How to Smartly Use the USAA Career Starter Loan

The USAA Career Starter Loan is offered to cadets, midshipmen, and officer candidates. These low-interest loans can help you get started when you begin your military career.
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Table of Contents
  1. Who Can Apply for a USAA Career Starter Loan?
  2. What is the USAA Career Starter Loan?
  3. How to Apply for a USAA Career Starter Loan
  4. My Experience Applying for the USAA Cadet Loan
  5. The Pros and Cons of a USAA Career Starter Loan
  6. How to Smartly Use the USAA Commissioning Loan
    1. 1. Pay Off any High Interest Consumer Debt
    2. 2. Avoid Credit Card Debt or other Loans
    3. 3. Buy a Reasonably Priced Car
    4. 4. Down Payment on a House
    5. 5. Don’t Take the Loan if You Don’t Need It
  7. Can you Pay Off a USAA Career Starter Loan Off Early?
  8. What Other Benefits Does USAA Offer?
  9. Lessons Learned

USAA Bank offers newly commissioned officers a low-interest loan to help them start their career. Here’s what you should know about a significant benefit for select members of the military community.

This guest post on the USAA Career Starter Loan was written by Spencer, a company grade officer in the US Air Force. Spencer is documenting his journey to financial independence using his military pay and benefits at the Military Money Manual.

Whether you’re in ROTC, at one of the Service Academies, or attending an officer candidate school, the time before you commission is exciting! You’ve worked hard for your entire life to get to this point. As a newly commissioned officer of the US military, you are going to do some amazing things and lead some incredible people.

One of the many benefits of military service is access to USAA’s line of financial products and insurance services. Nord has written extensively about USAA and even got to attend their blogger conference recently. USAA Bank offers many exclusive benefits to its military customers, one of which is the Career Starter Loan, also known as the cadet loan, commissioning loan, or, at West Point, as the “cow loan.”

Who Can Apply for a USAA Career Starter Loan?

The USAA Career Starter Loan is offered to cadets, midshipmen, and officer candidates. ROTC cadets can take it out a year before or after they are scheduled to graduate. Academy cadets can usually access it in their junior year. Officer candidates usually have to be within a few months of their commissioning date to access the loan.

What is the USAA Career Starter Loan?

This is a personal loan offered by USAA Bank to selected members of the military.

The maximum loan amount ranges from $25,000-$35,000, at interest rates from 0.5%-2.99%. You can take any amount of the loan out up to the maximum and there are no early repayment penalties.

Payments are deferred until 6 months after your scheduled commissioning date. The loan is scheduled to be paid off in 5 years. For $25,000 at 2.99%, you’re looking at payments of $471 per month for 5 years starting 6 months after you commission.

This is a signature loan, meaning that there is no collateral. If you don’t commission, stop direct depositing your military paycheck into your USAA Free Secured Checking Account, or if you become late on your payments to USAA, the interest rate can jump to 18%. Ouch. So don’t get kicked out of your commissioning program in your senior year!

How to Apply for a USAA Career Starter Loan

Applying for the loan is easy:

  • Become a USAA member so that you can gain access to all USAA products and services. Creating a member account with USAA is free
  • Open a USAA checking account. Set up a USAA Bank checking account for direct deposit of your military pay. You must also have at least one direct deposit of your military pay into your USAA Bank checking account to be eligible to apply.
  • Apply for the Loan. Call USAA at 800-531-4610 to start the process.

My Experience Applying for the USAA Cadet Loan

I first heard about the loan in 2008, as a sophomore in Air Force ROTC. The seniors were approaching their graduation and commissioning and were talking about the cars they were going to buy with “this awesome military-only loan from USAA.” I was excited. I had dreams of an awesome spring break vacation, maybe a summer trip to Europe, and buying a BMW before I reported to my first assignment.

In November 2008 I applied for and was approved for the loan. It was pretty exciting seeing $25,000 sitting in my checking account. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the money just yet, so I let it sit in there until January 2, 2009.

After discussing what to do with the loan with a Charles Schwab financial advisor and well as my father, I decided I would invest $15,000 of it into the stock market and $10,000 into a CD ladder. At the time, the stock market was crashing and CD rates were 4-5% for all ages of maturation.

While I don’t believe in timing the market, I actually entered at a pretty good time. I let the money grow until my graduation in 2010. I sold my shares and used the proceeds to pay off one of my student loans which was at 6.8% interest. The $10,000 CD ladder I kept and used as the basis for my emergency fund as I entered active duty. (More details here.)

Now, almost 4 years after taking out the loan, I’ve finally paid it down to under $10,000. I should have the remainder paid off by Dec 31, 2013, almost 2 full years early, saving me hundreds in interest.

The Pros and Cons of a USAA Career Starter Loan

Pros

  • The application process is easy.
  • This is a USAA personal loan, so a simple signature will do. No collateral is required.
  • You can use the money for personal expenses like paying off transition expenses, consolidating high-interest credit card debt, for use as a home down payment, or buying a car.
  • When you open a USAA checking account, you get up to $15 back each statement cycle when other banks charge you ATM fees, and you earn interest when your daily balance is $1,000 or more. You also have access to 60,000 preferred ATMs nationwide.
  • You can apply for a loan up to $35,000.

Cons

  • The money can’t be used for educational expenses.
  • If you are late on your payments to USAA, the interest rate can jump to 18%.
  • You must also have at least one direct deposit of your military pay into your USAA Bank checking account to be eligible to apply.
  • The loan is offered to cadets, midshipmen, and officer candidates. ROTC cadets can only take it out a year before or after they are scheduled to graduate.
  • Officer candidates usually must be within a few months of their commissioning date to access the loan.

How to Smartly Use the USAA Commissioning Loan

There are many smart ways to maximize your mileage from the loan. If I was doing it again, here’s how I’d approach it:

1. Pay Off any High Interest Consumer Debt

If you have any consumer debt (credit cards, auto loans, etc) with a higher interest rate than 2.99%, take as much of the loan as you need to pay down that debt. Besides getting you a lower interest rate, it may get you a lower minimum monthly payment as well, because it will be spread over 5 years. This goes especially for ROTC students or officer candidates who have student loan debt. Get Sallie Mae or Direct Ed off your back and lock in a low rate with USAA. Student loans are usually paid back in 10 years, so by taking the USAA loan you’ll force yourself to pay them back in just 5 years, getting you debt free faster.

2. Avoid Credit Card Debt or other Loans

If you have no savings at the start of your military career, the USAA loan is a good way to stay out of credit card debt. The military pay system is often delayed or FUBAR when you first enter active duty, so you’ll usually have to cover expenses for a month or two before you start getting regular 1st and 15th paychecks. Don’t treat the money as free though! I would only take out $5000 to cover food, rent, gas, and other sundries and then pay it off as fast as I could once I start getting paychecks.

3. Buy a Reasonably Priced Car

If you don’t have a car, you can use the loan as a car loan, but some of the car loan interest rates are even lower than 2.99% these days. Additionally, don’t blow all of the $25k on a new BMW! See what you need, shop around a bit, and for the love of God, don’t buy new unless you enjoy taking a 25% depreciation as soon as you drive off the lot. There are tons of quality used cars out there for under $10,000, and even some really nice ones under $5000.

4. Down Payment on a House

If you’re thinking about buying a house, the money can be used for a down payment. This can be an attractive option, because the only debt I think is smart debt is asset backed debt. I haven’t heard of many officers doing this, but it is an option. Just make sure you do your research on rent vs. buying in your area, especially when you know you’ll be moving in a few years.

5. Don’t Take the Loan if You Don’t Need It

If you don’t have any debt and you have some savings to cover your first month or two on active duty, I wouldn’t take the loan. Think about what you could do with an extra $471 a month.

You could:

  • Fully fund your Roth IRA ($541.66 per month 2022)
  • Put the money away in a savings account and buy a $18,000 car in cash in 3 years
  • Take your spouse out for a $100 dinner every week
  • Buy a plane ticket home to see the family
  • Buy a lot of beer

Can you Pay Off a USAA Career Starter Loan Off Early?

Yes. There is no prepayment penalty either. However, because the loan is offered at such a low interest rate, many loan holders focus on paying off other higher interest debt first.

What Other Benefits Does USAA Offer?

As a USAA member, you have access to several other services including insurance, investments, and financial planning advice. Products and services are available to U.S. military members and veterans, pre-commissioned officers, and spouses and children.

USAA’s team of professionals can also help you before, during, and after deployment.

Lessons Learned

Looking back on my experience, paying off my high-interest student loan with most of the USAA Career Starter Loan was probably one of the smartest financial decisions I’ve made. Timing the stock market was just lucky. Not buying the classic “lieutenant-mobile” was also a good move on my part.

If I could do it again, I probably would take the loan out again, because of my student loans. But if I was smart enough to graduate without the student loan debt, I probably would not take the loan out. How about you? Did you take the loan out? If you did, how did you use it?

USAA also offers members various insurance products, including auto, life, home, umbrella, and more, in addition to financial products and services. Ready to join USAA.com, and request your Career Starter Loan?

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  1. Jessica Gordon says

    My daughter is at her 3rd year at West Point and now thinking about getting the loan, she has no long credit history and her only credit is her AAFES card which is not a lot. What requirements do you need to get this loan? Do you have to have a perfect credit a specific score? Will they check your credit?

    • Doug Nordman says

      Jessica, the insurance company that’s subsidizing the loan is going to approve it based on their expectation of her graduation and earning five years of a military officer’s salary.

      They offer this loan to hundreds of cadets and midshipmen every year because they expect a very low rate of default, and because it costs them very little money to do their due diligence. It’s quite possible that they won’t even run a credit report.

  2. Rob Shaye says

    Doug & Spencer, do we know if the Career Starter Loan is amortized (like a mortgage)? Or, is it a fixed P/I payment each month? My old brain doesn’t recall.

    • Doug Nordman says

      Last I heard, Rob, it was still a five-year fixed payment which started six months after graduation/commissioning.

      I’m sure the terms are subject to change every time the loan is offered to a new class…

  3. Kevin says

    I used my Career Starter Loan as a down payment for a rental property. Because I save most of my pay, I was going to save that $450/month anyway, so I considered the ~$60/month in interest as the “cost” of pulling that savings a few years to the left so I could start building my real estate portfolio sooner. The cash flow from the rental covered about 40% of the monthly payment and when I factored in the principle pay down, it was closer to 60%. A couple of deployments helped stockpile cash for down payments on another couple of properties and I recently paid off the loan early because the next rental purchase won’t be until after the original pay off date and the 2.99% interest rate > 0.75-1% interest rate on savings account these days.

    I didn’t max out TSP contributions each year (just one year, with contributions in the others) but I’ve always maxed out an IRA or Roth IRA based on tax purposes (tax free zones, ftw!). It also started the clock on being a landlord so I reached the 2 years of experience on tax returns that helped me more easily qualify for my most recent mortgage.

    So, I agree that it shouldn’t be used for lifestyle purposes (aside from smoothing over the transition to the first duty station in case pay or travel reimbursement gets snagged), but if you’re smart with it, it can be a powerful tool to kick start investing.

    My 2 cents, anyway.

      • RJ says

        I called USAA today in hopes of receiving the career starter loan to pay off student loan debt and was asked by the rep what I would use the loan for. When I told him I was planning to pay off my student loans, I was told the loan is not allowed to be used to pay student loan debt.

        Has this always been the case? If I were to call back and tell the rep I’m using it for a new car, but then use it to pay the student loans off, do you think I would get in trouble with USAA? Or do they not track what you do with the money after receiving it? Any insight would be helpful!

      • Doug Nordman says

        I’ve never heard that response from USAA before, RJ!

        It’s a bad idea to mislead an insurance company (let alone anyone else). You could call them back if you decide to use the loan for commissioning expenses like a security deposit on an apartment, possible deposits with utility companies, more uniforms, and travel expenses at your next command.

        When the money’s deposited in your USAA account, then the only way USAA could tell where you spend it is if you transfer it directly from a USAA account to that payee. Otherwise I don’t think they’d be able to track it.

        Stepping back from that question, here’s two bigger questions:
        1. Are you sure you want to borrow money…
        2. … and are you sure you want to pay off your student loans early?

        I would not rush to pay off a student loan if it was at a very low interest rate (<3%), or if it was eligible for programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness or the various income-based repayment programs like IBR, ICR, PAYE, or REPAYE.

        I’d also hesitate to borrow money if those payments were higher than your current student loan payments. (By “higher” I mean “more dollars” when the loan is paid back in a shorter length of time.) You’d save interest expenses with a loan at a lower interest rate, but if the shorter amortization means a higher payment then you’d be under financial pressure to keep up the payments.

        You could achieve the same interest savings with your own additional higher payments. If you have unexpected financial issues then you’d still have the flexibility to send in the minimum required payment while you deal with the other financial issues... and then you could resume your self-imposed faster/higher payment schedule.

        When you’re just starting your military career (and a new pay record and new allowances and a new command) then I’d be very cautious about putting yourself under the financial pressure of taking out a career-starter loan. It might make sense to wait for a few months after commissioning (until your pay & allowances are running) before you set yourself up for a payback.

  4. spendthriftsailor says

    Great post on using your career starter loan in a proper way. I myself saw how the misuse of the career starter loan can really set the start of financial life back. It is key to use this as tool to get out of high interest debt or jumpstart your retirement savings. I personally believe a good rule to live by when it comes to the career starter loan is 80/20. Save 80% in your retirement accounts, CDs, high interest savings, etc. and spend the remaining 20% on a well-earned treat like a vacation, going out if that’s your thing, down payment on a car, etc.. I personally like this rule because it admits human beings sometimes have lack of fiscal discipline, especially with such a large sum of money, and allows you to both save and splurge all at once.

    • Doug Nordman says

      It’s tempting to abuse even the 20% left over after investing!

      I think the biggest advantage of the career starter loan is using it for important life goals: paying off student debt and getting to the first duty station after commissioning (new uniforms, affordable transportation, deposits for rent, starter furniture). Investing it for gain is always speculative (because the loan has to be paid back in a relatively short time) and requires skills & patience (as well as low living expenses).

      As we’ve seen many times, it’s all too easy to fritter away the money– and that’s one heck of a debt hangover.

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