The Realities of Military Spouse Unemployment: Debt

Written by Tessarose Brown


Military spouse unemployment is a prevalent issue that can negatively impact the home life and mission readiness of service members. The current military spouse unemployment rate is 24%, 6x the rate of civilians. This is due in part to problems with childcare such as high military daycare costs and long wait lists but also difficulties maintaining licensure after a mandatory move.

One-third of military families reported that they have trouble paying their bills every month, while 20% said they also had to borrow money to make ends meet.1 Military spouse unemployment can worsen a military family unit’s financial situation either by leading to debt or making it difficult to pay it off.


Dealing with Previous Debt

My family came into the military already with debt: student loans, car loans, and some credit card bills. 27% of service members were reported to have had more than $10,000 in credit card debt.1 When my husband joined the military, he had some college credits and that allowed him to join the military as an E-3, which meant a higher annual salary for our family.

But my struggles as a military spouse with unemployment have only made it more difficult to pay our debt down. Like many military families, we have had to adjust to living off of one income instead of two, especially after a recent permanent change of station (PCS), which may mean a spouse having to resign from employment to move with their service member. One factor that could further exacerbate a family unit’s debt situation is the rising cost of goods and services — forcing some families to put necessities such as groceries and gas on credit cards.


Tacking on PCS Costs

While the military typically provides a service member and their family some means to cover the cost of a PCS, there are often uncovered expenses. These can include rental deposits, pets, food, gas, cleaning products, and air beds, which can add to a family’s financial stress.

Additionally, some military housing wait lists exceed the 10 days granted to a service member and their family for temporary accommodation, leading them to pay for hotels out of pocket. While one way to avoid the long wait list is to rent a home or apartment off-post, this can force a family to live above their means if the rent is not within their Basic Housing Allowance. This is often the case in places where rent and cost of living is high, such as California. Living off-base can also incur additional monthly expenses, which include utilities, rental insurance, and Homeowners Association fees.

Another way a PCS can add to a military family’s debt is when they have to replace household goods that have been broken or gone missing during the move. Spouses from all over have shared horror stories of how movers lost many of their belongings. The military has a system for the replacement or reimbursement of lost, damaged, or stolen goods, but the process can be long and difficult to manage, especially for newer, junior-enlisted service members and their families who don’t know how the system works.


Lower Enlisted Pay Scale Starts Low

Adding to a military family’s challenges in paying off debt is low income rates. The starting pay of the lowest ranking enlisted soldier is only $1,695 per month, which is a little over $20K per year. While the pay scale3 depends on years of service, starting pay per rank is as follows:

  • E-1: $1,695.00 (less than 4 months)  – $1833.00 (more than 4 months)
  • E-2: $2,054.70
  • E-3: $2,160.60
  • E-4: $2,393.40
  • E-5: $2,610.30
  • E-6: $2,849.40
  • E-7: $3,294.30

For a single soldier, this income may be sufficient, but it’s often not enough to cover the basic needs of families, especially those with previous debt or young children. Many families have to rely solely on the service member’s income due to military spouse unemployment.


Military Members Are Targeted

While some reputable lending companies seek to help military families financially, many others can be predatory, especially to young soldiers. Often young service members are inexperienced with money, have little to no credit, and are excited to use their first paychecks. The result can be the service member is stuck with a loan that has a high interest rate, hidden fees, and actually costs more than the product is worth. This frequently happens when young service members apply for their first car loan.

The Military Lending Act1 (MLA), enacted in 2006 and implemented by the Department of Defense (DoD), protects active duty members of the military, their spouses, and their dependents from certain lending practices. However, service members should still be cautious to protect their finances.


Unconventional Contributions to Support a Household

Military spouse unemployment has forced many spouses to stay at home full time, finding unconventional and creative ways to contribute financially to their family. A few have found work-from-home jobs that they can do remotely, such as working for a call center or taking on a role as a customer service representative. Unfortunately, these types of jobs did not work for me because I had a toddler at home and most of these require you to have a quiet, distraction-free environment.

Some military spouses decide to go the multi-level marketing route, working for various companies. Others have tapped into their crafty side and started a home business on platforms like Etsy, where they create custom work, making items like t-shirts, sweaters, coffee cups, and signs. These spouses typically also use social media to market their business.

There are also many stay-at-home parents who have opened their homes to other military children and started daycare centers or babysitting businesses. Other military spouses I know have entered the beauty industry and learned to do nails, eyelashes, massages, and facials inside their home. However, spouses are subject to the rules and regulations of their installation or rental agreement, so home-based businesses most often have to be reported and approved by the installation. While creative and admirable, the fact is that military spouses often have to resort to unconventional jobs to help contribute financially to their families.


Some Financial Resources Are Available

Military spouse unemployment can have a significant impact on a military family’s debt situation. For families with financial hardship, there are some resources available through the military. Each commander of a unit or command can issue a loan, up to $2,000, to service members in financial need. These are typically at the discretion of the commander.

However, many service members struggle with asking for help from their command because they don’t want them to know they are having money trouble. Army Community Services4 offers Financial Readiness Classes and financial counselors. They can also help you learn about financial services such as Armed Forces Emergency Relief Fund or Education Programs.

Service members and their families who may need help acquiring food can reach out to local churches and food banks. In 2020, nearly a quarter (24%) of active-duty service members were food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.2 Feeding America reports that junior enlisted members are at the highest risk for food insecurity.

In addition to less income coming in due to military spouse unemployment, other unique challenges, some of which were already discussed in this article, such as limited income, high cost of living, previous financial obligations, and frequent PCS make it difficult for service members and their families to access the food they need to thrive.

In 2019, less than 2% of active-duty service members lived in households that received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.2  Thankfully, my family and I have personally benefited from the resources made available to us through the ASYMCA programs such as monthly visits to their food pantry and access to their emergency food relief programs.


ASYMCA is Here to Help

The Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) offers supportive programs such as food pantries, baby bundles, and childcare to help offset debt and provide relief for families experiencing financial instability. While programs vary by location, they focus on helping military families deal with the unique challenges of military life so they’re never alone. You can help support ASYMCA programs by giving today.


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This article is part of a three-part series by writer and military spouse, Tessarose B., highlighting the realities of military spouse unemployment. You can read Part 2 here.