! (eg: a favorite fall stew recipe calls for parsnips – there isn’t even a word in Korean for parsnip!)

  3. Something I’ve observed where I’m at is that many people compare the prices of the commissary to the prices of the local Super Wal-Mart. If I’m already at Wal-Mart I may grab a couple items to save myself a second trip but could never do all of my shopping there. The selection is much smaller, quality of produce isn’t as good and I’m very likely to wander the rest of the store and purchase more items I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t there in the first place.

    I’ve gotten lucky on some trips and found meats on a great sale like whole chickens for half price.

    I’m going to start paying more attention to the coupon match ups. Thanks for your great tips!

  4. As a military mom and commissary employee. Shopping at the commissary is only cheaper with their produce and meat (unless you have an HEB close by, there prices are the same as our by a penny or two). Everything else can be bought other places way cheaper. Case lot sales are a joke unless you catch the vendors there with extra coupons to give out. Commissaries state side are not always the cheapest way to go.

  5. What my husband and I have done over some time is we write down the prices for the three stores we go to. Commissary, Walmart, and Sams Club, we also check prices for the last two online. Then we made a list of what items we purchase where. Some prices change but not by much. For instance we buy most food and household items at the commissary, bigger things like laundry soap and garbage bags, etc, at Sams Club. Then diapers and bottled water at Walmart. Depending on what brands you buy depends on where you would purchase them or even the area you are in. I know that when we were stationed at camp lejuene the commissary was actually more then going to walmart, due to the cost of living. We have been at this duty station for almost three years so when we move we will have to check the prices again and make our lists.

  6. I just want to tell you how ecstatic I am to find your website. I am former AF and now an Army wife…I started couponing because I really want to stay home with my daughter but still live the life we were accustomed to when I was working as a nurse. I get SO OVERWHELMED with all the information out there – all the different deals and matchups at so many different stores. I was just talking to my husband about it last night and how I kind of wanted to give up – he suggested I look for a coupon site that dealt with the commissary and then just shopped at other stores as time allows/for free items. I found your blog today and am so excited. You have a new follower and trust me – I’m going to tell all my girlfriend about your site as well:-)

  7. I found that going within an hour (2 if you are buying alot!) before they close is the best idea and of course going between paydays so that they are not packed and with the money thing we live within 10 minutes from the commissary so it works for us. You have to spend time to save money or spend money to save time… It’s just so packed so you waste sooo much time going. Sometimes I just find myself saying ‘nevermind I don’t need that item that bad’ because I wouldn’t dare try and make my way down some aisles!


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