By Sunshine Burgess
Although living on or off the installation is probably one of the main topics in the military community, I can only tell you what I tell every new military spouse who asks the question. If you are a new military couple/family, the answer is an unequivocal yes, you should live on the installation. Before you say “she has lost her mind”, hear me out.
I believe that everyone needs a buffer year of sorts; a way to test out the waters and make sure the temperature is right before you jump straight in and maybe freeze. Accepting a house on the installation is normally a one year lease, not a lifelong commitment. If you don’t like it after that year, you can always move “into town”; and after that year, you will not only have a better idea of what areas to live in but also how much you can really afford. However, if you choose to live off installation initially and realize later that you may be in over your head or that the area you chose is less than desirable, it is much harder to move back on the installation because you are now at the bottom of the list behind those who are scheduled to PCS in.
Affordability. Yes, some people can make money by living off the installation. However, before you assume that you are one of those people, you should do your research. Don’t take someone’s word as to what you can afford. They don’t necessarily make the same BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) that you make or have the same additional financial obligations that you may have. They may be willing to live in a not so nice area of town to save money. Maybe they have chosen to live with a few roommates who are also active duty who share the cost, but you are married, so do you want roommates? Even depending on the additional income of a working spouse is not a guarantee. Jobs are not always readily available and often the pay may not be what you are accustomed to making. The only consistent thing about military life is the uncertainty and unless the non-military spouse has a guaranteed job with signed contract, you NEVER depend on the second income. Yes, I said never. Even with a guaranteed job, it doesn’t mean you will keep the job. Things happen. Companies downsize. You hate the job. Pregnancy. Illness. Bottom line, base your housing on what the active duty member brings to the table.
What is your BAH? I can’t tell you exactly, but I can tell you that you can find out at the Defense Travel website (http://www.defensetravel.dod.mil/site/bahCalc.cfm) and that is the first place you start. Keep in mind that when “renting” on the installation, your electricity and gas (as long as you don’t go over the allotment), water, trash pickup, and often, unfenced lawn maintenance, are included in your rent which is equal to your BAH. As I like to say, you may not be able to afford cable and internet, but you will have a roof over your head and heat/AC. I can guarantee it will make your parents sleep a little better at night knowing that. It also doesn’t hurt their comfort level to know that there are armed guards at the gates either. For most, this is the first time that you have lived outside of their home and as parents, they just want to know that you are as safe as possible. Not all the places that you can afford on your limited budget will be that level of safe.
Short commute to work. Yes, I have heard more times than I can count that the active duty member wants to separate work and home. To be honest, I find this to be ridiculous. In fact, the way you should look at living on the installation is that you can live in the neighborhood nearest your job with an optimal commuting distance. Not only can the active duty member commute easily to work, but all service facilities are easily accessible to the spouse. Getting to a medical appointment or a trip to the commissary can take just minutes. Many small installations make it possible to ride bikes or walk almost anywhere. This can be vital if you only have one vehicle and are trying to remain thrifty and not incur the debt of another car. The days of living in government-owned houses are virtually over. With the rise of contract housing communities, you essentially live in a home that is managed by a company but located on government land. Yes, there are still standards of upkeep that are expected of you, like mowing your lawn, but I can tell you that if you rent a place off the installation, they will have that requirement also and if you buy, there are HOA rules that must be followed. It is near to impossible to find a living situation without rules. I actually prefer the rules because I personally don’t like nasty neighbors.
Community is the most important reason to live on the installation, especially for new spouses. The active duty member meets people and learns about this new life every day at work. Sometimes it is easy to forget that as a spouse, the military is new to you too. That is true even if you grew up in a military family. Being a spouse is not the same as being a dependent child. I equate this like going away to college and I also encourage all college freshman to spend at least the first year living in the dorms. The military is not just a job that the member accepted like any job in the civilian world. The military is a lifestyle. A lifestyle that can’t be learned by distancing yourself from it. When you live on the installation, just like in a college dorm, you are surrounding yourself with people who are walking in the same shoes. Maybe some of them are as new to it as you are and then there are those like me, who have been doing it for more than their fair share of years. Living with them gives you the opportunity to learn from them. When (I say when and not if because it will happen at some point) your active duty member is away, either for a short TDY or a longer deployment, it is your community of military neighbors that you can ask for assistance when needed because they have all been in your situation at one time or another and it is okay for them to know that the member is gone. It is in these communities that, if you have kids, you have to look no further than the neighborhood playgrounds and playgroups for a network of friends for your children and even yourself. It is in these communities that random neighbors will stop by with plates of cookies to welcome you on move in day or a hot meal when you may be having rough times. You can have no true understanding of what it means to be a military family in the bigger sense of the word than when you live on the installation. So don’t knock it until you try it and try it for no other reason than for you, as a spouse, to truly learn about living the military life.
When I was first married and we moved onto the base, my parents came to visit. I am not from a military family, so this whole thing was new not only to me but to them also. We were sitting outside visiting like all good Southern families do. After what I think was the sixth couple who walked by and waved while pushing a stroller and walking a dog, my mom looked at me and said, “Living on base is like going back in time to my childhood in the 50s. It is like a different world. So safe and clean and friendly. So when will they issue you your baby and dog?” I had to laugh because shortly after that conversation we did, in fact, get a dog, but the baby was a few years away. However, she was right. It is a different world. A world where neighbors still speak and kids still ride bikes up and down the streets. A world where at 5 o’clock everyone stops what they are doing and places their hands over their hearts for the National Anthem. A world where the roar of planes over your head serves as a daily reminder of our freedom and the men and women who serve. Although my house is not as large as I would like and lacks things like granite and real hardwood floors, I happily show my ID as I drive through the gates into my 1950s gated community that I am proud to be allowed to call home.
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