Friday, October 28, 2011

The Invisible Military Spouse: how the new retirement proposal misses a huge piece of the financial planning puzzle

Even as Secretary of Defense Panetta starts to back pedal about the proposed radical changes in military retirement, there is a lot of fear of the unknown.  Just today I overheard a conversation between a military spouse and an active duty nurse while trying on some jeans at the mall.  It seems that nobody really knows what is going on.  There are people who swear that retirement "can't" be changed.  They believe that the bait and switch of it would be such an affront that it just isn't possible and are comforted by the fallacy that the public would be too outraged to allow such a change. Then there are the people who look at it and feel that financially, our current retirement system is extremely expensive and out of date.

As is true with most organizations, people are pricey.  Whether it be salaries, benefits, or retirement, the human factor of most budgets is enormous.  In the military, keeping up with the costs for retirees who have earned free health care and a pension is draining.  In today's system, a young person can enlist at 18 and retire at 38, then go on to collect their pension and medical benefits while working a second career.  As people live longer and require more medical care, the costs are higher than ever.

At first blush, I get where "they" (The Defense Business Board) are coming from when they take aim at my husband's retirement benefits.  It looks like a windfall, out of date, and too good to be true retirement package that needs to be updated.  The times, they are a changin', right?  Yes.  But as this committee seems to have missed completely, the ways of the world have changed in more ways than one.

Recently a PowerPoint was distributed to active duty military members outlining the proposal.  Lucky for them, I was just geeky enough to read every last word.  My background is not in economics or finance nor am I particularly in love with researching it.  But there is no excuse for putting your head in the sand and willing this issue away.  I want to be educated because my husband and I are a team, this is my money and security too. I am not naive enough to think this won't be on the table again for another 10 years when my husband will be eligible to retire.  Please.  Panetta might be able to stiff arm it for now, but retirement is going to change - it is just a matter of when and how.  And the more we know a spouses, the more we can question the people making these decisions and hope that the decisions are smart and fair.

Reading this details to the retirement changes made me feel invisible as a military spouse.  It made me wonder if the people who created it and researched it actually gave thought to the military family as a whole and not just to my husband as a monetary expense that needs to be lowered.  I actually searched the document and in 24 pages the word "spouse" isn't mentioned one time.  The word "family" is mentioned one time.  It made me sad and really illustrated the painful truth that at the end of the day, the military doesn't truly get the sacrifices that the whole family makes.  Or how retirement benefits are for the family, not just the service member, especially in this lifestyle.  My rose colored glasses are officially off. 

Even more laughable was how the entire presentation was comparing the military lifestyle to the private sector.  If I have learned anything over the past eight and a half years, you cannot for one solitary second compare the military family experience to the private sector experience.  I'm not going to go into some whiny diatribe about why but it is painfully obvious that the DBB glossed over some really important factors when making their recommendations.

When I was a brand new military spouse and in graduate school I was completely naive to how draining starting and stopping a career is.  How every time I move, even if I am lucky enough to land a new job, I am exhausted the whole first year while I learn a new system, culture and set of personalities and responsibilities.  Since my husband and I were married in 2003 I have left two wonderful jobs where I earned good money and benefits.  Two tenured jobs.  I realize how completely golden tenured positions are in this economy, and I have walked away from both of them because Uncle Sam needed my husband somewhere else.  The latest one just last fall.   In between those jobs I didn't make an income.  Our family had to depend on my husband's salary only. When I'm not working, we save less.  Simple math.

In a report I did for a class back in 2005, I researched the losses that military spouses experience while being married to active duty service members.  Here is a small excerpt (references will be at the end of the post):

On average, military families earn substantially less annually than their civilian counterparts. Hosek (2002) states, over the 1997-1999 period, husband-and-wife family earnings totaled $51,115 on average for civilian families and $40,587 for military families, or $10,527 less (p.xii). Military families often times have a great deal of difficulty making ends meet. 41% of wives married to E-3 and below characterized themselves as being "in over [their] head" (Bureika, et al, 1999). Importantly, the primary reason for this problem is the lower earnings of military wives as compared to earnings of civilian wives. It has been documented that military wives may be willing to accept jobs at lower wages rather than spending more time to find a higher wage job (RAND, 2003, p. 2). Lower earnings for military wives often stem from variables over which they have no control, including frequent moves, undesirable duty stations, lack of seniority, and overwhelming familial responsibilities due to deployments. The total undiscounted loss of a three-year rotation policy is fully 40% of what the wife would have earned had she been able to remain at one location for six years (Gill & Haurin, 1998). Military families are also three times more likely to have an out-of-country move during their career. The longer distance moves entail a greater financial loss due to decreased work time for spouses (RAND, 2003).

40% over six years, people!  Do that math over 20 years, then add interest that the money lost would have made. Because the military expects families to PCS every 3 or so years, they are asking military spouses to sacrifice a lot professionally.  And if the Defense Budget Board is going to start comparing the military to the private sector, they are going to have to start looking more closely at the choices families living in the private sector are making.

It is a sad fact that many families need to be dual income in order to survive.  Especially ones in the income range of military members.  The idea that a woman will stay home when the children are born and dad will work to earn enough to live on and retire is "a thing of the past" and the demise of pensions is a large part of that.  In order to afford to live and play for tomorrow, two incomes is the norm.

Here is the crux of the issue (sorry this has taken me so long):  If the military models their retirement after the private sector then we cannot afford to stay in the military.  If every penny we make today is the only money that we will ever have to invest and save, then I need to be working.  Full time.  Just like a gigantic portion of the civilian population.  We can't afford for me to take a 40% hit every 6 years if the military removes the pension security blanket.  My husband loves his job and is extremely loyal, but we are not martyrs.  And I refuse to jeopardize our future, the future of my children's college educations, and our comfort because the military decided that somehow our lifestyle mirrors that of a doctor or accountant.

The pension isn't perfect, but it offers some financial security that allows us to live this unique lifestyle, that allows my husband to serve his country without worrying about how he is already making a fraction of what he would make at a private engineering firm.  If the military decides that we aren't worth the pension, I have a feeling that many valuable assets (people) will decide to go make a go at the 401K system from the comfort of a job that doesn't send them away for 12 month deployments or ask their kids to change schools 3 times in 6 years.

I hope that the DBB, the President, the Secretary of Defense, and all other powers that be start paying more attention to the finances of the military family and not individual service member when making these retirement changes.  If they do, I think they will realize that stripping the pension would make the military unaffordable for many families.  And a financial sacrifice that many good people aren't willing to make.


Bureika, R., Riser, M., Salvucci, S., Maxfield, B., & Simmons, R. (1999).
Effective strategies to assist spouses of junior enlisted members with employment: analysis of the 1997 survey of spouses of enlisted personnel. Defense Manpower Data Center Report 99-007, Arlington, VA.

Gill, H.L. & Haurin, D.R. (1998). Wherever he may go: how wives affect their husband‘s career
decisions. Social Science Research, 27, 264-279.

Hosek, J., Asch, B., Fair, C.C., Martin, C., & Mattock, M. (2002).
employment and earnings of military wives compared with those of civilian wives.
Monica, CA: RAND

RAND Research Brief. (2003).
13, 2005, from The employment and earnings of military wives. Retrieved April
Sunday, October 23, 2011

This Morning...

This morning I woke up and noticed black paint under my fingernails.  Paint from making HOMECOMING SIGNS with the VAW 124 OSSG last night!  We are getting so close!

It is the little things...

The past week has been very routine.  I have actually enjoyed the slow pace and the feeling that I really don't have to worry about being anywhere specific.  The weather has been gorgeous so I have been walking Kate to and from preschool every day, walking to the library, and spending a lot of time at the playground.  Yesterday I had my backyard professionally overhauled so that a summer's worth of debris and pine needles and weeds wouldn't preclude my kids from having fun.  Kate LOVES being outside, but after several major storms I didn't feel comfortable with her back there and truly didn't have the time or energy to fix it myself.  Plus, the mosquitos have been KILLER this year and my daughter inherited my "if a mosquito is within a 5 mile radius it heads straight for me" gene.  John can sit outside for an hour - no bites.  I sit outside for 10 minutes and get covered in them.  As it gets cooler, I have noticed a decrease in those little suckers.

Overall, this has been a good week!  Sorry for the series of boring blog posts.  I have some things on my mind that I want to write about, but lately I have been spending my free time reading and exercising and not as much time on the Internet.  That is probably good - but my blog is a bit neglected (I need to keep working on that education section!).

I hope everyone is having a wonderful weekend! 
Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Love Affair with Fall

Glorious, wonderful, amazing, delicious fall.  With your pretty colors, crunchy leaves, pumpkins, apples, football, hoodies, perfect weather, outdoor farms and festivals, hayrides, pumpkin carving, Halloween, and family. 

I went up to Northern Virginia for the weekend to visit family and friends.  It was so exciting because I knew I would see friends and those extra hands would mean getting to do so many of the fun fall things I love and want to share with Kate and Connor.  I saw my mom for the first time since August and my grandparents for the first time since July.  I also got to see some good friends, hit the wonderful playground near my mom's (Clemyjontri Park for those in Northern Virginia), went to a pumpkin patch, and more.

Kate and Connor got to enjoy their first hayride...

Krops Crops, Great Falls, VA

My dad and Connor enjoying the ride

We got to pick pumpkins...

Connor smiling at someone else's camera

Kate with her bestie, Auntie Mel
Eat apples...

And even fly a plane...

It's obvious that Connor is driving and Kate is sightseeing

It was a wonderful weekend.  It was my last planned road trip until after John gets home.  While traveling is an adventure and helps pass the time, I would be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to having my partner and best friend back to share the load with. 

I hope you are all enjoying the fall season!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Remembering our Babies

I can still remember the sounds, the lighting, and the buzz of the place.  But I remember it as though it is an out of body experience, like I am looking at myself from across the room and not believing it was really me or that it really happened.

I was sobbing.  Hiding my face in my hands, elbows on my lap, wondering what I was doing and how I had gotten there.  Trying not to look up and see the happy families around me.  I was embarrassed, ashamed, devastated, and confused.  I felt invisible and alone in the huge void of that hospital waiting room.

But someone saw me.  A perfect stranger walked over to me, took my hand and placed a small note, and then walked away before I could even look up.  I never saw her face.  I'll never know who she was. 

You are beautiful.

It's obvious you are hurting.  I'll be praying for you.
And remember, God always has the last word.

Four years later, I still have this scrap of paper.  Four years later, I still remember the kind words from the perfect stranger.

Four years ago today my husband and I got the news that no parent ever wants to get.  Our first baby, a much wanted, loved, and anticipated baby, no longer had a heartbeat.  I was in that waiting room to get a higher resolution ultrasound to confirm what we already know - our baby had died.  And along with it all of the dreams and anticipation and hopes for that baby had died with it.

Miscarriage is extremely lonely.  If you haven't been there, you just simply don't understand.  It has been called the silent sorrow because even wonderful, well intentioned husbands, friends, and family members cannot grasp the level of sorrow that women have when they lose a child.  It doesn't matter if the woman has been pregnant for 6 weeks or 36 - the pain resonates deep in their soul and just simply does not go away.  Four years later I still miss that baby and wonder about what could have been.  I have had two healthy babies (and one more loss) since then, and I still feel the gravity of the loss.

October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day.  If you have lost a baby - I am so sorry.  If you know someone who has lost a baby - a sister, friend, or co-worker - acknowledge her loss. 

I learned an important lesson the day the sweet stranger placed that note in my hand.  I learned that kind words matter.  Compassion matters.  It costs no money and takes very little effort but you can truly lift someones spirit with a simple kind gesture.  If you are ever see someone in need of compassion, don't be afraid to say something.  Or write something.  Chances are high that your actions will be treasured and remembered long after you forget.
Monday, October 10, 2011

5 Months Down

Whew!  I'm not sure why, but the past month has seemed to crawl by really slowly for me.  I think it is a little bit fatigue and a little bit my son's new "talents" (crawling like a madman, loving the stairs, cruising all over, trying to walk, eating everything in sight, etc) and a little bit the season.  As I have mentioned before, I absolutely love fall.  But this fall has been especially bittersweet because while I enjoy the scents and sights and fun things going on, it is extraordinarily hard to enjoy it without Johnny.  No matter how you slice it, getting around with a 2 year old and almost 1 year old is a daunting juggling act.  And trying to take them both to a pumpkin patch or fall festival alone has proven to be something that isn't very enjoyable or practical.  So my favorite season has turned into jealous season.  Jealous of all the other families who get to go to the pumpkin patch, pick apples, choose a pumpkin, and plan their family Halloween costumes.  Weekends are hard again, just like they were back in May and June.  So I feel like i am coming full circle in a way - but not necessarily in a good way.

We are getting there.  But I am a little angry at myself because my goal was not to look so far forward that I forgot to live in the present.  I think that as my life has evolved over the past 5 months (my "easy to take anywhere baby" has become a "holy crap how did you get all the way over there?" baby) and has made things a little more challenging to just get-up-and-go.  And the feeling of being trapped in my house has taken a little bit of a toll on me.

Here is my monthly recap:

The Good:

*  Still alive! (though, I'm not taking credit for the dog because she has been at my dad's for about 6 weeks)
*  I BOUGHT PLANE TICKETS TO SEE JOHN!  I finally felt comfortable enough to click the "purchase" button for a trans-Atlantic flight in late November. 
*  Kate is loving school.  The adjustment has been good and it has even made her more excited about the YMCA daycare. 
*  Connor loves life.  I just can't get enough of him and his joy for just plain old living.  He is smiles all day long and just wants to be part of everything.  I am very lucky to have such a fun loving little babe.

The Bad:

*  My poor mom fell and broke her left wrist very badly.  It was a compound fracture that required surgery and pins.  She has been out of work now for awhile (due to the painkillers) and it has taken a toll on her emotionally.  :(
*  Kate is still adjusting to Connor's mobility.  She is very sensitive to him being in her space - which, according to him, is the place to be.  I have to take a deep breath several times a day.  Otherwise, she would be living in the time out chair.
*  I got into a fender bender.  Nothing serious, but just "one more thing" to deal with alone.  Nobody was hurt and the car isn't that bad. 

Goals for the next month:

*  Run the Wicked 10K in late October (while pushing two kids).  We are dressing up in an "Alice in Wonderland" theme.  I'm the Queen of Hearts, Kate is Alice, and Connor is the white rabbit.  I will decorate the stroller like the mad hatter tea party and we will be running because we are "late for a very important date!" Fun times.
*  Try to snap out of the funk.
*  Enjoy planning Connor's first birthday part (which is just around the corner! ah!)
*  Try really hard not to dwell on John being gone during my favorite time of year.

So that's about it...  5 months down, 2 (please God, let them come home on time) to go!!
Thursday, October 6, 2011

Connecting the Dots

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life." ~ Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Sometimes I feel out of control.  I don't know where we will be living in a year or two, I don't know how many children I will have, I don't know when my husband will be home from this deployment or when he will leave on a future deployment.  I don't know when I will go back to work.  I don't know what tomorrow brings.  I don't always understand why bad things happen to good people. 

What I do know, is that when I look back on my life, things will come into focus.  The dots will connect.  I have faith that as long as I can keep approaching my opportunities with a positive outlook and with compassion and honesty that I will be proud of my life.  That the picture I have created and will continue to create with the many different points in my life will be beautiful.

Thank you Steve Jobs for your innovation, your wise words, and your vision.  You once said that you wanted to "put a ding in the universe".  I think you did.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Have Been Good!

Two months ago today I started a challenge where I vowed to buy no new clothes for 3 months.  I had felt like I needed to reevaluate my wardrobe and figure out what I wear most often, how I can use pieces in different ways, and most importantly - save a little money.  It is amazing what you can do when you just tell yourself "no".  I feel that way about dieting too.  It isn't "I want to lose weight" it is "I have to lose weight".  If you don't give yourself the wiggle room to fail, mentally it is much more likely for you to succeed.  So when LOFT or JCrew or Banana Republic would be yelling at me in my in-box about how I NEED to purchase their fall sweaters TODAY or they would be gone FOREVER I would just hit the "delete" key.  And I also did a lot of email purging and got rid of 75% of my email retail clutter.  The unsubscribe button has become my friend.  And you know what?  I am surviving and am not naked.  And those sweaters are still there.  My closet is more streamlined and my credit card balance is lower.

I really haven't cheated.  I even borrowed a dress for the Centennial Aviation Ball.  And wore shoes I already had.  And carried a purse that was a Christmas gift last year. 

There have been a few almost-relapses along the way.  At one point I almost ordered a dress that I really loved because it was back-ordered until mid December.  I thought "hey, it's back ordered until after my challenge, I'll just order it today and it won't 'count'".  Then I stopped myself.  No.  I will not go into a gray area where if things are supposedly back ordered beyond November 4 I will just order them now.  Leave it to me to create an imaginary loophole for myself.  Similar to how chocolate doesn't count on my birthday and things that I eat after a long run don't have calories.

I'll be honest.  The late summer was fine.  I had plenty of tops and bottoms to mix and match with summer belts and shoes.  The beginning of colder weather is posing a new challenge and I am honestly really happy that one month from today I can buy a few things.  The good news is that I now know what I need and won't be just emotionally purchasing items that probably look almost exactly to things I already have in my closet (but had forgotten about).  I am also excited because I am heading to Europe to see my husband in November and will have a little time to get some new clothes for that rendezvous.

Overall, I recommend this challenge to people who are impulse shoppers.  If you were like me, and are sucked in by the "amazing" clearance sales that hit your inbox and then find a package on your front porch that you had forgotten about (I can't be the only one that wonders what the heck that box is, can I?) then I think this is worth trying.  Three months is long enough for me.  My friend Karen is doing six months (eek!) and I think even one or two months would be an interesting endeavour for the average shopper.
Monday, October 3, 2011

Into the Green

There are many deployment rituals to help count down to homecoming.  Some people make a paper chain and remove one link each day to count down ...

Some people keep a huge jar of M&Ms and eat one (or let their kids eat one) each day...

this would be dangerous for me...

And some people keep excel programs on their computer like the popular "Donut of Misery" that counts down the years, months, days, hours, minutes, and even seconds...  It is mildly depressing to be able to see see how many seconds my husband has been gone. 

a random example of the donut

As of right now, according to my Donut, John has been gone 5, 581, 615 seconds. 5 MILLION. Awesome.  If that isn't a case of too much information I'm not sure what is.

For me, my countdown technique is more simple.  If you are a friend or family member of mine you know that I have a slight addiction to all things paper and stationery.  Buying a new calendar every year is an exciting occasion (I just ordered my 2012 refill and it was way too much fun choosing what I wanted).   I would be totally lost without my planner.  As of right now I don't have a blackberry or iPhone nor do I really care for the idea of keeping my life planned electronically.  I used Outlook at work because I needed to separate my "social" from "work" calendar and my secretary and co-workers could schedule appointments for me and send them to me easily.  But for my everyday life, paper and pen is what I prefer.

Every week I note the number of day's John has been gone.  Somewhat depressing but it also gives me a sense of accomplishment.  This week marks days 146 through 152.  That is a lot of bedtimes, baths, meals, holidays, weekends, and milestones that Kate, Connor, and I have done solo.  And while it is sad to look at it from a general standpoint, it is also something for me to celebrate.  I have done okay and we have been happy and healthy.  Plus, the days tick by. Surely and steadily.

John left last May and the calendar tabs in my planner were red...  When we hit July they turned orange...  Because I am always looking for something to look forward to, a baby step to get excited about (pumpkin spice, anyone?), I noticed that October, November, and December were a fitting color - green. 

Green is a color that tends to represent forward motion, easiness, and simplicity.  We all want to get the green light when we are driving.  We want green grass, green trees, and are usually happy to have a green beer in March.  "Going Green" these days tends to evoke thoughts of change and innovation. 

This year, for me, green represents being close to having my husband home. 

Hi, I'm Jill!

Hi, I'm Jill!
Extrovert. Mom of two. Wife of a cute Naval Aviator. Lover of wine. When I'm not chasing my two kids around town you will find me writing, taking too many photos, and researching the ten future areas the Navy could potentially (but probably won't) PCS us. We are fish out of water, landlocked at 7,000 feet. For now.

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