Commissary Shopping

For Military Families

I would just like to tell all those who are new to military life to ALWAYS do your heavy duty grocery shopping at the commissary. Never, ever do your grocery shopping out in town. As a military wife, I know. Unlike the stores out in town, the commissary offers the best deals and no markup. What they pay is what you pay and there is no sales tax!! Depending on where you live, stores out in town can charge up to 10% in taxes on just food alone! The area where my husband is stationed, the grocery stores out in town charge 10% sales tax (6% state sales tax AND 4% food tax!) I come from a state that does not charge sales tax for food, so this is quite shocking. At the commissary all they charge you is a 5% surcharge to cover the cost of such necessities as lights. So always shop your commissary and only use the stores out in town when and emergency arises and the commissary is closed. And remember to utilize those coupons!!

Editor's note: The preceeding letter ran in our 'Tips' section on 8/23/99. We received the following interesting responses.

Not Always Cheapest

I have a comment about something that appeared in the dollar stretcher I got today (8/23). It was about the prices of food at the commissary, the grocery store for military families. Kelly is not the smartest shopper. She doesn't compare prices at her local grocery stores. I too can shop at the commissary (Retired AF) and found them only the cheapest on meats and a few dry goods and spices. I have made a price comparison list on about 150 items in my local 6 grocery stores (all within 5 miles of home) and can routinely buy under the commissary price. You can get things at less than half the commissary price, if you combine sales at regular stores, use coupons, even less if they double coupons (this includes tax). I was always told what she said, that the commissary is always cheaper, but I've learned that is FALSE! I can even get meat prices less than the commissary when on sale. The myth of the commissary being less expensive, in my opinion, hurts military families, who don't make that much. Basically, what it boils down too, is that nothing can be the best at everything. But that is what they try and make the commissary out to be. Shoppers must just remember to double check prices, and write them down (or keep receipts), as their memory isn't that good. (Example, everyday non sale prices I can get a green bell pepper for 40 cents cheaper at a local grocery store than the commissary).

I'm writing because I am tired of this MYTH being taken as FACT, as I had originally, and lose money on the deal for years. My grocery bill has been almost cut in half, since I did my price shopping, follow sales, buy in bulk, and use coupons. I no longer take the Commissary for granted as the cheapest, and save almost $200 a month because of it. I'm not saying don't shop there, just be wise as to what to buy there as they are not the cheapest store on everything, and I'm just trying to stop the myth, hoping to help others.

Don't Assume

I just have to answer when it comes to shopping on/off post. Please do not assume the commissary is cheaper. Check prices including tax plus don't be afraid of store brands. We just retired from 20+ years and there were many places it was cheaper off post. Use the ads to plan trips and take into account how far you might drive to shop.

Things to Consider

Like Kelly in your last Dollar Stretcher, I'm a military wife and do the bulk of my shopping in the commissary. For the most part, I agree with her points. But it is not ALWAYS the best deal to shop exclusively at the commissary. Kelly forgot to point out that the baggers are to be tipped; they are not government employees and earn no pay except for the tip you give them. 25 cents per brown paper bag is average; this can add up to a couple of dollars. The 5% surcharge, which is used for commissary improvements, is a better deal than state sales tax, IF you are living in a state that taxes groceries. In states where there is no sales tax levied, the 5% surcharge can be viewed as an unfair addition to the grocery bill, and ought to be taken into consideration. In addition, the commissary system tends to offer nationally-advertised brand names, which are more expensive than "store brands" or generics that are available at the local grocery store. This varies from place to place. At our current duty station, I have found no reason whatsoever to use the local stores; they charge considerably more for everything than the commissary does. But at our previous stateside location, a large metropolitan area, the local stores frequently underpriced the commissary on many items, probably due to competition. Also, for bakery goods, most military members are better off patronizing a day-old bread store on the local economy than using the commissary. Local grocers also frequently double coupons, which the commissary does not do, in my experience.

Military members who are living on an extremely tight budget would be well-advised to make a price book and go do some research at the local stores. Taking into consideration the surcharge/tax, the bagger's tip and all other factors, they may find that they CAN do better in some areas at an outside grocery store.

The PX is another story altogether. In my experience, the PX seems to carry a lot of high-priced brand names that are probably good deals for officers and their families. Enlisted soldiers and their families, however, who can't afford those brand names unless they show up at the Thrift Shop, would do better finding a cheaper brand at the Wal-Mart. Shoes, especially, fit into this category. The PX carries finely crafted, very expensive shoes at a bargain price, $30 or $40 a pair. I have nine children to buy shoes for, so we go to the Pic 'n Pay or similar outlet and get their $8 to $12 shoes. Again, I try to do most of my shopping on post. I generally check there first, and if I feel that I can do better off post, then I look around. But it's not always the best deal.
Mary L. in Radcliff, KY

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