Military families, like many in this country, are struggling with inflation, and in some cases, the military lifestyle exacerbates it.
They’re cutting back on purchases, settling for cheaper but lesser quality items in some products like diapers, doing more cost comparisons, stretching their food purchases into multiple meals, combining trips and driving less in their efforts to fight skyrocketing inflation. Many said vacations are simply out of the question this year. One wife of a deployed Marine said that among the many things they’ve given up is their international cell phone plan, which they’ve used during past deployments.
Some are seeing their savings dwindle or evaporate — if they had savings to begin with. And whether they’re officers or enlisted, many are worried about how the junior enlisted families are going to make it. A number said they are relying more on the commissary for their food shopping, but some cited continuing problems with shortages on their commissary’s shelves. Some are going to food banks, if they’re available.
Consumer prices were up by 8.6% in the year ending in May. Service members and families are doing what they can to squeeze their own budgets, but some are also offering suggestions to the powers-that-be for helping all troops, such as providing more base housing, higher housing allowances, and a temporary Cost of Living Allowance for all service members, regardless of their location.
Military Times put out a call for service members and family members to tell us how inflation is affecting them.
An Army master sergeant with a family of six said, “our head is above water, but I’m not sure for how long. We will be dipping into our savings at this rate.”
An officer stationed in Hawaii said her family is struggling. “We have blown through our savings already and there is no way we can afford to take a vacation this year….. The cost of living here is insane. With rising rental and fuel costs we are also considering moving on post to cut expenses, even though we PCS in less than a year.”
They spend $200 a week on gas driving to work, medical appointments, school and sports. “We now shop exclusively at the commissary although the shelves are often empty due to supply issues,” she said.
“We would like another child but we just can’t see how we could afford it. We are very stressed out about finances and something needs to change quickly,” said the officer, an O4.
“My husband and I say often, ‘We’ve never earned so much but felt so poor.’ "
Those who responded all cited food and gas prices as a top concern, and there are plenty of ripple effects.
The wife of a Marine sergeant at Twentynine Palms, California, wrote that “thankfully my family is still barely breathing, but I know many that are not making it due to inflation rates and high gas prices.” She said she has started canning, “because we think this inflation is only going to get worse.
“My husband is also looking into getting a bicycle to ride back and forth to work so we can save money on gas… It’s crazy because we are down to $150 to $200 left over in [his] paycheck, when it used to be close to $500,” she said.
Their grocery bill for a family of three has gone from between $400 and $500 a month to between $600 and $700. Two years ago it took about $60 to fill their car’s gas tank; now it’s almost $120.
An Air Force technical sergeant who recently moved to Germany said, “With such a large family to feed we are not purchasing as much healthy foods as before, and unfortunately have been eating more prepackaged foods.”
His family of seven includes three school-age children, and they’re already thinking about the need to purchase school supplies, with prices constantly increasing. Their family also includes two pets, and airlines have increased the cost for transporting “our beloved family members,” he said.
“A PCS in the middle of record inflation, combined with the lowering of COLA (it is nearly gone) in Germany, is a double whammy for my family,” he wrote.
On top of that, jobs are scarce for his wife, a registered nurse, who had been an elementary school nurse for the last eight years in Idaho.
Many of those in the process of making a military move are facing additional financial stressors of high housing prices and shortages of housing in the U.S.. Last year in response to the skyrocketing cost of housing, DoD authorized a temporary increase in Basic Allowance for Housing for 56 housing areas, from October through December, before the new housing allowance rates took effect in January.
Stephanie Trask, the wife of a Marine staff sergeant, said her family is in the process of moving from Fort Worth, Texas, to Jacksonville, North Carolina, and “it has been a nightmare from hell.” Her husband will be stationed at New River Marine Corps Air Station.
Their housing allowance in Texas is manageable, and they are currently paying $179 out of pocket for rent. But the waitlist for base housing in Jacksonville is 12 months, and the rental market is expensive.
“We are basically being forced to buy a house in this sellers’ market AND come out of pocket hundreds of dollars [a month] or be homeless,” she wrote. “On top of this housing crisis is all the inflation we are experiencing, so now we have to come out of pocket hundreds of dollars just to put a roof over our heads, then deal with higher gas prices and food. We won’t have any money left.”
After their first three offers on houses were turned down because other buyers were offering $25,000 or more over the asking price, their fourth offer was accepted. “To make the payment somewhat manageable we had to do a $20,000 down payment and bring almost $6,000 to closing to get a ‘decent’ rate for these days. We will still be coming out of pocket almost $300 a month, all just for our house.
“We will also be farther from town because the houses out there were cheaper, so it will be about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on where we need to go,” she said, which means more money for gas.
During this process, she added, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried about all of this. The fact that the military, DoD, government officials are not doing anything is just absolutely ridiculous.”
An active duty E4 sailor who is a single mother of a toddler said she was on a well-managed budget while stationed in Virginia, but that budget suffered when she moved to Florida in October. “That budget has gotten much tighter. Not only does living in Florida cost more, but the current economy has made it worse.
“I have sought help with WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), but they claim I make too much, yet I make barely enough. I’ve tried applying for second jobs, but with my active duty hours, no one is willing to hire me,” she said.
She also has to drive her personal vehicle to the various air fields they support, which means more money out of pocket. “Many of us are just feeding our paycheck to the pumps,” she said.
“I wish I had advice for someone, especially new sailors on how to stay afloat, but I don’t. The only thing I’m blessed for during these hard times is being able to spend more time with my daughter outside. Air is free, dirt is free, and enjoying this Florida sun is free,” she said. “As a service member, my advice is utilize your base gyms (free), go to the commissary more, and something that has helped me a lot with gas is downloading gas station apps.”
Being in remote areas can hurt, as well.
One Marine wife at Twentynine Palms, California, said inflation has forced them to stay home. “Any entertainment we can afford, is at least an hour’s drive away,” she said.
“Not including ticket prices, but with gas prices as they are, it can cost much more money just to drive anywhere,” she added.
They also rely on the commissary nearby, because other grocery stores out in town are 15 to 20 minutes away.
But it’s also affecting necessities like medical appointments. Her son has been referred to a medical specialist, but the only audiologist they were able to get an appointment with is about 100 miles away from their home at Twentynine Palms — and that’s a full tank of gas for the round trip.
“I have to save money just to transport my children to their medical appointments,” she said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.