Six easy ways to stretch your food budget

  • Published
  • By Kay Blakley
  • DECA home economist
The Military Saves campaign encourages servicemembers and their families to develop financial fitness habits that lead to personal financial stability and, ultimately, to mission readiness. To help attain those goals, there's hardly a better habit to embrace than choosing the Commissary for all your grocery and household needs.  

"Extending the paychecks of military members with savings of 30-percent or more is the reason the Commissary benefit exists," said Defense Commissary Agency director and chief executive Officer Philip E. Sakowitz Jr. 

Here is a list of six easy ways for military families to stretch their food budget:

1. Shop the commissary. It may look like a retail grocery store, but it's actually a government agency charged with delivering a non-pay benefit for military members and their families. Commissaries make no profit - customers pay the same price DeCA pays for products, plus the 5-percent surcharge, which goes directly to funding the new construction or renovation of commissaries. 

Government agencies aren't allowed to advertise, so customers won't have a splashy grocery circular screaming daily specials at them each time they walk through the door. Instead, take note of the red, white and blue "Savings You've Earned" shelf signs, or visit the Savings Aisle at to view prices and percent savings of specific sale items in local stores. 

Consistently shopping the commissary provides an average savings of more than 30-percent over retail grocery store prices. This comes from database comparisons of commissary prices versus retail grocery prices, plus recurring typical market basket surveys. But do customers can do their own comparisons and see the proof for themselves.

2. Plan ahead. Sound meal planning and eating more meals at home will go a long way toward reducing overall food expenditures. Don't forget to include leftovers in the plan. A large, inexpensive roast served on Sunday can provide the makings for sandwiches on Monday and a protein source in a chef salad served on Tuesday.

3. Make a list. Having a definite list when shopping helps avoid impulse buys. If a customer finds an item on sale that he knows he'll use later, he should feel free to add it to his cart. But beware of pretty displays that don't fit into the plan, and never shop when tired or hungry. A hungry customer will fill his cart with all kind of items - everything looks good when starving and trying to hurry.

4. Read labels and compare prices. When comparing prices of competing brands, compare the number of servings per container. A cheaper price on a larger size is only a savings if someone actually uses those extra ounces. It's no bargain if a customer ends up throwing them away. Don't automatically assume that a larger-size container is always a better buy. Sometimes it is, but often it's not. Always check the unit price shelf tag, or do the math. Sometimes huge savings can also be found by comparing the same product in different forms. 

For example, at some commissaries' prices today, a half-cup serving of oatmeal from an 18-ounce box of quick-cooking oats costs 7 cents, but from a box of 12 single-serving packets it costs 26 cents. Serving size and microwave cooking instructions are exactly the same. The price of a 12-ounce package of smoked ham in the cold cuts section worked out to be $4.61 per pound. The same product, from a competing brand, was available in the deli section for less than half that price - $2.17 per pound. Plus, the customer can have it custom sliced to his or her satisfaction and purchase exactly the number of ounces needed.

5. Do it yourself. The higher price for "convenience" items reflects the labor required to pre-cook, pre-cut or pre-measure. Most of the time, substantial savings can be had by the customer making these preparations himself. There are differences, for example, between buying a head of cabbage (22 cents per pound) and shredding it versus buying a 1-pound bag of coleslaw mix ($1.99). 

Shredded cheddar cheese, however, was exactly the same price per pound whether shredded or in a 1-pound block. In that case, the convenience doesn't change the price; a customer can save himself the extra effort at home.

6. Redeem coupons. Coupons and rebate savings can add up fast. All commissaries honor Internet coupons these days, and most commissaries make paper coupons available near the store entrance, in the checkout area or sometimes attached to the products themselves. Keep an eye out for those coupons used most often. And remember, coupons redeemed in overseas commissaries are good six months past their stateside expiration date. 

Savings through consistent shopping in commissaries year round can also add up fast. Yearly savings for a family of four averages $3,400; a family of three saves more than $2,600; a couple more than $2,100; and a single service member saves nearly $1,200. With savings like those, commissary customers will be financially fit and mission ready in no time.