Always a challenging prospect, the process of transitioning to civilian life has become even more difficult in recent years, as the number of unemployed veterans is higher than the overall population (12.1% of veterans who served in the most recent wars were unemployed last year).
While there are plenty of resources for preparing mentally and emotionally for the move from the military to civilian life, transitioning financially requires resources all its own. When you’re used to a healthy paycheck and plenty of extra perks from being in the military, transitioning financially to civilian life can be difficult. Here are six challenges you might face, and how to overcome them.
1. Tax Changes
Since most military personnel receive a tax-free housing allowance, you may not realize how much of a tax break that’s been giving you overall. Plus, you may not pay state income tax when you’re on active duty, but you’ll probably have to as a civilian.
The best way to overcome this new unknown is to consult with a tax professional. Take a look at the benefits you’ve been receiving as a member of the military, and then look at how those benefits will change when you’re a civilian. Consulting with a tax professional first can help you see what kind of salary you’ll need to look for as a civilian to cover the tax differences.
2. Health Insurance Replacement
If you’re officially retiring from the military after 20 years or more of service, you’ll qualify for some retirement healthcare, though many retired military individuals invest in supplemental insurance, as well. If you’re retiring before your 20 years are in, you may have to pay a small fortune for health insurance premiums. Plus, even if your new job covers health insurance, you may have to pay part of that policy’s premium, as well as co-payments and deductibles.
Before you make health insurance decisions, especially if you don’t have 20 years with the military under your belt, check out your health insurance options carefully. If you don’t find a job with health insurance right away (or if your spouse doesn’t have a job that will cover you both) consider signing up for the Continued Health Care Benefit Program, which gives you up to 18 months of coverage while you’re in between jobs.
3. Dealing with Retirement Accounts
Because your expenses are so low in a Thrift Savings Account for your retirement savings through the military, you may want to maintain the account even after you leave the military. But if you don’t want to do this, there are plenty of options to consider, including rolling the account into an IRA or an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Rolling over a TSP can be complex because many of your contributions will have been made with tax-free combat pay. Talk with an investment advisor who has experience dealing with TSP accounts before you decide what to do with yours.
4. Lack of Emergency Funds
Because military jobs are generally very stable, and because your expenses while in the military may have been relatively low, you may not have an emergency fund stashed away yet. It’s best if you can put money aside before you make the transition to civilian life, but if you haven’t been able to do this, start setting aside money for your emergency fund right away.
Remember, you should have three to six months’ worth of expenses stashed away in a savings account, preferably a money market. Earmark that money just for emergencies. In the meantime, you may want to consider applying for a credit card that you set aside to be used for emergencies only, just in case.
5. Applying for New Jobs
It may be a good idea to meet with a career coach before or just after you move out of the military, especially if it’s been years since you’ve applied for a civilian job. Creating a résumé, interviewing, and networking are all skills you will need.
Your most important financial asset is your income, so try to get a new job as quickly as possible. Military experience can be fantastic for launching a new civilian career, but a job coach can help you hone and leverage that experience to find the best possible job for you.
Another good option as a military individual can be starting your own business. If you have the capital to get a small business going, now, when you’re in transitional phase, is a great time.
6. Creating a New Budget
Even though this is the last financial challenge we’ve addressed, creating a new budget for your civilian life is probably the most important part of your transition. When you have your weekly, biweekly, or monthly budget in place, the rest of your financial issues will tend to fall into line pretty quickly.
So take the time as soon as you can to create a written budget based on your new expenses – remembering things like taxes, healthcare, and retirement savings – and your new job. If you don’t yet have your new career in place, live as tightly as possible on your emergency funds until you start your new job.
Transitioning to civilian life from the military is difficult on many levels, and the financial aspect of the transition is just one thing to consider. But knowing what challenges lay ahead and how you can meet them puts you halfway to conquering all these financial challenges during your military to civilian transition.