Tips For Taking Classes While in the Military

Being in the military is a full-time job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But that doesn’t mean you should let that get in the way of your dreams of achieving an education. Even deployments don’t have to stop your education because many schools offer online classes and many deployed locations now feature educational centers where you can take proctored exams or even take placement exams to test out of college courses.

Let me share with you how I was able to complete my Bachelor’s Degree while on active duty by taking full-time classes, both in residence and while deployed to the Middle East. And no, I didn’t have a cushy office job. I worked as a C-130 mechanic on the flight line, often working 9-12 hour days at home station, and 13-14 hour days while deployed.

Tips For Taking Classes While in the Military

Be flexible with your educational options

Each school is different and may or may not understand how the military operates. Ideally you will want to find a school that offers night classes, online learning, or non-traditional course schedules so you can attend on a regular basis. It also helps to attend classes at a military friendly university. You may have to compromise with your choice of schools or your degree plan if you want to attend classes while on active duty, but depending on your career goals, it may be worth the compromise.

Search for military friendly schools! Active duty military members have special needs when it comes to education. Check out these GI Bill Schools for military friendly educational programs.

Here are some military friendly schools that offer online courses:

Set educational goals

The most important step is to have a goal. I completed a year of college before I enlisted and I completed roughly half of my basics – the classes which are required for most Bachelor’s Degrees. But I didn’t have everything completed. I went to our education center and met with the guidance counselor from one of the schools on our base.

Based on the review of my transcripts and the credits which would transfer over (Basic Military Training, a few credits from tech school, and Airman Leadership School), we determined how many credits I would need to achieve my Bachelor’s Degree, then we determined which CLEP and DANTES tests I could take to test out of certain classes.

My goal was two fold:

  1. Test out of as many classes as possible to reduce the amount of time needed to complete my degree.
  2. Complete my Bachelor’s Degree as quickly as possible

The first goal would directly help the second goal, so I hit it with a vengeance and completed as many tests as I could, leaving me with 10 classes through the university, which also happened to be the minimum number required to take through the school to receive a BS from them (most schools have a minimum number of classes you must take through them in order to receive a degree).

Get organized

Once I had my testing out of the way, I looked at the upcoming class schedule and determined which classes were offered at which times and I tried to forecast my deployment schedule so I could take other classes online.

It took a bit of juggling because some classes are only offered in residence or at certain times, but with a little help from the counselor, we were able to determine the best order to take each class. Being organized takes work, but it can be extremely important if you want to take classes while on active duty.

Be flexible with your work schedule

I was a C-130 maintainer, which required around the clock maintenance. The school offered evening classes, so I had the choice of working 0800-1600 or midnight to 0800. I chose to work the midnight shift because it gave me the opportunity to attend classes. It’s also much easier to get the mid shift than the day shift. I was able to remain on the mid shift for 2 years (which was a year longer than it took to complete my degree).

Not everyone has the opportunity to work a range of shifts, so try to be flexible and work with your supervisor. Many units and supervisors will support your educational aspirations if you are willing to work with them. See if you can come in an hour or two early, stay late, or volunteer to work an occasional weekend shift if necessary.

Make education a priority

It should go without saying, but if you want to balance your military career, your family, and an education, you need to set priorities. Obviously, your family and career come first, but you will have a hard time if you don’t list education directly after those. I don’t recommend completely dropping your social life and extracurricular activities, but you need to maintain a balance. That may mean skipping some nights at the club or hanging out with the guys a little less frequently. But it also means completing your degree.

Utilize downtime

I took online classes while I was deployed to the Middle East. We typically worked 13-14 hour days, with about one day off each week. You could usually find my nose buried in a book or writing a paper whenever we had downtime. The same for whenever I had a day off. I would usually grab a couple extra hours sleep, head to the gym, then go to the morale tent with my study materials. Just a couple hours of dedicated study time makes a huge difference. Then the rest of the day is yours.

Enlist support from friends and family

Eduction and life in general are easier to handle when your family and friends support your goals. Be sure to let them know how important your dream of an education is and do your best to support them in return.

Remember, each situation, degree plan, unit work load, and other factors are different, so you may need to exercise more flexibility and patience if you want to attend classes while on active duty. I feel very fortunate to have been able to complete my Bachelor’s Degree while on active duty because it gave me options when it came time to make the decision to reenlist or separate from the military. Ultimately, I chose to separate from the military because I was ready for a new challenge in life. But I am forever grateful for the opportunity I had to achieve my degree and make that decision.

Do you have any tips for taking classes while on active duty?

Search GI Bill Schools for military-friendly educational programs.

Can You Get a Montgomery GI Bill Refund?

I signed up for the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) when I enlisted in the military. Like many military members and veterans, I haven’t had the chance to use all of my MGIB benefits yet. Part of the reason is because the military has a generous Tuition Assistance (TA) program. I completed a year of college before I enlisted and I used Tuition Assistance to complete my bachelor’s degree while I was on active duty. The only time I touched my GI Bill was to get a top up when I started a Master’s Program (TA only covers up to a certain dollar limit per semester hour and the Master’s classes exceeded that limit). So it was GI Bill to the rescue!

What happens if you don’t use your GI Bill Benefits?

Unfortunately, the Montgomery GI Bill is pretty much a use it or lose it benefit. In most cases you will lose your Montgomery GI Bill Benefits if you don’t use them within 10 years of separating from the military. The Post-9/11 GI Bill expires 15 years after you separate – just one of many reasons why you should make the switch if you are eligible!

If you aren’t eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and your 10 year time limit has already passed, then you may be out of luck. I’m coming up on 4 years since I separated from the USAF, so I have to start making plans if I want to use my GI Bill benefits.

Can You Get a Refund on Your Montgomery GI Bill?

We receive several common questions about GI Bill benefits – primarily about losing GI Bill benefits, transferring GI Bill benefits, and getting a refund for GI Bill benefits if the benefits are not used. In most cases, the answer is no, you cannot get a refund for your GI Bill.

The Montgomery GI Bill usually works like this: You have one chance to buy in to the MGIB when you join the military service. If you opt in, you pay $1,200. Then you can use your MGIB benefits while on active duty or with 10 years from the time you separate from the military (there are some exceptions to the time limits, particularly if you rejoin the service or are recalled to active duty; this will restart your clock). You typically lose any portion of your MGIB that you do not use within the 10 year time limit, and there are usually no refunds.

MGIB Refunds Available for Post 9/11 GI Bill users

There is an exception to the no refund policy for the Montgomery GI Bill. You can get a refund of your $1,200 buy-in if you are eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, you elect to use those benefits instead of the Montgomery GI Bill you bought into, and you use the entire Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits.

From the GI Bill FAQ Page:

Q: Do I get a refund of the $1,200.00 buy-in for the Montgomery GI Bill?

A: Any individual who paid the $1,200.00 buy-in for the Montgomery GI Bill and elects to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill may be refunded a proportional amount if, and after all entitlement under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is used. Individuals who do not use all their entitlement under the Post-9/11 GI Bill will not receive a refund of contributions paid under the Montgomery GI Bill.

How does the Montgomery GI Bill Refund work?

Based on my understanding, you have to be eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, elect to give up your MGIB benefits and switch to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, use all your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, and request a refund.

Of course, there is some fine print: You will receive the MGIB refund with your final BAH payment, which means you must be attending an in-residence program (veterans attending college via online eduction are not currently eligible to receive BAH benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill program). If you are primarily taking online courses, then I recommend taking at least one class at a local university, even if it doesn’t specifically apply to your program – you can still declare another major. The only purpose of taking that class is to get he $1,200 refund.

The MGIB refund is also prorated based on the amount of Montgomery GI Bill eligibility you have remaining. For example, if you didn’t use any of your Montgomery GI Bill benefits, you should receive the entire $1,200 refund. If you used 1/3 of your MGIB benefits, you may only receive $800 back, etc. However, I am not 100% certain on the formula used, and the VA rep I spoke with on the phone mentioned he would have to run the query on a case by case basis. Please contact the Department of Veterans Affairs for more information specific to your situation.

This is a great benefit for veterans who are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Just keep in mind the requirements: you must use 100% of your Post-9/11 GI Bill to be eligible, you must be receiving BAH during your final month of GI Bill eligibility, and you will receive a prorated refund if you used any portion of your MGIB benefits.

Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance

The Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance (FSSA) is a supplemental income program for military members designed to reduce or eliminate the need for servicemembers to use the Food Stamp Program. It was established in May of 2001 to supplement eligible military member’s Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS).  FSSA is a nontaxable allowance payable in addition to all other pays and allowances.

Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance

FSSA is designed to bring the military member’s household income up to 130% of the federal poverty level, as established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The current maximum payable rate is $1,100 per month, not to exceed 130% of the poverty level. *the maximum benefit is an increase from $500, and is in effect as of June 2010.

Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance Eligibility

All active duty military members, including those serving overseas, may be eligible for the program, depending on the service member’s income and size of family. To be eligible, military members must be receiving BAS, meet the FSSA gross income guidelines for household size as determined by the USDA, and must have applied and been certified at a certain payment level by the appropriate office. The program is especially designed to help large military family households.

How income is calculated for FSSA purposes: “Military income” for the FSSA includes basic pay, BAS, basic allowance for housing, or cash equivalent for those that are living in Government provided housing, overseas housing allowance, all bonuses, and all special and incentive pays.

Other income earned by family members may also count toward your application. Some examples include: spouse’s wages, earnings, or salary, commissions and tips, self-employment income, interest and dividend income, alimony and child support, unemployment benefits and workers compensation benefits, veteran benefits, annuities, pensions, and other retirements benefits, and other potential income.

Bonuses and provisions not counted as income for FSSA purposes: The following sources of revenue shall not be counted as military income: Hostile Fire/Imminent Danger Pay, Continental United States Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), overseas COLA, Family Separation Allowance, all travel and transportation related allowances and entitlements and clothing allowances.

Other income not counted toward family income include income from students under age 18, loans, grants, and scholarships, income tax refunds, insurance settlements, reimbursements for medical and dental care, and potentially other income.

Check with your local finance office for more information regarding income qualifications.

How to apply for Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance

Military members must apply with their respective service which will make all decisions regarding eligibility and the amount of entitlement. They will also provide final certification for payment to include the entitlement start date.

Eligible military members receiving FSSA must recertify each February or any time they receive a promotion, accept a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), their family changes in size, or their monthly household income increases by $100 or more. Members may apply for recertification up to 30 days before or after an event without losing their eligibility, otherwise their eligibility will be terminated and their application will be treated as a new application.

To Apply: The application is web based and must be completed from a DoD computer: http://www.dmdc.osd.mil/fssa/

For more information, please see the official DoD Financial Management Regulation which can be found in the following pdf: DoD 7000.14-R, VOLUME 7A, CHAPTER 25 – “SUBSISTENCE ALLOWANCES”. (paragraph 2502; updated June 2010).

Ohio Veterans Bonus Program

Ohio recently created a Veterans Bonus Program to thank Ohio Veterans who served during periods of conflict. Eligible veterans serving on active duty (except active duty for training) anywhere in the world during the specified dates may receive $50 a month up to a maximum bonus of $500.

Eligible veterans who served in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, or Iraq during certain dates may receive a $100 bonus for each month they served in those locations, up to a maximum of $1,000.  An eligible veteran may combine their service bonuses for a maximum payment of $1,500.

Ohio Veterans Bonus Program Details

Who is Eligible for the Ohio Veterans Bonus Program?

Ohio veterans may be eligible for the bonuses if they served on active duty in the US armed forces, including those who served in the Ohio National Guard, if they served in the specified locations during specific time periods for reasons other than training (information about eligible locations and dates is below).

To be eligible, applicants must have been legal residents in Ohio when they went on active duty and must be Ohio residents when they apply for the bonus.

To be eligible for the Ohio Veterans Program Bonus:

  • The veteran must have been separated from the armed forces under honorable conditions.
  • The veteran remains on active duty service.
  • After active duty service, the veteran remains in any reserve component of the armed forces, including the Ohio National Guard.

Eligible Service Dates and Locations

Eligible veterans may receive $100 for each month of active duty service in the following locations during these specified dates:

  • Persian Gulf: Between August 2, 1990 and March 3, 1991, the date when Iraq accepted the conditions for a permanent cease fire. Eligible veterans can apply for a bonus until December 31, 2013.
  • Afghanistan: Since October 7, 2001. Eligible veterans can apply for a bonus for up to three years after the President declares an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
  • Iraq: Since March 19, 2003. Eligible veterans can apply for a bonus for up to three years after the president declares an end to U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The maximum benefit for service in those three areas is $1,000.

Eligible veterans may also apply for a $50 bonus per month they served during these time periods if they served anywhere else in the world. The maximum bonus under these provisions is $500 and the bonuses may be combined for a maximum of $1500.

Families of deceased Ohio veterans may also be eligible for bonus. There also are other bonuses available to eligible veterans or the families of deceased veterans. For these eligibility details and specifications, please visit: veteransbonus.ohio.gov/odvs_web/Eligibility_Requirements.aspx

How to claim the Ohio Veterans Bonus

To apply for the bonus, applicants should go to veteransbonus.ohio.gov, and complete the online application. You may also visit a public library if you do not have internet access or visit your local Ohio’s County Veterans Service Office for assistance.

Application must be signed, notarized and mailed. The final application must be printed, signed, and notarized or acknolwdged before it will be accepted. Mail your application to Ohio Veterans Bonus, P.O. Box 373 Sandusky, Ohio 44871.

The estimated processing time for Ohio Veterans Bonus Program applications is approximately eight weeks, depending on the volume of applications initially received.

Applicants with specific questions can call 1 -877-OHIO-VET or go online at: veteransbonus.ohio.gov.

Please help spread the word

Please forward this information to any Ohio veterans you may know. Those who have been separated from the military for several years may not be aware of this benefit.

Benefits of Consolidating Financial Accounts

Managing personal finance can be a difficult task, especially when trying to juggle multiple financial accounts. Just remembering the user name and password for multiple sites can be a chore, much less learning each site’s user interface, remembering where your assets are located, setting up a system to automate investment contributions bill pay, etc.

There are great options for almost any kind of banking and/or investment service, but sometimes it’s better to go for the big wins and choose the 90% solution to simplify like and money management. With this in mind, you may find it easier to consolidate your financial accounts. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of account consolidation.

Consolidating Financial Accounts

Benefits of Consolidating Bank Accounts

It is not uncommon to have multiple bank accounts. I primarily use USAA, but also have an online savings account with other banks because they have higher interest rates in the US at the moment . In addition, I have an account which I use for many online transactions and as a bridge to my PayPal account, and since USAA doesn’t offer business account, I have a business checking account at a local bank and an online business savings account for higher interest. I have 3 personal savings accounts and 2 business accounts, which certainly isn’t simple, but is much better than before!

Why have multiple bank accounts? There are a few reasons to have multiple accounts – convenience of the branch location, high interest rates, low fees, free ATMs, free checking, and other banking features.

Why more isn’t always better. The problem with multiple accounts is that it spreads your money out and if you aren’t careful, you can lose track of your savings, bounce checks, get overdraft fees, etc. The likelihood of making financial mistakes or even tracking errors increases with each new account you add. So while it may seem like adding new accounts can make you more money, it may end of costing you money – especially if you manage your money with a spouse or partner because multiple accounts creates another barrier for communication.

Benefits of consolidating bank accounts. Fewer bank accounts are easier to monitor and can often result in higher interest rates, lower fees, and other perks. It also makes it easier to communicate with someone who helps you manage the finances, reduces the number of statements and tax forms you receive each year, and makes it easier, in general, to manage your finances.

Benefits of Consolidating Investment Accounts

Investment accounts are similar to bank accounts – there are many great brokerage accounts that offer different benefits – low trading fees, no management fees, ability to link directly to your bank account, etc. The problem, again, comes from being able to quickly and easily manage your money.

Here are some benefits of consolidating your brokerage and investment accounts:

  • Ease of tracking investments. It is easier to track and manage your investments when they are in one location, as opposed to several. This makes it easier to track investment performance and perform asset allocation.
  • Track changes. Investment firms may change their fee and commission structures, add new account features, offer free training seminars, or other changes. The fewer companies you have to remain up to date with, the easier.
  • Special perks. The more money you have in your investment account, the more benefits you may receive from the investment firm. This can be in the form of lower fees or commissions, personalized investment advice or service, free trades, and other benefits.

Note about consolidating 401k plans and the Thrift Savings Plan: You may not be able to consolidate your 401k plan or Thrift Savings Plan if it is active, but you may be able to do so once you are no longer actively contributing to it. Here is some information about doing a 401k rollover into and IRA and options for your TSP when you leave the service.

Research your financial options, then decide on the best all around solution(s)

There is no one size fits all solution for either banking customers or investors, thought there are some companies that offer a 90% solution. Examine your banking needs, and try to reduce the number of banks you have down to the best 2 or 3 solutions (I understand the convenience of a local bank or the lure of higher interest payments!). But it is rare that you might need more than 2 or 3 personal bank accounts (business accounts are in a different category).

The same thing goes for investing. Examine your investing needs and habits and try to determine if one of your accounts will offer the best solution, or if you need multiple accounts. Many people can easily reduce their non-retirement investment accounts down to 1 or 2 investment firms, often a discount broker for cheap individual stock trades and a mutual house firm where you can buy low cost mutual funds. Here is a comparison between the two types of firms for a better understanding: best companies for an IRA. (The article was written about IRAs, but it applies to non-retirement accounts as well.

Take a few minutes to examine your options and find a solution. Managing your money is much easier once you consolidate your financial accounts!