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When Deployments Cost You Money – Sometimes You Aren’t Able to Save Money on a Deployment

“There’s only one perk of deployment,” a friend recently old me....

“There’s only one perk of deployment,” a friend recently old me. “At least we make a little extra money and build up our savings account when he is deployed!”Sometimes, this is true, other times the cost of deployments is more than emotional.

In the “ideal” deployment (if such a situation exists), a married service member who deploys to a combat zone will see a significant increase in their paycheck. There is hazardous duty pay, hardship pay, imminent danger pay, and a bonus for being geographically separated from your spouse (which kicks in after the first 30 days apart).

In addition, combat pay is tax-exempt, so the service member will have a very low income reported on their W-2 after a deployment year. This can translate into a tax refund of thousands of dollars.

However, not all deployments will place the service member in this high-income/low-tax scenario. In fact, during some deployments, the service member will actually see their paycheck decrease, and their overall bills increase. How can that happen?

Marriage Affects the Cost of Deployments

During his first few deployments, my husband was not married. We were dating, but had separate finances. I had my own job, car, and apartment. When he deployed, he had absolutely no bills for 7 months. All his income, including the hazardous duty pay, accumulated in his bank account during deployment. He returned home to a very nice nest egg for a 20-year-old.

Then we married. And had children.

His next two deployments were also to combat zones. Because we were married, he was eligible for geographic separation pay, so he expected to come home to a sturdy savings account. But now he was supporting a family. He had a mortgage to pay and diapers to buy. I had left my high-paying job to move to his base and stay home with our children, so his income was our only household income. I saved where I could during deployment, but there were unavoidable expenses: car repairs, a computer crash, and maintenance on our home. When he returned home, there wasn’t much of a nest egg waiting for him. It was a frustrating time for both of us.

Non-combat Deployments = Less Income

His 2 most recent deployments (#6 and #7) have actually reduced his overall paychecks. Yes, he received geographic separation pay. However, because they were non-combat deployments, there was no additional hazardous duty or hardship pay. And because he was either on a ship or on an overseas military base with a chow hall, he no longer received Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS) to cover his food. Even though geographic separation pay was added, subtracting BAS from the paycheck reduced his typical pay by at least $50 per month. While this isn’t a terrible hardship, it was important to know when preparing our family’s deployment budget.

An additional income adjustment to consider was taxes. When the entire deployment is spent in non-combat zones, there will be no tax-free income. The service member’s entire paycheck will be reported on their W-2. This may put the family into a higher tax bracket and affect whether they qualify for the Earned Income Credit. A non-combat deployment is less likely to give you a tax refund than a combat deployment.

Extra Bills Contribute to the Cost of Deployment

During previous deployments, I saved money by suspending my service member’s cell phone plan, reducing our cell phone data package, and canceling subscriptions to his gaming programs, sports, and cable channels. Since my husband had very limited internet access during most deployments, it made sense to save that money while he was gone. Getting a military discount on your cell phone plan can also help if you don’t already have that activated.

However, his recent deployment was to a location with an established military base that offered Wi-fi in the barracks. Service members could pay $50/month to have internet access in their rooms. Some families chose to pay for an international cell phone plan. We learned that this was only an extra $5 per month for Sprint, but could be $50 per month from Verizon, adding to the cost of deployment.

Then there are recreational expenses. Some overseas bases grant weekend liberty (libbo) which allows service members to leave base and be tourists–enjoying local food, entertainment, or experiences like scuba diving. They pay for these excursions out of pocket.

For Navy and Marines deployed on ships, the service members are allowed to rent hotel rooms during port calls. These must be in approved DoD facilities, which are usually 5-star hotel chains. $200 per room per night is a lot of money to factor into a deployment budget! My husband opted not to stay in hotels, but those who did often racked up high bills for room service, drinks, or restaurant meals.

What’s in Your Deployment Budget?

Even if your service member has deployed before, a military family must recalculate their budget for every deployment. Will it be to combat or hazardous zones? Will they lose BAS? Can the family save money by cutting down household expenses? Will the service member need to budget for internet access, hotel rooms, or occasional tourist activities? A couple should work together to answer these questions and balance their household budget before deployment begins.

How has deployment affected your household budget?