One of the biggest benefits to military families is the privilege of shopping at the Commissary and Exchange.
The commissary is a military grocery store. It looks just like a normal grocery store, and sells similar items, the difference is only active duty, retirees, reservists and their dependents may shop there. It is my opinion that the commissary is cheaper on the majority of items. This does not mean that you will not do better with triple coupon, catalinas, or ECB’s, but you cannot buy all your groceries that way. I believe that military families should scan circulars for loss leaders at the local stores. But over the past several years, using the commissary has kept my family of nine’s grocery bill at around $600 a month, and we eat well.
Commissary Facts and Tips
The Dreaded Surcharge: The commissary adds a 5% surcharge to your total bill. Depending on where you live, this may cut 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: I know there are many people who do not like having to tip the baggers, but don’t take it out on them, they are just doing their job. 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.
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.
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 commissary sales. The commissary rotates its sale items every two weeks, starting on Thursdays. This means the price of almost everything in the commissary changes every two weeks. If you see something on sale, stock up! It might be twice as much the next time you go to the store. I post the commissary sales every two weeks with coupon match-ups. Each store does run manager’s specials that vary from store to store. 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.
The Exchange (PX/ NEX)
The Exchange is a department store. They sell everything from clothes to toys to jewelry and make-up. The big benefit of the Exchange is that all your purchases are tax free. This can be a huge savings on big ticket items. Their prices are competitive, but you I recommend shopping around before purchasing larger items. The Exchange does price match, and you can find their policy here.
Using your Commissary and Exchange benefits can help stretch your family’s budget. What is your best commissary or exchange shopping tip?