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Price Experiment: Commissary vs. WalMart

One of the debates I often see in the comment section here at SpouseBuzz is over whether or not the commissary actually saves a person money. Not long ago we talked the impact the five percent surcharge has on your savings. But I wanted to go one step farther.

I wanted to comparison shop. I want to know, based on evidence, whether or not the commissary is really worth the trip.

I knew conducting an entirely scientific comparison shopping experiment was going to be impossible, so I set out to do the best I could. I chose to compare prices between the commissary and a civilian store to which most of us have access and I often hear referred to as “cheaper than the commissary” — WalMart.

I purchased two sets of the ingredients for beef soft tacos — one at the commissary and one at WalMart. I chose to compare this meal because the ingredients are easy to find. I also wanted to make a meal with meat so that I could include the cost of it in my experiment.

First, a few rules I followed to make the comparison as accurate as possible:

At each store I purchase the cheapest version of the ingredient in question. At the commissary that meant name-brand items. At WalMart that meant I bought some of their store-brand items.

The only exception to the “cheapest version” rule was the salsa I bought. I bought Pace Picante Sauce at both WalMart and the commissary. We all have items that we feel a strong preference towards one brand or type — and this is mine.

I did not use any coupons. Why? Because, while I do normally use coupons when I shop, I didn’t want that variable to influence this project.

And finally — you might look at this list and think “you eat tacos without ____ them?!” or “you eat tacos with ____ on them?!” And my answer is “Yes. We’re a little weird. And we’re OK with that.”

Here’s what my receipts show:

WalMart/Commissary

Ground beef: $3.38/$2.07

Taco seasoning: $.68/$.44

Tortillas: $1.58/$1.99

Shredded mexican blend cheese: $2.28/$1.69

Can of corn: $.68/$.79

Can of refried beans: $.85/$.75

Cilantro: $.74/$.79

Pace Picante Sauce: $1.98/$1.49

Total WalMart (including a total 7.75 percent tax of $.94 on two items — I’m not sure which two): $13.11

Total Commissary (including the 5 percent surcharge of $.50 on all items and no bagger tip since I did self-checkout on this order): $10.51

As you can see above the commissary — even with the surcharge — ends up being not quite $2.00 cheaper for this meal. You could find all of that savings just by hitting the commissary for meat and cheese and then going to WalMart for everything else.

One common statement I see on SpouseBuzz is that the WalMart generics are always cheaper than the commissary, which only carries name brands.

But if you look at the above that is not true. The items I purchase “Great Value” versions of at WalMart are: corn, refried beans, tortillas and cheese. And yet two of those — the beans and the cheese — were less in name brand versions at the commissary even if you factor in the surcharge for those items, which comes out to just under $.13.

So what’s the conclusion?

Two things:

The commissary is, according to this experiment, overall a cheaper option, especially if you live in an area with a food tax on some items like I do. … however …

If you want to put in the leg work you can keep up with commissary sales as compared to WalMart’s generic items, you may be able to find a slight savings by only hitting the commissary for meat/cheese and other items that are not available as generics.

 

About Amy Bushatz

Amy is the managing editor 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 an Associate Editor. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on NPR and in the New York Times. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.

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