BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) is an allowance that members of the military receive based on location, dependents, and pay grade. Since 2008, it’s been based on local housing markets, so theoretically, you should be able to find housing commensurate with the BAH rate. BAH is also paid directly to military personnel monthly which means that if you are able to spend less than your housing allowance from Uncle Sam, you can end up saving the extra and putting it towards things like, oh, I don’t know…student loans? (I wish I were joking, but since a solid percentage of military families are in student loan debt, there are a lot of us out there doing just that.)
And really, who couldn’t do with a little extra money? Especially for families that are on one income with a military spouse who is un-or-under-employed, making your BAH work as hard as possible for you can make a world of difference.
Fortunately, depending on your situation and needs, there are quite a few ways to squeeze your BAH for every single penny while still ensuring you’re getting a great deal and that your family is safe and secure.
What is BAH and how does BAH work?
I know it seems a little obvious, but you have to know what your family is receiving as BAH first. It changes depending on a few things including your duty station; so don’t assume that you’ll receive the same amount of money in Arkansas that you did in California. BAH also changes with the budget every year and tables always come out with the projected rates; so keep your eyes peeled for that too.
In recent years, military families have sounded the alarm that BAH benefits have not kept pace with the cost of living around, especially in places like California, Hawaii, and the DC Capitol region. This is a problem that has the potential of affecting retention… and affecting the real lives of military families right now.
Is living off base worth it?
Honestly? That depends on you.
Many military families prefer to live on base… and many prefer to live off base. For some, it’s just a preference; for others, it’s a necessity. When you live on base, you surrender the entirety of your BAH goes to your rent, so there isn’t the possibility of saving it. This is a great option for places where the cost of living outstrips your BAH; however, it is often difficult to get housing on base. And it’s important to remember that the quality of on-base housing varies from installation to installation.
Living off-base affords more freedom in the ability to choose housing, possibly save money, and enjoy the civilian community, but it might mean longer drive times to the base for work, shopping, and any on-base activities or organizations you may belong to. Depending on the housing market in your area, it might also be incredibly difficult to find and rent or purchase housing, which can be stressful and frustrating, too.
But if you’re looking at living off the installation, you’ll want to use these tips (as they make sense for your situation) to make your BAH stretch as far as possible.
Shop within your means.
When you’re looking for a new place, make sure that you’re first keeping your sights on places that you can afford with your BAH. If your BAH is $1500 monthly, you should make sure that your rent (or mortgage) will be below that amount. It will be tempting to shell out a few extra bucks to get the place of your dreams, but if you’re really being budget conscious, don’t taken in.
Does your apartment building offer a whole bunch of seductive and nifty add-on services? Does it cost more to rent an apartment with a balcony or a townhouse with a bigger backyard? Figure out what you absolutely need and what you can get by without. And then dump the extras.
Don’t forget the extras.
The last bullet point is perfect…unless your extras are “free.” Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, nothing is truly free. But if your apartment complex comes with a really nice gym, swimming pool, dog park, parking, playground, etc. figure out what those are worth to you. It might be cheaper to rent an apartment without the bells and whistles and buy a pass to the YMCA (or go on base and use the gym for free). Ultimately, you need to decide based on your situation and the prices of what’s offered in your area.
Don’t forget the utilities.
Try to make sure that your BAH covers all of your utilities– electric, water, sewage, gas, garbage, internet, cable–whatever you need to keep your place running. If you’re able to do this, you’ll always know that your costs are under a certain amount of money– and are already covered, so you can go ahead and put other cash towards your savings, retirement, and any other bills or costs you have.
Ask for a discount.
Asking for discounts never hurt anyone. Many times, employees are not allowed to ask if you qualify for a discount; but they can give it to you if you ask. See if there are discounts for military families as well as discounts or waived fees depending on the length of the lease you’re signing. Often, apartment complexes will offer lower monthly rental rates if you sign a lease that is longer than a year. Check and see what their housing office can do for you.
Sometimes areas that are cheaper aren’t necessarily a bargain. They might be unsafe or be downright dangerous. If you’re moving into the area and know little about it, make sure that you check out crime statistics released by the local police and talk to residents. It’s not worth it to save $100 a month only to have your car broken into. (Fixing windows is costly!)
Think about the proximity.
Where you decide to live in proximity to base is also a great way to save money. At some bases, it might be cheaper the further away you live. (And of course, other bases’ housing possibilities might be more expensive the closer you get.) Just don’t forget to ask yourself if it is worth it (in time, gas, and wear and tear on the car) to live far away from base. Depending on traffic, distance, and the price of gas, it might be more hassle and money than it’s worth, especially if your family frequents the base.