I am totally definitely not going to tell you how much I spent on care packages during John’s deployment.
That is not going to happen.
I’ll just tell you: I didn’t realize how much I had spent until the end of the deployment year.
Ooooh boy. It was pretty egregious.
And while I don’t feel badly about spending it– so much of what I sent John needed or it was a great boost for morale for both of us–I do believe that if I knew then what I know now, I could have saved a truck load of cash.
So I wrote this for you!
I want you to have all of the secrets and tips to saving big on care packages. I’ve tried all of these over my time as a military spouse, so when I say they work, I mean it: They actually do work.
1. Make budget
Once you know the general details of a deployment, make yourself a game plan. How often (generally) are you going to send boxes? Once a week? Once a month? Just for holidays? How much do you want to spend on each one? (Don’t forget to factor in shipping costs!) Every time you complete shopping for a care package and then ship it, note the costs, so you can keep a handle on how much you’re spending.
2. Plan each box
If you really want to keep track of expenses, make a shopping list for each box you create… and then stick to it. Don’t get pulled into buying stuff just to buy it. If it’s not on the list, don’t buy.
3. Switch it up
Not every care package has to be a gigantic, behemoth. Often, care packages are exciting because they’re from you–not because of what’s inside. Consider sending one big package a month, and then sending mini packages or letters to supplement. Need some mini-care package ideas? I’ve got six of them under $15.
4. Go packageless
Your loved one may not actually need you to send any care packages at all. (Gasp! I can’t believe I just said that.) Hear me out. When John was deployed, he was stationed at huge base and had basically anything he needed. Between what was available on Amazon, the Exchange, and other shops on base, he really had no need for big drop-shipments of goods. Your loved one might be in the same position– listen to what they say. If they don’t want you to send things, it’s okay not to send anything. (That doesn’t mean you can’t send letters or momentos. It just means they might not need you to send that 50 pound box.
On the other hand, they might have specific needs for you to fill. The other half of John’s deployment was during the beginning of sequestration. The DFAC had shortened hours, so John literally could not eat at the cafeteria. He asked me to send canned veggies and fruits instead of the other things I was sending, little games, tchochkes, and other things that weren’t as important. Why waste money and time with things your loved one doesn’t want or need?
If you’re serious about saving money on care packages, shop sales like it’s your job. After-holiday sales are particularly fruitful because stores want to get dated goods off their shelves ASAP. Red and green Hershey kisses from Christmas can be divided out; the red ones can be sent on Valentine’s Day, the green ones for St. Patrick’s Day. Use discounted candies for homemade cookies and goodies. If you know a deployment is coming up far enough in advance (hey, sometimes it happens!), you can even shop those sales for care packages for the next year.
7. Use coupons
Stores like Kohl’s and Michaels run phenomenal sales sometimes… and you don’t have to learn how to coupon like a crazy person. Sometimes, it just takes being on their email lists to get a prize-worthy coupon. And for some stores (like Kohl’s and Michaels) that always have coupons, make it a habit to never shop without one… I mean, why would you? (Don’t forget that Kohl’s now has a Military Monday discount!)
8. Rewards programs
Sign up and use the rewards programs that stores you frequent offer. (Let’s keep talking about my love affair with Kohl’s, shall we?) For instance, Kohl’s offers a program called Yes 2 You rewards, that gives you a $5 off coupon for every $100 you spend in store. You can always use this rewards program when you shop online and in stores. And you can use that $5 off coupon online and in stores and in conjunction with their Kohl’s Cash promotions and discounts. Other programs at other stores you frequent or your spouse really loves can come in handy so that you can fill you care package a little more cheaply.
9. Price matching
Many stores offer price-matching guarantees, which usually work something like this: If you see the same product offered at a lower price, bring the ad into the store and get it at the same price. Sometimes they even offer a certain percentage (like 10) lower than the advertised price. I haven’t had much luck with this (mainly because I am not an ultimate couponer), but if you’ve got your eye on something big, this can make a huge difference in cost.
10. Dollar stores
Most of what you send will be pitched, eaten, used, or given away. Very little of it will actually make it back from deployment, so keep that in mind as you’re creating care packages. Check out stores like the Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Five Below, and the dollar sections of Michaels, Target, and JoAnn’s.
11. Military discounts
Yes, yes, yes. Don’t forget military discounts when you’re shopping for care packages. Michael’s offers a 15% military discount for sale items and regular items every day with ID. JoAnn’s offers a daily 10% military discount for sale and regular items as well. Dollar General offers random military discount days–often surrounding patriotic holidays–where you can stock up on care package items as well.
12. Tax-free weekends
Some states offer tax-free weekends during the year on certain qualifying purchases. Keep an eye out; you just may be able to use those weekends to your care package packing advantage.
13. Buying brands at the Exchange
Check the Exchange (either online or in person) for deals on brand-name products that you may be buying for your care packages, especially around the holidays and Black Friday. While it can be hit or miss, remember the Exchange basically operates at cost, which means that you can score some deals on products that you might not see beyond the gates.
14. Price-matching at the Exchange
AAFES Exchange locations will price-match local ads. (That means you can’t take Amazon print outs to them.) Here’s their price-matching policy for more details.
15. The Military Star Card
(Before you jump all over me: Credit cards are a tool. If you can’t use them responsibly, stay away.) The Military Star Card offers a rewards program for AAFES purchases, which can be helpful, especially if you’re purchasing big-ticket items for care packages.
16. Tax-free benefits at the Exchange
Remember that purchases at the Exchange are tax-free.
17. Case lot sales at the Commisary
If your deployed loved one has a particular fondness for a particular kind of food (or you just have to send them a lot of it), case lot sales at the Commissary can be a great way to buy in bulk. Then, just break up your purchase into care packages throughout the deployment.
18. Rewards program at the Commissary
The Commissary has a rewards program that is also in app form. The app provides extra savings and coupons that you can use at check out. Read more about it here.
19. Tax-free benefits at the Commissary
Depending on where you live, tax-free benefits at the Commissary can be helpful. If your state doesn’t tax food, then it’s probably not a huge deal; but if yours does, shopping at the Commissary could potentially save you a little extra cash.
Digital savings programs
I’m not joking when I say that this next tip literally changed the way I shop and has saved us thousands of dollars: online discount apps and digital coupons. Here are the programs I use:
If I make any purchases (online or in real life), before I do anything else, I always check for cash back on Rakuten. Over the past four years, I’ve gotten more than $1,000 back through purchases in person and online. And honestly, there are no strings attached. The cash back comes by check or by PayPal (you choose). I’ve used Rakuten for home purchases, clothing, electronics, even flowers that I’ve sent to my mom on Mother’s Day. All kinds of retailers– from big box stores to electronics to clothing stores– have cash back offers through Rakuten. During holidays and other huge sales times, the cash back percentages often increase; I’ve seen them run as high as 20%! And that’s on top of any other sales, promotions, rewards programs, or any other savings that you get through the store, as well. Sign up for free and start getting cash back right now. (Spend $25 and get $10 back right away!)
Save even more by using Ibotta, a cash back app that can be used at most grocery stores, including the commissary. Ibotta has expanded into other kinds of stores–you can even get cash back on things like movie ticket and clothes. Like Rakuten, you can stack sales, coupons, and rebates from Ibotta together. Cash out instantly through PayPal or Venmo when you hit $20, or choose gift cards from retailers like Starbucks, Amazon, and Target. Sign up today and get an extra $10, so you’re already halfway to your rebate.
I’ve recently started using Honey, another savings app. Like Rakuten and Ibotta, it offers a way to get a little extra back on purchases. If you install a widget on your browser, Honey can also tell you if you’re paying the lowest price for your purchase online and will check all possible coupons to see if any others can be applied before you check out. Create a drop list– Honey will watch the purchases your interested in and let you know when those prices drop. You can also earn points as a percentage back on what you’re buying. And yes, you can stack Ebates and Honey together. (What can I say, I like squeezing all of the savings out of my budget!) You can cash your points out for gift cards you’ll actually use– like Amazon. Go here to sign up for Honey and start earning points towards gift cards just by buying the stuff you were already going to.
23. Shipping APO/FPO
If you’re buying big-ticket items, strongly consider purchasing online and having the store ship it if they ship APO/FPO. (Here’s a giant list of online retailers who do that.) Even if shipping costs a little extra, you won’t have to pay for shipping to your home and then shipping overseas.
24. Get free shipping
I really try not to shop online without getting free shipping. Sometimes, that means having a membership (my Amazon Prime membership pays for itself very quickly). Sometimes that means purchasing over a certain threshold or shopping on free shipping days.
Items for the care package
25. Bake and ship
If you enjoy being in the kitchen, go homemade for care package goodies, especially if you’re sending enough for your deployed service member to share. Need a start? Here are a bunch of military-spouse-tested recipes that work for care packages.
26. Become a Martha
Channel your inner Martha Stewart and make what you can. It can be tempting to buy care packages online from retailers (and that’s not a bad thing to do), but you can definitely create them on your own and save a lot of money in the process.
27. Grab free ideas
The military community is full of fun, free ideas (often with free printables, too) for care packages. These are the best places to find those ideas.
28. Ask for free stuff
Turn down the costs of care packages by asking for contributions. Often businesses have programs to send products and gifts to deployed military members. Even if there isn’t a posted program, often emailing or calling an organization could mean a few coupons or sample-size products. Here are 8 businesses known for that… and 9 more.
29. Get the kids involved
Make sure that you include coloring pages, letters, pictures, school work, and mementos for and by your kids (if you have them). Here are more ways to keep kids involved in the care package process.
Packing the box
30. Play Tetris
Don’t let any free space in your care package go unpacked. When John was deployed, I spent a lot of time, being sure to fit every available spot with something that he could eat, use or enjoy. Often that meant taking some things–like granola bars–out of packaging to fit them into small crevices or slim spots.
31. Use smart packaging
Once you’re done playing Tetris, fill any remaining places with packing material that matters. For instance, John asked me to send plastic grocery bags while he was deployed. He needed them and just didn’t have access to them; so I used them as packing material. After all, why should you ship air or ship something that will just be thrown away? That’s a waste of time and money. Need more ideas for packing material that matters? I’ve got you covered here.
32. Get free materials
USPS offers free Priority boxes and mailers at no charge to you. You can either pick them up at a post office, or you can have them delivered (for free) to your door. You can even order a Military Care Kit which includes free Priority boxes, customs forms, labels, and (perhaps, worth its weight in gold) Priority packing tape.
33. Be aware
Don’t send soaps, fragrances, or other smelly items with food. Those chemical smells can leech into food and make everything taste like soap… or perfume… or cleaning supplies. No one wants to eat a Lysol-flavored cookie or Eau de Wife-scented granola bar. Making that mistake is a waste of food, time, and shipping costs.
34. Double-bag it
If you’re sending things that are liquid, gels, or could leak or break, be extra careful. (And don’t send liquids under pressure, like soda.) You don’t want an explosion in your box that leaks into everyone else’s mail, too. And you don’t want to waste a perfectly good care package, either. Makes sure to seal, double-bag, and carefully cushion anything that could be a problem. (I’ve even heard of people using diapers as packing to absorb any spills… but I can’t vouch for that method myself.)
35. Be food safe
Don’t send things that can spoil, period. That’s a great way to make your spouse sick or have them throw away an entire care package.
Shipping the box
36. Use Priority
The USPS’ Priority boxes are really the best deal on the market if you use your space wisely and are shipping APO/FPO. Not only do you get the free shipping materials, but you also don’t have to worry about weight. A medium box ships at the same price regardless if it’s a 5-pound box or a 25-pound box. The USPS also gives a break on shipping costs to boxes being sent APO/FPO.
37. Don’t be stupid
Many deployment locales have strict rules about sending things like alcohol and pornography. If you’re told not to send particular products, don’t do it. You could run the risk of not only having the care package confiscated and destroyed in part or in whole, but you could also create a potentially embarrassing or damaging situation for your loved one.
38. Avoid care packages completely
Don’t send one at all! Avoid the cost of shipping and send a gift card instead. You can do this electronically for online stores that will ship APO/FPO, or you can send a physical one if there are places on base that offer the option.
Ways to get more care packages to your service member
39. Ask the community for help
If you have a church, have a job, or are part of a local organization, consider asking for help to create care packages for your spouse and his or her unit.
40. Submit your service member’s name
Many nonprofits and businesses send care packages to deployed troops and are actively looking for names and addresses. Here’s a list of organizations doing just that.