The term COLA, or Cost of Living Adjustments, is a commonly used term for military and veterans benefits. But the term can be somewhat confusing because it can be used in different contexts. The most common uses for the term COLA, as it relates to military and veterans benefits, include COLA adjustments for retirement pay and veterans benefits such as VA disability compensation, annual cost of living increases for military base pay, and location-based COLA.
Let’s look at these separately.
COLA for Social Security Benefits, Military Retirement Pay, and VA Disability Benefits
The Cost of Living Adjustment rate used by the Social Security Administration is often used by other government agencies for pension and other types of compensation increases. Examples include military retirement pay, VA disability compensation, the FERS retirement system, and several other types of government compensation.
This COLA is given to offset the impact of inflation on the purchasing power of the affected benefits. It is based on the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).
While the COLA used for Social Security Benefits is guaranteed by law, COLA increases for veterans benefits such as disability compensation, clothing allowances, and dependency and indemnity compensation must be presented as a bill and voted on by Congress each year.
How is COLA Calculated?
The CPI-W is based on a survey of over 80,000 goods and services and is determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Department of Labor. An increase in the cost of goods and services covered by the index results in an increased COLA the following year.
If there is no change or a decrease in the cost of goods and services, there is no increase in the COLA. The good news is a decrease in prices does not result in a decrease in benefits.
This is a good thing, because the CPI-W showed a negative inflation rate, resulting in no COLA increase in 2016. So military and veteran compensation for certain benefits will remain flat instead of increasing as they do in most years.
How Much is the Annual Military Retirement Pay COLA Raise?
This is a great question. The answer is that it varies, as described above. Here are the last 10+ years of military retirement COLA pay raises:
|Year||Annual Social Security COLA|
As you can see from this table, there have been three years in the last decade (2010, 2011, 2016) in which there was no COLA increase. The last decade witnessed a low-inflationary period.
Annual COLA increases are generally larger in years with higher inflation.
Which Payments Does SSA COLA Cover?
The SSA COLA covers the following benefits:
- Social Security Benefits – (learn how your military service affects your Social Security Benefits).
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – Social Security Disability Benefits, and Social Security Benefits for Wounded Warriors
- Military Retirement Pay – Active Duty Retirement Pay, REDUX Retirement Pay, Guard / Reserve Retirement Benefits
- Federal Service Retirement Pay
- VA Disability Rates
- Veterans Pension Benefits
- Survivor Benefit Annuitants
- Certain Medicare and Medicaid Benefits
- Certain State and Federal Housing and Food Programs
Annual Military Pay Increases
Military members receive a pay increase in most years. This is often referred to as a military pay raise, annual Cost of Living Adjustment, or other terms. Unlike the previous section, there is no automatic pay raise, and while Congress takes certain measurements into consideration when declaring pay raises, they are not tied to the CPI-W or any other specific measurement.
Instead, Congress votes pay raises into effect each year. Pay raises can vary based on the annual inflation rate, how military salaries and benefits compare to civilian compensation, and other factors.
In most cases, military pay raises are applied uniformly to all pay grades. However, there have even been times when Congress passed pay raises that targeted individuals in select pay grades. These instances happen when there is a larger perceived pay gap in the civilian sector.
Here are the last 10 military pay raises:
|Year||Military Pay Raise Percentage||Military Pay Tables|
|2020||3.10%||2020 Military Pay Tables|
|2019||2.60%||2019 Military Pay Tables|
|2018||2.40%||2018 Military Pay Tables|
|2017||2.10%||2017 Military Pay Tables|
|2016||1.30%||2016 Military Pay Tables|
|2015||1.00%||2015 Military Pay Tables|
|2014||1.00%||2014 Military Pay Tables|
|2013||1.70%||2013 Military Pay Tables|
|2012||1.60%||2012 Military Pay Tables|
|2011||1.40%||2011 Military Pay Tables|
|2010||3.40%||2010 Military Pay Tables|
The final type of COLA is location-based. This is a supplemental benefit added to military pay. Location-based COLA is given to offset a higher cost of living based on where the service member lives.
This can be commonly found in OCONUS locations depending on the cost of living, the exchange rate, and other factors. COLA can also be found in certain CONUS locations. COLA can vary on a monthly basis in both CONUS and OCONUS locations.
OCONUS COLA – Overseas Cost of Living Adjustments
This is a non-taxable supplemental income. It can vary on a monthly basis based on exchange rates, cost-of-living, and other factors. The service member’s rank, years of service and number of dependents also determine the COLA payment. Here is an Overseas COLA FAQ.
CONUS COLA – Continental US Cost of Living Adjustments
This is a taxable supplemental allowance designed to help offset higher prices in high-cost locations in CONUS that exceed the costs in an average CONUS location by 8 percent or more. The program affects over 25,000 Service members in 21 Military Housing Areas (MHAs) and 23 other counties in CONUS. (source – Defense Travel Management Office).
Understanding Which COLA is Being Discussed is Important
There you go – you now have the information needed to understand the basics of how and why COLA might affect your military pay, retirement benefits, disability compensation, Social Security Income, or other benefits.