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A military mother and her daughter

Staying on top of monthly payments, sticking to a healthy budget, and saving for a secure financial future are challenging enough for civilians. Add in the responsibility, sacrifice, and constant upheaval that can come with life as a military service member, and remaining financially stable becomes an even more complex balancing act.

Fortunately, there are different forms of military financial assistance and support you can take advantage of, as well as financially savvy tips that can help you meet the unique challenges of being in the military. From learning ways to save more on necessary expenses to understanding financial aid and unemployment benefits, here are a few things you should know to help optimize your financial life.

Shopping at Base Exchanges and Commissaries

Military commissaries and exchanges help make staying within budget easier for military members and their families. Both provide food and household goods at a sizable discount, allowing service members to save about 30% on food, cleaning supplies, and other everyday groceries. Essentially, the items are sold at cost plus a surcharge or modest markup. Both military commissaries and exchanges require you to use your military ID every time you shop.

Exchanges were formerly referred to by their military branch specific name, such as the Air Force base exchanges or Army post exchanges. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) renamed these tax-free military discount stores simply ‘exchanges.’ There are also exchanges for other branches, such as the Coast Guard exchange (CGX), the Marine Corps exchange (MCX), and the Navy exchange (NEXCOM). These stores include a small markup, with the profits going to local and service-wide Moral, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) projects as well as to the upkeep and ongoing costs of running the exchanges.

Commissaries are similar to exchanges, but items are sold at cost plus a 5% surcharge. The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) has 261 stores available to military members and their families worldwide.

You can shop at these special discount grocery stores as long as you are:

  • An active, reserve, or retired service member; in-training members can shop at commissaries but not exchanges
  • A Medal of Honor recipient
  • An honorably discharged veteran with a 100% service-related disability
  • Department of Defense civilian employees stationed overseas
  • Authorized family members

National Guard members and military members of foreign nations are allowed to shop at exchanges but not commissaries.

Tips for Saving Big at Exchanges and Commissaries

You can save even more by incorporating some of these money-saving tips into your shopping strategy:

  • Shop on the official AAFES website to find daily and weekly specials for brand-name purchases. This is a great way to save money even if you don’t live next to a military exchange.
  • AAFES has a generous coupon policy, so use coupons, and don’t forget you can apply more than one. The exchange or commissary may also be willing to match competitor pricing.
  • When shopping at military commissaries, either online or in-store, use your commissary rewards card. You can find lots of excellent digital coupons when you use your rewards card online.
  • Keep your eyes open for case lot sales at your commissary. You can buy goods with a long shelf-life in bulk at a deep discount.
  • Don’t forget to take advantage of credit card rewards points.

Support Groups and Assistance

There are a variety of financial assistance programs for active and retired military members. They exist to help you thrive financially, so take advantage of them!

Education assistance can help you manage your student loans and reduce out-of-pocket school expenses. There are also options to share educational benefits with family members in exchange for an additional service commitment. Look into options like scholarships, tuition assistance, and financial aid for veterans through the GI Bill. Here are a few of those options:

  • There is a variety of special scholarships for military service members, both active and retired. Some of these scholarships are offered to spouses and dependents as well and include both merit and financial-need-based options. Do your research before applying to increase your odds of securing the scholarship.
  • If you enroll in accredited courses, which include coursework for anything from professional certifications to graduate degrees, the government’s tuition assistance for military members pays up to 100 percent of the cost of tuition to a maximum of $250 per credit and $4,500 each fiscal year.
  • The Post 9/11 GI Bill pays for all public school in-state tuition and fees. It may also include a living stipend and allowance for books and supplies. The amount paid by this benefit depends on the length of your military service.

There are also daycare assistance programs offered to military families to help reduce the cost of raising kids:

  • The Department of Defense runs child care centers on military installations around the globe. They are for children ages six weeks to twelve years and provide a safe, professional environment for weekday care. Fees vary, but the cost is typically significantly less than traditional child care.
  • Each branch of the military offers a subsidized in-home child care program for affordable babysitters both on and off base.

Unemployment compensation benefits are available for former service members. This is a vital service for men and women who need help getting on track once they leave the military and start looking for work or find themselves between jobs. To receive benefits, you must apply through your state’s unemployment benefit program. Just bring your Certificate of Release or Discharge with you, along with your Social Security card and resume. Unemployed spouses who had to quit their job because of a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move can apply for these benefits as well.

Financial Tips for a Permanent Change of Station

Having to move for the military comes with a lot of stress and disruption, but for many service members, it’s just part of the lifestyle. On average, service members move every two to four years! Use these PCS moving tips to help you save money and reduce stress during a transition:

  • Create a budget so you know exactly what the government will subsidize and what you will have to pay for out of pocket.
  • If you need a moving truck, use a credit card to rent it because your card may provide automatic auto rental insurance. If it doesn’t, make sure you get insurance on the truck and decide if you need any additional insurance to cover your belongings during the move.
  • Check with your base’s counseling resources to find out what moving expenses should be reimbursed by the government. You can deduct unreimbursed expenses on your taxes. Make sure you keep receipts for both.
  • Make sure all bills are paid before moving so you avoid late payment fees—and any associated negative impact on your credit score. It’s also a good idea to contact any service providers and give them your new address.

For PCS moves, you are entitled to help with planning your move from the Transportation Management Office (TMO). If you do it yourself instead, the government will reimburse you 95% of what it would have cost for them, based on your authorized weight allowance.

Adding Up Your Military Savings

The more you know about financial assistance and which programs are available to you, the better off you will be. Taking advantage of these programs, savings, and benefits can make it easier to stay ahead of your finances today, and to secure a more secure future tomorrow. If part of your more secure future involves having a credit card and building a credit history, applying for a Credit One Bank® credit card can help you get there. 

This material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified tax advisor, attorney or financial advisor. Readers should consult with their own tax advisor, attorney or financial advisor with regard to their personal situations.