Sacrifice is part of your military career, but what would you be sacrificing by separating from the military too soon?
Military personnel have been trained in the art of preparation, but when it comes to transitioning out of the military, dreams of stress-free days often come first instead of preparing for a final move, a job search, and transitioning a household to a new environment. This transition requires proper planning, and even if it seems like your 12-year military career was plenty of time, weighing pros and cons before finalizing a migration to civilian life will save you time, stress, and money.
Before you make a permanent decision about transitioning out of the military, answer these 7 questions.
What Would You Do Post-Military?
Even though we’d all like to retire early and live at the beach, most of us don’t have that option, even after serving 20 years in the military. There are four clear-cut career options for many individuals transitioning out of the military:
- Head to college
- Work for someone else
- Start your own business
Working for someone else — or even starting your own business — doesn't necessarily mean you'll need a four-year education to succeed. In 2012, President Obama announced a military-to-civilian skills certificate program to aid military tradesman in their transition to the manufacturing sector. For instance, an Army Interior Electrician shouldn't need to repeat training to be able to work as a civilian, right? To help with this transition, the Army's engineering school partnered with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
Programs like this will help tradesmen receive the proper certification quickly, but if you aren't a tradesman, consider how your current military career will transition to the civilian world. Above that, do you want to stay in the same field?
If you’re considering retiring after 20 years, you have enough time to start a second career. Actually, four years in college and 20 years of another career will bring you exactly to the earliest age possible to start your Social Security benefits. So ask yourself, if you could be anything, what would it be? You're blessed with the option to have a second chance at a career and a second retirement plan.
If you aren't considering a full retirement from the military, ask yourself why. Are you still 10 years away from retirement and the stress isn't worth it? Or are you just bored with your current career path? While it's difficult, it isn't impossible to change your career in the military, especially if you want to shift to a career that others might not be interested in.
How Will Leaving Affect Your Career?
Your military career can heavily influence your civilian career. However, this only works if you're transitioning to the same career path within the civilian world. Are you infantry but would rather be in IT? Your military experience will look good on a resume, but it won't actually help you get a job without a degree.
Reclassification in the military is possible, but it isn't simple. Depending on your service branch, talk to HRC or a Career Counselor and look into what's required. However, if you're unhappy with your career path and can't change it, it might be time to leave. What you absolutely shouldn't do is stay in a place that makes you unhappy for the sake of money.
On the other hand, if you're an MP and want to continue your career in the civilian police force or transition to another part of the executive branch of the U.S. government, your military career will enhance your resume. Just don't forget that some agencies, like the FBI, require a bachelor's degree. If you want to leave the military and apply to the FBI, think about your post-military career options and starting night classes while you're still serving out your enlistment.
How Will Your Decision Affect Your Family?
Even though years of deployments and moves have worn your family down, making the decision to leave the military without involving them is a mistake — this is a decision that is best made together. Even though they miss you when you'reaway, they might prefertheir current lifestyle. Some families thrive on seeing new places, even if making new friends or finding a new job is difficult.
Before making a decision, discuss these elements with your family members:
- Their likes and dislikes of the military lifestyle
- What they'd like to do if you transition out of the military
- Where you should relocate
- Career or education options for yourself and for your spouse and children
Pre-separation counseling is required before leaving the military, and the earlier you start this counseling, the better it will serve you. Make sure your spouse is in attendance for these meetings, because the information is relevant to the household.
On the positive side, don't forget that once you're out of the military, it will be easier for your spouse to pursue a career. Plus, your spouse and kids will be able to start higher education knowing that they'll be able to finish in the same place they started in.
Is College Right for You?
College isn't right for everyone, but if you know you need a higher education, it’s best to choose your career path as early as possible. If you know you're going to transition out of the military in the next few years, don't wait to start your education until you're out.
Consider a campus like Vista College, which offers flexible class schedules to advance your career prospects before you leave the service. Choosing a military-friendly college will help you get the most from your GI Bill®¹ and other military benefits, because these schools have Financial Aid Advisors on staff who are prepared to meet your individualized needs. For instance, transferring military experience to college credit is easier to accomplish with a college that's already accustomed to the process.
Getting out of the military is only the first step in the transition. If you decide that college is the right place for you, a military-friendly college is a huge perk because. Even though college may sound exciting, veterans face unique challenges in college. The biggest challenge is a form of culture shock. You've been under enemy fire, and now you're being thrown back into a wilderness of teens that only recently left the naiveté of high school. College life will be an added heavy layer of discord, even if the end benefits are solid.
Because a military-friendly college actively reaches out to veterans, you're much more likely to find like-minded peers to interact and network with. And if you dream of teaching history and inspiring the next generation, you don't have to take all of your courses on campus. Online coursework is a huge advantage for military vets who are still adjusting to civilian life. These fast-track programs allow you to spend more time with your family while adjusting to studying and paying bills.
Are You Financially Prepared?
A single savings account isn't enough. You most likely need an emergency account — only to be used in a real emergency — a general savings account, and an account for your transition period. Yes, that's a lot of money, but how much is enough?
It's recommended that a transition fund holds at least 9 months of living expenses. In a perfect world, you'll step out of the military and into a civilian career right away, but the job market isn't always what you would expect. Additionally, you might be considering going back to college. Depending on the college you choose, your GI Bill® probably won't cover all of your living expenses. Working full-time while going to school and still finding the time to enjoy your family can also be challenging.
Aside from your transition fund, you should still make sure you have the standard 3–6 months of living expenses in your emergency fund. If you haven't found a career after a year and deplete your transition fund, you'll be in emergency mode. Ideally, it’s helpful to save about 1.5 years of income before you leave the military to ensure a smooth transition. Even if that seems impossible to you now, talk to a financial advisor if you haven't already. Even if you decide not to get out of the military, speaking with a professional about your savings plan is free — and it can benefit you in the long run.
Do You Want to Relocate?
Before you relocate, make sure you and your family are ready to leave your network, friends, acquaintances, and other family members behind. While you may be used to moving around, remember that this final post-military move won't be reimbursed by the military. Outside of discussing a potential move with your family, there are other factors to consider:
- The cost of the move
- The job market where you're moving to
- Your network of friends and family
- Nearby schools
- Childcare costs
The cost of living is easy to overlook, but when you’re considering a salary at a prospective career before moving, it's essential to know just how much your dollar will be worth. Even though you're financially on your own with this move, the military does offer programs to help you find the right location. Investigate transition assistance. The counselors will help you sort out everything from housing and moving costs to stress and financial management.
Are You Prepared for Involuntary Separation?
Unfortunately, even having asked yourself all of the above, you might not be left with a choice. Just like how a stop loss occasionally keeps a contract from expiring, military drawdowns can result in involuntary separations. Would you be prepared in the event of a military layoff?
The good news is that if a military layoff occurs, you’re likely to receive military separation pay. However, there are many complex guidelines surrounding eligibility. For starters, how much would your military separation pay amount to if you were terminated today? Multiply the number of years you've served by 10% of your annual base pay. If your base pay is $3,000 and you have served for 6 years, follow this model:
- $3,000 base pay x 12 = $36,000
- $36,000 x 6 (number of years served) = $216,000
- $216,000 x 10% = $21,600
Even though the government provides this military separation pay, they still tax it. From that sum of $21,600, expect at least 20% to be removed. Ultimately, for your hard-earned service of over 6 years, you're looking at a lump payment, at best, of $17,280.
Some of the eligibility requirements include:
- A minimum service time of 6 years and a maximum of 20. If you're involuntarily discharged at the 5-year mark, you're ineligible.
- Full-pay eligibility is generally meant for individuals who are forced out under a Reduction in Force measure or under Force Shaping.
- Half-pay eligibility is for individuals who have served more than 6 years, but are terminated over more personal reasons, which include weight/fitness issues or termination of a security clearance.
What would you do if you were laid off from the military? Realistically, $17,000 would not last you for long — especially if you have a family, no career options, and the need to relocate. Even if you aren't planning on leaving the military yet, it's important to be aware of the current state of the military. The earlier you establish a plan for your departure, whenever it should be, the better your transition will be.
Making Your Final Decision
Start a list of pros and cons for getting out of the military, and have your family members do the same. Ultimately, the decision to leave the military comes down to what's right for you. Don't make this choice based solely on your prospective retirement. It's smart to be aware of your options, but if you're unhappy in the military or any career, don't stick it out for another 16 years just because the pension looks good.
Serving in the military is rewarding, but it's also emotionally and physically exhaustive, which is why there are so many benefits available to veterans. The most important thing you can do for yourself and your family is to research your options carefully and take advantages of all the benefits available to you. Make it a goal to prepare so when the time is right, your transition out of the military will be stress-free and not a financial burden. Weigh all of your options before you decide to rejoin civilian life.
If you decide to start a new career and are interested in taking classes, Vista Military can help you determine your next steps so you can choose your path early.
¹GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.
Photo by Justin Connaher