Home Base Life Commissary Showdown vs. Grocery Stores: Who Really Saves You the Most Money?

Commissary Showdown vs. Grocery Stores: Who Really Saves You the Most Money?


We are living in tough economic times and many of us are looking to save money wherever possible.  One of our benefits as active duty and retired Marine Corps families is shopping at the Commissary.

Some may have noticed the large banner touting savings of twenty to forty percent over its competitors.  I began to wonder who the Commissary considered its competitors and what data it collected.

I have found myself buying in bulk at Costco because many of the popular items that I need have been purged around paydays.  Many questions entered my mind including:

  • Does the commissary really pass on the savings that they say they do?

  • Is the savings inclusive to baby supplies including formula and diapers?

  • What about the savings of store-brand versus brand-name items?

  • How much more is organic versus nonorganic goods?

  • Is buying in bulk worth the price at checkout?


I set up and conducted my own unscientific study and compiled a list of popular items that many of us buy on a regular basis. This includes popular staple items including organic and non-organic dairy and eggs, produce, meat, and baby supplies. I set out and collected data to compare these items to the Camp Pendleton Commissary from the following places:  Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, Albertsons, and Ralphs. All of the data was collected on the same day within a five mile radius of the Commissary.

Baby Needs

No one can argue about the number of babies born on Marine Corps bases.  Marines seem to be good at doing two things: Being elite warriors and having deployment reunion babies. Many of my neighbors receive shipments of diapers and formula from Amazon.com or Diapers.com, so I set out to compare costs of local items versus internet items for cost comparison.  I was shocked that the Commissary didn’t offer the savings I expected in both diapers and formula.

When comparing the popular formula brand Similac Advance Early Shield, Costco was the cheapest place to buy locally at 82 cents an ounce compared to the highest cost, Albertsons, at $1.07 an ounce.  The Commissary wasn’t much higher than Costco coming in at 84 cents an ounce. For those wanting to skip the name brand and hail frugalness as king, massive savings come in the form of buying generic.  For example, the generic Wal-Mart brand Parent’s Choice or Costco’s Kirkland brand comes in at .50 cents an ounce. That’s a total savings of 32 cents an ounce, which really adds up over the first year feedings of a child of $5,352 (a rough yearly total of 16,725 ounces consumed).

When it comes to diaper purchases, Costco once again comes out on top with savings. Huggies comes out to 18 cents a diaper versus the Commissary price of 27 cents a diaper.  That’s an 11 cent difference per diaper! Once again generic provides savings, such as Wal-Mart brand Parent’s Choice, at 15 cents per diaper; not quite the savings that generic formula carries.

Grocery Savings

Non-perishable items at both Costco and the Commissary are roughly on par with one another. Costco ekes out a mere 1% savings over the Commissary while buying store brands at Wal-Mart came out to be a 9% savings over the Commissary. Buying those same brand name items were 18% higher at Wal-Mart.  Albertsons came out to be the most expensive place to buy non-perishable items at 34% higher than the Commissary with the lowest grocery store chain being Ralphs at 23%.

The real winner is buying dairy and bread items at Costco, coming out to a 33% savings over the Commissary. Buying Wal-Mart’s store brand Great Value came out to a 25% savings over the Commissary.  When comparing the Commissary against its grocery chain competitors, the Commissary scored a 20-38% savings in the dairy and bread departments.

The real savings military personnel receive is in the meat department, however many would argue that the quality isn’t the same. If price is the motivator for you, then consider that ground beef comes out to be 14 and 17 cents an ounce for lean and extra lean compared to 25 and 27 cents an ounce at Albertsons. That is 103% savings. Costco actually beats out the Commissary for Foster Farms chicken at 19 cents an ounce, versus the Commissary’s 21 cents an ounce and comes in close with ground beef at 19 cents an ounce. Please note that Wal-Mart’s meat pricing was not considered due to the fact that there is not a Super Wal-Mart in the immediate area.

Produce is comparatively similar between Costco and the Commissary, but once again, many would argue the quality isn’t the same. For example, the sizes of bell peppers at the Commissary were substantially smaller costing 69 cents/each whereas the Costco bell peppers cost $1.00 each.  Proportionately the cost would come out to the same given the size of the pepper. Comparing the numbers, Costco comes out to be 25% more expensive than the Commissary but given the argument about the pepper, I would consider Costco to be on par.  Costco beat the Commissary with the price of bananas, carrots, and strawberries.  Once again, the Commissary provides a huge savings over the grocery chains in the area with averages of 63% to 91% saved.

Organic versus Non-Organic

I was interested in discovering the real cost of buying organic over non-organic milk and free range eggs.  Since Costco was the clear winner in savings, their data will be used for analysis.  A dozen organic/free range eggs cost 27 cents/egg compared to non-organic at 13 cents/egg which comes out to a 208% cost difference!  The cost of organic milk costs $3.10/half gallon compared to non-organic at $1.25/half gallon, which comes out to be a 248% cost difference!

Cost at Checkout

There are definite benefits to buying in bulk but one of the downsides is the hefty payment due at the register. If one were to buy all the items I analyzed for cost savings at Costco, it would come out to be $309 at the cash register. When combined with the missing items that Costco does not carry, purchased at the Commissary price, brings the total to $327.  Comparatively, purchasing the same items at the Commissary comes to a total checkout price of $147.  Families with a modest income may view $309 as a huge deterrent for warehouse style shopping.

Of course, splitting items that come in bulk is an option that many families partake in. Many of us choose not to buy everything in bulk despite of the savings. Does one really need a gallon sized tub of Mayonnaise?  Probably not, but for families going through large quantities of milk, eggs, diapers or formula, bulk shopping at stores like Costco makes perfect sense for savings. Lastly, consider buying generics if you don’t have your heart set on buying name brands. Consumer reports conducted a taste-test study to discover if store brands tasted just as good as the name brands, where “national brands won seven of the 21 matchups and store brands won three”. Buying generic store brands is not an option at the Commissary and can provide an average savings of 25-30% over the name brands at the Commissary.  That’s savings that I can sink my teeth into.

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  1. Living in California, food is not taxed at grocery or warehouse stores. The commissary still charges 6% on your entire purchase. If you are buying mostly food, this may be something to take into consideration. I would say this gives Costco or Wal-Mart an additional 6% savings over the commissary when buying food items…

    • Rose,

      While the commissary does charge an additional 5-6%, remember that the commissary’s pricing structure is to sell at cost (i.e. what they pay to stock it) plus 5-6% for their operating costs. Grocery stores, and even Costco, have to turn a profit (unlike the Commissary). Therefore, might not be able to assign an automatic 6% savings to Costco, because their profit margin is baked into the price of their goods. Additionally, depending on the supplier in use at any given time, prices at the Commissary tend to fluctuate more than for-profit stores (at least in my experience). The Commissary’s pricing structure forces this volatile pricing, whereas for-profit stores (such as Costco) can tweak their margins on any given product to maintain relatively stable prices for their customer base. So savings become variable depending on when you go to the Commissary.


      Great article; thanks for the extensive research.

  2. The other thing is that Costco has a membership fee every year plus you still have to pay taxes on whatever you buy depending on the state you are in. The Commissary does not charge taxes on what you buy, only the 5% operating cost to pay the employees and bills. You also have to consider the proximity of a Costco vs a Commissary to where you live. Not everyone lives close to a Costco or has the room to store the bulk items and perishables.

    Thank you for doing this research. I really hope that it doesn’t come down to us not having Commissaries as a resource.

  3. Actually the employees are paid with tax dollars. The surcharge pays for utilities, store construction, and store upkeep.

  4. I was curious about this. I shop at a Ralph’s grocery store right across the street from a naval base. Recently I’ve noticed several military persons in the store with large baskets full of food.

  5. I have no need for bulk, I want choice beef, and inexpensive food and household products. Thanks for any help. God Bless Each of You! XXX Crisse.


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