The pay for serving and protecting your country isn't great at first, but military service comes with some decent retirement and education perks -- and substantial risks.
For many young adults, the military provides a tempting career alternative, especially when education funds are tight or jobs are hard to come by.
The rewards can be significant: job training, the GI Bill, health care and a chance for early retirement. The risks are abundantly clear as soldiers return from war zones, and as those who gave their lives are remembered on Memorial Day.
In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson explains some of the perks of military service. Then read on. As the wife of a military retiree, I’ll share the perks and pitfalls I consider to be most significant, based on my years of experience.
Pension. Join right out of high school and stay in for 20 years, and you can be drawing a pension before your 40th birthday. The higher the rank you achieve, the greater your pension will be.
Note: Adding stripes can be tough even if you’re extremely good at your job. Why? Certain career fields have a faster advancement rate than others, and the available slots for advancement vary between job types as well.
How much will you get? There’s no simple answer. However, this page at Military.com explains the options of those who joined after August 1986. Generally speaking, you get 50 percent of basic pay after 20 years, and up to 100 percent if you give the military a full 40 years. This calculator may also help.
Health insurance. Tricare Prime is available to active-duty members and their families at no cost, and to retirees and their families for an enrollment fee. Tricare Extra and Tricare Standard are available to family members of active-duty military and retirees/families, and include more costs, like co-pays and deductibles, but provide access to a wider range of care providers, says Military.com.
Housing support. Whether you are a single soldier living in the barracks, a young couple residing in base housing or a small family choosing to live off base, some form of housing support is part of your employment package. The off-base support comes in the form of Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH.
How much can you expect to receive for your off-base living stipend? The amount varies depending on where you are, your rank and your family situation.
For example, assuming you are relocating with a family and have the starting enlisted rank of E-1, your monthly BAH for living in Fairbanks, Alaska, is $1,626. Transfer to Pine Bluff, Ark., and the number drops to $810.
Education assistance. Joining the military comes with access to major education benefits.
- The tuition assistance program generally covers up to 100 percent of tuition and fees, not to exceed $250 per semester credit hour or $4,500 per fiscal year, for active-duty military.
- The Montgomery GI Bill helps pay for education during active duty and afterward.
- The Post 9/11 GI Bill generally helps cover college costs after a person has been honorably discharged.
A military career is no cake walk. If you’re signing up for reasons of patriotism, fantastic. The benefits mentioned above will be financial gravy for you. However, if you’re leaning toward this choice simply for monetary reasons, there’s more to consider.
Starting pay. This military pay chart spells out what you can typically expect to receive for basic compensation. Those entering as officers will earn almost $2,900 a month. The starting pay for enlisted personnel is about $1,400.
Your base pay will increase along with your rank and time spent in service, but it won’t happen overnight.
Other compensation. It may seem strange to include additional compensation as a pitfall. However, walk a mile in a military family’s shoes and you’ll see what I mean. The extra pay for hostile fire and imminent danger is only $7.50 per day, according to the Department of Defense. The other types of Special and Incentive pay are similarly insulting.
Risk factors. The risk factors that come with being a professional soldier are far from insignificant. Traumatic brain injury, amputations, paralysis and loss of life are all on the table when you take on this type of work, particularly for those who choose combat specialties over administrative ones. Any serious injuries you suffer will drastically impact your civilian earning potential after separation.
Spousal income loss. You may get paid for the transition time that occurs with every change of station, but your civilian spouse does not. And while Uncle Sam’s recruiter will give you the spouse hiring preference pep talk in order to get you to sign, there might not be any jobs available for your spouse at your new base. Your spouse may earn significantly less money than he or she did prior to the move.
Stop loss. Stop loss, which paid an extra $500 a month, has been called a “back-door draft” because it allowed the military to extend the service of service members who were scheduled to leave during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The practice ended in 2011.
While a lifelong career in the military is certainly a noble choice, it’s also one that requires you to earn your early retirement through risks and requirements those in the civilian world typically don’t have. Clearly you must balance the risks and rewards before you make your choice.