Soldiers make sacrifices.
Some are obvious – but others are less so. For instance, not everyone sees the extra effort military families must put forth to maintain financial stability while living a life marked by uncertainty.
“Many military families live paycheck to paycheck,” said Barbara Martin, vice president of operations at GeoVista Federal Credit Union.
That can add stress to an already stressful lifestyle.
“Financial wellness is important for any family to maintain stability,” said Kinetic Credit Union Chief Operating Officer Alretta Craw. “But financial wellness for military families is especially important because if they’re financially well, it alleviates the stress on an already challenged family unit. It also allows the service member to be focused and to be ‘mission ready,’ as they say.”
Credit unions including Kinetic and GeoVista understand what it takes to get soldiers “mission ready” financially. The credit unions have branches and ATMs at Ft. Benning, Ga., and Ft. Stewart, Ga., respectively. They count military families among their members. These families deal with the same financial challenges as civilian families – but also have additional considerations.
“Serving our active duty military and their families is part of our mission,” Craw said. “Each branch of the military has its own financial management programs, and credit unions do a great job helping families with potential financial difficulties, too.”
The “Military Families and Financial Stress” study conducted by The Center for Research and Outreach (REACH) at the University of Minnesota identified three main phases or “transitions” – relocations, deployments and the conclusion of service – that can add complications into the finances of military families.
Military families don’t usually stay in one place for long.
According to a CNN Money article, military families tend to relocate every two or three years – 10 times more often than civilian families.
“I think the biggest financial consideration among service members is the frequent moves most military families have to make,” Craw said. “It’s very important military families know what expenses the government will pay when they relocate.”
The degree to which the government covers moving expenses varies based on the type of Permanent Change of Station orders the military member has been issued. There are many types of PCS orders – accompanied or unaccompanied PCS overseas, PCS to the same geographic area, change of a ships homeport or unit’s location, etc. – and each comes with its own special rules and regulations, according to Military.com.
In general, the government will provide transportation for military members and their dependents who need to move. Shipment of household goods and vehicles will also be covered up to a certain weight, depending on rank and family status.
Military members can also be partially reimbursed for hotel expenses incurred while house hunting.
In general, the government will pay most expenses associated with a PCS move. Military families should look to claim deductions on their taxes for anything that isn’t covered.
But accepting government aid might not completely alleviate financial stress for military families when it’s time to relocate. The frequency of moves means military families may have a more difficult time establishing routines that can help save or bring in extra money.
“When a military member has to move his or her family that frequently, the spouse’s career might need to be put on hold,” Craw said.
“That reduces the family’s income.”
The REACH study also points out that being sent to an assigned post means the service member doesn’t have the choice of being near an extended family or friend support system that can be relied upon for things like childcare and general help the family may end up paying for.
“Relocation cost is not only the move and related expenses, but also the price of getting ready to cope with deposits on rental properties and utility companies,” Martin said. “Relocations also have hidden surprises like new school uniforms for the children and different care insurance premiums, to name a few. Military families should develop a systematic savings plan to prepare for foreseeable as well as emergency situations.”
The REACH study suggests military families take part in financial communication programs offered specifically to help them save for the unforeseen costs of their lifestyle. Programs like Military Saves, for instance, help motivate service members to save money each month through behavioral economics and social marketing specifically targeted toward the needs of military families.
Deployment understandably causes stress for all involved. The military member is headed into uncertain territory and his or her family must adjust to coping at home.
But deployment also brings financial challenges that can heighten pre-existing stress. Deployed soldiers aren’t always in a position pay attention to bills or to get mortgages paid on time. What’s more, service members are often at an increased risk of identity theft while they’re away, since they may not be able to keep a close eye on their credit reports.
“Really, planning ahead is the one thing that can alleviate any stress associated with deployments,” Craw said.
Before leaving, soldiers should contact the credit reporting agencies to request an active duty alert be placed on their report. The alert lasts for a year and tells companies to be wary of any activity on the deployed soldier’s behalf, according to information from the Federal Trade Commission.
It’s also crucial the military member doesn’t attempt to handle household finances alone while overseas. Online bill pay and access to financial accounts can help provide peace of mind; but in order to keep soldiers focused on the mission, Craw suggested close family members and friends at home take control of bill payments and day-to-day financial transactions.
“It’s important for a deployed service member to delegate a trusted individual at home to attend to financial affairs in his absence,” Craw said. “That person allows the service members to focus on their duties. It gives them a peace of mind and ensures they’re ‘mission ready’ during deployment.”
Craw also suggested soldiers make sure they’re receiving all the government benefits they’re entitled to during deployment. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, for instance, states that a military member’s property cannot be sold or foreclosed on for nonpayment during or within 9 months after active duty service. The act also states military families can’t be evicted without a court order during deployment and that creditors must offer reduced interest rates to military members during that time.
Families of deployed military members are also entitled to health care insurance through the military’s program called TRICARE.
Craw said representatives from credit unions, like Kinetic, may also be able to help with information on handling finances during deployment. She suggested visiting sites including myPAY from DFAS and the Better Business Bureau Military Links.
Retirement and Military Separation
You don’t just walk away from the military.
“Transitioning out of the armed services – that’s a major financial change,” Craw said. “You’ve got differences in taxes, insuran
ce, employment and housing. Families in that position should really undergo a financial checkup.”
The REACH study points out that military families “lose supplemental service upon retirement, including free or subsidized meals, lower cost and tax-free groceries at commissaries and free healthcare.”
Martin said soldiers should start planning as early as possible if they know they’ll soon be leaving the military.
“Reduce debt and save for the transition period,” she said. “Prepare resumes, start networking early and talk to a financial aid coach in preparation.”
Soldiers may need to make some financial adjustments, but military members become eligible for other benefits after they retire or are honorably discharged from the military. According to Stateside Legal, an organization offering legal help for military members, veterans and their families, common transitional benefits include health insurance, help with employment and relocation assistance.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also offers insurance, educational assistance and even home and other loans to retired or discharged military members. The VA helps members leaving the military with injuries by helping pay fo
r prosthetics, special housing and guide dogs.
It’s not just the U.S. government willing to step in to help veterans. Plenty of non-profits and organizations around the country exist to help vets often in niche ways. Purple Heart Homes, for instance, is a 501c3 that works to alleviate stress felt by injured veterans in part by renovating their homes.
“Maybe the vet is in a wheelchair and can’t get in their own home because the doorways are too narrow,” said Melanie Balousek, communications specialist at Purple Heart Homes. “It’s the difficulties at home that come in many forms that the public doesn’t see.”
Without this kind of help, many veterans could find themselves wracking debt quickly.
“The prices can vary so much depending on the veteran’s needs,” Balousek said. “Maybe they just need a roof repaired or maybe they’re in a situation where they can’t get into their own home. Prices could easily reach the tens of thousands of dollars if they try to take this on themselves.”
Balousek said Purple Heart Homes is proud to supplement government help to veterans in need, and Lawrenceville, Ga.-based Peach State Federal Credit Union has participated in multiple Purple Heart Homes projects.
The Bottom Line
The key for dealing with financial hardships during any phase of military life: soldiers shouldn’t try to take it on themselves.
Craw suggested military families check with their branch of service and with the government to make sure they’re getting all the help entitled to them. She also suggested service members check out a credit union.
“I think credit unions are well equipped to help military families because financial literacy is such a large part of what credit unions stand for,” she said. “I think it’s very important that military families get that education piece.”
She said military members shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help because entities all over the country – including Purple Heart Homes and credit unions – are happy to provide it.
“We take pride in what we are able to do for our military families,” Craw said.