What a Military Recruiter Won't Tell You About the Commissary

Military commissary building view from the parking lot

 Philip Rozensk / Getty Images 

Shopping at the base commissary and the base exchange is among the benefits available to military families and retirees, but civilians tend to have an exaggerated idea about just how big a benefit those institutions offer.

To put it bluntly, no, you can't buy a suit at the commissary for $20, and you won't find T-bone steak for 49 cents per pound.

While the commissary and base exchange each offer good prices, they do not offer the gigantic savings that many civilians think they do.

How Commissaries Run

Formally called Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) Commissaries, these stores have Congressional approval to use taxpayer dollars for their construction and operation. There are nearly 240 such stores around the world.

Commissaries are required to sell their products for the price they paid for them, plus a five percent surcharge that helps pay operating costs.

That surcharge covers most of the commissary workers, like cashiers and stockers. An exception is the baggers, who work for tips. It's customary to tip baggers $1 to $5, depending upon the total amount of the purchase.

How Much You Save

DeCA claims to provide overall savings to the customer of more than 30 percent. That means a family of four shopping regularly can save about $3,000 per year, and a single person can save about $1,000 per year.

However, actual savings vary from one area to another, depending upon whether or not the local civilian food stores charge a sales tax, and what grocery stores are available.

In a direct comparison test, a grocery order purchased for $103.57 at a Walmart Super Store would have cost $89.79, including the 5% surcharge, at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, Florida. That's a decent saving, but the 30% discount claimed by DeCA would have put the bill at a little over $70.

The Cigarette Exception

While DeCA is required by law to resell items at cost plus 5 percent, it is allowed to cheat a little. A few years ago, DeCA unilaterally decided to increase the price of cigarettes sold in the commissaries. To get around the law, DeCA started buying its tobacco products from military exchanges, which sell tobacco items at prices comparable to the local civilian economy prices.

Nonsmokers may applaud this move to improve the general health of the military and military retiree population. Others may see it as an ominous precedent. Will sugary snacks be next on the hit list?

Military Exchanges

Unlike commissaries, military exchanges are permitted to earn a profit. A portion of those profits goes toward local and service-wide causes, called Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) projects.

The exchanges are operated by three separate agencies: The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), The Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM), and the Marine Corps Exchange

As with the commissaries, no sales tax is charged at the exchanges, and this can add up to significant savings over time or when you are buying expensive items.

The only government dollars spent on the three exchange service stores are for utilities, transportation of merchandise to overseas exchanges, and military salaries. The exchange services fund 98 percent of their operating budgets from the sale of merchandise, food, and services to customers.

AAFES Price Matching

It is not difficult to find a similar or even an exact item in civilian stores that are priced lower than the one stocked in a military exchange. For those occasions, the exchanges have a price-matching policy.

Some military families complain about the selection available in the military exchanges. Certainly, high-priced designer goods are rarely in stock. Most younger enlisted families couldn't afford them even at a discount.

That said, many bargain-wise shoppers are thrilled at the selection and prices.

Other Base Discounts

AAFES is also responsible for the operation of on-base service stations, liquor stores, theaters, and even food franchises such as Burger King.

Don't expect super-savings from those places. To establish gas and liquor prices, the exchange services periodically survey prices in the local area and try to keep their own prices slightly below the off-base average.

It's not difficult to find off-base service stations that are selling gas cheaper, and cheaper liquor is even easier to find.

AAFES Employment

The exchanges are a big source of employment for family members of military members. About 25% of the 52,400 AAFES associates are military family members. Many have worked for years at different stores as they've transferred with their families from one installation to the next. Three percent of associates are active military members who work part-time during their off-duty hours.

The exchanges and commissaries provide important benefits and millions of dollars each year toward the service's MWR programs. The monetary savings are good, just not as good as you may have thought.