Military service comes with significant benefits, including subsidized health care and housing. Serving can also provide a sense of purpose, direction and pride for military members and their families.
But active-duty life comes with myriad sacrifices, from long periods of family separation to dangerous deployments. Another common stressor—one that may be less expected—is money. Studies show that military families often struggle with finances and even food insecurity. Young service members, especially enlisted, typically earn low salaries, and spouses may struggle to maintain employment with frequent permanent changes of station (PSCs). Plus, PSCs often require hefty out-of-pocket costs, and in some areas, housing allowances aren't sufficient.
If you're one of the many military families feeling strapped for cash, there are many free resources and discounts available, far beyond VA loans and free museum days. Here are just a few that can help.
1. Exclusive Discount Programs
Retailers frequently support military families in the form of discounts, though it can be hard to keep track of who offers them and what the requirements are. To simplify, some services created marketplaces with loads of military discounts in one place. A few include:
- Veterans Advantage: Created by a veteran for the military community, this marketplace requires a paid membership with identity verification. Plans currently range from $4.99 to $9.99 per month, but the marketplace sometimes runs specials. Plans come with a huge marketplace of military discounts, including ones exclusive to Veterans Advantage for flights and hotels, which can make up for the fee.
- ID.me: This newer service functions like a digital wallet for accessing some government benefits and services. It also has discount portals for various populations, one being the military community. It requires registration and verification, but it's free with potentially huge savings.
- Blue Star Families: In addition to a large offering of resources, this nonprofit provides a free membership that comes with access to lots of military discounts and giveaways.
- Retail stores: Lowe's, Home Depot, Apple and many other stores offer year-round military discounts.
- Military.com: This website has a hub of military discounts, with no membership or registration required.
2. Subsidized Child Care Programs
There are several ways that military families can save on child care. Child Development Centers (CDCs) charge rates on a sliding scale based on family income. If you can't access child care through the military—perhaps your installation doesn't have a CDC or its waiting list is a mile long—you'll face higher child care costs in the civilian world. To help, each branch has fee assistance programs for families who require child care at civilian facilities but struggle to afford it.
In five regions, the military is currently operating a pilot program to offer fee assistance for in-home child care. Eligible families can get highly subsidized full-time, in-home care with no restrictions on days or times to accommodate non-traditional work schedules.
Another way to save big on child care: If a military member's civilian spouse needs a job, they can apply to work at their base's CDC. Employees get 50% off child care costs for one child, which can be a huge help.
3. Financial Assistance and Tax Prep
Your installation's family readiness or support center likely offers free financial counseling, and some even offer financial literacy classes. Additionally, Military OneSource, a service of the Department of Defense, offers free financial counseling by phone, live chat or secure video chat. These experts can help you learn money basics, create a budget, plan for college or retirement and even coach you on tackling debt.
Military families also get access to MilTax, a free tax prep and filing software with experts on hand.
4. Military Aid and Assistance Programs
Each branch has a financial aid or assistance program (sometimes called "society") for their service members and families. While programs and rules vary by branch, they commonly offer interest-free loans, emergency grants that don't need to be repaid, scholarships and subsidies for expenses. Potential uses could be flying home for a funeral, PCSing with a pet, recovering from a natural disaster or emergency, adopting a child and the like. Some programs also offer financial counseling, plus tangible items like child car seats and basic furniture and clothing.
These aid societies are well-funded through donations, but underutilized by military families. Some families simply don't know about them—but others don't apply because they think someone else needs the help more. But these organizations exist to help you, so don't hesitate to reach out.
For those who can't access local military relief society, the American Red Cross can fill in some of the gaps.
5. Travel and Recreation Savings
The military's Morale, Recreation and Welfare (MWR) programs are chock-full of affordable and fun activities and events for your family's free time. Some of their money-saving programs include:
- ITT: Military installations often have Information, Tickets and Travel (ITT) offices on-site, which sell discounted travel, sports and concert tickets, and theme park passes. Some ITT offices also organize their own day trips and tours, which are especially useful for those stationed overseas. You can access some ITT offerings online at American Forces Travel.
- Campground and recreational lodging: MWR has low-cost campgrounds around the country just for military families. Each site has varying amenities, with some only for tents or pop-up campers, but others with yurts and furnished cabins. For those who prefer cottages, hotels or resorts, check out MWR's Recreational Lodging, with budget-friendly facilities and recreation areas worldwide.
There are plenty of other ways to save money on travel if you look for them. For example, the National Park Service offers a free America the Beautiful pass to military families, which lets your family into 2,000 federal recreation sites at no cost.
No time to travel? MWR offers a great perk that often goes unnoticed: a free digital library. This exclusive portal offers free access to ebooks and audiobooks, digital classes, streaming media and academic and research tools that normally charge subscription fees.
6. Additional Services Through Your Branch
There are too many military saving programs to put in one article, but here are a few other important ones to know about:
- Food pantries: Many installations provide a food pantry, where military families in need can get free food items. There may also be food pantries in your local community.
- Installation attic and thrift shop: Some bases have volunteer-led "attics'' stocked with free donated items, like used uniforms and household furniture. Some are limited to junior enlisted service members. Bases also often have thrift shops, which are open to all military families and sell used items at a discount; during PCS season, you can find steals on items needed to set up your new home.
- Spouse licensure reimbursement: Military spouses with careers that require state licensure often struggle to retain work when moving. The service branches now reimburse military families for some of the cost of obtaining a new license upon a PCS; currently, most branches reimburse up to $1,000. Explore Military OneSource for other spouse employment benefits.
Don't Forget About Credit Benefits
It's helpful to know that money-saving solutions for military families extend to credit. There's the Military Lending Act, which caps interest rates at 36% and prohibits predatory lending practices. Additionally, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act lowers pre-service loan interest rates on debt to 6%, among other benefits.
To ensure your credit stays in good standing throughout the ups and downs of military life, sign up for Experian's free IDnotify program. This service for military members comes with free Experian credit reports and monitoring. You can also set up an active-duty alert, further protecting you from fraud and identity theft.