Commissary: Still a Savings Despite the Surcharge?


Confession: I’m not a terribly observant person, especially when I’m in a hurry. So it was like a bolt of lightening had hit me the day I noticed, several years into my military life, that the commissary charges a surcharge.

Excuse me? I thought this place was tax-free?!

You’re all probably smarter than I am, so you probably knew about this from the beginning. You knew that this surcharge of 5 percent of your pre-coupon total goes towards things like building maintenance and anything local stores need to operate, such as checkout scanners. It does not pay the salary of the employees (that comes from the federal budget) and it does not pay for the baggers (they are paid in tips). It just goes to make the commissary as a building run.

But I was shocked. I was dismayed. I was annoyed that here, this whole time, I thought I was getting away with spending less than I would off-post in tax and I was still paying 5 percent anyway! What the what?

There’s no question about it, the surcharge is annoying. And seems a little sneaky, stuck in there at the last minute when you weren’t expecting it.

I’m not the only one this annoys. We get a lot of reader comments here on SpouseBuzz complaining about the surcharge and saying that it makes the value of shopping the commissary (especially when combined with a tip for the bagger) a total wash.

After paying attention to the surcharge for awhile and comparing my off-post receipts with my on-post ones, I started to accept the surcharge as not as problematic as I once thought.

Think I’m crazy? A new report backs me up.

This new, incredibly long report is so rich with data and information attempting to convince us all that the commissary should rock our socks that it kind of makes my head want to explode. And while there’s a lot to get out of it, my biggest take-away on first glance was the information regarding the real savings of the surcharge.

In short, according to the report, you’ll likely spend more in tax off-base than you do in the surcharge or tax by shopping the commissary and the exchange systems (which charge neither a surcharge or a tax).

This obviously depends state-to-state. In states that have a food tax — like lovely Tennessee where I currently reside — this is obviously true. At Walmart I’ll be paying 5.5 percent for food and around 7 for everything else — and that’s before the local county 3 percent tax on top of that.

At the commissary it’s 5 percent across the board. Commissary wins.

But what about in a state like Georgia which charges a 4 percent state sales tax, local sales tax (where applicable) and no food tax at all? Depending on how much food you buy, whether you shop the commissary sales (which tend to beat off-post sales), shopping in town could seem like a better deal.

Nonetheless, the numbers seem to say something different: according to the commissary and to this story, shoppers of the commissary and exchange systems save around $902 million in sales tax yearly — while the commissary only collected $302 million total in surcharges in fiscal 2011. Someone is saving some significant coin by paying the surcharge instead of the tax they could be paying elsewhere.

What do you think? Do the numbers off the commissary surcharge add up for you?

About the Author

Amy Bushatz
Amy is the editor in chief of’s spouse and family blog A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for where she is the managing editor of spouse and family content. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on, NPR, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC and BBC as well as in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.
  • Heather

    I have used the commissary for almost 20 years now for the two main grocery days per month. (In this 20 years 11 have been where the commissary was the only place to shop for 30 miles) In between these trips, we go where it’s most convenient or where the specialty item is that we cannot get at the Commissary. I have on occasion done a large shopping trip to Publix or Vons, and I find I can save anywhere from $50 to $100 by shopping at the commissary. For a family of 5 who spends close to a grand a month on groceries, that’s a good savings to me. Do I love the commissary, no. Could it be better, sure. Things like (quality) meats and produce can really be hit and miss at any commissary and these are things I do find myself purchasing elsewhere more often these days. There are limits to what commissaries carry too. They are not all equal, and depending on size (and even location in the country) you may not be able to get certain things. That is where I think frustration lies for most, it’s not like going to the local grocery store (like Publix) and being able to get the same items in one as the other. Overall I am comfortable with using the commissary in conjunction with the local grocery store and feel the savings is justified, even with the surcharge and tip.

    • Lee

      Heather, and others.

      I work for a major food chain, that competes, or rather can not compete with Commissary prices. It is not just the taxes that you are saving on. The commissary passes on the savings from their bulk purchases to the customer. Stores, Walmart, Publix etc price up from that for their profit. I believe this is actually a requirement for the operation of the Commissary, and the main reason that other grocery chains can not compete. I was always curious about how the commissary pays for improvements and maintenance without increasing the price, and I now have the answer.

      Believe me, you are still getting a deal from the commissary.

      What is tough for the commissary at least the one near me, is to keep the shelves full all the time. It is so busy that on military pay days you can wait in line for 30 minutes to pay for groceries. That is a problem dictated by how the military pays, and sheer numbers.

  • Melissa

    Even if I can’t find everything I need there, at the end of the day it is a huge savings. I went to the commissary with my dad the other day – he is a civilian – and I bought $180 worth of groceries (2 weeks worth) and he about fainted because he has, a. never spent that much in one trip, and b. never gotten so much food for so little money. When I was home in CA to feed a family of 4 for 2 weeks it is easily $300 to $400 depending on the quality of what you are buying, and to me the commissary is worth every penny.

    Would I like to see more organic choices, better produce and better meats? Of course, but that isn’t going to stop me from enjoying the savings I can get there.

  • Toni

    Like they say location, location, location. In 18 years we have been many places. I really think it depends where you are at. So far I guess we have been pretty lucky as I read a lot of complaints about the meat dept and the commissary is where I have always found our best option in quality and savings. There are some cases where that surcharge would get under my skin (like when stationed in a no food tax area) and could find better prices on non food items at Walmart or it’s likes, but then I finally chalked it up to paying our fair share for keeping our commissaries open, because we never know where we will end up next.

  • Jack Simons

    I haven’t shopped commissary in years. Reason? I shop Publix and mainly the buy one/get one free. All other items I buy at Sam’s I live 20 miles from commissary and the price of gas only takes away any savings I might have. I’m very close to Publix and Sams.

    So By the time I paid the surcharge and tip the bagger most of my savings were ate up.

  • David Houck

    I was a Subsistence Supply for 20 yrs in the Corps. I operated a Resale Commissary at MWTC, Bridgeport Ca. It was the only one authorized that I know of. Reason, we were 100 mi from any other one. The rules said product was sold at cost plus 3% surcharge. I don’t know if the rules have been changed to allow markup over cost plus the surcharge. Supermarkets mark up all products to cover costs of doing business and a small percentage of profit. I was a Produce mgr in a supermarket and we were expected to average at least 30% mark-up on the sales in produce. So, before commenting on the price, find out if that is the commissary’s cost or more.

  • Kim

    As David said, it’s not just about the tax vs. surcharge. It’s the prices of the food. The commissary isn’t allowed to charge outrageous prices for anything. Grocery stores can.

  • chiefh

    During the past 2 or so years it seem that the Fort Wood Commissary here in Missouri seems to stock more and more Main Brands and less and less of off brands…which cost much more…are they getting a Kick back??

  • In Hawaii we ALWAYS saved money – ditto for Connecticut. Down here in Georgia (Ft. Gordon – 7.5 to 10 percent state+local sales tax), some things are cheaper at the commissary, some at Walmart or even Kroger. I have my list of things to shop for on base (especially fresh meat), so I do those plus sales; the rest I get elsewhere. Produce always comes from Sam’s or local produce stands due to quality and price.

    I have no problem with the commissary surcharge. We need lights to shop, after all.

  • Senior Chief Chuck

    I need some clarification. If the employee salary comes out of the federal budget and not from mark-up like other businesses, and salary is 40% of the overhead in “real life” why are we paying prices that arent 40% less at the Commissary?
    Plain old arithmetic would expose that.
    Sooo, how is the employee salary paid for? Profit…or from “We the People”?

  • W.C. Saunders

    My wife have used the commissary for fifty one years and never one problem,
    We love our commissary at LRAFB. W.C. Saunders

  • charles k. nixon

    I live 250 miles from Fort Campbell, it would cost me in gas $87.50 for the round trip to that Commisary, therefore i would have to buy $2,000 worth of groceries to off set driving 6 miles to Sams or Wal Mart or Target for groceries that are probably cheaper and better than a Commisary. bottom line is, you get no deal at a Commisary, just compare prices

    • P. Hughes

      I live < 20 mins from the commissary and like the savings and choice of products. Yes, there have been times when certain shelfs are not stocked well, but usually it has been due to transportation problems. Since you have no nearby commissary, I can see why you choose to shop on the economy.

  • Observer

    Trying to compare surcharge and sales tax is absurd…… Not worth the argument if someone is not informed of the difference and what is included in the base to which either charge is applied. Please, give us an intelligent, non-emotional comment.

  • John

    The surcharge is a big problem. It’s because of the way that it’s implemented, not because of anything else. The two main problems are:
    1) It’s implemented in a sneaky way because the surcharge is not included or mentioned in the price you see on the shelf. Like the author, a lot of people aren’t aware they pay this because Deca doesn’t make it apparent to shoppers in the store. Bottom line: When you tell a shopper that there’s no tax, the shopper believes that they will pay the exact prices they see on the shelves – that’s not naivety on the part of the shopper, that’s the way it works in the exchange, and in any other purchases (medical expenses, etc.) that are advertised as tax-free – YOU PAY THE ADVERTISED PRICE. That’s the societal norm when a product or service is not taxed – but that’s not what happens at a commissary.
    2) In their advertising and promotions, it’s intentionally deceiving to boast about being tax-free, then fail to mention in the same breath that in place of local or state taxes, you will pay a’ surcharge’. Point in case: How many commissary shoppers are aware that their purchase is (supposedly) “tax free”? Now, how many commissary shoppers are aware that there is a surcharge? There is a significant gap, as the author points out. That gap exists because Deca wants shoppers to think they’re getting a better deal – promoting the positives, minimizing the negatives.

    This surcharge – because of the way it is implemented/collected and used – is fundamentally the same as a tax. Technically/legally, it might not fit the textbook definition of a tax because it doesn’t go directly to a government, but it does go directly towards a government organization. Deca needs to incorporate the 3% into the price you see on the shelf, and finally put an end to this.

    • AF Gal

      We have signs up at our commissary that state that the surcharge paid is used to maintain and improve our commissaries. I don’t know when they started this or if they do it at every commissary; but it is kind of hard to miss them unless you just aren’t paying attention to what is around you. And if you are truly that interested in what you are paying, you also check your receipt and should thus realize you are paying a surcharge.

    • Tom
    • Tom
  • JSH

    As a retiree (on a fixed income and a deflated US $) living in Japan, overseas Comissaries are “A God Send”. Living near a base with a Comissary is a huge benifit, as many American staples are quite expensive on the economy and often not available. I often ask active duty folks ,”How do you feel about our Comissary?” Most feel as I do “It’s essentially a Quality of Life benifit that is of great value”. Even with the surcharge and tips, it’s still a great value.

  • Bill

    It’s not cheaper nowadays. It used to be a great deal in the 80’s and 90’s.

  • Donna

    I have shopped Commissaries for 43 yrs, 20 yrs in the Bay Area and 23 in Nebraska. I live 50 miles from the base, just watch the prices and compare and you will do fine. The surcharge covers bags, floor compounds for cleaning, meat wrap and things like that, yes I mind the surcharge and tips because everyone has there hand out.

  • rhechristine

    hubbs is convinced its sooooo much cheaper to shop at the commissary, and I know he’s right..but getting there, and shopping there can make my anxiety level go up, LOL. And then I get so annoyed that I’m couponing to pay for my surcharge! but with 5% tax and 2.5% on food I guess it can be cheaper. I really want to compare my receipts!


    For the savings we get plus, the use of coupons I’ll take that 5% Deca surcharge not a problem. Not everything in the civland food stores is sales tax exempt either. Last time I ciphered, 5% < 7%. LDO SNIPE SENDS.

  • Signal Chief

    Way back when there was a very big savings in the commissary; I remember 25 cent chickens and 10 cent bread! That was in 1970’s, when same item was triple outside. All items were sold at cost, plus they sold surplus mess hall type items and on-post bakery bread (we used to have a baker MOS and they needed to make bread to train). Sadly, about 30 years ago, the congress made the commissaries raise their prices to be closer to the outside world, on average. No doubt in response to the grocery store lobby! They seemed to forget that a military base was not placed to support local groceries, and the commissaries were there to make economical food available – especially for lower ranking enlisted and officer members. Today, you can still get deals if you can visit several times a week, to get different items on sale at different times.

  • mongolberry
  • Chief (E9) advocate

    Glad the writer was so observant well after the fact, WHat???? The Commissary may not have everything the major grocers have in the way of variety and size but hands down, coupons, double coupons, scan tab cards whatever the big box grocers of the world offer….. With the 5% surcharge there is no grocer out there that can compete bag for bag for groceries, including WalMartios grocery. The commissary is a valued and should be a cherished privlege for all that have the opportunity to utilize it. Don’t bag on the Commissary. Its a benefit that we should all be voting to keep, lest it slip away over the fiscal cliff.

  • Anna

    Yesterday I saved over 18% on my grocery bill (even after paying the surcharge and baggers) by shopping at the commisary. I know this, because last year I started tracking prices on the grocery items we buy most frequently. Now I know which items are cheapest at the commisary (frozen items, canned goods, chips, juice, etc.) and which ones are cheaper at other stores, and I shop accordingly. I even keep a running list of “best prices” on a free app for my smart phone, so I always know if a “sale” is really a sale. The small amount of time it took to check prices, has really paid off.

    • Anna

      I should add that I live in a state with no sales tax on food, so that’s not even part of the 18% savings.

  • dave

    tell you what all you folks think that the commissary is more expensive than off base or that you don’t have that big of a saving go to your off base grocery and get out of the commissary so there is more stock for me. been around the military my entrie life, born in an an army hospital, served 20, been retired for 20, even sacked groceries in the commissary one summer. My current wife used to think that until we wrote down the prices of the items in the commissary and compared them to the local stores, she is more than happy to make that 100 mile round trip after realizing that even after the 4 gallons of gas it wuld cost us another 400 to buy the same load. the commissary profit is the 5%. the groceries bought the are sold at what the store paid for them, the 5% is there markup. any civiian store the markup is what ever the marker will bear (50 to 200%)

  • cmsgt a j guzzo

    ive read all the comments and as of yet no one has mentioned the non appropriated funds,that the fools in congress enacted many years ago.congress said that the military services get to much perks,as the outside business said to them.thus congress set up the NAF,affectiing all branches of services.the active duty people,retired ,and reserves pay for the so called benifits,recreational activities,em clubs,and commisaries,,and all the services exchanges.when you question the prices ,saying that the prices offbase in most cases are cheaper,the answer recieved is lways YOU DONT PAY ANY SALES TAX.,which to me is a lot of bull!

  • Tom
  • Tom
  • John

    The case lot sales are great bargins, if you don’t have to drive so far!

  • xdimc

    The commisary at Kirtland gives good products for the price but is poorly run, Sometimes hours after opening even on payday weekends there will be only one register open for checkout. This has driven many here to shop elsewhere. Negative comments to DECA headquarters achieve nothing.

  • Sara

    You have to know what is cheaper at the Commissary and what’s not. When it was 6 blocks away (NY), it was my go-to place. However, when I lived in Philadelphia every 6 weeks or so I would drive an hour and a half (1 way) to Dix/McGruire NJ. I saved more than gas and bridge toll on milk and gas alone. Anything I saved in groceries were just gravy. Now that I am in San Antonio, I go only if my grocery list gets long enough to justify the 32 mile trip, long lines and not having a store brand to choose from. For anything that is not food, a quick run to Target will be cheaper and easier with the 5% off, the .05 a bag and better range of brand choices. Back to Philadelphia, I would rather pay $2.75 for a carton of ice cream (at DECA), than BOGO free at $5.00 a pop at Giant. The mark up on BOGO’s is so disgustingly obvious, dishonest and dishonorable, it hurt me every time I would justify it by actually taking “advantage” of it.

  • Donna

    I find better deals and better quality food(produce especially) at a local grocery store than at the commissary. Commissary is a scam.

    • William peckham
  • Pauline

    I have been shopping in the Commissary for 42 years. I love the Commissary. It’s clean,, well lit, and above all the price is right. I do not get upset over the 5% surcharge. While there are things cheaper off Post I think for the most part of my 42 years I have saved thousands of dollars. Especially when I hear what others spend in Fry’s or Safeway or even Food city. Those are the only large food chains we have here in SE Arizona without going to Tucson. So for me the 5% is a wash.

  • joey menschel

    I enjoy shopping at the commissarys. Items that they have are not so available in the superarkets. I woudn’t trade it for anything. You have to really compare prices with other stores. Know what you need and shop wisely.

  • Drea0000

    In NY the Commissary is way worth the savings. With the surcharge it comes out about the same as the sales tax in town but the food prices are way lower than Wal Mart. Bread is about a $1.00 cheaper so is cheese, yogurt and a lot of the produce. An avocado in town cost 1.28 on average at the commissary you pay .70cents that is a huge savings! When I do go to the commissary I ask to take my own grocery’s out that way I save the tip. I never have anyone take out my grocery anywhere else and I definitely am not paying for someone to do it when I am going to my car anyway! If my husband is with me he will let them he thinks it’s rude to tell them NO that is really the only issue I have with the commissary otherwise I think it is still considered a privilege! On $150.00 in grocery my surcharge was around $6.00 with the lower food prices I am sure I saved around $20.00 so do the math!!

  • TNB

    I didn’t understand the surcharge at first either, but i knew is wasn’t a huge issue. Especially in the meat dept, huge savings there! QFC, Walmart, and other places are so expensive on frozen food. i’ve noticed that it cost me twice as much at Walmart or Kroger than at the base. 80 dollars of food at Walmart or QFC is 40 dollars at the base. It all depends on what you buy, and certain brands are the same price on base and off base. No one beats the commissary in case lot sales, coupons, etc. My local QFC is right up the street, i will drive an extra 10mins to go to the base unless i’m getting something really small. I believe the surcharge is only for certain items as well. I’ve bought just one or two items with no surcharged added to the total. I don’t know if that depends on location or not. When i asked about it, the manager told me it was a fuel surcharge to transport certain items to the store.

  • Jamie
  • Michael Tharrington

    You missed the most important advantage that the commissary enjoys and why its prices are almost always a great savings of around 30%. You did mention that the employees are paid for by the government tax dollars, but what you failed to mention is that, by law and because of the tax payer funding, all groceries in the commissary are sold to the patron at the cost they pay of the items; therefore there is no mark-up or mark-on. Of course you do have to pay the 5%surcharge because the taxpayer does not pay for the buildings and the IT support systems. Bottom line is that the commissary is a good deal!

  • William Peckham (SSG RET)
  • Joe

    My parent (Retired AF) live 4 hours away from the closest commisary located in Denver so they have to shop off base, but any time they do make a trip to Denver they always take a huge ice chest and make a stop at the commisary making large bulk purchases because the it is so much cheaper than even the local bulk stores like Sam’s.
    I have been places where the baggers are seemingly run by some kind of Korean Wife Mafia, or the League of Grumpy Retirees. I dont know how to fix things like that, but I never let the baggers keep me from the savings I can get.

    • Melawian

      The baggers are separate unit from the commissary. Believe me, you want that Korean Wife Mafia keeping them in line. Otherwise, they can get pretty slack. :).

  • Pam

    The commissary for us here is the only store aside from Walmart in a 50 mile radius. Walmart AND the commissary both are incredibly expensive here and we shop between them. I am deeply disappointed in this post, and can’t wait to PCS again. At Ft. Carson, we saved a lot as opposed to off post, we went to Safeway for soda if we were getting it. I loved it there. The commissary here is smaller and more cramped and has about half the inventory than Carson’s old commissary (They got a new one at the beginning of last year and it is huge and beautiful) and the one here actually does charge much more, which is ridiculous because I thought the south was supposed to be cheaper for things, when we got here I realized exactly how false those statements were. We spend $100 a week, and $10-15 is for the surcharge. It’s ridiculous. Nothing will ever beat my WinCo or Grocery Outlet though, that was the time I spent the least and got the most…can’t wait to go home :)

  • melissa
  • melissa
  • Robert Mizwa

    My wife and I shop the small commissary near us (Charles E Kelley just outside of Pittsburgh, PA) occassionally. We’ve found that we can save on most items, even with the 5% surcharge and tipping the baggers. We’ve compared prices against both the local Walmart and Giant Eagle supermarket nearby. Here in PA food items are not taxed, but items like body wash are taxed. So we take all of the factors into consideration when buying items. Once in awhile, Walmart will run a special and beat the commissary price, even with the 7% sales tax added, but it usually is on one item. We’ve noticed significant savings on dairy items, detergents & cleaning products and paper products.

  • Joe W

    In Texas there is no tax on food. We use the local Wal Mart Super store or the other Super market mostly. A lot closer to the house, also. But, we use the commissary and Px at the AF Base sometimes , just to feel traditional. But, the 5% surcharge and the traditional bagger tip of 2 $ can add up to about 7% . But, in California or in states with tax on food, the Commissary is cheaper . Remote bases have to have the commissary .