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 Amy Bushatz

Amy is the editor in chief of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com 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 CNN.com, 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.


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