From skyrocketing food costs to housing shortages, supply chain issues to limited access to pediatric medicines, military families continue to face the effects of uncertain economic conditions. Even with housing- and subsistence-allowance increases in 2023, many say they are still struggling to stay afloat.
Prior to her family’s PCS to Hawaii last year, Marine spouse Serah Starcher meticulously researched and budgeted for groceries, gas and other spending. She knew everyday items on the island would be more expensive, but once they arrived, she quickly realized that what she had allocated was nowhere near enough for their family of five.
“I have had to adjust the budget to increase the allowance for groceries twice now,” she said. “I had to do this recently, as I realized we were having to use credit cards to complete necessary purchases. In essence, we were living beyond our means in order to provide our family with nourishment and everyday necessities.”
Shannon Womack, whose husband is an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, said they are also feeling the pain.
“Our weekly grocery costs have gone from $100-$150 to $250-$300,” she said. “Our utilities have tripled — honestly just the thought of needing anything other than essentials is a worry.”
Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS) rates increased an historic 11% for 2023, but the amount a service member receives is not connected to their dependent status, duty station or paygrade.
To save, Womack has implemented strict meal planning, only buys the groceries needed for weekly meals and no longer purchases premade snacks for her two toddlers.
“We have also gone from eating eggs for breakfast every day, to eggs being a Sunday morning breakfast only,” she said.
Womack said her family also frequently passes on entertainment or events that require fees to participate. Their most recent splurge was $20 for “toddler time” at the trampoline park.
Salaries and supply chains
Due to supply chain shortages, parents have also struggled to find medicine, including over-the-counter fever-reducers like Infants’ Tylenol and medication Womack’s daughter takes to control her epilepsy.
The empty shelves, according to a December 2022 Associated Press report, are primarily due to the failure of pharmaceutical companies to anticipate the early surge of respiratory illnesses this winter, and increased demand has made antibiotics, antivirals, and pediatric cold and flu medications hard to find. The shortage, Axios reports, has also extended to other needed prescription medications.
“The pharmacies are having trouble finding a medical necessity, even in generic form, and then we have the added issue of having it delivered in a reasonable time frame,” Womack said.
And while the military saw a 4.6% base-pay increase in 2023, some service members say salaries still aren’t competitive, especially in high-cost areas.
“I think the military is trying, obviously we don’t expect our base pay to be a crazy high amount,” said an Army staff sergeant stationed at Fort Meyer, Virginia, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But I think it’s complete BS that a lot of us with families are broke due to the prices of living and groceries, and yet we have the same BAS rates that don’t really go up and match the economy.”
A lot of soldiers, according to the Army staff sergeant, have “side hustles or side jobs” to have the freedom to do things they enjoy.
The soldier said he is hopeful he can leave his duty station soon.
“Unfortunately, the military doesn’t give you the benefits you should get in areas like this,” the staff sergeant said. “Here in D.C., it is just plain tough.”
Jamie Hanan, an Air Force spouse whose husband is stationed nearby at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., said that due to astronomical gas prices earlier this year, she considered quitting her job, which required a long commute.
Her family’s grocery budget also has soared, but with three teenagers, Hanan’s primary concern is college costs — her oldest daughter will graduate from high school this year and doesn’t qualify for financial aid. Even with two scholarships, the family is looking at paying almost $30,000 a year out of pocket.
Although BAH rates increased in many locations, some families say that doesn’t offset historic housing prices and higher interest rates. When asked if the military is doing enough to help with rising costs, Womack said, “Simply put, no.”
“We live in a very expensive area. We traded our $1,900/month, two-bedroom apartment for a $1,400 mortgage, just for some relief,” she said. “The BAH in Colorado Springs does not cover the actual cost for housing and utilities. And that’s not even bringing into account the higher renter’s or homeowner’s insurance, higher car insurance, plus all the other expenses necessary.”
Ellisa Austin, whose husband is a Marine first lieutenant stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, is already worried about finding an affordable housing option for her family of six when they PCS in the next four to six months.
“BAH rates are barely matching prices out in town, causing huge backups in military housing, and forcing families to find rentals or under-par housing that is affordable,” she said.
This forces families who already live on base into a difficult position, according to Melissa Daly, another Marine wife living on Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina.
The Dalys live in a neighborhood with older “legacy” housing and were offered a $300 concession check upon moving in to account for the difference between the value of their house and her husband’s BAH.
Then, last year, all neighborhood residents were informed that concession checks would be eliminated due to high occupancy rates in base housing and increased demand.
“We are frustrated that we now live in subpar housing for the same amount of rent that other, newer housing areas have,” Daly said. “BAH has also been increased for this area, but that money will go to the housing company as well. They will be collecting $558 more from our family each month than last year. Yet our house will not see any improvements in the near future.”
Daly said she now feels “stressed and discouraged.”
“Military families should not be forced into additional moves because the housing company is choosing a dynamic rent increase based on occupancy and not the quality of houses offered,” she said.
What can families do in these economic conditions?
Daly’s outlook for the future isn’t hopeful, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t putting up a fight.
“I’m not feeling any movement at all from the housing company,” she said. “But I won’t stop advocating. Next up is our congressional reps.”
In lieu of congressional action, there are other ways families can try to alleviate some of the financial strain — even if it’s literal pennies. Daly said her family uses a gas app that offers cash back on fuel purchases, and they have also applied for funding through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), to lower the cost of their internet.
Starcher said she compares prices across grocery stores to get the best deals, and takes advantage of sales whenever possible. Hanan has made more of an effort to plan outings to maximize gas efficiency, rarely eats out, shops at thrift stores, and is conscious of keeping the thermostat down to lower utility bills.
“The only real advice I can give is to pay what you have to pay, and survive after that,” Womack said. “Building a savings is near impossible in today’s economy, so stop stressing over it. When you feel like you’re drowning and all alone, just know that all of us are right beside you, also drowning. If you can keep the roof over your head, and can feed the family, everything else will work out.”Read comments