By Meredith Leyva
Everybody complains that their paycheck doesn't go far enough. So what can be done to maximize your income with the least amount of effort? For military folks, there are a surprising number of options. Here are some ideas, starting with the easiest.
Maximize your current pay. There are at least nine components of military pay that increase or decrease depending on the circumstances facing the servicemember. By understanding how military pay works, you can maximize your pay by doing some relatively little things. Getting extra training and education is the best way to increase pay by specializing your skills, and the added education may ultimately get you a better civilian job. The military pays for it, so why not take advantage of it?
Also, monitor your budget on items such as food and housing. Some people insist on living on base to save money, for example, but if you're willing to live in a cheap house or apartment you can pocket the extra income from your Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). Similarly, many service members eat at the chow hall not realizing that their entire $250 Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS) gets eaten along with it. Better to pack a lunch and eat out occasionally so you can pocket the extra cash.
If you're on deployment, why not maximize your pay by getting into the action? By volunteering for hazardous duty, a service member can earn up to $225 extra per month. Again, the key to maximizing your current pay is taking advantage of the military pay system.
Make use of Per Diem pay. Most servicemembers view travel as the ultimate boondoggle, blowing through their Per Diem pay and more by going out to restaurants every night, buying gifts and otherwise living it up. By contrast, my homebody husband uses travel as a chance to pocket Per Diem pay. On a recent 10-day trip to North Carolina, his first stop was the grocery store, where he loaded up on items for bag lunches and easy-to-make dinners. He and his buddies also bought soda and beer so they wouldn't be tempted to go to restaurants, where they could spend $5 per beer.
By planning ahead and entertaining themselves at their temporary quarters, my husband and his friends saved nearly $1,000 each on expenses - welcome extra money that my husband enjoyed upon returning home to his family.
Hold off on having kids. A big myth in the military is that you get more benefits once you have kids. Actually, you only get more BAH if you just get married, but no extra money for kids. And kids are a major expense! In my own household, I estimate spending $150 per month just on diapers and formula for my son. If I used day care, I would need to spend another $100 to $200 per week. Instead, I stay at home to care for my child, but that means the loss of my income and living on my husband's salary only.
So do the math before having children, and consider the benefits of an extended honeymoon period with your spouse. Not only will you save money to prepare for children, you can spend some time getting to know each other better.
Get a second job. Most service members get off work about halfway through the average person's workday. That leaves plenty of time to work a second job, if you have the energy. Companies such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart want to hire military folks as part-time workers on evenings and weekends because we're extremely reliable, polite and hard working. In exchange, they are willing to be flexible with work schedules when deployments and night shifts come up.
Invest in a home every time you move. Investing in a home definitely is reserved for people who have done their homework and are ready to make a big commitment. That commitment can pay off handsomely, however, if you view buying a home as an investment instead of an emotional issue. In any case, it doesn't make sense for military folks to buy a home based on your emotions since you will soon leave it anyway.
There are several options when it comes to investing in a home. A fixer-upper home in a good neighborhood can be renovated and sold at a profit when it is time to relocate. As an alternative, some families turn their residences into rentals when it is time to relocate, and then purchase a new home at their new base. If your home can be easily rented at a price that covers the cost of your mortgage, then you can build equity in that home without paying a dime for it. Work closely with a reputable real estate agent to make the right investment decision for your family.
Above all, maximizing your income while in the military is about surveying the opportunities around you. Your friends and colleagues probably have lots of other ideas and may know contractors looking for extra part-time help. With a little entrepreneurial spirit, you can build a savings account that is the envy of the neighborhood and the financial security of your family.