Eight Tips to Help You Save at the Commissary (or Any Grocery Store!)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average family with two young children can spend around $1,050 on groceries per month. Food and household necessities make up a huge chunk of most military families’ spending plans, so shopping wisely can really make a difference.

While not every family lives close to a military commissary, those who do should definitely assess whether it might make sense to shop there at least some of the time. The Defense Commissary Agency (DECA) says that it can save patrons, depending on the region, an average of 20-42 percent off their grocery bill. Even with a mandatory 5 percent surcharge that is added to every order, this can still add up to big savings.

Here are eight tips that can help you save big at the commissary or any grocery store:


  1. Take Inventory of What You Have – There’s nothing worse than forgetting to buy something you really needed to get at the store. Well, actually, what’s worse is buying *extra* items that you already have on hand. Then you’ve not only spent more than you intended but now you also have to find a place to stash the extras and hope that you don’t forget they are there.


That’s why it’s best to take stock of what you have on hand before you make your shopping list.


  1. Shop the Sales – Grocery stores will typically advertise what are called “loss leaders.” These are items that are priced so low the store is not making a profit on them. Instead, they depend on customers being lured in by low prices and then continuing their shopping trip by filling their cart with other items that are not on sale.


Outsmart the system: buy the loss leaders, but don’t buy other items unless they are a good deal. 


  1. Buy in Bulk When Items are on Sale – if you’ve followed step one and have taken inventory of your pantry, don’t be afraid to stock up on frequently-used items when you see them on sale. The commissary periodically has case lot sales, and many of the warehouse stores do something similar.

Buying in bulk isn’t just for toilet paper and paper towels, either: if you have a chest freezer or room in your regular freezer, you can stock up on meats, bread, even shredded cheese.


  1. Track Prices – This brings me to another point. How do you know something is a good deal and worthy of buying in bulk? By tracking the prices. I used to keep a “price book” where I recorded prices for household staples. I don’t have time to do that anymore, but I definitely mentally track prices on the things we buy most often. If I see something that has a significant dip in price, I stock up.


  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Buy the Store Brand – It used to be that generic brands had a reputation for not being as good as name brand products. That’s no longer true. In fact, at stores like Trader Joe’s, the store-branded goods are often made at the exact same facilities as name brand products. According to Consumer Reports, customers can save up to 25 percent by buying generic items.


But not all brands are created equal, so try them out before buying in bulk (my kids hate the generic version of one particular cereal, for example) and if a name brand product is on sale as a loss leader, it may actually beat out the generic, so do the math.


  1. Do the Math – Yes, it’s tedious to actually have to do math while you shop, but doing some simple sums can save you big bucks. By opening the calculator app on my phone (or forcing my kids to do it if they go shopping with me), I have discovered that bigger size does not always equate to cheaper price. Price out individual units or per ounce prices. Some grocery stores do show this on their shelf labels, but they may be showing you the price per roll of toilet paper, for example, but each roll can be sized differently so you may have to figure out a price per square foot instead.


  1. You Don’t Have to Buy Everything at One Store – It may be tempting to just go into one, big box retailer and buy everything, but it’s rarely the cheapest way to shop. While I’m not advocating running a zillion errands, it may be possible to stagger trips to stores so that you are getting the best possible prices on items you need.


  1. Use Coupons – If It Makes Sense – I admit, I am not much of a coupon clipper. I rarely have the time to hunt for coupons, and we tend to buy lots of produce and other items that rarely have coupons. But if you find a coupon on an item that you truly use, it’s money in your pocket.


The commissary system has now embraced electronic coupons, and there are various apps, like Ibotta, Fetch, and Checkout 51 that also allows you to “virtually” clip, scan your receipt and still save money.


Want more savings tips? Find them on militarysaves.org. Take the Military Saves Pledge, and create a simple savings plan that works!

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