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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Kimberly Lankford, Contributing Editor
Lisa Gerstner, Contributing Editor
| Updated May 2020
Members of the military have a lot of special financial challenges that most people don’t encounter. However, they have access to many special benefits, tax breaks and legal protections that can make a huge difference in their families' personal finances.
Here are 10 of the top financial benefits available to servicemembers and how to make the most of them to improve your family’s financial future. Kim's husband was an Army doctor for 21 years and was deployed three times, and Lisa's husband is an Air National Guard instructor pilot who has flown more than 200 combat missions. Many of these resources and benefits have helped our families a lot over the years.
Servicemembers have access to one of the lowest-cost retirement-savings plans around. The Thrift Savings Plan charges an annual expense ratio of just 0.042% of assets -- whereas annual fees and expenses for 401(k) plans range, on average, between 1% and 2%.
The TSP lets you choose one of five index mutual funds or a target-date fund, which automatically becomes more conservative as your retirement date gets closer. In 2020, you can put as much as $19,500 in the TSP -- and as much as $57,000 if you're receiving tax-free income while deployed. And you have access to a Roth TSP, too, which is like a Roth IRA but without the income restrictions. See www.tsp.gov for details.
The military’s Savings Deposit Program lets deployed servicemembers invest up to $10,000 in the program each time you are deployed. You receive 10% annual interest, compounded quarterly; the program lasts for up to three months after your return.
Your take-home pay increases while you’re receiving tax-free income during service in a combat zone, which can help you afford to stash extra money in the SDP. For more information, see the Savings Deposit Program page at the Defense Finance and Accounting Web site.
For most people, contributions to a Roth IRA are not shielded from taxes. But for servicemembers receiving tax-free combat-zone pay, your money goes into the Roth tax-free, and your contributions as well as your earnings come out tax-free, a double tax benefit that’s tough to beat.
You can contribute up to $6,000 in 2020 if your income doesn’t exceed certain limits. And if your spouse doesn’t work, you can contribute up to the maximum on his or her behalf, too.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges for up to 36 months (four academic years), or up to $25,162 per year for private colleges and foreign schools. You’ll also get a housing stipend and money for books and tutoring.
The money may be used for undergraduate or graduate programs, or for certain programs at vocational and trade schools. And one of the best features of the Post 9/11 GI Bill is that longtime servicemembers may transfer their benefits to a spouse or children. Get more details on the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the Department of Veterans Affairs website.
Servicemembers have access to one of the lowest-cost life insurance programs available. Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance costs only $300 a year for the maximum $400,000 in benefits -- regardless of your age, health or likelihood of being deployed. (For comparison, a healthy 40-year-old man pays an average of nearly $500 a year for a private $500,000, 20-year term insurance policy, according to PolicyGenius.)
Servicemembers can also get $100,000 in coverage for a spouse for as little as $54 a year if he or she is under age 35 (more for older spouses). See the Department of Veterans Affairs site for more information.
The law allows servicemembers to maintain legal residence in one state even if they are stationed in another. So if your legal residence (also called domicile) is a state that has no income tax, you can be shielded from taxes if you move to another state while on active duty.
A spouse who has the same domicile as a servicemember can also maintain that legal residency if the couple moves to a new state under military orders.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides special legal benefits for servicemembers, including an interest-rate cap of 6% on any loans you took out before you were called to active duty. This cap is especially helpful for members of the Reserves who are called to active duty and have to take a pay cut when they leave their regular jobs.
You have to apply to the lender for this benefit, which is intended to help you if your ability to pay is affected by military service. The law also gives you the right to terminate an apartment lease if you have orders for a permanent change of station or are deployed to a new location for 90 days or more. The Armed Forces Legal Assistance Office can help with these requests.
Members of the military have access to Veterans Administration loans, which let you get a house with no money down (and no private mortgage insurance). See the Veterans Administration site for more information. However, if you put little or no money down, you could end up being upside down on your home if prices drop and you have to move.
For help dealing with underwater homes, see Fannie Mae’s advice at the KnowYourOptions.com military page and the government’s Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives program.
Another big perk for servicemembers is the tax-free housing allowance, a monthly subsidy covering all or part of your monthly rent or mortgage payment as long as you’re in the military.
To see the value of the subsidy (which varies by your rank, where you live and whether you have dependents), check your Leave and Earnings Statement (your military pay stub) for your Basic Allowance for Housing and other special benefits, or look it up by rank and zip code at the Department of Defense’s BAH calculator.
Each branch of the military has an emergency-relief fund that offers small, interest-free loans for
emergencies. Contact the community-service office at your base for details, or visit Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Air Force Aid Society or Coast Guard Mutual Assistance.
Credit unions on base also offer short-term loans at reasonable interest rates. Some even offer small emergency loans to members of the military with little or no credit check.