Category Archives: Guest Posts

Are You Taking Advantage of Your Military Discount?

target-shopping-cartMilitary discounts are a great benefit offered to military families and retirees. You may have gotten into the habit of asking for a discount when you go into a restaurant or a store, but if you don’t, you should! Military discounts are also available when you shop on the internet – who knew?! Follow these tips to get the most for your dollar.

Be clear on the discount policy
Unless you regularly shop online, you may not be aware of the discounts available. Sometimes you have to hunt for the offers in small print, while other e-retailers proudly feature their policy for all to see. Some offer savings around military holidays such as Memorial Day, and others, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, offer discounts year round. When in doubt, ask!

The most common military discount is 10 to 15 percent off a total purchase. Home improvement stores, hotels, car rental agencies, clothing chains, and vehicle dealers are among the most reliable source places to save money with discounts. Some only offer savings to active duty members, while others extend it to retired service members and immediate family members.

Check coupon stacking policies
Always check the policies related to ‘stacking,’ or combining, online coupons. That’s one of the best ways to save. You might be able to combine a special holiday sale with savings from your military ID, store loyalty card points, or specific credit card bonus points. However, some retailers only allow a choice of military discount, or a special deal with a coupon from coupon websites. But that’s okay, savings is savings, right?

Look for price-matching opportunities
One of the easiest ways to save money when buying online is to take advantage of price matching policies. A store will match a competitor’s price online with some limitations: the item must be in stock at both stores, for example, and online auction sites are usually not considered competitors.

Use discounted gift cards
Another relatively new savings strategy is the use of discounted gift cards. In a nutshell, people who don’t want, or can’t use, specific gift cards will sell them online through a reseller. Why not use a $100 gift card you bought for $90? It’s like getting an instant 10% off! Be aware that scams abound in this growing market. Avoid buying gift cards on online auction websites, as they could be purchased with stolen credit cards. Stick to established resellers like Cardpool, Raise, and Card Hub.

AAFES/Exchange price-matching
Check with AAFES website, or your branch’s exchange website, for more savings and free shipping offers. You can often use manufacturers’ coupons, buy-one-get-one deals, and price matching. If you choose to use a credit card, the Military STAR card can also offer discounts and free standard shipping from e-retailers.

Military post office shipping
Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and Oriental Trading Company are among popular companies who ship to APOs and FPOs. However, many e-retailers don’t ship to military addresses because they lack an automated system to handle the Customs requirements. Consider shipping to a family member and using a forwarding service such as ShipitAPO or APO Box. If possible, you can also get free shipping by picking up an item in the store.

Protect yourself online
When shopping online, you’ll have to prove your military status to get a discount. Scanning and uploading your separation documents (DD214), Veterans Identification Card, or military ID can make you vulnerable to data-grabbing. This is especially true if you have an older card that lists your social security number. Reduce your risk by calling the 800-number. Also consider enrolling in an ID protection program, or with companies offering centralized shopping privacy protection, such as Veterans Advantage. Check your credit report for free once a year.

Your military family status offers you a world of discounts – you only have to ask and exercise reasonable caution to reap the rewards!

Have you scored big on savings with your military discounts? Let us know your tips and tricks!

Posted by Marie Hickman, a former military spouse and blogger specializing in saving money, personal finance, and frugal living. She writes for Valpak.com and other websites.

In it to Win it: Basic Training for Your Finances

Money-coin-stack300pxThe Department of Veterans Affairs reports service members are twice as likely to have credit card balances of $10,000, or more, than civilians. The typical recruit is a young adult without much experience in managing money. It’s never too late to make changes, but it requires a new mindset.

Taking control of your finances is like the paradigm shift marking the first day of basic training. Using a similar “in it to win it” approach to financial choices means a more stable future.

Avoid Scams and Pitfalls
Payday loans and other short-term, high-interest lending offer a quick fix, but experts say it’s the worst decision you can make. Average interest rates on a two-week loan are 391 to 521 percent, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. Car title loans, which use your vehicle as collateral, also charge interest rates in the triple digits; plus, you could find yourself without a car if you don’t repay in full. Instead, hit the reset button:

  • Create a practical action plan cut back on expenses, pay down high-interest debt and build an emergency savings fund.
  • Take advantage of the Thrift Savings Plan, or use your bank’s automatic debiting feature to set aside a portion of your paycheck.
  • Consider US Savings Bonds. Always shop around for the best bank rates.

Save Money Every Day
Nickels and dimes add up to dollars. A recent survey shows military families are cooking instead of eating out (58%), clipping and clicking coupons (43%), buying fewer clothes (49%), and bringing a packed lunch to work (49%). Think of saving as a game and build it into your everyday life.

  • Good planning starts with a budget. Know what is coming in and going out. There are many good apps out there to help.
  • Opt for paying cash instead of debit cards or credit cards.
  • Create a cash envelope system – literally putting cash in envelopes marked Groceries, Shopping, Utilities, etc. – to make sure spending stays in check.

Plan for the Future
Do you want to send your children to college? Buy a house? That requires planning. Don’t live for the moment; think ahead to the 20-year mark. What will you do and how will you pay for it?

  • Consult a professional. Every installation has a designated Personal Financial Manager available to help you, at no charge. If you want to take it to the next level, hire a certified financial planner.
  • Volunteer members of the Financial Planning Association offer free, unbiased financial coaching across the country. They can help you create a budget, readjust after deployment, and learn about types of investments.

Aim for Financial Stability
Serving in the Armed Forces is a job that comes with sacrifices. Your financial well-being shouldn’t be one of them. There are many resources out there, from apps to trained professionals, who can help you get a handle on your finances, but it all starts with your decision to act.

Have you used any of these tips before? Did they work?

Posted by Marie Hickman, a former military spouse and blogger specializing in saving money, personal finance, and frugal living. She writes for Valpak.com and other websites.

Can Military Families Save Money on One Income?

calculator-and-coinsMy last paycheck came in, and it was a small one. I had just quit my job but had another one lined up, so it wasn’t a big deal. But on that day, I looked at my bank account and asked myself, where did all the money go?

My bank account reminded me of a clock moving counterclockwise. I thought about all the jobs I’ve had, from part time to full time to side jobs, and thought about where all that money had gone. I even wondered the same thing during the stint where I ended up with unemployment benefits after a layoff. If I had only just put all that money away and made it to where we lived off his salary, I could have a few thousand dollars in a savings account by now. But it didn’t happen that way.

My husband and I are blessed that we can survive on his salary alone, so whenever I have had a job, I’ve taken on the grocery bill, gas for my car, my bills, entertainment, graduate school (out-of-pocket, and a pretty penny), half of the daycare expenses, and anything else that was, what I consider, a minor expense. That way, it doesn’t go under my husband’s list of expenses.

However, some of the jobs I took never paid enough for me to actually put a good chunk of money away in savings because of these same expenses. And that’s a major problem for military spouses. Granted, I am also not the best saver, but when you have a low-paying job coupled with everyday expenses, I was left with no motivation to even put a mere $20 away. And with school-aged kids now, something always comes up. So many small things get in the way of saving.

Speaking of something always coming up, I had to get new clothes for work because my size changed after I got married… and after I had kids… and after I stopped having kids. Thankfully, I always headed for the clearance racks, and that helped me save some money. I also bought clothes for my kids as they got bigger. The money we could have saved would have been spent on other necessities, first and foremost, but also entertainment things, so I don’t regret the purchases.

It’s not all a loss though. I’ve been able to put money away while I’ve been employed, and kept it safe from my spending habits, but the amount is not nearly enough. I wish I did have a few thousand dollars saved up. We do have a family emergency fund, and it’s a nice little cushion, but for my personal financial well-being, my own savings are not enough for what I’d like.

Now, getting ready for a new PCS move, I hope to find a better job that pays more so I’m motivated to save more. I also want to find where I can cut my expenses so I’m not left with the lack of financial motivation to put a little money away.

February 23-28th is Military Saves Week, where military families take charge of their own finances and savings. Don’t wait until your bank account dwindles to nothing – living paycheck to paycheck doesn’t have to be your reality. Take the pledge to save NOW.

And to make the deal even sweeter, if you send a picture of who or what you’re saving for to Social@MilitaryFamily.org, you’ll be entered to win a $100 gift card to put towards your new savings goal!

Are you a one-income family? How do you save money?

Posted by Sylvia Salas-Brown, Military Spouse and National Military Family Association Volunteer

This Little Piggy Bank Went to the Slaughter House

money-resolutionsThere once was a little, plump piggy bank who lived in a Marine Corps house. From time to time, it was fed with quarters, pennies, and lint. It was a happy piggy bank, growing heavier and heavier, until one day it met its unexpected demise, thanks to the swing of a hammer.

My husband started a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) just a few years ago. Because we’ve had to wait a long time for a Veteran’s Administration (VA) retirement rating, we’ve had to reach in and cash it out because things haven’t worked out exactly the way we had planned with our financial stability. We’ll have to pay taxes on his TSP for cashing it out early, but we are in a bind and don’t see any way around it. I could kick Murphy’s Law right now.

We have three piglets (I mean children…don’t tell them I said that) at home to support. And as you know, life happens, and so does the unexpected. Our dog, a tiny Yorkie, was attacked while on a walk by a huge and ferocious dog, resulting in a $1500 vet bill, and over the years, our cars have needed major repairs, costing us major bucks. We could have bought “new to us” used cars for the amount we paid in repairs and I swear the last car we had was a lemon. It might have been more useful to us sitting on bricks in a hillbilly front yard. Another time, I needed an emergency root canal, and just recently my crown fell out. I know that’ll need to be fixed – I’ll put that on the list of stuff to do, worry about, and come up with the funds for. I could go on and on.

I think the biggest financial heartache for us was when we received six weeks’ notice to move across country from California to North Carolina, just after the housing market crashed. We had a house that depreciated in value, and we were broke for six months until it sold. We had to get a rather large personal loan to pay the difference of the house. It took us five years of huffing, puffing, and working our tails off to pay it back. We tried applying for a government program that helps military families recuperate financial losses due to Permanent Change of Station moves, but like many others, we were denied.

Even when we thought we were saving for a rainy day, that rainy day would turn into a hurricane with gale force winds blowing our little piggy bank over, smashing it to the ground. All of our nickels and dimes scurried into somebody else’s fat, overfed piggy bank.

Our little piggy bank has gone to the slaughter house many times. So how can you avoid it? My advice is to set up a TSP account NOW, put as much money as you can into your little piggy bank every paycheck, even if it’s only a few dollars, talk to a personal banker who can give you advice. Go to a retirement seminar with your spouse and be on the same page with them about finances. Buy used and save the difference; not everything you own has to be brand new, your brain seems to understand spending when you pay with cash, but not so much when you pay with a credit or debit card.

Most importantly only buy something if your little piggy can afford it, and it will go “Wee, wee, wee! All the way home.”

February 23-28, 2015 is Military Saves Week, where military families are asked to take a pledge to save for their financial future. Best of all, it’s as simple as 1-2-click! Check it out and take the pledge for yourself or your family! As an incentive to pledge, send us a picture (Social@MilitaryFamily.org) of who or what you’re saving for, and you’ll be entered to win a $100 gift card! 

Posted by Amy Smith, Marine Corps Spouse

Welcoming My Friend “Home” After PTSD

distressed-soldierOver the last few years, one of my close friends did a tour in the Middle East with the Army. We met through a buddy that we both knew, and our friendship just seemed to click. Although we weren’t attached at the hip, there were a lot of activities we did together.

But during his deployment, we lost touch for a while. And when he returned, something seemed to have changed. He was home, but he wasn’t.

Before he left, he was a stocky, average military-looking guy; someone I could always bring by my house. My father was in the Air Force, and my friend was based in the Army camp, and although they fought under the same flag, they were constantly squabbling about all types of military related subjects.

This type of banter was quite humorous and from time to time, you’d hear a quick remark about the Air Force, and vice versa. He was one of those people who made you laugh, and always pointed out something funny, regardless if it had to do with the situation or not. After his deployment, the most noticeable and alarming change I noticed was his physical stature.

He seemed skinnier, malnourished, almost, and methodical about the choice of words he used. It was if one of my closest friends, although home, seemed removed, as if he was miles away.

Activities we would share together were distant and brisk. Someone I cared about now reminded me of someone guarded, not willing to embrace moments that were unfolding in front of us.

I wondered if he could be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’d never experienced PTSD firsthand, and I’m not a doctor. I come from a military family, and none of my close relatives seemed to show signs of hopelessness or any type of detachment. When I decided to find out more about PTSD indicators and triggers, it started to become clear to me. I wondered if my friend knew something was off, after all, he had even asked me once if my father ever struggled with PTSD.

I could really see the extent of his emotional state when we sat down to play video games – something we always enjoyed doing together. He seemed to be detached from what we were doing; although it was fun enjoying a game together again, he just didn’t seem the same.

As the year passed, we tried to keep in touch as much as possible. Every once in a while, we’d spend time catching up, but there was one night where the flood gates opened. He shared his war stories with me, and some of the things he told me filled me with profound sorrow. Hearing him briefly reflect on what it was like to take a man’s life, a life that was someone’s brother, father, or husband, really resonated with me. I felt a deep sadness for my friend.

I wish I could have helped him more with the struggle he was going through. It wasn’t until recently, while looking at an article I found by a clinical practitioner at the University of New England, that I started to understand some of the things that he was going through. Although the subject matter was a little different, I could finally begin to understand what PTSD does to a person.

I wanted to reach out and help him as much as I could, and I attempted to reach out on multiple occasions. Though we never really talked about his recovery, I know it was his own volition and determination to get better that inevitably saw him through these troubling times. I am proud to have a friend who defended the country I love. Today, he has determination and the support of family and friends, and is, once again, the friend I knew.

The importance of noticing and recognizing the signs and symptoms of PTSD is immeasurable. PTSD can be a silent killer, and our service members deserve the chance to conquer the battles in their mind, just like the battles fought during their service to our country.

Today, I can proudly say my friend is finally home.

nick-richyPosted by Nicholas R., Military dependent of an Air Force Brigadier General

It’s OVER: How MilSpouses Can Provide Financial Stability at the End of a Military Career

family-with-wounded-dadYou are a military spouse. Your soldier, sailor, or airman serves the nation anytime, anywhere, and you stand behind them with pride. When the call comes, you watch the uniformed rows march into the aircraft or ship, heading away for however long the nation requires. And you smile and show support, even though you are worried, and already desperately missing your service member.

With one in five service members now disabled because of combat, injury is always at the forefront on one’s mind. Unfortunately, the chances of injury seem higher than any of us are comfortable with. But there are ways to prepare your family financially, should the unthinkable happen. Even transition and downsizing present a quick ending to what your service member thought would be a long, prosperous career.

As a former Army NCO, who had his career halted by an unexpected medical issue, I think income is the key focus to make sure your family is prepared. If your service member returns with an injury requiring them to stay on active duty for rehab, the impact on your income won’t be significant. However, if the injury results in a medical discharge, the impact can be severe. A sudden discharge can leave service members drawing a disability check that is a fraction of what they had been receiving. Many also may struggle to find new jobs to maintain their income, while they adjust to their ‘new normal’ of life after injury.

Service members transitioning may have to wait months to receive a Veterans Administration rating, or to even receive their first retirement check. Planning ahead for these moments can guarantee your family’s financial success.

This is where military spouses can step in. Educational opportunities exist, not only for military service members, but for military spouses, too! There are many programs, like MyCAA, for example, which provide access to educational funding for military spouses. Did you know the National Military Family Association provides scholarships for spouses, along with many partnerships with colleges, and even programs that offer reduced tuition rates?

The possibility of a PCS brings up concerns for traditional classroom programs. Can you transfer credits? What if you PCS in the middle of a semester? Will your specific degree even be offered in your new location? NMFA’s scholarships can give you the opportunity to engage in a certificate, or degree program, online. With online degrees, PCS moves are no longer a concern. Wherever you go, the school goes with you.

Taking advantage of these opportunities now, rather than later, can put you in a position to be an additional income, should injury, transition, or sudden discharge ever sideline your spouse. Having the option of using a degree or certificate to obtain work while your service member is recovering, or job hunting, can relieve the stress of suddenly having to live off of a significantly reduced income. It lets your spouse focus on recovery, a new career, or adjusting to a post-uniform life, and helps ease the stress your spouse may face feeling like they are letting the family down.

You are a military spouse. You are part of a team. While your service member is away, you maintain the home front. Just as your spouse is expected to engage in military readiness, you have a role in maintaining family readiness. Take advantage of what is available for you. Plan ahead, get educated, and be prepared to take over if transition, injury, or some other unforeseen event knocks on your door.

What do you think are some other things families can do to financially prepare for emergencies?

Posted by James Hinton, Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Veteran

The Honeymoon. Then the Breakup.

Yellow_FootprintsI am one of those people who always has a smile on my face. I like to make others laugh even if it means pulling off some dorky and embarrassing 1980’s cabbage patch dance move or blurting out a silly slapstick joke. I hate to see anyone sad or hurt, but unfortunately today I have to say that the sad person is me. My heart has been broken.

It all started when the man in the uniform, and all that it stood for, won my heart. Our love blossomed and eventually we made the commitment. Our limited budget afforded us an intimate destination ceremony at the local court which was presided over by a wonderful and monotone must-have-hated-their-job justice of the peace. The ceremony was followed by an amazing dreamlike honeymoon at a quaint little spot called Carl’s Jr (I splurged on the budget and got fries and a diet coke…I know, I shouldn’t have but it was my wedding night!). I felt a little overdressed in my fancy wedding gown which resembled a t-shirt and jeans.

Two weeks later, the military sent my groom on a 6 month ‘break’ to Okinawa Japan. Those breaks seemed to regenerate themselves over and over again, for a grand total of 7 deployments and a few months of training exercises out of our blissful marriage, totaling more than 4 years apart. Through the course of 17 years, we would always re-kindle our love. Spending our moments at the Marine Corps Ball was a highlight for us. We spent a lot of time bonding with other military families at the unit’s mandatory family days and made great memories between moves. And then it happened; after years of loving him he dumped me. The Marine Corps dumped me.

But the one who broke my heart wasn’t my husband. It was the Marine Corps. My husband retired a few months ago after dutifully serving this country for twenty years. He did so without question, sacrificed so much of his time, and as a result I (along with our children) have sacrificed just as much as he has. Don’t get me wrong, we have had our good times, but my heart has been broken by the one thing that I was always supportive of and behind: the military.

Not only have we just figured out that my husband’s pension payment has not come through this month, but we are still awaiting a decision from the Veteran’s Administration (VA) regarding his final rating. This really couldn’t have come at a worse time; bills need to be paid, mouths need to be fed, and we are in the process of purchasing the home we currently live in, and only have a short amount of time left to prove to the lender, and the owners, that we qualify for the loan. If we could just get the VA rating finalized, we’d be over this hurdle.

We left all of our loved ones and moved across country to be able to afford to “live”. My husband is currently a full time student utilizing his GI Bill, and works two part-time jobs. I take care of the children, and work a part-time job while looking for full-time employment. Many of our friends have also been dumped by the Marine Corps. But not many share their story. Some go months before a pension payment is made, and years before a VA rating is approved.

I want to inspire you to act now. Please do yourself a favor and start saving for a rainy day NOW. Go back to college, or start college, and get those degrees NOW. Plan for the future NOW, whether it’s your first year of marriage to the Marine Corps, or your last.

Eventually, the love will be rekindled between the Marine Corps and me, but for now, I’m eating spoonfuls of salty, tear-filled ice cream while watching my favorite chick-flick. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do after a break up?

Has the military broken up with you and your family? How did you deal with it?

Posted by Amy Smith, Marine Corps Spouse