Commissaries, located on military installations around the world, are the military equivalent of neighborhood grocery stores. These stores sell food and household items almost at cost. Compared to off-installation shopping, you can save a significant amount of money by making the most of your commissary benefits.
Stateside (or CONUS) commissaries (and some international, or OCONUS, locations) offer free Wi-Fi, allowing you to download and use digital coupons while you’re in the store.
Regular grocery stores in the economy operate to make money. Commissaries are run by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) and do not operate to generate revenue. Instead, by selling items at cost, prices fluctuate weekly based on what the commissary can pay for an item in any given cycle.
Regular stores put items on sale to get you in the store and to sell their perishable items with quickly approaching sell-by dates. That’s not the case at the commissary. Instead, manufacturers themselves decide what goes on sale. So if DeCA pays $2.59 for a box of cereal instead of its usual $3.89 price, that’s the price you pay as well.
Who is Eligible for Commissary Benefits?
If you belong to one of the following groups, you’re eligible to shop at the commissary:
- Uniformed-service members (active, reserve, retired or in training)
- Authorized family members and survivors
- Department of Defense civilian employees stationed OCONUS
- Honorably discharged veterans with 100% service-connected disability and their caregivers
- Medal of Honor recipients
- Disabled veterans, Purple Heart recipients, former POWs and eligible caregivers (see below for more info)
Service members aren’t required to be in uniform to shop, but if you are in uniform during specific hours, you get jump-the-line privileges.
Disabled Veteran and Caregiver Commissary Eligibility
In 2020, the DoD opened commissary doors to 4.1 million people as part of changes mandated by Congress as part of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This change in the NDAA allows veterans with service-connected disabilities, Purple Heart recipients and former POWs to shop at on-installation stores such as the commissary, exchanges, and MWR facilities. Certain caregivers were also included in the legislation.
If you think you should have commissary privileges, visit your local installation Visitor Control Center for more information about how to access the military installation. Veterans are required to provide their Veteran Health Identification Card in order to shop at the Commissary.
DoD regulations permit authorized commissary users to bring guests into the commissary during shopping visits. However, those guests are not authorized to make purchases, and you’re not permitted to make purchases on their behalf.
What Commissary Benefits Can I Expect?
In general, the commissary is similar to most grocery stores. However, there are a few differences you should be aware of. To begin with, members in uniform have priority, and, during certain hours, they have the privilege to jump to the front of the line. This is because they are often on duty and need to get back to work as quickly as possible.
Here are some other big factors to understand about shopping at the commissary:
The Commissary Can Offer Big Savings
In addition to inexpensive food and household items, commissary shoppers generally save more by shopping at their installation than in their local stores. Other benefits include savings of 50% or more during commissary customer appreciation case lot sales.
Case lot sales are bulk-item sales often hosted in the commissary parking lot. Items are usually discounted deeply, making it a good time to stock up on items your family uses often.
It should also be noted that the commissary only sells brand-name products. So if you are looking for super steals that are offered by big box stores like Costco or Sam’s Club, you may not benefit from commissary discounts. But if you just can’t live without a certain brand name, the commissary is the place for you.
To determine what items are cheaper than usual, you can look at the DeCA website. DeCA posts all its sale items, categorized by store. This list is organized by the type of food, or you can view all sale items.
The Commissary Rewards Card can be loaded with coupons, promotions and discount savings. Use the online website to create shopping lists on the go. Commissaries accept both commissary and manufacturer coupons. Unfortunately, unlike traditional grocery stores, you can’t use both at the same time. You’re also unable to double or triple coupons the way chain grocery stores allow.
Your Purchases Support the Military Community
Spending money at the commissary helps the Defense Commissary Agency and Fisher House Foundation provide scholarships to each commissary location. A portion of your purchase goes directly to morale, readiness and welfare (MWR) groups at your installation.
Understanding the Commissary Surcharge
The commissary isn’t set up to turn a profit. In fact, they sell items at cost. Because of this, there is a standard 5% surcharge on commissary purchases. The money from these surcharges goes toward the store’s upkeep and construction of new locations. This surcharge is calculated by the cost of your items before any coupons are deducted.
Disabled veterans and caregivers who are eligible for commissary access are also required to pay the 5% surcharge on all purchases. In addition, they may also be required to pay a 1.9% fee for credit cards and a 0.5% fee for debit cards. These fees are waived if a person uses cash, check or pays with their Military Star card.
Tipping at the Grocery Store
Baggers at commissaries work for tips and receive no other salary from the commissary. Of course, there’s plenty of debate in our community about just how much to tip your bagger. Some shoppers tip based on how much they purchase, while others always provide a base amount. If you’re not willing to tip, then you can always take your groceries out yourself or use the self-checkout.
What is Different about OCONUS Commissaries?
Commissary privileges in OCONUS locations are covered under the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) between the host nation and the United States. Products sold in overseas commissaries across international borders are available to you customs, duty and tax-free. However, there are shopping restrictions in place at OCONUS commissary locations, which are in place to protect the host nation.
SOFAs require that specific items be rationed, which limits the number or volume of products that can be purchased. In most OCONUS installations, rations are in place for coffee, alcohol, tobacco and fuel. Some SOFAs impose monthly spending caps to limit sales and prevent items from being resold illegally.
Are Commissaries Going Extinct?
Currently, the DoD is attempting to merge the three military exchange systems and the commissary system into one “defense resale enterprise.” Current law requires the DoD to operate separate commissary and exchange programs, so this law would have to be repealed before the merger can take place. In 2019, 27 veteran and military organizations asked House and Senate members to prepare a more complex study into whether or not the planned merger would be beneficial to military customers and the DoD. These groups believe that a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review would be appropriate to examine the recommendations.
If the planned merger is approved, the costs of implementing the consolidation might range from $457 million to $570 million over five years. By consolidating the three exchange systems, the DoD thinks it can harvest significant savings and expects the benefits to far exceed the costs.
Those who oppose the merger are worried that the defense release system might not be able to provide the services relied on by service members – including low-cost groceries that many junior enlisted members depend on as a promised benefit of service. They also worry that support for installation MWR family-support programming will wane. While the future of the commissary remains unclear for now, one thing is certain: Shopping at your installation not only helps save you money but also encourages and supports programs for you and your family.