The Commissary Rewards Card – An Easy Way to Save Money at the Base Commissary

This blog is mainly about saving and investing for military financial independence, not bargain-hunting or consumer products, so today’s post is a little different.

I’ll admit it: I don’t lead a consumer lifestyle, and I avoid shopping as much as possible. I don’t even go out much. I enjoy spending my time on the Internet and around the house. The little online shopping I do tends to be books. Most of my car trips involve getting a longboard to the beach or lunching with friends.

But 2-3 times per month my spouse and I end up at our local commissary to stock up on fruits & veggies– plus whatever’s cheaper than Costco’s selection.

It may seem that I’m hopelessly out of touch with modern shopping tech, but I’m also writing this post for people who perhaps have become set in their own comfortable grooves. It’s finally worth changing those old coupon-shopping habits. Forgive me if I’m repeating what some of you already know, but I’m also dragging along a few decades of consumer history.

Old-School Coupon Lifestyle

Over the last 30 years we did a lot of coupon shopping. I used to scour daily newspapers (remember those?) and coupon inserts. I’d clip whatever we could use, and sometimes I’d even join coupon exchanges to get more. We became especially good at it when we started our family. I used to regularly scan the coupon flyers at the commissary entrance and carry around a coupon holder the size of a small purse. I tried a few coupon websites, although those came & went as redemption policies evolved. I’d happily complete a survey or respond to a special offer for more coupons in the (snail) mail. As our daughter grew older, if she found a coupon for an item on our grocery list then she got to keep half of the savings. I probably spent 2-3 hours per week finding, clipping, and sorting coupons. We weren’t “extreme”, but we usually saved 5% on our commissary shopping.

Then other trends started to overshadow our coupon-clipping habits:

  • Our baby grew older so we no longer needed coupons for big expenses like diapers or formula.
  • Costco, Wal-Mart, and farmer’s markets started undercutting commissary prices.
  • Our daughter left for college and our grocery bill immediately dropped by over 40%.
  • Our metabolisms slowed as we aged, and now we eat less.
  • We buy fewer brand names or convenience items– so we use fewer coupons.

Coupon shopping doesn’t pay off for us like it used to, and the research/tracking labor became a hassle. Frankly, my presbyopia makes it difficult to read coupon expiration dates without a searchlight and a magnifying lens my reading glasses. We haven’t paid for a home newspaper delivery in a decade, and I no longer chase down coupon flyers. If I’m buying an item from our list and a coupon holder is right next to it on the shelf, then I’ll take a few and stock up. However, we’re only using coupons for 1-2% of our purchases instead of 5%, and yet our grocery bill is still smaller than it used to be.

We never joined the “affinity” and “loyalty card” schemes at our local grocery markets. We rarely shop at them because they’re so expensive (this is Hawaii) and even their discounted store brands are pricier than Costco or the commissary. When we’re traveling the Mainland I’m always surprised at how almost every grocery store wants to see my membership card.

The 21st-Century Commissary Rewards Card

Doesn't look like much, but it's a much better tool than paper coupons!

The commissary rewards card

Then over Christmas break our daughter brought home a commissary rewards card. I think the commissary staff was handing them out at the entrance. Everyone got one, and there was no hassle about signing up or even supplying a phone number.

The card is not impressive. It even looks cheap. It’s just a piece of plastic the size of a credit card, with a couple smaller cards to put on a key fob. They all have the same barcode. It does not appear to offer any value and I wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. I certainly wouldn’t have expended any effort on signing up for one. But my daughter put it on my computer desk, so I had to set a good example of financial responsibility and pretend that this was going to start my coupon habits back up again.

On the Website

The Defense Commissary Agency rewards card website made the same first impression as the card. Admittedly I was using it when it was still fairly new, and the signup page is a bottleneck. About forty gazillion other commissary shoppers were also registering and clicking through all the server’s links. The website was bloated with flashy graphics and it had a few HTML glitches in it. Happily, the initial surge of visitors has subsided, and the glitches seem to be getting fixed. Every week the site is a little cleaner & faster.

After registering your card’s bar code you’re ready to start picking coupons. You can sort the coupons by 14 different categories and filter them by five different criteria, but I’m curious and lazy: I just queue up the whole bunch and look at all of them. These days the coupon-picking pages of the website run very quickly and smoothly, and major brands are starting to jump on the bandwagon. I used to only have 50 offers on my visit, and now I have over a hundred. You scroll through the brands and their images, and a popup window can clarify the terms or the expiration date. When you find coupons you want, you click on the “Clip” boxes to add the coupons to your rewards card. The whole process, from logging in to clipping the last coupon, takes less than five minutes.

The coupon boxes even have cute little Facebook & Twitter icons on them, so you can let your entire social network know when you’re getting a bargain on toilet paper or SPAM. (Don’t worry, friends & followers, I won’t do that to you.) I guess we can see why I’m not running a bargain-hunter’s blog here.

Now the cool convenience part begins. When you “clip” that coupon, it’s filed under your rewards card database on the commissary website. The coupons stay on that rewards card until they’ve expired. You can keep tabs on their terms & conditions, but you no longer have to care.

No printing, no clipping, no sorting, no squinting at expiration dates or parsing through arcane purchase requirements. You don’t have to complete any rebate forms or write in any prices– or provide any data at all. You can just go about your normal shopping business, perhaps making sure you buy the minimums or stocking up before the expiration date, but the card takes care of the tracking for you.

We tend to buy the same items over and over, so the card is especially handy for stocking up. You don’t have to have a new copy of the coupon every week– the coupon stays in your card’s database until it expires. Each week you log in, pick whatever new coupons work for your list, and check that the existing coupons are still good. Now when I buy 3-4 packages of frozen mahi-mahi each week through 30 June, I don’t have to peel the entire brick of coupons off the commissary’s freezer door and stash them in my coupon wallet for nearly four months. I just check the “My Coupons” tab on the card website one time. Once & done, and it’ll stay there until it expires.

At the Commissary

The convenience gets even better at the cash register. A cashier’s life seems miserable enough even before a shopper plunks down a huge wad of coupons on the conveyor belt. The cashier has about 30 seconds to scan them for fakes or expired offers, to check that they’re filled out correctly, and to note that the shopper has bought the minimum requirements. A few errors by the cashier could easily wipe out an entire hour of their pay. Even when everything is legitimate the cashier still has to peel some coupons off the packages, maybe fill in a price or two from the register tape, swipe the barcodes through the scanner, enter a few barcodes manually, and possibly debate the whole process with a cynical shopper. Hey, you may be spending a few bucks for your seven-ounce package of Kona coffee, but you’re gonna be annoyed if they don’t give you that 25 cents back.

Worst of all, the cashier has spent their entire shift collecting huge wads of coupons from shoppers. I’ve always wondered how many people the commissary had on their payroll to sort, stack, wrap, and mail in their redeemed coupons. They have to track hundreds of paper coupon offers from dozens of manufacturers. They also have to check each one to make sure it’s not counterfeit, that it has the right data on it, and that they’re not redeeming more coupons than the number of items that they’ve sold. I’m sure that every six months or so a highly paid auditor has to spend their day comparing shoyu sales to coupon redemptions and receipts. Exciting work. It’s not just all the manual labor– imagine the potential for fraud and forgery.

With the commissary rewards card on the scene, that back-office infrastructure will shrink. When you show your ID to the cashier, they scan your rewards card right away and hand the card back to you. That’s all they need from you. The cash register is already on the Internet, checking your card barcode against your database and downloading the data of the coupon offers. When your package of haupia mix passes across the scanner then the register automatically credits that coupon against the purchase. Oh, but you only bought one package instead of the coupon’s minimum of two? No credit for you. Meanwhile, the cashier can work faster and worry less about mistakes. When the cashier’s done the register automatically prints out the coupon credits at the end, just like always, but the cashier doesn’t have to bundle up your stack of coupons. They can finish processing your payment and get to the next customer that much faster.

I guess nobody is surprised to learn that commissary rewards cards are a much better deal for the commissary staff than the customers. But now we share the convenience, and I love the time savings. Life is getting simpler. We’re saving about 2-3% at the commissary, but I’m only working on it for a few minutes a week instead of several hours. As more manufacturers migrate toward paperless “coupons”, our savings will grow even more. Best of all, the commissary is reducing their back-office expenses and should be able to hold prices lower for longer.

The rewards card has been available worldwide for almost six months and the early adopters have theirs, so now it’s safe to fall in behind the rest of the crowd.

Speaking of Costco, their coupon flyer comes in the postal mail but you don’t need to clip most of them. The discount is automatically taken at the register and the shopper doesn’t even need a rewards card. Maybe the commissary will follow suit someday, but they’re stocking a much wider variety of products. Until the entire industry eliminates coupons, the commissary rewards card seems like the best way to keep track of all the manufacturers.

Other Commissary Benefits

Don’t live near a commissary? No worries, the commissary might come to you. Thanks to my blogger friend Kate Kashman, I’ve learned that DeCA routinely sponsors “on-site sales” at National Guard and Reserve units around the country. As DeCA says at that link,

“… the host commissary works with Guard/Reserve units that have at least 150 members stationed in an area and selects items to offer to these individuals during the sale. For information on how to have a sale near you, contact your unit who can then call the nearest Commissary to discuss the possibility.”

Did I mention that DeCA also offers gift cards?

Related articles:
Reserves and National Guard
Reader questions on Reserve retirement Tricare and points
Frugality after financial independence
Old-school frugal (part 2 of 2)

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. what happened to rewards card log in????

  2. Good points, everyone, I’m going to have to take more notes on our next trip…

    I logged in to find 68 coupons (way down from last week’s 115):
    24 “general” (including condiments, supplements, & skin care)
    2 produce
    3 beverage
    1 dairy
    3 frozen
    11 grocery
    6 meat/seafood
    1 packaged meat
    4 snack
    5 health/beauty
    4 baby
    1 cereal
    1 international
    1 home
    1 baking

    I’ve “clipped” coupons for a buck off toilet paper and 50 cents off packages of frozen fish. We’ll still save 2-3% this time, although not every time.

    Mike, it’s mostly convenience/processed foods and brand names. No fresh foods, although Dole canned pineapple made the list and I’ve bought bagged salads before. I noticed this time that there are no cleaning products but hair care is popular (and pricey). The cereal brands do not seem to be on board yet.

    I agree that it’s still cheaper to shop the generics and healthier to buy local fresh/raw. Coupons almost never inspire an impulse purchase, either– we only use them for items already on our list. However we’ve been using more of the rewards card coupons than the printed ones, and compared to paper it takes me a fraction of the time to manage the website.

    Good point about the military bases, Rob, and this card would also be useless for retirees far from a base. Our local grocery stores (even with loss leaders and their own rewards cards) can’t beat the commissary or Costco. Local stores are less than two miles from our house but it’s literally over a year between our trips there. Even just shopping loss leaders would take more time/gas than going straight to the commissary.

    Spencer, I’m going to have to check whether our commissary even has coupons on the shelf by the product anymore. They used to but I’ve stopped looking. I don’t know how much a manufacturer spends processing paper, but the rewards cards have to be a significant savings for the stores and the corporations. And if people have the card number on their grocery list or in their smartphone, they don’t even need to remember to bring along the card.

  3. I’ve also been very underwhelmed by the Commissary coupon card. There didn’t seem to be any additional coupons then the ones available right by the relevant product in the commissary. I used it for a week when it came out and haven’t touched it since. Maybe it’s time for a second look.

  4. So far I have been underwhelmed by the commissary card. The offers are for almost nothing we buy, except maybe toilet paper, and I can’t remember what brand I buy of that from one shopping trip to the next.
    We’re lucky to be just 15 minutes from the commissary here, but only outside of rush hour. Traffic makes it almost 40 minutes. Our closest supermarket is only 2 miles away. That’s where we get anything that really can’t wait until the next commissary trip. I’m always shocked by how much stuff costs there.
    Where those supermarket club cards are really worth it is for the weekly loss leaders. I never bother with coupons, but I’ll pick up just about any cut of meat that’s 2-for-1; even with the already bloated prices, Costco and the commissary will rarely beat that. The catch is that most of those deals are only good with club cards.

  5. Nords, have you found that most of the coupons are for processed foods or are there coupons for fresh meats, foods, etc., as well as household supplies? I’m going to ask Jen, but I don’t think we have this. Most of the time, however, we’ve found that coupons are mostly tied to junk food.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?