By Claire Wood
This year, I have been documenting some of the financial rhythms that military families face. From general cash flow planning in January to analyzing insurance needs in February, to weighing the options of buying or renting a home in March, a retirement check-in in April, to the importance of vacation planning in May, one undeniably vital category of money management for all military families is planning for a PCS.
If you are in the midst of a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) like my family is right now, or if you anticipate one in the coming months, this time of transition and the ensuing expenses can become a huge drain on your personal finances and even your mental health.
Like the certainty of death and taxes, changing duty assignments just comes with the territory of military life. Now more than ever, families are having to be deliberate and calculated with their planning in order for the transition to be a smooth one that doesn’t end up costing our hard-earned money in the end.
My family had a PCS in the summer of 2020 just as the global pandemic was getting underway. We thought then that these unique circumstances made for a stressful move. We were met with delays with orders, delays with permission to leave our duty station, delays with scheduling transportation, delays with redelivery of household goods, and even delays with truly settling in at our new assignment due to severe pandemic related restrictions.
However, our PCS in the summer of 2022 has thus far offered us just as many challenges. Between the intensely competitive rental and home-buying markets, to the significant increases in housing costs, food, and fuel prices due to historic inflation, for the first time in our 11 years of service, this move just might end up costing us more than what the military covers in allowances and reimbursements.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, and you are currently in the process of PCSing or have one just on the horizon, here are 10 tips to help you make the most of your planning.
1. Know the intricate details of your income and expenses.
If you haven’t taken the time to properly educate yourself on every single penny coming in and going out of your household, now is the time to dig in, investigate, and commit to a written or digital budget.
Get a copy of your servicemember’s most recent Leave and Earnings Statement (LES), your own pay stub, or records of any other allotment of money coming in and take note of what you have. It will be extremely important to understand this financial snapshot as you begin to shop for housing and other upcoming expenses at your new duty assignment. This exercise may even reveal and determine the need for additional income or employment.
2. Use your transition to audit your spending and recurring expenses.
There’s no better time to make changes to your budget than during a transition. Could you cut cable or some of your streaming services? Are there any subscriptions that you truly aren’t using? Do you have any gym memberships or security service contracts that you will be canceling due to your move that you could possibly live without in your new city?
If you have been previously tied to a certain set of expenses, a PCS offers a natural opportunity to make significant changes to your lifestyle. Do an audit, line by line in your budget, to see where you can create some margin.
3. Check up on your vehicles.
Besides housing expenses, most people’s next highest expense is their vehicles. A key to making your PCS travel easy is to assess what needs your cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, or other recreational items like boats or RVs may have. Will you sell or store a vehicle? Do any of your vehicles need routine maintenance, oil changes, a new set of tires, or an emissions test before you hit the road? Plan ahead to cover these costs and schedule them in advance of your move. Knowing your cars will serve you reliably on trips across the country will bring you peace of mind. Don’t forget to update your registration and auto insurance when you change residences.
4. Research current military allowances and reimbursements.
Before you consider a personally procured move (PPM), those hotel reservations, the trailer rental, or plan your route to your new home, have your servicemember get up to date on any changes to dislocation allowances, per diems, mileage, and reimbursement policies by a visit to the installation’s transportation office or website.
You want to maximize the dollars you will receive for your move and you don’t want to let some policy change or fine print of a rule penalize you from what is owed to you. Knowing when these dollars will hit your account is an additional piece of information that can be incredibly helpful in your financial planning.
5. Decide how you plan to pay for your incidental costs.
Once you have a good idea of what is covered or reimbursable by the military, the next step is to figure out how you plan to pay for transitory expenses up front. Will you save ahead of time and use cash? Will you do your spending on your debit card from one account or another? Move a set amount from savings and then pay yourself back when the military pays you? Or will you put all expenses on a credit card and pay it off later?
If your move falls between pay periods or if you will owe significant deposits or down payments, be sure you have thought about what money is coming from where.
6. If you are “cash-flowing” the PCS, where will the extra funds come from?
One practice my family has tried to implement since our first PCS, is to begin about six months out, setting aside a monthly amount of money earmarked just for our move. Sometimes it’s a small amount and sometimes it’s a larger amount. We have found that having an infusion of cash built up ahead of time is always necessary for the extra fuel costs, extra eating out during the transition, and even purchasing those last minute items for the new place.
We consider this almost like a sinking fund much like a car repair category or Christmas gifts, where a monthly amount added up over time can then be used freely for those incidentals that pop up along the way.
7. Don’t be surprised by surprise expenses.
It seems that no matter how far in advance you start planning, how much research and preparation you do, there is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS some unexpected expense right around the time of the move.
Call it Murphy’s Law or just the luck of the PCS, but it never fails that just when you think you can’t possibly be spending any more money, you realize that your on-post housing contract was set to take your rent in arrears and, “surprise,” you actually do owe one last month of rent to the property management company the day you clear housing. Or, “surprise,” your five-year-old dog that has been perfectly healthy his whole life suddenly requires two different emergency trips to the vet for epileptic seizures the week of the move. (Ask me how I know.)
While most of these circumstances can be chalked up to “that’s just life,” it will keep your sanity in check to realize that unexpected expenses should actually be expected after all.
8. Find healthy (and inexpensive) ways to cope with the stress of the PCS.
Some experts rank a relocation right up there with death and divorce on the scale of stressful life events. If you have moved before, you probably know this to be true. Moving is stressful. In times of stress it can feel easy to excuse bad habits and mentally give yourself a pass on doing what’s good for you, both physically and financially.
For most of us, this looks like overconsumption. Maybe it’s one too many Target runs, one too many trips through the drive-thru for convenience food, one too many drinks from the hotel mini-bar, or too much scrolling on your phone because you’re out of sync with your routines.
Instead, find alternatives for coping. Instead of the trip to Target, take a family drive to a new local park in your new town. Instead of the drive-thru, grab some prepackaged salad ingredients and a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket. Instead of another drink, lace up your tennis shoes and take a walk around the hotel. And instead of mindlessly letting your phone entertain and drain you, try reconnecting with your spouse or children with a quick conversation to check in with how everyone is really doing during this chaotic time. If all else fails, don’t forget the power of a good nap. Sleep covers a multitude of problems.
9. If Possible, Use What You Already Have
A PCS can often feel like a legitimate excuse to let your spending run rampant. In addition to the outpouring of costs to fill up your fuel tanks, feed your family, and get settled in your new home, sometimes it seems completely justifiable to go out and buy anything and everything brand new to complete your new home. Some of your things will obviously need replacement, like a fresh shower liner or some basic pantry staples. However, a PCS can also be a good time to practice delayed gratification and contentment. Make a game out of seeing just how creative you can get in reusing and repurposing furniture and decor items in new and unique ways.
10. Take a Deep Breath
When your PCS cycle is just getting underway and even into the first days and weeks at your new assignment, the weight and expense of pulling up your roots to replant them elsewhere is intense. Even with the most careful planning and preparation, your ends may not feel like they are meeting. Or said another way, you have more month at the end of your money. It’s true, our dollars are not stretching as far as they once did and having to relocate on an already tight budget may feel impossible.
Try not to let a PCS derail you and realize that you can only do what you can do. Make good decisions where you can, stay organized with your budget and filing of paperwork for allowances and reimbursements, and don’t go into debt for things that are not necessary at the moment. If you find yourself completely overwhelmed, use this as a learning opportunity to plan better for the next PCS. If you find yourself in true financial distress, Military One Source can direct you to resources for Emergency Relief.
Claire Wood is a military spouse who calls home anywhere the Army sends her. She loves reading, hosting friends, and keeping houseplants alive. She shares on Instagram @home_sweet_military_home and her 2015 book, Mission Ready Marriage is available on Amazon.
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