As a military service member or veteran, you and your family have sacrificed a great deal. As a way of saying “thank you,” there are a multitude of benefits, programs, and discounts that you and your loved ones are entitled to.
There are so many benefits available that, chances are, you might be overlooking some major opportunities to invest, plan, and save. In fact, in a survey conducted by the Washington Post, they found that more than half of the surveyed veterans had not used the benefits outlined in the Post-9/11 GI Bill — one of the most popular benefits for service members.
This guide was created to help you make sure that you are taking full advantage of all of the benefits that are available to you, so that you can make the most out of your military career.
- Take Advantage of Inexpensive Life Insurance.
Military service members are afforded access to low-cost life insurance through Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI). SGLI is available in increments of $50,000, up to a maximum of $400,000. Premiums cost only $0.07 per month per $1,000 of insurance — regardless of the service member’s age.
Veterans’ Group Life Insurance (VGLI), a product similar to SGLI, is available to veterans. SGLI policyholders can convert their policy to VGLI upon discharge unless an exception for total disability applies. Premiums for VGLI are higher and are based on the age of the insured. Moreover, through Family Group Life Insurance (FGLI), servicemembers can receive $100,000 in spousal coverage for as little as $54.00 per year if he or she is under 35 (higher premiums apply for older spouses).
For more information on these benefits, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.
- Make Use of Traumatic Injury Protection Program (TSGLI) Benefits.
For active duty members, reservists, and National Guard members who enroll in SGLI life insurance, as a SGLI policyholder, you are automatically enrolled in the Traumatic Injury Protection Program (TSGLI). TSGLI coverage provides short-term financial assistance to servicemembers who experience a covered loss as a result of a traumatic event, such as a car or motorcycle accident, airplane crash, or fall.
What is important to keep in mind is that this broad coverage provides financial relief to servicemembers who suffered a covered loss – regardless of whether they are on or off duty. So, for example, a reservist who is involved in a car accident — even if off duty — and who suffers a covered loss may be eligible for a lump sum payment of up to $100,000.00. As can be seen, this insurance offers quite broad coverage that, unfortunately, most service members are not even aware of.
- Consider Military-Specific Insurance Products.
Companies such as United Services Automobile Association (USAA) offer low cost insurance products to members of the armed forces. Be sure to check out their rates when you are shopping for home, auto, and/or property insurance.
- Understand Your Medical Insurance Benefits.
Military service members receive medical insurance through Tricare. It pays to become familiar with your policy in order to use their benefits to their full potential.
- Think Creatively With Your VA Home Loan.
For those who qualify, Veterans Affairs home loans offer lower interest rates, a $0.00 down mortgage option, and more consumer friendly terms. For example, VA loans include a closing cost limit, assistance if you run into difficulty making payments, and borrowers cannot be penalized for paying off the mortgage earlier than the full term of the loan.
In addition to these well-known benefits, while VA loans have an occupancy requirement, meaning you cannot use the property as an investment as opposed to your primary residence, one “hidden” benefit of a VA loan is the ability to purchase a home with up to four units, live in one of the units, and then rent out the three unused units to others.
Another little-known benefit of a VA mortgage is the ability to use a VA home loan to build on property that you already own. If the participating lender permits this, you can consider a construction loan to permit you to build a new structure on your current property.
Regarding a mixed-use property that combines residential and commercial features, this use is permitted as long as the residential use of the property is the main feature and the commercial use does not exceed 25% of the square footage. This is particularly helpful for borrowers who are planning to run a business out of the property.
In short, because VA loans are intended for use as owner-occupied properties, any plans that you have for a VA mortgage must include using the property as your home in addition to any other purpose. On the other hand, with creative thinking, you and your lender can find that the VA loan offers options other than just the sale of a single family home.
- Pursue Higher Education on the Government’s Dime.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is available to those who served in the armed forces after September 11, 2001. In general, the program covers the full cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges for up to 36 months (four academic years), or up to a capped amount per year for private colleges and foreign schools. Servicemembers will also receive 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.
Benefits increase with length of service. To receive 100% tuition coverage, for instance, a service member must have accumulated at least 36 months of active duty. Payments are prorated for those with fewer months of service, but you must have at least 90 days of active duty to qualify. Moreover, where the maximum amount of benefits available through the program falls short of full tuition, the VA may enter into an agreement with the college or university where, if the college or university agrees to contribute a portion of the remaining balance, the VA will match that contribution. This program is known as the Yellow Ribbon G.I. Education Enhancement Program.
If you are considering a trade career, consider on-the-job training or apprenticeships. The VA offers these programs to qualified veterans who are interested in learning a trade or skill that is not taught through formal classroom instruction. Veterans who choose this route can use their GI Bill benefit to receive a tax-free stipend while in their apprenticeship to help them pay for living expenses while they learn.
In addition, other educational assistance programs may help cover college costs, even for those who don’t qualify for Post-9/11 benefits, such as programs under the older Montgomery G.I. Bill. Moreover, active duty military personnel generally can qualify for payment of up to 100% of the cost of eligible courses taken on their own time, under military tuition assistance programs. Each branch of the military sets its own cap for these programs, which are administered by the Defense Department. Typically, service members use their tuition assistance benefits first, since G.I. Bill benefits are available after discharge, and can be transferred to other family members. Other programs offer student loan forgiveness for those who enlist. The National Call to Service program, for instance, allows service members to receive payment for up to $18,000 in student loans, if they meet certain criteria.
Moreover, if you are receiving educational assistance through the VA and need tutoring, you may be eligible for a monthly stipend to cover the costs of your tutoring.
Finally, if you entered the military with an educational loan that you took out before entering the service, you may qualify for loan repayment help. Each branch of service has its own maximum loan payment amount, but these programs can help significantly.
- Transfer Your Post-9/11 G.I. Bill Benefits to Your Family Members.
One of the most attractive aspects of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is that it allows some military members to transfer all or some of the unused portion of these benefits to a spouse or children. To be eligible, you generally must have served for at least six years and agree to serve at least four more years. In addition, the transfer of benefits must be elected before being discharged from the military. With the high costs of sending children to college, the transferability of these benefits is a huge benefit to servicemembers.
Even if you have already used your GI Bill benefits, your spouse or children may still be eligible for tuition assistance to pursue a degree or certification, participate in an apprenticeship, or pay for job training through Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA). These benefits are available to spouses and children of servicemembers who are permanently or totally disabled as a result of their service. It is also available to Veterans who died while on active duty or as a result of a service-related condition. Some beneficiaries may be eligible to combine the DEA program with the benefits of the GI Bill, effectively providing 81 months’ worth of tuition assistance. In addition, many state VA offices offer tuition assistance for dependents.
- Have Your Spouse Take Advantage of the Military Spouse Scholarship Program.
If your spouse is looking to further his or her education, the My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) program is a military spouse scholarship program that offers up to $4,000 of financial assistance for licenses, certifications, or Associate’s degrees for military spouses to pursue an occupation or career field. The program is available to spouses married to active duty service members in pay grades of E-1 through E-5, W-1 and W-2, and O-1 and O-2. Many careers qualify for the program, including nursing, construction, information technology, and legal. Despite the obvious benefits to this program, it has been reported that less than one-fifth of the military spouses who are eligible for this program are using it.
- Look Into the Tax Free Housing Allowance.
The tax free housing allowance is a monthly subsidy that covers all or part of your monthly rent or mortgage payment. The value will depend on your rank, location, and whether or not you have dependents.
- Take Advantage of Low Interest Loans.
Should you need one, keep in mind that each military branch has an emergency relief fund that offers small, interest-free loans for emergencies. Visit Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Air Force Aid Society or Coast Guard Mutual Assistance for more information.
- Utilize Counseling Services Available to you.
The military lifestyle can present emotional challenges for service members and their families. Counseling services are not only available to you, but for family and couple counseling as well.
- Take Advantage of Interest Rate Caps and/or the Ability to Terminate Contracts Upon Deployment or Mobilization.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a powerful law under which service members are able to assert an interest-rate cap of 6% on any loans that they took out before being sent to active duty. It also allows them to terminate certain contacts, such as leases and cell phone contracts. SCRA only applies to Reservists and members of the National Guard when they’re serving on active duty orders.
In order to take advantage of this benefit servicemembers must affirmatively invoke or request relief under the act. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act includes protections and provisions which cover credit card interest rates, student loan interest rates, cell phone service contacts, termination of rental agreements and auto leases, mortgages, and security deposits, among others.
- Sign up for Free Credit Monitoring Services.
Active duty or National Guard members are eligible for free credit monitoring services. These services can alert you to changes in your credit and help signal fraudulent charges or identity theft. To enroll, visit the military each of the three credit reporting agencies below:
- Take Advantage of Retirement Benefits.
After 20 years of service, you can retire with full retirement benefits. If you decide to retire after 15 years, however, you might be eligible for a $30,000.00 bonus and 40% of your highest compensation, or no bonus and 50% of your highest compensation.
- Use Roth IRAs to Your Advantage.
For service members, Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) work the same way as civilians: you can contribute income and then take it out tax free. However, if you are receiving tax free income because you are in combat, you can receive a double benefit from the use of Roth IRAs.
While you are in a tax-exempt combat zone, you do not pay income taxes while you are earning money. Roth TRAs grow tax free, and withdrawals are not taxed. Thus, income contributed to Roth IRAs while you are tax-exempt will never be taxed and the earnings on the principal will not be taxed either. Thus, if you are deployed to a tax-exempt combat zone, be sure to contribute money to a Roth IRA account. Even a small investment can continue to pay off for years to come.
- Save for Retirement with Low-Cost Retirement Savings Plans.
The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), one of the lowest-cost retirement saving plans around, charges an annual expense ratio of just 0.040%. To put this into perspective, most annual fees and expenses for traditional 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 2019, you can put as much as $19,000 in the TSP — and as much as $56,000 if you’re receiving tax-free income while deployed. And now you have access to a Roth TSP, too, which is like a Roth IRA but without the income restrictions. These rates and limits are subject to change based on current government regulations.
- Invest in the Savings Deposit Program.
Under the Savings Deposit Program (SDP), deployed service members can invest up to $10,000.00 each time they are deployed. As a result, they will receive 10% annual interest, which is compounded quarterly. Keep in mind that, for service members deployed in tax-exempt combat zones, their overall take home pay increases, thus providing them with extra money to contribute to the SDP.
- Consider State Tax Breaks.
Service members are allowed under the law to maintain legal residence in one state, even if they are stationed in another state. If your legal residence (called your “domicile”) is in a state that has no state income tax, you can be shielded from state income tax if you move to another state while on active duty.
- Learn About Transition Assistance.
Transitioning from active duty to civilian life is not easy. The VA Transition Assistance Program (TAP) can assist you with resume writing help, interviewing training, networking workshops and job skills assessments.
- Get Preference for Certain Federal Jobs.
The U.S. Department of Labor gives preferential hiring treatment to Veterans who are disabled, who served on active duty in the Armed Forces during certain specified time periods or in military campaigns for virtually all federal government jobs. Take advantage of this the next time you apply for a job.
- Use Military OneSource.
Military OneSource is a program that offers help with all aspects of military life, including financial and legal assistance, job and education help for military spouses, parenting and child care assistance, deployment help for families, moving assistance, and military health and wellness.
- Give Beneficiaries Free Online Will and Financial Counseling Services.
The VA provides free financial planning and online will preparation services for SGLI, VGLI, and FSGLI beneficiaries. The online will preparation service allows beneficiaries to quickly and easily prepare a will, while the financial counseling service provides beneficiaries with free financial advice from FinancialPoint, a private company whose professionals are experts in a wide array of financial matters. Beneficiaries can request a free, customized financial plan and can call or email anytime to obtain answers to financial questions.
- Find the Best Airline and Airport Benefits.
Space Available Flight (known as “Space-A”) provides air travel to current and retired military members at almost no cost. Under this program, you can use any unfilled seats on DoD aircrafts to travel to dozens of destinations worldwide. In order to obtain the most benefit from this program, you should:
- Check out Air Mobility Command to see where you can go;
- “Like” and “follow” the Facebook pages for any terminals that you are interested in. This step is absolutely necessary because most terminals post their schedule 72 hours out only on Facebook, and then delete it for security reasons;
- Fill out AMC Form 140 and the Space-A sign up request form and email or fax them to your departure terminal; and
- Keep checking Facebook until you find a flight that you want. If you have already sent in your forms, all you have to do is show up and wait for roll call.
In addition to Space-A, many private airlines offer discounts to service members and veterans and, in some cases, their families. Most airlines also offer free checked bags or waive other fees. The key to obtaining discounted travel or waived fees, like many other discounts available to service members, is to just ask.
Our best travel tip to make sure you are getting the cheapest flight on a commercial airline? Go to skyscanner.com and do a broad search by selecting “cheapest month” and/or “everywhere” as your destination to figure out when and where to fly the cheapest. You can also select only eligible military discount airlines to display to find the cheapest flight in combination with additional discounts and waived fees.
Service members and their families are also granted free TSA Pre-Check access, which allows you to enjoy expedited security screening and shorter lines. To register, log onto the TSA pre-check website and enter the number on your DOD ID card.
Moreover, service members and veterans also have free access to United States Organizations (USO) centers, where they can enjoy complimentary snacks, Wi-Fi, television, and other entertainment while they wait for their flight.
- Sign Up for Premium Credit Cards with No Annual Fees.
As an active member of the military, you can have some of the most premium, generous travel credit cards on the market, with no annual fee whatsoever. Some of these cards, such as the American Express Platinum Card, offer free access to airport lounges worldwide in addition to free car rental insurance, and much more. For more information on the best cards available to service members, read this article.
- Enjoy Discounted Hotels.
Many hotel chains offer discounted rates to service members. The following hotels offer great discounts: Choice Hotels, Intercontinental, Marriott (including the Ritz Carlton), Holiday Inn, Radisson, Extended Stay America, Staybridge, La Quinta, Hilton (including Hampton Inn), Best Western, Motel 6, Red Roof, and Starwood Hotels.
- Book Discounted Car Rentals.
Most of the major car rental companies offer military discounts. For a list of rental car offers, check out the Veterans Advantage website.
- Enjoy Military Discounts at Amusement Parks.
Disney World. Disney World offers excellent military discounts with 4-day, 5-day or 6-day discounted park passes starting at $265.00 for everyone in your party. Tickets must be purchased at your base ticket office. You can also book Disney hotels at discounted rates (30-40% off) by calling (407) 939-7825.
Universal Orlando Resort. The Universal Orlando Resort’s three parks (Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay) offer special pricing for service members. See their military page for more information. Universal Orlando Vacations, the official travel company of Universal Orlando Resort, often offers deals that are not shown on the main Universal Orlando Resort website.
Busch Gardens. The Busch Gardens Waves of Honor program offers a 100% free admission to any Busch Gardens, Sea World, or Sesame Place amusement park for active duty military and their dependents and discounted rates for veterans.
Great Wolf Lodge. Great Wolf Lodge offers a straightforward 30% military discount at all locations.
- Enjoy Discounted Cruises.
Most cruise lines offer discounts. The Military Cruise Deals website allows service members to find low rates on cruises. It also monitors bookings and will offer lower rates should they become available even after booking.
- Sign Up for a Free YMCA Membership.
Servicemembers and their families are eligible for free YMCA memberships.
- Obtain a Free National Parks Pass.
The National Parks Service offers a free annual membership to servicemembers and their families. In addition, they are eligible for a 50% discount on camping at most national parks.
- Take Advantage of Free On-Post Lodging.
If you are active or retired, chances are you may be able to stay on a military installation during your vacation. Check out the Department of Defense Lodging website.
- Don’t Forget About Restaurant Discounts.
So many restaurants offer discounts to military members, and some of these can be pretty substantial, such as Johnny Rocket’s 50% off discount to veterans. Again, you just have to ask. Check out militarybenefits.info for further information.
- Ask About Retail Discounts.
Like restaurants, many retailers offer military discounts and some of these can also be pretty substantial, like Yetti’s 30% off discount. Lowe’s and Home Depot also offer discounts to military members. Check out militarybenefits.info for further information.
- Reduce Your Cell Phone Bill.
Verizon Wireless offers 15% off of your monthly service and 25% off of accessories. Sprint offers 50% off of family lines with their Unlimited Military Plan. T-Mobile has an unlimited Military Plan that costs $25 per line per month.
- Get a Discount on Your New Car.
Most car retailers offer discounts, special financing, or reduced rates for new cars. You could save thousands, so alway check.
- Download Money-Saving Apps for Veterans.
To search for further military deals, download apps such as Milisource (which has accumulated a database of over 900 veterans benefits), Discount Soldier, Military Cost Cutters, and/or Military Discounters.