Two benefits that help those in the military community stretch their dollars are commissaries and exchanges.

Commissaries are on-base stores that sell discounted groceries to authorized customers. Exchanges are on-base stores (with an online component) that sell a variety of items ranging from clothing to shoes, toys, furniture, home appliances and electronics. They also have on-base gas stations and stores that sell alcoholic beverages.

Over the past few years, eligibility to shop at military commissaries and exchanges has expanded to include more people in the military community. As always, it pays to compare prices between military stores and other stores.


Those eligible to use the commissary include active duty, Guard and Reserve members, military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients, and their authorized family members. These shoppers have military-issued IDs. In a recent change, commissary employees can also shop at the stories, but not their family members. Military and Coast Guard civilian employees in the U.S. and on service agreements overseas are also authorized shoppers.

In 2020, eligibility was expanded to veterans with service-connected disabilities, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, and primary family caregivers of eligible veterans enrolled under the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. Eligible veterans can use their veterans health ID card, or VHIC, to gain access to the installation and to shop. Spouses and other family members aren’t allowed to shop, though they are allowed to come into the stores with the veteran. Family caregivers who qualify for the benefit will have access to a memo at which can be used for entry, along with a driver’s license, passport or other authorized form of ID.

Payment accepted: Cash, personal checks, travelers checks, money orders, debit cards, Military Star card, American Express, MasterCard, Visa and Discover credit cards, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Women, Infants and Children (WIC), American Red Cross Disbursing Orders, commissary gift cards and coupons.

What’s new

In an effort to help service members and families deal with rising food costs, the Defense Department has invested in commissaries to decrease the price of most grocery items by about 3 to 5%. This effort is focused particularly on food staples like bread, milk, eggs and other items. Officials aim to increase overall commissary savings to 25%, compared to stores outside the gate. Before the extra funding, the overall savings were an average of 22%. Customers also pay a 5% surcharge which is used to cover construction costs and other needs.

Officials have taken other steps to boost the benefit, such as expanding hours of operation. That includes 56 stores that have converted from six- to seven-day operations.

Click2Go: The commissary agency finished rolling out its Click2Go program to all commissaries worldwide in the fall of 2021. Customers choose their items online, select a pickup time, and at the appointed time, head to the Click2Go parking spaces where commissary employees bring their groceries to their car and finish the transaction.

Doorstep delivery: As part of the Click2Go program, commissary officials have been testing doorstep delivery at eight locations in the continental U.S. where authorized shoppers who live within 20 miles can order groceries to be delivered. The delivery fee has been increased, from about $4 previously. It’s set by the contractor providing the delivery service, and depends on the miles from the commissary. For example, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the delivery fee is $15.99 for those within a one- to five-mile driving radius; and $29.99 for those within 16 to 20 miles. That’s in addition to tips customers might provide for the delivery driver. As of this writing, the future of the doorstep delivery isn’t clear, although commissary officials have said they’re working to expand the program and offer it at more locations.

Sales restrictions: A limited number of commissaries — 26 — sell beer and wine. Commissaries do sell tobacco in stores on Army and Air Force bases. DOD policy is that tobacco can’t be sold at a discount greater than 5% below the lowest competitor in the local area.

Rules on who can use overseas commissaries are affected by status-of-forces agreements between host nations and the U.S. The exact terms vary by country, and individuals should check with the local U.S. military command or installation they plan to visit before they travel.

Most commissaries have evening and weekend hours. To find a store, and get information such as hours and directions, go to the commissary website and click on “Store Locator.”


Exchanges are the military’s version of department stores, selling discounted brand-name goods from civilian companies, as well as their own private label items. There is no sales tax.

There are four exchange systems: The Navy Exchange Service Command; the Marine Corps Exchange system; Coast Guard Exchange system; and Army and Air Force Exchange Service, also known as The Exchange or AAFES. Eligible exchange shoppers can shop at any of the stores, regardless of the service branch, including their online stores at,, and

Stores support themselves almost completely through their sales income. All profits are used to fund military Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs, and to build or renovate stores.

Eligible shoppers include all ranks of active duty, retired, National Guard and Reserve members and their families, Medal of Honor recipients, and their families, surviving spouses and former spouses.

In 2021, defense officials expanded U.S. exchange shopping eligibility to DOD and Coast Guard civilians.

In 2020, the exchange benefit was authorized by law for all veterans with VA service-connected disability ratings; Purple Heart recipients; veterans who are former prisoners of war; and primary family caregivers of eligible veterans under the VA caregiver program.

All honorably discharged veterans can shop online at the exchanges. The Veterans Online Shopping Benefit does not grant on-installation access, unless the veteran falls into another category, such as having a VA service-connected disability rating.

Restrictions: Overseas stores offer many U.S. products that may be difficult to find otherwise. Commands often impose shopping restrictions to limit the sale of U.S. goods on the illegal market.

Stateside and overseas exchanges accept MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover credit cards. Exchanges also offer their own credit plan through the joint-exchange Military STAR Card.

What’s new

On Jan. 1, AAFES outlets stopped selling alcohol late at night. No AAFES outlet can sell alcohol between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 a.m. Operating hours depend on the location. The policy aligns with other military exchanges’ policies that prohibit sales of alcohol after 10 p.m.

Read more from the 2024 Pay and Benefits Guide here.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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