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I’m Not Normal, I’m in the Military

by J. Money on Thursday, March 20, 2014

air force basic training graduation

[The following is an awesome guest article by Kalen from MoneyMiniBlog.com. Who gives us an in-depth look at a career in the military, as well as the finances behind it. Hoo-rah!]

You know how military stories usually begin:

There I was. [Insert Basic Training Location]. [Insert year].

We’ve all heard it. So why do they always begin with Basic Training? Because it’s… the beginning. And because it’s an amazing feat to accomplish. A feat that they will talk about for the rest of their life. Usually to the point of complete and utter annoyance for everyone around them.

So where do I begin?

There I was. Lackland Air Force Base. 2013. (I know…not quite as impressive as say…1942)

Coming off the bus, I encountered my first Technical Instructor (T.I.), which is the Air Force Drill Instructor. I remember having all kinds of thoughts and of course, getting yelled at… a lot, but I expected that.

That’s when it all started. My Air Force career. But it really started way before that. I had to accomplish some great feats before I ever arrived at Lackland AFB.

So there I was. Behind the Mall Movie Theatre. 2007.

My wife and I had just finished watching some military movie, which I actually don’t recall the name of, but somehow the movie triggered a conversation about me joining the military. I had always wanted to join, but without ever bringing it up to my wife, I just assumed she would never go for it. Apparently all it took was a 5 minute conversation for me to realize she was 100% supportive of the idea. And yes, our communication has improved since then.

That day I made the decision to join the military, but I had a lot of changes to make. I had to lose 50 pounds, lower my run time and condition my body to meet Air Force fitness standards. Basic Training can whip you into shape quickly, but showing up with a slow run time and minimal body strength is a quick way to get a bus ticket back home.

But there was something else that my wife and I had to accomplish before I could officially join the Air Force: We had to pay off $20,000 in debt.

The Air Force invests a lot of money in training and developing Airmen. They look at your debt, your credit history and your current financial situation. In Basic Training, we were often reminded that it costs the Air Force over $30,000 to train one Airman. Furthermore, financial problems are one of the main reasons that people are kicked out of the Air Force. It’s really no surprise that they want you to have control over your finances before you join. They want to make a wise investment.

Looking back on it, I feel like I had 2 Basic Trainings. One for our finances and one for the United States Air Force. Basic is all about starting, persevering and completing. That’s exactly what my wife and I had to do. We had to make the decision to pay off $20,000 in debt, persevere through hardships and roadblocks and ultimately accomplish the goal of becoming debt free.

How We Paid Off $20,000 in Debt

It wasn’t easy. It didn’t happen overnight. But it was worth it.

The desire to join the military gave me an attainable goal and a reason to actually pay off our debt instead of making excuses about why we couldn’t do it.

We both worked…a lot. I remember, at one point, I worked at an auto body shop full-time during the day, a pizza place full-time at night and I delivered a paper route when I got off work. Sometimes I even worked a part-time job as a laborer on a construction site too! We did what we had to do. We did whatever it took.

The first important decision we made for getting out of debt was to not get in any new debt. It was more like a pact than a decision. Then we started with the debt snowball and worked hard on every single item until all our debt “melted.” We figured out that getting out of debt is not easy. It’s not a quick process, but the good news is that you determine how quickly it happens. And we wanted it done fast.

We paid off all of our debt in less than 4 years. I knew that if I could get in the physical and financial shape to join, then I could handle Basic with no problems.

Delivering Pizzas and Conquering My Finances

Before I joined the military, I delivered pizzas. Not the most prestigious job, I know, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that job.

Everything is an opportunity if you view it as such and that’s exactly how I viewed delivering pizzas. I was able to listen to 30-40 hours of audiobooks and teaching every week as I delivered those pizzas. Now I run a finance blog to give away all of the knowledge that I amassed in those years. I have listened to over 100 books on finances. I know how to stay out of debt, how to invest and how to build wealth for retirement.

Now I work with classified information and I have to enter a code just to walk into my office. I play a large role in deploying people all over the world. Basically, I do some pretty cool things that impact our country in one way or another. I have reached a goal by being where I am today. However, I do miss getting paid to listen to all of those audiobooks!

“On a Military Income”

I didn’t join the military for the money. It was always a dream of mine to serve my country, but I was surprised to figure out how much money you can make in the military. The Air Force pays for housing (BAH), groceries (BAS), college, my medical expenses, my family’s medical expenses and oh yeah…they give me a paycheck too!

Joining at the age of 25 gave me a different perspective than most of the 18 year olds that I went to Basic with. I understood what it was like to live on your own. When you’re in the military, you are never on your own. This is ironic since the military instills discipline, but they also take care of you and monitor you like they’re your parents.

I hate hearing people talk about living “on a military income”. People that come straight into the military out of high school think that they earn far less than they would in the “real world”. Not true. How many people do you know with a college degree that barely earn more than the poverty level? I know a few. So many people don’t realize how much you earn in the military compared to civilian jobs and that’s after the military pays all your expenses for you.

My wife and I are living a luxurious debt-free life and building wealth “on a military income”.

Your money habits are usually developed by the people you surround yourself with. People have a negative view of a military income because they listen to all of the other military families who complain about how little they earn. They complain about how little they earn, while simultaneously trying to keep up with the Joneses. The key is to stop taking financial advice from financially unsuccessful people.

This goes to show you that your spending habits are just as important as your earning habits.

How Much I Actually Earn

The funny thing about military income is that the information is available to everyone. There are military pay charts, Housing allowance calculators and other pay figures all over the internet.

Let’s get specific.

Right now as an Airman First Class (E3), I am near the bottom of the totem pole, but I still earn a nice wage. [On a sidenote: military pay is the same across the board for your pay grade. Contrary to popular belief, the Air Force does not get paid more than other branches. Yes, it is a common belief!]

My Earnings:

  • Base Pay: $1,805.40/mo
  • Housing Allowance: $930.00/mo (This is for Oklahoma. It fluctuates depending on the cost of your area)
  • Food Allowance: $357.55/mo
  • Tuition Assistance fo College: $5,500 used so far.

It’s hard to really explain how much I actually earn in the military. It’s not just about the money. I am grateful for everything the Air Force has done for me and my family.

The pay is nice. The 30 vacations days every year are nice. The benefits are nice, but I joined to serve my country and I can’t believe how much they give me for doing that.

I know it’s common to talk about how little our military members earn. We see pictures on the internet about how much congress earns and how much the average professional athlete earns compared to our military salaries.

But none of those jobs give you the satisfaction of serving your country the way being in the military does. And let’s be honest, the pay’s not that bad!

Since Joining the Military

not normal

Joining the military has impacted my life in ways I can’t explain. I have developed some awesome new habits and learned some new skills. It is weird being new to the military and having the financial plan that I have. I know it’s not common to be an Enlisted Airman that runs a financial blog, invests heavily and has his entire retirement mapped out.

I’m in a weird position that usually leads to me giving financial advice often. The worst part about that is how people often people ask for advice and then they don’t apply any of it. It’s really just sad to see that most people aren’t taught much of anything about finances, though the military teaches you much more than the school systems.

I finally realized that I really can do anything I set my mind too, and you can too!

Since joining, I have:

  • Started waking up at 5am everyday.
  • Started a blog to help people with their finances.
  • Started regularly setting and achieving my goals.
  • Started practicing more self-discipline in every area my life.
  • Discovered that Walleyball is an actual sport. A great sport!

Most of these habits aren’t “normal”. I prefer to be successful rather than normal. One thing the military has taught me is that if you want to be successful, you can’t be normal. Normal is being in debt. Normal is living paycheck to paycheck. Normal is being mediocre.

You Don’t Have to Be Normal

Everyone’s situation is different. I know our situation is unique. We are not normal. Simply being in the military puts me in 1% of the population. It’s not normal that I joined the military at age 25. It’s not normal that we are a happy, financially independent, debt free military family.

I would say that the main take-away from my story is that you don’t have to be normal. It’s perfectly fine to do things differently. In fact, it’s usually better! I always used to refrain from doing things that were uncommon, but I have learned that the best things in life are uncommon.

Before I go, let me give you a list of 5 financial things that aren’t normal:

  1. Buying a home without a mortgage
  2. Buying a nice car without a payment
  3. Giving what you want, not what you can
  4. Being completely debt free
  5. Having over $1,000,000 to your name

It’s your decision. Do you want to be normal?

—–
Kalen is the founder and main finance writer of MoneyMiniBlog.com. MoneyMiniBlog is full of short, entertaining, informative articles on personal finances. Kalen is a Christian, husband, father, Airman, writer, web designer, musician and an avid food connoisseur.

[Basic training photo by DVIDSHUB / Pizza delivery dog by dog.happy.art / Normal photo by the cardinal de la ville]


{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

1 a terrible husband... March 20, 2014 at 6:22 am

Wow. Great post. Thanks for doing what you do! So true. It’s way better to hustle and be weird than be normal, lazy, and broke.

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2 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:08 am

Thank you sir! I agree. I would opt for hustling and being weird over being normal any day of the week!

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3 Mr Financial Debauchery March 20, 2014 at 6:37 am

30 vacation days per year? That’s great, but I’d say you guys really do EARN those!

I’d imagine it would be really tough to have been taught so much discipline and then see so much “lack of it” when you try to help others with their own financial problems. Makes you kind of want to send them through basic training, right?

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4 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:09 am

HAHA, yeah it kind of does make me want to send them to Basic. That’s funny! I really appreciate the 30 days per year. It beats the 0 days per year at my old job.

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5 Dee @ Color Me Frugal March 20, 2014 at 7:07 am

I love your story about listening to financial audiobooks while delivering pizzas! We should all be that dedicated to improving our finances. Great post!

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6 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:11 am

I agree! We should! I can’t even count the number of finance audiobooks I checked out from the library to listen to while delivering pizzas.

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7 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I liked that part too :) Great way to be efficient with time!

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8 Clarisse @ Reach Financial Independence March 20, 2014 at 7:20 am

I know life as a Military is not that easy, I have a military uncle, he served our country for how many years. He told us before about his income and they are living in a camp that are exclusively for military families.

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9 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:13 am

That’s awesome that your uncle served! A camp for military families? I bet there are 100s of interesting stories there.

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10 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:09 pm

A “camp” or a “base?” Haha…

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11 Laurie @thefrugalfarmer March 20, 2014 at 7:31 am

Kalen, what an awesome and inspiring story!! You’ve proven that goals, no matter how tough, can be reached when you put your mind to it. Thank you so much for sharing your story, and thank you even more for your service for our fine country – we appreciate it!

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12 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:13 am

Thank you and thanks for your support! :)

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13 Rob @ The Military Financial Planner March 20, 2014 at 8:19 am

That’s a great story and a great perspective on military life!

Pay for an E-3 is not a lot, but like you said it’s livable if you spend within your means. Too many service members of all ranks spend beyond their means and end up in debt trouble.

I agree that the intangible benefits, such as personal discipline, pride, and teamwork, are priceless and will last a lifetime.

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14 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:15 am

Thanks! I agree that a lot of the military lives beyond their means. People are discharged everyday for financial issues. Like you said, it really does come down to living within your means.

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15 Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life March 20, 2014 at 8:57 am

I think it’s wonderful that you’re grateful and have found a way to make the military income work for you, I just think that as someone who has one of the most important jobs in our country, you deserve to be paid accordingly, i.e. A LOT.

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16 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:17 am

:) Thank you! I wouldn’t mind being paid A LOT! I am thankful for what I do get though. Thanks for your support!

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17 John @ Frugal Rules March 20, 2014 at 9:08 am

“I prefer to be successful rather than normal.” I LOVE this! What an awesome post and proof that hard work can help you achieve your goals, no matter what it takes you. I love that you used your time that could’ve been easily wasted while delivering pizzas to grow yourself and now able to reap the benefits of doing so. Most of all, thanks so much for serving our country!

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18 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:19 am

First off, thank you!!! I figured out a long time ago that I wasn’t normal…and that I didn’t want to be! I appreciate the encouragment. It means a lot!

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19 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:11 pm

(that was one of my fave lines too – “I prefer to be successful rather than normal.”)

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20 EL @ MoneyWatch101 March 20, 2014 at 9:14 am

Thanks for sharing your finances, I always learn something new when I read a military based post. Do you guys have a pension or 401K ? Best of luck.

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21 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:23 am

You’re welcome and thank you! We have a TSP (Thrift Savings Plan). It’s like the Federal version of the 401(k). There is a Traditional TSP and a Roth TSP. It’s made up of a few index funds and there are some good ones. I don’t get a match, but some civilian Federal employees do receive a government match.

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22 MonicaOnMoney March 20, 2014 at 9:19 am

I agree, normal is all about perspective and everyone’s normal is different. I’ve never strived to be normal either. Good luck!

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23 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:24 am

Good to hear! Why be normal when you can be better than normal? Thanks!

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24 Kathy March 20, 2014 at 9:21 am

Congratulations and thank you for your service to our country. We are truly blessed to have people still willing to serve in our military. Your principles will serve you well whether you make a career in the military or elsewhere.

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25 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:24 am

Thank you so much! I am happy to do it!

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26 Becky @ RunFunDone March 20, 2014 at 9:39 am

I agree with you on the “military income” thing. It drives me crazy! I get it, the take-home pay is low, but housing, food, and medical are all paid for AND it’s a relatively secure job that you can get with no college education. Plus, military members get so many discounts and advantages that other families don’t have access to! (That being said, it is VERY hard to be deployed, to move every few years, etc. I’m not saying that it’s EASY, it just frustrates me when people talk about how low the pay is without recognizing that the largest cost for most Americans (housing) is taken care of, and then they have take home pay on top of that).

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27 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:26 am

I agree with you. There is definitely a balance of sacrifice and reward. I just try to appreciate everything that I am given. Thanks for sharing!

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28 Shannon @ Financially Blonde March 20, 2014 at 9:47 am

My dad is retired from the Air Force and worked at Lackland!!! I am actually blogging about the military on Monday because I think they do a great job of providing an education both in military tactics and traditional courses, but they don’t provide enough education and support where finances are concerned. Even though there are many financial “benefits” to the military lifestyle (my parents miss the PX), there are challenges as well. Thanks for sharing your story and financial successes! And thank you for serving our country.

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29 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:33 am

I know Lackland very well. I was there for Basic (as you know) and I was “fortunate enough” to stay there for Tech School.

As far as education benefits…I agree about the military doing a great job of providing traditional education, but not so great when it comes to finances. The good news is that it’s getting better! They are starting to offer free on-base courses that cover the main aspects of finances. I guess they are realizing that too many people are being discharged due to finances.

Thank you for your encouragement and support!

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30 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:13 pm

I miss PXs too, Shannon :) Haven’t been in like 10 years!

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31 @WilliamLipovsky, First Quarter Finance March 20, 2014 at 10:04 am

I had the opportunity to work a civilian internship at the U.S. Strategic Command. The work and atmosphere was so exciting and interesting! I gained so much respect for the men and women in our military. Thank you for your service!

And my boss once told me that I should look outside the government for long-term employment because I’ll garner a much higher salary. That can be true but doing things for the US government that makes military movies look boring is a pretty great alternative to a higher salary…

Also, I frequently saw people on base around my same age (21 at the time) driving VERY nice cars: Acura NSX, BMW M5, Porsche 911, EVO X, etc. Those are the same people ranting about low military wages..

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32 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 10:37 am

Thank you for the support! That internship sounds like it was a great opportunity!

I agree 100%, it’s not all about the money! I think you should do what you love and learn to live on what you make.

HAHA, oh, the fancy cars. Usually either due to enlistment bonuses or just plain dumb debt. And yes, those are the main people complaining about finance problems.

Thanks for sharing!

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33 Richard Anthony March 20, 2014 at 3:38 pm

My main take-away from your excellent article is your thought that, “Everything is an opportunity if you view it as such . . .” In dealing with many of America’s so-called “social problems,” our national leaders would do well to view them through that prism, because many of those “problems” might actually be profit opportunities. It just takes looking at them in a way that’s not “normal.” Glad that you shared your story:)

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34 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Thanks so much. I’m glad you got something out of it. I think it’s all about perspective.

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35 NZ Muse March 20, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Joining the military is a pretty smart financial move. My husband often floats the idea of re-enlisting – it’d be secure, we’d get a house and everything. The tradeoff is we’d have to move to crappy areas (rural or near a city I don’t want to live in) and I know I would be miserable in isolation.

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36 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 5:52 pm

He could consider joining a different branch, perhaps. There are Air Force bases in great areas. Army bases are everywhere. Navy and Marine bases are almost sure to be beach-front and Coast Guard bases are always nice.

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37 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm

@NZ Muse – you won’t be in isolation – you’ve got us online! ;)

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38 Crystal March 20, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Thank you for your service. Striving to be better (financially and all other ways) is definitely the mindset worth having! Congrats on finding the life that makes you and your wife happy!

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39 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Thank you so much! I agree. I am always striving to be better :)

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40 Mario Adventuresinfrugal March 20, 2014 at 5:28 pm

Ah, I remember living on military pay. I suppose what some people don’t realize is just how good the non-cash benefits are and how low the cost of living is while in the military…. Could definitely be higher, of course, but so it goes.

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41 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 20, 2014 at 5:54 pm

That’s right. If you were to equate the benefits to a salary, most people would be surprised to see how much we actually earn.

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42 Heather March 20, 2014 at 8:44 pm

I served in the Army for 10 years and think this is a great post! Although I was in the National Guard on Active Duty orders most of the time, so while the 30 vacation days a year were nice, I still spent close to 30 days on weekend drill status. Plus the military makes you use vacation days if your time off includes a weekend….not a fan of that. But the pay and benefits are pretty awesome! People complain, but you rarely find that sort of income in the civilian world without a college degree these days! I had a lot of medical expenses after my deployment-100% paid for. Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees-100% paid for. Housing allowance that MORE than covered my rent, life experiences and unique training opportunities, a deployment that gave me the perspective to truly appreciate everything in life…yup, the military paid pretty good! Great post.

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43 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Wow, nice! Way to take advantage of all those education benes!

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44 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 21, 2014 at 10:31 pm

Thank you! I heart that! They give us quite a bit don’t they?

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45 Alex March 21, 2014 at 11:49 am

Big ups for joining the military family, Kalen!

The thing is, your military experience won’t be as typical as many others’ s service. I served in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2010, and joined at 20. As a single 20 year old Lance Corporal, I didn’t get BAH or BAS (well I did, but Uncle Sam took it right back out for living in the barracks and use of the chow hall). Also, it is well known that Marines get promoted much slower than other branches, which stagnates your pay (pay tables limit E-3 salary increases after 4 years TIS). Not to mention the lovely beachfront propeety of the Marine Corps includes such smiserable, soul-crushing places like Camp Lejeune or Twentynine Palms. And those 30 vacation days a year aren’t really available for use when I wanted them, but rather when the command authorized a leave block. And the healthcare is great, if you’re ever allowed to use it (if you’re not puking, bleeding or visibly broken, no trips to the battalion aid station for you!).

The military benefIts sound great on paper, but in practice, how they’re applied differs wildly by branch, MOS and command.

All of that said, access to financial institutions like USAA and Navy Federal Credit Union is pretty awesome. And the Post-9/11 GI Bill is one of the best things that happened to me.

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46 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Thanks for sharing, and serving, man. Interesting to hear another take on this.

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47 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 21, 2014 at 10:41 pm

Thanks! I love me some USAA! It is different depending on the specific situations. I know AF who have been basically screwed in ways like you me mentioned. It’s all in how you look at it, but yeah sometimes it can suck. I know many single Airmen that complain about living in the dorms. At least they are living for free, but it’s no dream home. Thanks for sharing another point of view and thanks for serving.

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48 Shane March 21, 2014 at 11:59 am

Great post! Thank you for serving our country. It was an interesting read, I am starting law school this fall and have been researching JAG and am very interested in that route. My very soon to be wife is just worried that financially it doesn’t make sense but I think we would really need to sit down and add up all the extra’s that come alone with it. Cost of housing alone would be a huge help. Plus the experiences we would have and the variety of work I would experience, plus the fulfillment received from serving our country and helping people in the military. Sounds like you guys are making it work, I feel like we could too!

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49 J. Money March 21, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Is it bad that this is the first thing that came to mind when you said JAG?

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112022/

:)

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50 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 21, 2014 at 10:45 pm

That’s reasonable. Haha

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51 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 21, 2014 at 10:43 pm

If you want to make it work it will! If you are going the Officer route, you will make quite a bit more pay and housing allowance. The experiences alone are worth it and when you add in the benefits, it’s hard to beat! Good luck with your choice!

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52 No Nonsense Landlord March 22, 2014 at 12:10 am

Great Post! I was at Lackland AFB too, back in 1978. Went on to Barksdale AFB. pay was a bit less then. Much of my family was in. Nephew just got out of AF Academy, now is on a scholarship at Walter Reed to be an MD.

People like the military now, back in 78, it wasn’t the case.

Congrats!!!

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53 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 24, 2014 at 11:03 am

Thank you for your service! And yes, times are a bit different now.

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54 Cassie Lea Ford March 27, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Kalen!!! What a wonderful read! I am so very proud of you and your family. Your accomplishments and knowledge you have gained is truly an inspiration.
My husband and I have been working the last couple years to pay off our debt so we can then build our “home” We have a beautiful vision of buying land and building a home were our children grow up and were we live more off the land. GO GREEN!! I now know who to turn to for questions or guidance if we have any questions on how to make this happen sooner.
Thank you for your willingness to share your story.

Again, so very proud of you and family!
Cassie Lea Ford

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55 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog March 29, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Thanks Cassie! :)

I’m happy to have you as a friend and I would love to help you with any questions you have. Thanks for the motivation and inspiration.

And thanks for being a good friend.

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