This story is part of, CNET’s coverage of how real people are coping with the high cost of living in the US.
For military families, packing up and moving to a new state or country every three years is just a normal part of life. That’s exactly what happened to my family this past summer, when my husband was re-stationed from Rota, Spain, to Southern California.
Some military families live on base, but there are long waiting lists, spanning from six months to over a year, and other regulations that have caused military families to seek housing off base. Eligible service members who live off base can receive a Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, to help with rent or mortgage costs.
While aspiring homeowners can delay their plans to buy a home in the face of soaring mortgage rates and home prices, military families are often not afforded the same opportunity. Due to mandatory, permanent-change-of-station moves and unrealistic military housing waitlists, our options are more limited. On the bright side, some reform is on its way and there are resources and relief to help service members. But military spouses are also coming up with their own solutions to help bridge financial gaps.
My husband and I became homeowners in June, and every day I’m reminded of the price of this decision. From paying over $6 a gallon for gas to cover our two-hour daily commutes, to forking over hundreds a month for groceries to feed a family of six, the bills feel endless. This summer, the California heat greeted us with $500 electric bills, an unwelcome accessory to our high monthly mortgage payment.
And my family isn’t alone in this struggle.
“The off-base housing market is incredibly competitive, and service members often find themselves priced out of the market or forced to live far from their duty stations,” said the Navy spokesperson for Fleet and Family, a support center for Navy and Marine Corps service families. Military families often need to make quick homebuying decisions as their families are ordered to relocate, which can lead to additional expenses.
Remote homebuying creates extra costs for military families
Brittney Cruse, a military spouse and mother of four, recently purchased a house in Rhode Island, after her husband received a permanent-change-of-station order. The Cruses were denied access to military housing due to shared-room restrictions, and they needed to act quickly.
The Cruses paid for a home inspection — an optional yet crucial step in the homebuying process — but since they weren’t able to be there in person during the walkthrough, they had to trust the paperwork. Though the Cruses requested a professional test for mold, this step was missed. Unfortunately, the family had signed all the final closing paperwork before realizing what was in store.
Shortly after moving in, the Cruses had to pay $10,000 to repair mold damage. Since they had already signed off on the inspection, the Cruses were left with no option but to pay for the repairs out of pocket, draining their savings.
Many military families might also feel rushed through the home-inspection process, or may choose to forgo it altogether, in the interest of time and money. Cruse recommends opting for an inspection and making sure you can be there in person during the walkthrough, if possible.
High mortgage payments and the rising cost of essentials are also eating into the Cruses’ budget. “I used to be able to go get our groceries for around or less than $300 for two weeks. Now I have to go weekly, and it’s $300,” said Cruse.
The Basic Allowance for Housing helps, though Cruse noted it barely covers their mortgage. With utilities averaging $1,000 a month, and grocery bills going up, Cruse took on a part-time job to make ends meet.
Finding part-time work is difficult for military spouses
With no additional aid, many military spouses are stepping in to try to cover the financial gaps, an effort that’s challenging because of the need for flexible work hours.
The number of Americans taking on side hustles and part-time work has grown significantly in the past few years. But military spouses face obstacles in securing flexible work, which is necessary to meet the demands and constant relocation of the military lifestyle. Even though Cruse has a master’s in business administration, getting additional income is no easy task because service members move around so often.
If additional work is off the table entirely, that leaves military families relying on just one paycheck. “If BAH isn’t covering rent and utilities, then it’s dipping into the paycheck that’s for groceries and other essentials we need monthly,” said Cruse.
And for those who can secure work, it’s often in industries they’re overqualified for.
Shatoya Downs, another military spouse, certified nurse assistant and mother of three, recently traded in her scrubs to become a cashier at the local Navy Exchange. A flexible position was necessary for their family, particularly as her active-duty husband prepared to retire from the US Navy after 20 years of service.
While Downs’ new position helps make ends meet, her family has made the emotional decision to leave their home state of California due to surging home prices in order to retire somewhere more affordable. “Even with my husband getting 100% [disability] from his VA rating, he would most likely have to get a job right away instead of being able to enjoy his retirement,” said Downs.
Resources to help military families cope with housing costs
There is a light on the horizon, though, as new legislation aims to provide more aid to struggling military members and their families.
In October, the Department of Defense issued a series of actions to help military families. It temporarily increased BAH rates for service members stationed in 28 military housing areas who were experiencing the most significant impact from high housing costs. This initiative also included a measure to help cut the cost of groceries at commissaries, which are on-base food markets, to at least 25% of local grocery store prices. A basic needs allowance will also be provided to service members with dependents who display significant financial need.
Financial assistance for housing is also on the way. Military families will receive increased funding to help support temporary lodging expenses, offering families more time to locate affordable housing, without depleting their savings during the process.
Starting in 2023, military personnel will also see a 4.6% pay increase.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has also directed the Department of Defense to improve military spouse employment opportunities. Increased efforts include military spouse hiring partnerships, noncompetitive job opportunities, remote and flexible options and expanded affordable child care facilities. A recent FlexJobs and Spouse Education and Career Opportunities partnership, for instance, connects military spouses struggling to find flexible work to a range of jobs of varying expertise levels.
And there are other immediate solutions military families can explore.
First, military members looking for low-cost financing for homes have access to VA loans, which are low-interest home loans with no down-payment requirements, lower credit-score thresholds and other benefits.
Grants and no-interest loan options are also available to help military families cover the costs of housing, child care, emergency and everyday essentials. A few options include:
Additionally, military branches offer free support services, like Fleet and Family, which provides Navy and Marine Corp families with access to financial specialists, money counseling, workshops and other resources.
“Everyone experiences financial difficulty at times,” said the Navy spokesperson for Fleet and Family. “You are not alone, do not be ashamed to ask for help.”