September 29, 2023 8:01 pm
September 29, 2023 8:01 pm

Tips for Enlisted Veterans Leaving the Military

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When I was looking into colleges where I could utilize my GI Bill benefits after my military service, I felt like I was on my own. Although many of my superiors had obtained degrees, none of them had left the military and used their benefits for education. It was challenging to envision what my future would be like, so I turned to online research to learn about how the benefits worked, their duration, payout, and ultimately, where I should pursue my education. I believe that many soldiers today face a similar predicament, lacking peers or colleagues who can guide them through the GI Bill process. With this post, I aim to share what I’ve learned from my journey back to school. Education is undeniably one of the most effective means to achieve financial success and independence. Therefore, I hope that my experiences can offer some practical insights to others before you leave the military.

Preparing financially for your civilian future

While serving in the military, soldiers have essential expenses provided as a benefit or deducted from their pay. Barracks housing is provided, meals are covered by deductions, healthcare is free, and there’s even an annual clothing allowance for uniforms. However, once you leave the military, everything changes. You have to start paying monthly rent, cover your own meals, obtain student health insurance, and purchase suits for interviews. These additional costs can add up quickly, which is why it’s crucial to have an emergency fund well in advance of your separation date.

  • Security Deposit: Landlords typically require an upfront deposit to safeguard against tenant turnover, non-payment, or property damage. For instance, if your monthly rent is $900, you’ll need $1800 saved up solely for the security deposit.
  • Benefits Payment Timing: During my college years, VA benefits, particularly the housing allowance, were my primary source of income. To keep my housing expenses below a third of my housing allowance check, I shared a rental house with four other students in the DC suburbs. Even with only 70% benefits I had plenty of excess cash to get the occasional meal at Chipotle or Panera. However, benefit payments are provided only for the days you are enrolled in classes. So, you’ll need savings to cover the period from your military departure until the month after you start school. Additionally, since classes often begin in the middle of the month, your first paycheck after enrollment will be a partial payment since you were not enrolled for the full month.
    • For example, if you start classes on August 20th, your first housing stipend will arrive in early September, covering only a third of a month’s rent. Subsequent months will receive the full monthly rate, but no payments are made for periods like winter and summer breaks when you’re not in classes.
  • Emergency Savings: In addition to covering the time between separation and enrollment and providing a security deposit, having a few months’ worth of savings set aside for emergencies will set your mind at ease. These savings can help you deal with unexpected situations like car breakdowns, stolen belongings, or delayed benefit payments.
  • Space A Travel: One of the immediate benefits of leaving the military is the opportunity to take advantage of space-available travel. I discovered that the military operated flights from the Baltimore-Washington International airport to bases in Europe, and I could secure a transatlantic flight for free or a small nominal fee less than $100. With such affordable flights to Europe, I only had to pay a regular commercial fare for my return flight, greatly reducing my travel costs. I used my terminal leave to backpack across Europe for the final two weeks of my contract, and it was an amazing experience to meet friends and explore incredible cities like Venice, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, and London.
  • Create a budget: Consider all the aforementioned expenses, along with any other living expenses you anticipate, and create a budget. Writing down the amounts and working towards a target savings goal will help you set a more realistic target. Merely guessing in your head is likely to result in underestimating the various costs associated with moving and starting a new life in a different city.
    • Explore your education benefits: For most veterans utilizing the GI Bill, the housing allowance becomes the primary source of income during a degree program. With roommates, this allowance is often sufficient to support a comfortable student lifestyle. However, the housing benefit varies significantly from one school to another, so it’s crucial to use tools like the VA calculator to assist you in creating your budget. The Post 9/11 GI Bill is generally superior in every use case, so it’s advisable to avoid spending money on the Montgomery GI Bill. The calculator will also help you understand tuition benefits if you’re seeking Yellow Ribbon support or have less than 100% eligibility, allowing you to compare the benefits between public and private school

Sample ETS Target Savings Calculation

(Monthly Rent x 2) + (2 Week Backpacking Trip Expenses) + (Monthly Expenses x # of Months Gap from Separation to Enrollment) + (Monthly Expenses x 3) + Moving expenses

Sample Budget

Anticipated Monthly Rent$850
Monthly Food Expense$200
Monthly Transportation$100
Monthly Miscellaneous$100
Separation Date25 February
Enrollment Date5 June
Backpacking Trip Estimate$2500
Moving Expense$1200

Given the above expenses, this soldier would need to save: ($850 x 2) + ($2500) + ($1250 x 5) + ($1250 x 3) + $1200 = $15,400. To save this amount over a two-year period, a soldier making $30,000 a year will need to save at least a third of their income each month.

Transitioning back to school

By the time I transferred to George Mason University I had already spent two years in college before enlisting, so I had some familiarity with how college classes operate. However, transitioning from a full-time job back to an academic workload was still an adjustment. I vividly remember my first class upon returning to school: a summer statistics course that involved understanding mathematical derivatives. After two years in the Army, I had become rusty on some of the finer details and had to dedicate extra time to studying in order to catch up with classmates who had recently taken college-level math courses. It would have been challenging to tackle that class on my own, but fortunately, I was part of the wrestling community, which provided academic support and a sense of accountability. Having others to keep me on track made the work much more manageable. Reflecting on that experience, a couple of tips stand out to me:

  • Don’t hesitate to consider starting in the spring or summer semester: The typical college student begins in the fall semester right after graduating from high school. However, many colleges offer enrollment options for the spring or summer as well. Depending on your separation date from the military, starting in the spring or summer could be a practical choice. Beginning earlier means you have fewer months to budget for during the gap between your military service and enrollment. Personally, I had a February ETS date and started in the summer and found it to be a smoother transition. Instead of diving into a full semester with 5-6 courses, I could focus on just 1-2 classes at a time. The summer semester was divided into two phases, allowing me to take a full course load and maximize my housing benefits without having to juggle multiple due dates and assignments simultaneously.
  • Seek out a campus group to connect with: As a student with several years of experience as a full-time working adult, you might feel that getting involved in campus life is unnecessary. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Leaving behind your military peers and connections and transitioning to civilian life can be a significant cultural shock, making a support system vital. Any group aligned with your interests can be beneficial, but military-related communities and clubs are an excellent starting point. The beauty of military clubs is that you know from the start that you share a common experience and have mutual respect for each other’s service. After navigating the application process with limited interaction among military peers, it can be refreshing to connect with others who are in the same boat, striving for self-improvement. If you’re renting by yourself during the first semester, getting involved in clubs can also be a means of finding roommates who can help reduce your housing costs.
  • Enter college with a well-defined education plan: As part of the VA certification process, you’ll be required to create an academic plan. However, the actual planning should occur before you enroll, so completing the certification plan should be mostly an administrative task. Before the semester begins, make sure you have a plan for the career you intend to pursue, an academic plan that aligns with your career goals, and a strategy for initiating your search for summer internships that will support your future full-time job search.
    • To be well-prepared, take the time to explore industries or job functions that interest you before leaving the military. You might need to apply to specific degree programs, and keep in mind that internship recruiting often starts early in the fall semester. If you start college in the spring or summer, take the initiative to get a head start on recruiting for internships the following summer.

Taking control of your future

One aspect that many find comforting about the military is the reduced responsibility for career progression. When it comes to where you report and promotions, these decisions are largely out of your hands. You can focus on excelling in your assigned role and following the standard promotion schedule. However, once you leave the military, the vision for your career rests solely on your shoulders. In my experience with public schools, there are abundant resources available to students, but no one will compel you to plan out your career. The success or failure of building a strong career now lies entirely on you. This newfound freedom was a major attraction for me when leaving the military and utilizing my benefits, but it also comes with a significant responsibility. Based on my experience, here are a couple of tips to navigate this transition effectively:

  • Prioritize academics and recruiting: While a part-time job can be a great way to generate extra income during the school year, it’s important to keep academics and recruiting as top priorities. Having some additional spending money, which I used to explore the bars in downtown DC during my final year, was enjoyable. However, it’s essential to recognize that part-time income is a luxury, not a necessity. Instead of immediately taking up a part-time job, consider waiting for a semester or two to gauge how well you adjust to the new academic workload. You are in a privileged position of not needing to accumulate debt to complete your degree. Therefore, jeopardizing your long-term career plans for the sake of extra spending money today would be unwise. If you are able to balance your academic and recruiting responsibilities with a part-time job, it can be beneficial to set aside a portion of your earnings into a Roth IRA. As a student, you are likely in the lowest tax bracket of your career. In fact, by working during my senior year, I was able to maximize my IRA contributions while still in school.
  • Avoid debt: It’s crucial to be cautious about incurring debt and strive to eliminate existing debts. Lenders for auto or personal loans may readily extend credit to military members, without considering your plans to leave the military and pursue higher education. It becomes your sole responsibility to ensure that you can comfortably transition out of the military without burdensome debt obligations. As a student with limited income, it’s unwise to carry debt into your college life. If you already have existing debt, such as credit card balances, car loans, or personal loans, it’s essential to aggressively pay them off before leaving the military and refrain from taking on any new debt.
  • Build credit responsibly: It’s important to strike a balance between abusing access to credit and avoiding credit altogether. While it’s responsible to spend within your means and prioritize savings, it’s also crucial to build your credit history. Contrary to some misconceptions, carrying a credit card balance is NOT necessary to build credit. Simply having an open line of credit is sufficient to start establishing a credit history. It’s advisable to start building credit while you still have a steady paycheck. With a steady income, it becomes easier to apply for and open credit cards that offer rewards points without annual fees, rather than relying on secured cards. By keeping the line of credit open throughout your time in school, you can develop a longer credit history. A lengthy credit history is essential for building credit and will set you up for future milestones like homeownership once you settle into your post-graduate career.
    • When embarking on your degree program, it’s crucial to enter it free from consumer debt. If you have credit card balances, it’s important to pay them off, and even consider selling your car or increasing your savings to pay off any car loans. Carrying consumer debt should not be a worry while pursuing your degree. Eliminating debt payments allows you to focus more on your studies and reduces financial stress.

Remember, during your time in school that getting a degree and employment is the number one priority. If you can also build your credit, save a little for retirement, and graduate debt free then you’ll be in a great position to start your civilian career!

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