Guide to Personal Finance for Military Families
You or your spouse joined the military to serve the country, and part of life as a service member or a military spouse is dealing with military family finances. The unique lifestyle service members live means they need to take a different approach to financial success than civilians. MoneyGeek has put together a list of critical steps military families need to take to build a healthy financial future.
How to Create a Budget Plan to Protect Your Finances
Budgeting for military families includes emergency funds, insurance, loans, education expenses, housing, investments and retirement. Budgeting for these items involves planning how you will spend your money, keeping legal and financial documentation on hand and staying abreast of changes that will impact your household finances in the future. Creating a budget can seem overwhelming at first, but you can follow a few necessary steps to whip your finances into shape.
Review your expenses
The first step with any budget is to review your income and expenses. You need to know exactly how much money you have coming in and going out each month. It is important to remember that not all expenses are charged monthly, so make sure to include insurance premiums, vehicle registration, property taxes and other expenses billed quarterly or annually.
Create a plan
Once you know how much you earn and how much you spend each month, it is time to create a plan. One of the most common budgets is known as the 50/30/20 plan, which means using 50% of your income to pay for your needs such as groceries and rent, 30% of your income for “wants” such as vacations and hobbies and 20% to meet your financial goals such as paying down debt and accumulating savings.
Pay off your debt
Paying off your debt needs to be a priority. Interest payments can devour funds that would be better used elsewhere, so make sure you pay more than the minimum on your credit cards and other debt whenever possible. If you find yourself with extra funds such as a signing bonus or combat pay, consider using that money to pay off debt.
Put $1,000 in an emergency fund
Making your emergency savings a priority is vital to sticking to your budget. Something as seemingly simple as a car repair can quickly derail your budget if you don't have a financial cushion to absorb those costs. Aim for a minimum of $1,000, but if that isn't realistic for you, put aside as much as possible. Even a few hundred dollars can be enough to stop you from going into debt in an emergency.
Plan for the future
Once your finances are in order, it is time to start planning for the future. If you want to send your children to college, retire someday or leave the military and return to civilian life at some point, you’ll want to start planning for those events as soon as possible.
Managing Family Finances While in the Military
Relocating every few years can make life difficult, but the pride of having a spouse who is serving their country more than makes up for the inconvenience. Learning the ins and outs of military insurance, tax credits and housing assistance often falls to military spouses, which means it is vital for you to understand how military families deal with finances.
Know Your Benefits if Your Family Member Is Actively Serving
Military spouse and family benefits are available for active members. These include primary benefits, such as health insurance, along with more unique benefits, such as homeowner assistance programs. Benefits are sometimes limited based on whether or not you are actively serving, how long you have served and what other benefits you are using at the moment, so it is essential to know precisely what benefits you have and how to use them.
Military tax credits are a benefit service members receive based on their military service. For example, while serving in a combat zone, service members are given a deadline extension by the IRS when filing their taxes. Tax credits can change, so service members and veterans alike should all carefully review their taxes each year to make sure they are receiving all appropriate tax credits and benefits, which may include:
- Military Spouses Residency Relief Act (MSRRA): Military Spouses Residency Relief Act allows military spouses to maintain their legal residence in the state where they lived before a permanent change of station for tax purposes.
- Filing Joint Returns: Typically, both spouses must sign a joint income tax return. Military spouses who are unable to get both signatures because of specific military duty or conditions may be able to sign for their spouse. Check with your installation's legal office to see if you will need a power of attorney to do this.
- Moving Costs: If you are left with unreimbursed moving costs, you can deduct them on your taxes if the move is due to a permanent change of station.
- Uniform Deduction: The costs of certain uniforms are tax deductible, including purchase and upkeep costs. If you are given an allowance for these costs, you must reduce your deduction by that amount.
- Reservists’ Travel Deduction: Reservists whose military duties take them more than 100 miles away from home can deduct their unreimbursed travel expenses even without itemizing their deductions.
- Combat Pay Benefits: Combat pay is a tax-exempt monthly stipend paid in addition to standard pay for service members who are serving or stationed in designated hazardous zones. Combat pay is available to any person enrolled in any branch of the U.S. military who is assigned to a designated hazardous area.
Because of their unique needs stemming from constant relocation, military service members have access to banking and savings programs specifically designed to handle the intricacies of military life. Upon transitioning to civilian life, Veterans will have access to other savings plans designed to meet their needs.
- DoD Savings Deposit Program (SDP): The SDP allows service members in active combat zones to contribute up to $10,000 per deployment into a special savings account that accrues 10% interest annually. Once the service member is no longer in the combat zone and the account is closed, funds are returned 120 days later.
- Association of Military Banks of America: The Association of Military Banks of America (AMBA) has been around for more than 70 years. AMBA is a not-for-profit association of banks operating on military bases and installations.
Because there are so many different military retirement plan benefits available, retirement planning for service members can seem complicated. Retirement plans available include the High-3, Redux and Blended Retirement System, to name a few. Choosing the right retirement plan is vital, but you may wish to explore more of your retirement benefits when transitioning into civilian life.
Active service members and veterans have access to almost half a million dollars in life insurance benefits through the VA's group life insurance plans. However, the enrollment process is different depending on whether you are active or retired.
Service members and their dependents looking for information regarding life insurance benefits should review both the SGLI and FSGLI policies to determine which one is best suited for their needs.
- Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI): SGLI benefits provide life insurance to all military members. Service members are automatically insured under SGLI for the maximum amount of $400,000.
- Family Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (FSGLI): FSGLI benefits offer coverage for the spouse and dependent children of active service members covered under SGLI.
For most active service members, health insurance and dental insurance will run through the TRICARE program. It is possible to sign up as a dependent under a spouse's health insurance or find another policy elsewhere. Still, one of the significant benefits of enlisting in the military is having access to excellent health insurance through TRICARE.
- TRICARE: TRICARE is the health care program for service members, retirees and their dependents, providing comprehensive coverage to all beneficiaries. TRICARE offers multiple coverage types, including health plans, prescriptions, dental plans and special programs. Most TRICARE health insurance policies meet the minimum coverage requirements for the Affordable Care Act.
One of the most significant benefits of joining the military is the education benefits. While the GI Bill is the most famous education benefit offered to service members, there are multiple other educational benefits, including scholarships, tuition assistance and even benefits that can pay for college for your spouse or your children.
- Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts: The My Career Advancement Account (myCAA) scholarship program provides up to $4,000 of financial assistance for military spouses who need professional licenses, certifications, or associate degrees to pursue an occupation.
- Military Tuition Assistance: Military tuition assistance is available to active duty, National Guard and reserve service members to pay up to 100% of tuition expenses for semester hours (at $250 or less per hour).
- The Post-9/11 GI Bill: The Post-9/11 GI Bill, sometimes referred to as Chapter 33, helps pay for college or career training. Service members on active duty after September 10, 2001, may qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
- Yellow Ribbon Scholarship: The Yellow Ribbon Program can help service members pay for tuition expenses that aren’t covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, such as higher out-of-state, private school or graduate school costs.
Serving in the military often means taking on additional expenses or giving up opportunities to earn more income, which occurs when spouses give up their careers to support their loved one's military service. Fortunately, there are multiple loan options available to service members and their families to help ease the burden that sometimes comes with military service.
- Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA): The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is designed to ease financial burdens on service members when on active duty. It applies to rental agreements, security deposits, evictions, mortgage interest rates, foreclosures, civil judicial proceedings and much more.
- Advance Pay: Advance pay is designed to provide cash for expenses from a permanent change of station (PCS) move, such as the costs associated with a PCS (boxes, movers, moving truck, etc.).
While there are multiple VA loans and options for transitioning service members looking to buy a home, that isn't the only type of housing assistance available to military members, their spouses and dependents. There are occasions where the Department of Defense will provide funding for housing to active service members.
- Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH): The basic housing allowance provides funding for housing by location, pay grade and dependency status. Service members are given equitable housing compensation based on local housing markets in the U.S. when government quarters are not available or provided.
There are dozens of different benefits available through the military. While some fit neatly in specific categories, others are unique. Service members and their spouses who are in financial need should review all available benefits for their situation.
- Family Separation Allowance (FSA): The military offers compensation for family separation of up to $250 a month to a service member with dependents who serves an unaccompanied tour of duty.
- Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society: The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society (NMCRS) provides financial assistance, loans and scholarships to Navy and Marine families in need of financial support.
How to Budget for the 4 Most Common Financial Challenges
Some typical financial challenges come with enlisting in the military. Whether you are a single service member or the spouse of someone serving in the military, budgeting in that environment can help you develop a valuable skill set. Better yet, if you do it right, you can set yourself up for financial stability and success later when you and your family transition into civilian life.
1. Relocation and Deployment
Most families of active service members have mastered the art of packing a moving box, but finances are more complicated than figuring out how to load a moving van. Relocating every few years can make financial stability more difficult, but military members and their spouses are experts on overcoming difficult problems.
Being deployed in the military means you need to change housing regularly, and it may mean new banks, schools and doctors. Anyone who needs to move regularly must have their financial affairs in order. Choosing services designed specifically for people in the military can help prevent the economic upheaval that is so commonly associated with moving to a new area.
There are multiple benefits available to service members who are relocating, including the benefits listed here. You can check with the Veterans' Administration and the Department of Defense websites to learn about additional benefits available to you.
- Military Relocation Assistance Program: The Military and Family Support Center has numerous programs and services available to help with a move, including assistance establishing a moving budget and the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) to help with relocation if you have a family member with special needs.
- Moving Expense Deduction: If you are left with unreimbursed moving costs, you can deduct them on your taxes if the move is due to a permanent change of station.
2. Irregular Income
One of the hardest parts about budgeting on a military income is that earnings can change significantly over time. Clothing allowance, rations, quarters' allowance, combat pay and proficiency pay are financial benefits you may gain or lose as you or your spouse move from position to position within the military.
It may be easiest for some people to build a budget from base pay and consider additional income no more than extra funds, but this isn't possible for everyone. Some people may need to find ways to cut spending rather than accounting for additional income to stay on budget.
There are multiple benefits available to service members trying to budget with irregular income, including the benefits listed here. If your income is less stable than you would like, it can help to reach out to a professional accountant who is familiar with military family finances for assistance.
- Commissaries: Shopping at the commissary can help you save 30% on essential grocery purchases. They even post their prices online, so you can use the commissary website to plan meals in advance.
- Compensation Website: Using the military compensation page allows you to find out exactly how much you can expect to earn, so you know how to budget accordingly.
3. Child Care and School Enrollment
Child care and school enrollment options are vital in taking care of your family while serving in the military. For service members whose children are old enough to be enrolled in school, the Department of Defense Education Activity operates schools on military bases worldwide. Additionally, there are many public schools available on military bases around the world. The DODEA offers a virtual high school option for teens who don't want to be on campus to receive an education.
The on-base school systems also offer several potential employment opportunities for military spouses, including teaching, substitute teaching and tutoring.
There are multiple benefits available to service members looking for child care, including the benefits listed here. The military has even added expanded hourly child care options, giving military families more flexibility than ever before.
- Fee Assistance and Respite Child Care: ChildCare Aware has partnered with the Department of Defense to offer assistance paying for child care when you do not have access to on-base child care providers.
- Military Child Care: Military child care is an online system that allows military families to find military-based child care around the globe, including both in-home and daycare facility options.
4. Balancing Your Spouse’s Career
Relocating every few years often means that military spouses have a difficult time maintaining traditional employment. While a teacher or doctor may find plenty of work on a military base, it can be much more difficult for spouses with careers that don't meet the immediate needs of the people living on base. Scientists, insurance agents, nonprofit administrators and many other professionals may find that their career options are limited as they move from base to base to support their spouse's career in the military.
While it isn't easy, there are options for spouses who want to pursue their careers while traveling the world with their beloved service member.
There are multiple benefits for military spouses looking to build a career of their own, including the benefits listed here. There are other educational and financial options for spouses, such as having your spouse transfer their GI Bill benefits to you to pursue your education while they are serving.
- National Military Spouse Network: The National Military Spouse Network is a networking, mentoring and professional development organization designed to support military spouses and their careers.
- Military Services Educational Assistance Program: Military spouses are eligible for several programs that offer financial aid toward a postsecondary degree. They are also eligible for scholarships and other financial assistance designed to pay for licenses and certifications to help them pursue the occupation of their choice.
Managing Family Finances During and After Transition
Transitioning out of the military into civilian life can be a complicated process. Leaving the military means that service members can lose access to many benefits, including health insurance, savings deposit plans, guaranteed life insurance, homeowners assistance programs and more. It is essential to understand what changes to expect and what you can do to make sure you are covered financially during and after your transition.
Adjust Your Budget Plan
It is essential to start planning early for your transition into civilian life. Searching for a job, enrolling in school or arranging for an internship can take several months, so it is vital to plan ahead. You will also need to start planning how you will insure yourself and your family. Health, life and disability insurance are all things that are part of your standard benefits as an active service member that you will need to procure in other ways once you are a civilian.
Know Your Benefits as a Veteran
While some things may stay the same, active service members often have very different benefits than veterans. It is essential to be aware of the changes in benefits and the difference in applying for and receiving those benefits. For example, many benefits provided to active service members go through the Department of Defense. In contrast, veterans' benefits go through the Department of Veterans Affairs, more commonly referred to as the VA.
Veteran tax breaks are available through the IRS, but the bulk of them are designed for veterans who were disabled in the line of duty. Laws change from year to year; however, so veterans should carefully review their taxes or work with a professional accountant to make sure they are receiving all appropriate tax credits.
Military veterans and service members have access to banking and savings programs designed explicitly for their needs. There are multiple types of savings programs available, including special savings programs specifically designed for veterans.
- Veterans Benefits Banking Program (VBBP): The Veterans Benefits Banking Program partners with the Association of Military Banks of America (AMBA) to offer banking benefits that meet the unique needs of service members worldwide. AMBA is a nonprofit association of banks and banking facilities designated by the U.S. Treasury to provide banking services to service members and veterans.
There are so many different military retirement plan benefits that retirement planning can be confusing for even the most financially literate service members. For example, military retirement funds are taxable and VA pension is not. Military retirement is based on years of service, while VA pensions are based on wartime service and financial need. Choosing the right retirement plan is vital, so it is important to research all your options.
- High-3 Retirement System: Also known as the Legacy Retirement System, the High-3 Retirement System bases your pension on the average of the three highest years of your base pay upon your retirement. Service members who retire at 20 years will have pensions of 50% of their base pay, increasing to 75% if they choose to retire at 30 years.
- Redux Retirement: A career status bonus, or CSB/REDUX, allows military members who are eligible to receive a $30,000 bonus when they reach their 15th year of active service, but their retirement pay will be calculated at a reduced rate. It is crucial for any service member who is considering using their CSB/REDUX benefit to carefully calculate the impact this will have on their retirement funds.
- Blended Retirement System (BRS): The Blended Retirement System combines elements of the legacy retirement system with benefits like those offered in many civilian 401(k) plans. BRS often includes the Thrift Savings Plan as one part of a retirement package that also includes your Federal Employee Retirement System basic annuity as well as your Social Security.
- Military Retirement Pay: There are two different methods for determining a service member's retirement pay base. The final pay method establishes a retirement pay base equal to the final basic pay earned by a service member. The alternative method, called the High-36 method, averages the highest 36 months of base pay and divides it by 36. The best method to use depends on when the service member first joined the military, referred to as the date of initial entry to military service (DIEUS), a fixed date not impacted by leaving and then rejoining the military.
- Survivor Benefit Plan: The Survivor Benefit Program provides up to 55% of a service member's retirement pay to an eligible beneficiary upon the death of the member. The program automatically covers members serving on active duty and reserve component members who die while performing inactive duty training.
- Military Disability Retirement Pay: Disability retirement, also sometimes referred to as Chapter 61 retirement, allows members who have been determined to be unfit for duty with a disability to be eligible for disability retirement. A service member in an unstable condition may be placed on the temporary disability retired list (TDRL) for up to five years, while members whose condition is permanently at a disability rating of 30% or higher may be placed on the permanent disability retired list (PDRL).
Active service members and veterans have access to almost half a million dollars in life insurance benefits through group life insurance plans administered by the VA. However, the enrollment process is different depending on whether you are active or retired. Veterans looking for information regarding life insurance benefits should reach out to the VA to sign up for benefits as quickly as possible to prevent them from being denied coverage for health reasons.
- Veterans’ Group Life Insurance (VGLI): VGLI benefits are only available to veterans who sign up within one year and 120 days of leaving the military. Veterans who sign up within 240 days of leaving the military won’t be required to prove they’re healthy to get a policy, but those who sign up 241 days or more after leaving the military will be required to submit evidence that they are in good health.
There are two major insurance plans designed to provide health insurance for veterans. However, just because veterans may be able to access care through the VA doesn't mean they must use that policy. If they are working, they can sign up for insurance through their employer, or they can potentially even sign up as a dependent under a spouse's insurance plan.
- Veteran's Health Care Programs: Health programs for veterans are administered by the VA and go above and beyond standard health insurance benefits. These programs include blind rehabilitation, community living centers, dental care benefits, geriatric and extended care, homelessness services, mental health services and more.
- Transitional Assistance Management Program: The Transitional Assistance Management Program (TAMP) provides up to 180 days of transitional health care benefits after TRICARE benefits end. These benefits are offered at no premium.
VA education benefits can help veterans and service members with educational needs such as paying for college tuition or getting career counseling. You can use GI Bill and Chapter 36 educational benefits to find training programs, choose a field of study or even assist with creating a resume and setting career goals. GI Bill benefits are sometimes available for surviving spouses and children of veterans.
- Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance Program: If you are the spouse or child of a service member who died in the line of duty after September 10, 2001, is missing in action, was captured in the line of duty or has been hospitalized or is receiving treatment for a permanent service-related disability, you may be eligible for education benefits through the Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance Program or GI Bill.
- Montgomery GI Bill Program: GI Bill benefits help service members pay for college, graduate school and career training programs. Implemented in 1944, the GI Bill has since split into multiple parts, including the Post 9/11 GI Bill, Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty and the Montgomery GI Bill Selective Reserve.
The VA offers home loans to help service members, veterans and eligible surviving spouses purchase a home. It provides home loan benefits and other programs to help you buy, build, repair, retain or adapt a residence. The VA only offers loans for a home you will be living in, so don't expect to buy an investment property with your VA benefits.
The military offers various assistance programs for active service members and veterans who are purchasing or selling their home. While most of the programs are designed to help those who were injured or killed in the line of duty, there are a wide variety of housing assistance programs available through the Department of Defense and other organizations. Active service members and veterans looking to purchase a home should look on the DoD website to determine if they are eligible for any housing assistance programs.
- Specially Adapted Housing (SAH): A Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant provides funds to service members and veterans disabled in the line of duty to help them build, remodel or purchase a home adapted to their needs. This grant can be more than $100,000, but the maximum amount of the funding changes annually, so you will need to check with the VA for the most current information.
- Special Home Adaptation (SHA): A Special Home Adaptation (SHA) grant provides funds to service members and veterans with specific service-related disabilities to help them adapt their home to their needs. The maximum amount of the grant can be more than $20,000, but this changes annually, so you will need to check with the VA for the most current information available.
- Homeowners Assistance Program (HAP): The Homeowners Assistance Program (HAP) has been around in some capacity since 1966. It was updated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to provide financial assistance to service members who suffer a financial loss on the sale of their home due to base realignment and closure (BRAC) activity.
Military families and active duty service members have access to several benefits, including health insurance, life insurance, education benefits and a variety of other goods and services. One of the many benefits enjoyed by active service members, their spouses and veterans is job assistance. People who have left or are getting ready to leave the military are given training, support and sometimes even funding to help them transition into work outside the military.
- The Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service Program: The Veterans' Employment and Training Service is designed to help prepare veterans and those who are leaving the military for careers outside of the military by providing employment resources and protecting their rights in the workplace. They can help with interstate licensing for military spouses to help prevent gaps in their careers or improve veterans' employment services through the National Veterans' Training Institute's professional skills-development program.
- Small Business Administration’s Veteran-Owned Businesses: The Small Business Association offers support for veterans who are starting or purchasing a business. They offer a wide variety of benefits, including funding programs, training and federal contracting opportunities. They also provide business plan workshops, concept assessments, mentorship and training for eligible veterans who need help setting up a business.
- Veterans Employment Center: The Veterans Employment Center offers assistance in building your career and finding opportunities beyond the military. It also provides many programs and services designed to help homeless veterans, including free health care and connecting veterans with resources in their community such as homeless shelters or faith-based organizations.
- Veteran Readiness and Employment: Also known as VR&E, this program is designed to help with job training, employment accommodations, resume creation and coaching through finding a job. Other services may help veterans start their own business or help provide independent living services for those unable to work in a traditional capacity.
Be Aware of Military-Targeted Scams
Because military members have a steady paycheck and are often asked to navigate complex or convoluted systems to access their benefits, they sometimes find themselves the victims of military-targeted scams. These range from basic phishing scams, often designed to look like you are being contacted by the VA or an employer looking to hire veterans, to more complex scenarios such as pension and benefit scams or bogus financial aid or education grants.
Expert Insight on Finances for Members of the Military
Finance for military families can be complicated, making it challenging to get all the answers you need to make sure you and your family are financially secure. MoneyGeek spoke to experts, industry leaders, military members and spouses across the country to gain expert insight into what steps active-duty service members and veterans can take to protect themselves financially.
- What are the most common financial mistakes made by active military members?
- What steps should military members on active duty and their families take to help make sure they will be financially secure as veterans?
- What unique financial concerns should active military members consider when planning their annual budget?
- Are there any benefits or programs designed specifically for active military members with children?
Army Spouse and Founder/CEO of Ford Financial Management
Director of Operations at PARCO
Founder & Chief Strategist at Mil-Speak Marketing
Chief Operating Officer & Secretary at the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association (AAFMAA)
Professor of Finance at Middle Tennessee State University
Director of the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center (Daniels Center)
Resources for Military Families
Whether you need financial assistance, mental health care, housing assistance or simply the support of other service members and veterans, there are many resources available to help you meet your needs.
Financial Services and Programs
- USA Cares: USA Cares provides financial assistance in several situations, including emergency assistance, housing assistance, combat-related trauma and career transitions.
- Valour-IT: Valour-IT provides voice-controlled laptops and other technology to veterans recovering from hand injuries and other physical trauma.
- Operation Homefront: Operation Homefront helps provide financial assistance for overdue bills, repairs, or other critical family needs for active service members and veterans.
Mental Health Facilities and Support
- Safe Helpline: Safe Helpline is an anonymous, confidential hotline for those affected by sexual assault. The hotline is specifically for the Department of Defense employees and is operated by RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization.
- Veterans Crisis Line: Veteran's Crisis Line provides mental health information and suicide prevention services to veterans and active service members.
- National Center for PTSD: The National Center for PTSD offers support for those experiencing PTSD and other traumatic stress.
Community Support Groups
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides support and assistance for survivors of domestic violence to help them escape and heal from abuse. They offer crisis intervention, education and referral services.
- The American Legion: The American Legion provides youth programs, benefits assistance, an education center, a health center and career assistance to help vets returning from war or transitioning to civilian life.
- VA Caregiver Support Line (CSL): Licensed professionals at the VA Caregiver Support Line can help you find assistance from VA, connect you with the caregiver support coordinator at a VA medical center near you or simply provide a supportive ear.
Housing Assistance Resources
- Housing Assistance For Veterans: The VA offers housing assistance for veterans by providing HUD housing vouchers and other supportive services to help homeless veterans and their families find permanent housing.
- Geriatrics and Extended Care: Geriatric and extended care are available for veterans who need assisted living communities, community residential care and medical foster homes. The VA does not pay for rental costs, but they may pay for extra services veterans need in assisted living.
- Women Veterans Housing: The National Veteran Foundation offers a collection of programs designed to help women veterans with the unique problems servicewomen face when transitioning to civilian life.
About the Author
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