Some people may be discouraged by the relatively low monthly pay that Air Force members receive at the beginning of their career, but in order to have a clear view of what you are actually receiving it’s important to consider all of benefits of military service.
First of all, for more information on the actual pay you will receive, make sure to read about military pay.
Free medical coverage is one of the best military benefits for both the military member themselves as well as the member’s family. TriCare is the military health insurance plan and covers almost everything for the military member including dental, vision, etc. Coverage is very similar for the member’s family, but there may be some small costs involved such as dental coverage. Knowing that you are covered for any medical problems you or your family may have is a great relief, especially in the current economy where medical care is expensive and hard to come by with many jobs.
The military also provides cheap life insurance under the Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance (SGLI) program. When you go to basic training you will be given the option to enroll in this program so that your family will be taken care of should you pass away while in the military. For the maximum coverage of $400,000 you will only pay $27 per month at current rates and it is taken out of your pay automatically so you won’t even miss it or think about it.
Education is another great benefit of Air Force service.
Tuition Assistance gives the active duty Air Force member up to $4,500 a year for school while enlisted. There is a limit of $250 per semester hour, but most state schools and online schools like American Military University will meet this limit, allowing you to generally take six classes per year while you are in the Air Force, completely free of charge. Some schools such as AMU, linked above, also give your books to you for free, meaning you can attend school 100% free while enlisted (and even sell the books back for a profit).
Basic training, tech school, your Career Development Courses (CDCs) and Airman Leadership School (ALS) also earn you college credit from the Community College of the Air Force which can be transferred to most universities and also of course applies to the Associate’s Degree you can receive from the CCAF in your career field after taking a few general education requirements such as english, math, and speech classes.
The other education benefit you receive is the GI Bill, which is a benefit provided by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. The Montgomery GI Bill is the current benefit and was signed into law in 1944 after World War II. The bill provides money for an individual that served in the military to pay to attend college. In August of 2009 a new bill will become law, called the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This GI Bill is better in many ways than the Montgomery GI Bill and is available to any military member that served more than 90 days of active duty after 9/11, 2001.
After serving 36 months of active duty, a military member is eligible to receive 100% of the benefits of the bill which include:
- Tuition paid directly to the school up to the highest cost of tuition in that state for a public college. See this list for the tuition paid for each state.
- Basic Allowance for Housing based on an E-5 with dependents to cover living expenses. This amount varies based on the location of the school and is not paid if you use the GI Bill while still on Active Duty or if you are taking online classes from an online-only university. Calculate the amount of BAH you’d get based on the zip code of the school you’d like to attend.
- $1,000 a year to cover the cost of textbooks. Not paid if you use the GI Bill while still on active duty.
- $500 one-time bonus if you live in a rural area or have to move a long distance to attend the school (not everyone will qualify for this).
- The benefits are transferrable to your spouse or children, if you meet time-in-service requirements.
For help choosing between the two, the scenarios here are helpful. Also this chart comparing the Montgomery GI Bill & the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Military members can also take CLEP and DANTES exams for free, which can help quickly knock out a significant amount of the required generals to put towards your CCAF associates degree or a bachelors degree through another school.
Leave / Sick days
As an active duty Air Force member you will accrue 2.5 days of paid leave per month, for a total of 30 days paid vacation per year. You can hold 60 days of paid leave at any given time. It will depend on your job and your commander whether you will only be able to take a couple weeks of this at a time or if they’ll allow you to take a whole month off at one time.
Also of note, leave that you earn while in a combat area where you qualify for tax-free pay will also be tax free when you use that leave. For example, say you are deployed to Afghanistan for four months. Not only will also of your regular pay while deployed to that location be tax-free, but the 10 days of leave that you earn while deployed there will also be tax-free when you use those days after returning home.
Paid sick days are unlimited, but you will not want to call in sick while serving in the Air Force just because you got drunk the night before or stayed up all night playing video games as this is considered malingering and is punishable by the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) Article 115 and can include a dishonorable discharge and a year in prison.
In simple terms, if you serve 20 years in the Air Force and get out, you will immediately begin receiving half of your last pay check for the rest of your life, and it’s even adjusted for inflation each year. For much more detail into the exact figures, please see this article. This means that if you enlist at 20 years old, you could serve 20 years and retire from the military at 40 and you’d start receiving half of your last pay check immediately, and could then go and have another full career until age 60 and have two retirements to live off of, plus any additional retirement accounts you had paid into.
One of those retirement accounts that you could pay into is the Thrift Savings Plan, which is basically the government equivalent of a 401(k). This is a long-term tax-deferred savings program that you can pay into to boost your retirement pay. It is very easy to set it up automatically so that you can put away a percentage of your monthly pay automatically without even thinking about it.
Unmarried Air Force members generally live in on-base dormitories for the first few years that they are enlisted, if they are avaiable on the base. These dormitories are provided free of charge, though you may have to pay for extra expenses such as an internet connection in your room or cable TV if you want it. This is a great time to save money, as your expenses are very low and you’re receiving a steady paycheck.
If married or the circumstances allow for you to live outside of the dormitories, you will be given Basic Allowance for Housing, which is a tax-free allowance that is included in your monthly pay to cover the cost of housing. It varies depending on location and can be calculated here. This is a great benefit to military service and can almost double your income for newly enlisted members, depending on where you are stationed, and the best part is that it is not figured at all in your yearly income tax. You keep the full BAH amount regardless of the actual amount of rent. So if you are receiving $1,000 a month in BAH but are sharing an apartment with a roommate and only pay $500 in rent, you can pocket the other $500 and use it however you like.
All moves are covered by the military as well, as long as the military is requiring you to move. For instance the military pays for you to move to your first base from your house after you finish tech school. They will also pay for the move if you are assigned to a different base and required to move. The only thing they don’t cover is if you decide to move to another apartment across town just because you don’t like your current apartment. The military will either cover all of the costs for you to rent a U-haul and move yourself, or they will pay a moving company to pack and haul everything for you or a combination of the two.
The military is big on family and provides many different programs to support the family of military members.
Inexpensive child care can be found on most bases at the Child Development Centers. The fee for child care is based on rank so that it can be affordable and fit into even an Airman’s budget. Many military spouses also run day cares out of their homes on base, providing another source of child care for a working family.
There are multiple scholarships available for military spouses, frequently through spouse groups on base and other larger organizations as well.
Legal advice is free through the legal office on base and you can have Wills, powers of attorney and bills of sale and other contracts drawn up for free.
Family members have access to all of the on-base services including the gym, swimming pool, bowling alley, golf course, library, movie theater, etc (depending on the base of course).
An Airman and Family Readiness Center is also available on most bases and they provide many services from counseling to budgeting classes to helping spouses cope with their loved one being deployed, etc.
The commissary is the grocery store located on most bases and looks and functions just like a normal grocery store. The prices are on average about 30% lower than a regular grocery store, which definitely helps with the monthly food bills!
The BX is the Base Exchange and is a regular department store type establishment run by AAFES. You can think of it as basically a Wal-Mart, as they have clothes, kitchenware, housewares, electronics, media, books, tools, toys, etc. The BX matches prices of competitors in the area, so it is easy to do all of your shopping there.
The best part of both the BX and commissary is that you don’t pay sales tax at either place, which is another source of savings. (The commissary does charge some sort of service fee, but it is lower than sales tax in most places)
The activities available on base will of course vary from base to base, but some of the things you can expect to find on many bases is a golf course, bowling alley, library, movie theater, enlisted and officer’s clubs, swimming pool, gym, wellness center (cooking classes, help with workouts, training, etc), chapel, youth center, auto hobby shop, etc.
There is also an outdoor recreation center available on many bases that offers cheap equipment rentals such as bikes, skis, snowboards, kayaks, climbing equipment, surfboards, etc. They also frequently run tours and trips, depending on location. For instance in Colorado they frequently take ski trips or white water rafting trips.
The Tickets and Tours office on base can also provide you with many cheap tickets to events such as major leage sports games, plays, amusement parks, vacation packages, cruises, etc.
Air Force members can enjoy space-a or space available travel, which are also called “hops” and allow the military member and dependents to travel anywhere a military flight is going on a space available basis for free or for a very small fee (as in $10 small). The big disadvantage to these flights is that they are space available, meaning there are no reservations. If a flight is canceled then you just have to wait until the next one. If it leaves early or late then you are either there or you aren’t.
You are also eligible to stay at Armed Forces Recreation Centers such as the Hale Koa Hotel in Hawaii which provides very inexpensive lodging for vacations.
Another nice bonus is military discounts almost everywhere you go. These are completely voluntary programs, but you’ll find as you ask around that many businesses will knock 10% – 20% off the cost of a meal or service just for being in the military. Even large companies like Apple and Microsoft and many auto dealers have military discount programs. It never hurts to ask when at a restaurant or any other business if they offer any type of military discount. The worst they can do is say no!
Serve your country
While it sounds cliched and may not be a strong attraction for some people, it is a good feeling to serve your country and know that your job “matters”. People frequently come up to me while I’m in uniform at a restaurant or store and thank me for my service or just come up and shake my hand. It is a good feeling to be appreciated for what you do and to know that you are a part of the only 1% of the US population that serves their country in the military.