By Jessica Perdew
"You won't get rich serving in the military!"
Surely you have heard that before. Indeed, you're not likely to make the Forbes list of "Richest People in the World" if the military is your career. However, you can certainly live quite comfortably if you take advantage of some of the military's many unique benefits.
1. Come back to the commissary. Many servicemembers, especially unmarried members, overlook the value of the local commissary. If you haven't visited lately, you won't believe what you've been missing! Single servicemembers save an average of $1,000 each year, while a family of four tallies at least $3,000 in annual savings just by shopping at the commissary. Combine commissary prices with coupons and enjoy even greater savings!
Even if you don't live near an installation, the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) can still help you save. Its "Virtual Commissary" offers a variety of gift items shipped directly to the recipient. DeCA is working to expand its product selection to include other non-perishable items that could be shipped directly to patrons. Through special sale events, DeCA also is reaching out to underserved communities by taking the commissary benefit on the road. Through coordination with local Reserve commands, DeCA plans to hold 100 special sale events this year. For additional information, visit the commissary website at www.commissaries.com.
2. Explore Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) and Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS). Thousands of dedicated employees worldwide strive to provide servicemembers, retirees and military families with quality recreation programs and opportunities. From Armed Forces Recreation Centers in places like Hawaii, Florida, Germany and Korea, to swimming pools and hobby shops, recreational opportunities abound at your local installation. Visit the tickets and tours office for discount admission to dozens of local and national theme parks and recreation venues. Explore the outdoors with gear rental. Some installations even rent travel trailers and beach cottages! These services are provided at significant savings over comparable services outside the installation. In addition, authorized patrons enjoy access to some of the world's best-equipped fitness facilities at absolutely no cost.
3. Don't forget your Exchange. Installation retail stores offer a tremendous variety of products at very competitive prices. Exchanges offer price matching within the local market. If you find an identical product advertised locally at a better price, take the ad to your local exchange and it will match that price. Plus, exchange purchases are sales tax exempt, so you save even more. Profits from retail sales are reinvested in MWR and MCCS programs. Authorized patrons, even those who don't live near an installation, can shop the Exchange through its online or printed catalog for the same savings found in stores.
4. Traveling? Don't overlook Space-Available, or "Space-A," travel opportunities. If you have an adventurous spirit and a flexible schedule, you may find Space-A travel an extraordinary benefit. Once you arrive, low-cost lodging may be available at the local Temporary Lodging Facility (TLF).
5. Discover the Child Development Center (CDC). Child care often is one of the most expensive recurring items in a military family's budget. Military CDCs offer the finest care at the best prices anywhere, providing quality programs for children from infancy through grade school. Some installations even offer summer camp programs for school-age children. Income-based fee scales ensure that all families can afford quality care.
Each year, the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) releases a report card for child care programs in each state. As in many prior years, DoD child care facilities this year scored better than all other state programs in every area rated. DoD child care scored 117 this year, while the average child care score nationwide was 70.
Families located away from an installation or waiting for space at a CDC can utilize programs developed through a partnership between DoD and NACCRRA. Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood provides placement assistance and a monthly subsidy payment to families awaiting child care in an installation center or located in an area not served by an installation CDC. Operation Military Child Care provides placement and fee assistance to activated or deployed Guard and Reserve families. Complete details are available at Naccrra military families.
6. Consider your housing benefit. If you haven't considered utilizing government housing, you may want to take another look. Thankfully, military family housing and servicemember housing for singles have evolved considerably in recent years. Privatization and an increased focus on quality-of-life issues have transformed government housing into an exceptional benefit. Proximity to work, recreation and medical and shopping facilities also may mean significant fuel and vehicle savings. While the financial advantages are obvious, also consider the intangible but important benefits of belonging to a supportive, close-knit military community.
7. Understand your medical benefit. TRICARE Prime beneficiaries can eliminate out-of-pocket medical expenses simply by ensuring that all care is initiated through their assigned primary care manager. TRICARE Standard beneficiaries can reduce medical expenses by using TRICARE providers.
Prescriptions are filled at the local medical treatment facility at no cost to the patient. Maintenance medications can be ordered through the TRICARE Mail Order Pharmacy (TMOP) at a significant savings over retail pharmacy. TMOP beneficiaries can get a 90-day supply of medication for the same cost as a 30-day supply at a retail pharmacy. TMOP prescriptions are even delivered right to your home.
8. Reduce deployment-related expenses. Mobilization or deployment can create a variety of unexpected expenses. For the first time, the U.S. Postal Service is offering discounted postage to FPO and APO addresses. The new Priority Mail Flat Rate Box (12" X 12" X 5.5") can be sent domestically for $12.95. When sent to an FPO or APO address, the cost is $10.95 regardless of weight.
Communication expenses can add up quickly, so consider e-mail rather than phone calls. When an e-mail simply won't do, try a VoIP service such as Skype to avoid costly international long-distance calls. Users must have access to the Internet and download the application to their local computers. Complete details are available at Skype.
9. Check your withholdings. All servicemembers complete a W-4 when entering the military. Over time, changes to your family size and circumstances may warrant a change in withholding. Increasing the number of exemptions on your W-4 will result in more money in your pocket from paycheck to paycheck because less federal tax will be withheld from your pay. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides a withholding calculator on its website to help you decide how many exemptions to claim and whether or not to withhold additional money. To access the calculator, visit www.irs.gov/individuals/page/0,,id=14806,00.html. Servicemembers may electronically update their W-4s by logging into their MyPay account online.
10. Contribute to the TSP. The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) allows servicemembers to contribute a portion of their pay to a tax-deferred retirement account. This reduces your taxable income dollar-for-dollar today while building a retirement account for tomorrow. The money is taxable upon withdrawal at retirement, but you likely will be in a lower tax bracket. For complete information on the Thrift Savings Plan, visit www.tsp.gov.
Of course, all the suggestions for managing your military pay are useless unless you create a budget and stick to it. Once you determine where your money is going, you can take steps to reduce unnecessary expenses. Military aid societies and personal finance managers at local installations are available to assist in setting up a budget that works for you.
Most importantly, the best way to stretch your military pay is to avoid high-cost credit products. While the Military Lending Act (MLA) has curbed some predatory products targeting servicemembers, many unscrupulous lenders have introduced slightly modified products to avoid falling under MLA protection. Help avoid these products by ensuring that your budget includes saving for unexpected expenses. When you do find yourself short on funds, seek out assistance from your local aid society or your installation's bank or credit union.
Let Your Military Benefits Work For You!
1. Come back to the commissary.
2. Explore Morale, Welfare and Recreation and Marine Corps Community Services.
3. Don't forget your Exchange.
4. Traveling? Don't overlook Space-A.
5. Discover the Child Development Center.
6. Consider your housing benefit.
7. Understand your medical benefit.
8. Reduce deployment-related expenses.
9. Check your withholdings.
10. Contribute to the Thrift Savings Plan.