4 Credit Cards for Military Members Awaiting Deployment

While you wait for deployment, find a credit card that'll give you maximum rewards.

[DISCLOSURE: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]

There are many credit cards offered to military members and civilians alike that have great rewards programs, interest rates and features. But if you’re a service member who needs a credit card leading up to deployment, don’t jump at the first card that looks decent.

Many cards have features offered only to military members, and others go above and beyond the requirements for interest rates and fees set by the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act.

Here are four credit cards for military members awaiting deployment.

1. PenFed Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature Card

Rewards: 2% cash back on all purchases for PenFed HonorsAdvantage Members, 1.5% cash back on all purchases for everyone else
Signup Bonus: None
Annual Fee: $0
Annual Percentage Rate (APR): Variable 9.74% to 17.99% on purchases; 0% for 12 months on balance transfers, then variable 9.74% to 17.99
Why We Picked It: Military members get double cash back on all purchases.
For Military Members: Current and former military members qualify to become PenFed HonorsAdvantage Members, and will get 2% cash back on all purchases. There’s no annual fee and no foreign transaction fee. Plus, balance transfers get 12 months interest-free.
Drawbacks: You must be a PenFed member to access this card.

2. Navy Federal GO REWARDS Credit Card

Rewards: Three points per dollar spent at restaurants, two points per dollar spent on gas and one point per dollar spent on everything else
Signup Bonus: None
Annual Fee: $0
APR: Variable 9.99% to 18%
Why We Picked It: Everyday purchases earn points with a variety of redemption options.
For Military Members: All purchases earn reward points, with special rates on dining and gas purchases. Points can be redeemed for travel, gift cards, merchandise and more. There are no foreign transaction fees.
Drawbacks: Points expire after four years. You must be a Navy Federal member to access this card.

3. USAA Cashback Rewards Plus American Express

Rewards: 5% cash back on up to $3,000 in annual gas station and military base purchases, 2% cash back on up to $3,000 in annual supermarket purchases and 1% cash back on everything else
Signup Bonus: None
Annual Fee: $0
APR: Variable 12.9% to 26.9%
Why We Picked It: Cardholders earn great cash back rates on gas and on-base purchases.
For Military Members: This card earns a fantastic 5% cash back rate at gas stations and military bases, 2% cash back at supermarkets and 1% cash back everywhere else. There are no foreign transaction fees. During deployment, USAA will cap the interest rate on qualified accounts at 4%.
Drawbacks: You must be a USAA member to get this card. There is no signup bonus.

4. Citi Double Cash

Rewards: 1% cash back on all purchases and an additional 1% upon payment
Signup Bonus: None
Annual Fee: $0
APR: 0% for 15 months, then variable 14.49% to 24.49%
Why We Picked It: This card has a strong 0% intro APR offer and earns double cash back on all purchases upon payment. (Full Disclosure: Citibank advertises on Credit.com, but that results in no preferential editorial treatment.)
For Military Members: All your purchases earn 1% at the time of purchase and an additional 1% when you pay. You also get 15 months interest-free, which is a long time to pay off purchases and balance transfers.
Drawbacks: You’ll have to wait until you pay to earn the full cash back. There is a foreign transaction fee.

How to Choose a Card for Military Members

The Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act caps interest rates for all established credit obligations at 6% during your time of active duty.

But some credit cards go beyond the minimum federal requirements and will set interest rates below 6% and waive fees while you’re deployed. Many of these policies are difficult to find online, so you should call the issuer of any card you’re considering to check their active duty policies.

Beyond that, you should choose a card that best meets your needs at home or abroad. While military credit cards are designed specifically for service members, you shouldn’t discount civilian cards, as they may have strong offers and military-friendly policies as well.

Cards with strong rewards programs, low interest offers and other perks all have their own benefits and drawbacks. Be sure to consider your spending habits and how a credit card can meet your specific needs.

What Credit is Required for a Card for Active Duty?

Credit cards for military members have highly variable credit requirements, ranging from poor to excellent credit. But if you’re looking for a card with strong rewards or low interest rates, you’ll likely need good to excellent credit to qualify. Be sure to check your credit score before applying, as you’ll want to be reasonably confident in your chances of approval. You can check two of your credit scores for free at Credit.com.

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At publishing time, the PenFed Power Cash Rewards Signature Visa, Citi Double Cash and USAA Cashback Rewards Plus American Express credit cards are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for this card. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment. This content is not provided by the card issuer(s). Any opinions expressed are those of Credit.com alone and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer(s).

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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4 Things You Must Know About Money & the Military

Money might not seem like a priority when it comes to the military, but it plays a much bigger role than you might think.

A lot goes into managing your military career. Whether it’s meeting physical fitness standards or testing to make rank, you’re responsible for keeping everything on track. One area that’s necessary for a successful military career but doesn’t receive as much attention are your finances. When your finances are running smoothly, they don’t play a part in your military career, but when they’re not, then it is a problem for your job.

Knowing these four things about money and the military can keep your military career on track and help you avoid future financial problems.

1. Security Clearances & Your Finances

Many service members are required to have a security clearance for their job in the military. The Department of Defense uses a set of guidelines to determine a person’s eligibility for clearance. One of the 13 guidelines covers finances. It’s Guideline F, and it says, “An individual who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds. Unexplained affluence is often linked to proceeds from financially profitable criminal acts.”

The guideline is saying when you’re in debt, you may be tempted to compromise information or technology you have access to in exchange for money. Guideline F doesn’t just apply to an initial application for clearance. It also applies to individuals being reinvestigated. This is where people serving can run into problems with their military career.

Reinvestigation can be at 5, 10 or 15 years after your initial clearance is obtained depending on if it’s top secret, secret or confidential. Losing your clearance can mean losing your job or being separated from the military if your job requires a security clearance. The F guideline says “a history of not meeting financial obligations” may be a disqualifying factor in obtaining a security clearance. If you’re in the habit of not paying your bills and have debt in collections you may be putting your military career in jeopardy. It’s important to pay your bills on time to keep your credit report and therefore your security clearance in good standing.

2. Government Travel Credit Card (GTCC)

In the course of your military service, you may be required to use a GTCC during a temporary duty for official expenses you incur for travel. The credit card is provided through the Government Travel Charge Card Program and has detailed regulations on its use. (To qualify you must have a qualifying credit score of at least 660. You can check two of your credit scores for free with Credit.com.) Making a poor choice with this credit card can lead to serious problems in your military career.

Service members are required to sign a Statement of Understanding to ensure they know all directions from the DOD for the use of the credit card. One direction that gets military members in the most trouble is the requirement to file a travel voucher within five business days after completing their trip. By not submitting a travel voucher on time, your reimbursement will be late, and you will not have the funds you need to make the payment on your GTCC. If there are any unauthorized charges, they’ll be the cardholder’s responsibility, which will increase the amount of money you personally owe. It may be a credit card you can only use for official expenses, but it’s still in your name. The repercussions of a late payment start with notification to your leadership that you have not paid your bill. Once nonpayment hits 61 days, the card will be suspended. Not paying your GTCC can affect your personal credit or worse could cause you to be separated from the military. Use your GTCC for official expenses and pay the bill on time to avoid the GTCC affecting your credit or military career negatively.

3. The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)

The TSP is similar to an employer 401K but for military personnel and government employees. It’s available to help them save money for retirement at a relatively low cost. One common mistake that can become a financial problem is if a person signed up for the TSP before Sept. 5, 2015, the money they contributed to the TSP was automatically invested into the Government Securities Investment Fund (G Fund), unless they selected otherwise. Many people never go back into their TSP account and change their investments.

The problem with that is, over a person’s 20-year military career the G Fund is at risk to earn less than inflation.To have a TSP account balance with low or no return comes as a shock to many nearing retirement. To avoid this mistake, review your TSP investment allocation to ensure you have investments selected that align with your risk tolerance.

4. The Savings Deposit Program (SDP)

Being in the military has its financial perks, and one of them is the SDP. This program allows members of the armed forces serving in a combat zone to save up to $10,000 on each deployment. The SDP earns up to 10% annually. It’s not a requirement to use, but it’s a great resource to help service members get ahead on their savings and improve their finances.

Once you’re in the combat zone 30 days, you can start the SDP with your finance office via cash, check or direct deposit. The limit you can deposit at one time is equivalent to the amount you earn in basic pay. For example, if you make $1,000 per month in basic pay, that is the max you can deposit at on time. If you earn $7,000 basic pay in a month, you can write a check to begin your SDP with $7,000 and then set up allotments each month to continuing saving until you return or reach $10,000. Building a surplus in savings prepares you for financial problems that may pop up in the future.

Image: Catherine Lane

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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5 Financial Lessons I Learned in the Military That Anyone Can Benefit From

A financial coach shares the money skills she learned in the U.S. Air Force.

When I first joined the U.S. Air Force, I was scared out of my mind. I had just committed four years of my life to something I wasn’t 100% sure I could do. Not to mention, I was getting yelled at and working harder than I ever had in my 19 years of life. There was a lot to process. Through it all, I learned many life lessons.

It wasn’t just life skills I picked up in the military. I also learned financial lessons. Today I’m a financial coach helping others with money. My service in the military laid the foundation for my financial career. Some of the lessons I learned there were harder than others, but each contributed to how I handle money today. Here are the financial lessons I learned while serving in the military.

1. Have Control of Your Money at All Times

Physical money management is taught early on in basic training. Every bit of cash you have needs to be accounted for and neatly organized. Our instructors asked us to write down the serial number of every dollar you earn. This reduces theft and teaches the habit of keeping track of the money you earn and spend. Not everyone keeps the serial number of all their bills, but you should know where your money is and how it’s being spent, saved or invested. If you don’t have a handle on your money, who will? You are the one in charge of your money, not anyone else.

2. If You’re on Time, You’re Late

In the service, you quickly learn you need to be ahead of schedule for everything. Being late is not acceptable. If you’re late, it could affect an entire mission. Planning to complete tasks early ensures you’ll be on time even if something unexpected happens. This applies to paying bills and saving as well — something could come up to make you late. Instead of waiting until late on the day your bill is due, take care of it in advance to ensure that even if problems come up, your financial life stays on schedule. Even better? Consider automated payments so you don’t have to worry about being late.

3. Save Money From Every Paycheck

Every supervisor I had while serving made it clear to me: Living paycheck to paycheck was not the way to live. For most young folks joining the military, it’s their first time away from home and their first time earning a paycheck. The sudden influx of money and freedom can lead to crazy spending and zero saving. (Even if you don’t serve, this is a common experience for recent graduates starting their first job and receiving their first salary.) Each supervisor I had encouraged me to live within my means and save part of each of my paychecks. By saving money from each check, you’ll build up money for when the unexpected happens.

4. Use Your Resources

As a new Air Force recruit, I didn’t know all the resources available to me. Fortunately, I had supervisors who mentored me through some of my early financial mistakes, like charging all new things for my apartment instead of borrowing household items from the lending closet on base. I could have used the borrowed items and bought the things I needed as I was paid instead of running up my credit card debt. The lesson here? Take advantage of any free resources you have before spending money unnecessarily. Asking for help to find the free resources available can save you money. (Use this free credit report summary to your advantage to see how your spending habits are affecting your credit.)

5. Learn From Your Mistakes

When you make a mistake in the military, your supervisor, drill sergeant or peers will call you out on them immediately. Mistakes will happen — they’re part of learning and growing. In the military, I learned not to try to hide or forget my mistakes but to review them to figure out ways to avoid them in the future. That way I don’t make the same mistakes over and over. When it comes to finances, this applies in several ways. For example, charging a bunch of household goods on my credit card was a mistake, but I learned ways to avoid making that mistake in the future by using free resources or only spending what I had saved for.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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6 Solid Tips for Veterans in Need of a Loan

Veterans are faced with some unique money challenges. Fortunately, there are ways for them to get an affordable loan.

U.S. military members transitioning out of service can find themselves facing many unique money challenges. After all, duty to one’s country can understandably push personal money management to the back burner. Fortunately, there are steps veterans can take to secure the funding they need to achieve their financial goals.

Here are some tips for veterans looking to secure a mortgage, small business loan or other types of financing.

1. Know What Federal Benefits Are Available …

There are programs out there designed to help veterans and their families overcome the various money challenges that can arise when a family member is on active duty. For instance, veterans are eligible for VA home loans, which often feature no down payment, no mortgage insurance and flexible underwriting requirements. And there are various grants, loans and business development programs backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration that can help former military members and budding entrepreneurs.

Veterans can get acquainted with the general benefits available to them on the Veterans Benefits Administration website. Prospective entrepreneurs can begin looking into business financing by checking out the Small Business Administration’s Office of Veterans Business Development online.

2. Research All of Your Options

That’s not to say veterans should limit themselves to federal loan programs. For instance, when it comes to mortgages, “to be sure, VA loans aren’t the right fit for every veteran,” Chris Birk, a Credit.com contributor and director of education for Veterans United, a VA loan lender, said. “Understanding all of your mortgage options is also key to getting the best deal possible. Even veterans with sterling credit and a 20% down payment would benefit from comparison shopping between conventional and VA loans.”

3. Consider Financial Institutions That Cater to Vets …

If you do decide to go for a VA loan to buy a home, consider finding a mortgage lender who knows the ins and outs of that type of financing.

“VA loan market share has soared over the last decade, but it’s still a niche product for many lenders and real estate professionals,” Birk said. “Working with companies and professionals who know the ins and outs of VA loans can help ensure veterans get the most from this benefit.”

Similarly, you can look into finding a credit card issuer or bank that caters to former and current military members. (We’ve got a list of some of the better military credit cards here to help you get you started on your search.)

And there are several startups, venture capitalist funds and, even, angel investors out there that offer small business financing exclusively to veterans and military members that may prove worthwhile, depending on your financial situation.

4. … But Be Sure to Assess Your Finances Holistically

We say “depending on your financial situation” because it’s important to consider factors beyond your status as a veteran when making money decisions. Take credit cards as an example. Ultimately, the right one for you will be influenced by your current financial situation or goals. For instance, if you’re trying to pay a lot of debt, you might want to look into a balance-transfer credit card. 

The same thing applies when exploring other financing opportunities — just because you’re a veteran doesn’t mean products designed for veterans are going to be the ones that best need your financing needs.

5. Watch Out for Scams

Due to the money challenges some veterans face (often related to spending extended periods of time out of the country or relocating frequently), they often find themselves on a scammer’s radar. That’s why it’s a good idea to vet any business you’re thinking of getting a loan from before filling out applications. You can start by conducting a thorough search online or checking a company’s status with the Better Business Bureau.

6. Brush Up Your Credit

A good credit score can make all types of financing more affordable, so it’s a good idea to see where you stand before applying for a loan. You can get a free credit report snapshot, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com. You can also pull your free credit reports from each of the major consumer credit reporting agencies each year at AnnualCreditReport.com.  

If you need to build credit, you can look into credit-builder loans or secured credit cards, which help people with thin files establish a history of using credit wisely. If you need to improve your credit, you can focus on paying down high credit card balances, disputing credit report errors and limiting applications for new credit, all of which can hurt your credit score.

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8 Student Loan Repayment Options if You Join the Military

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Several military programs offer scholarships and grants in exchange for your prior military service, or a promise of service in the future. But, what if you already have a degree and are working to pay off your student loans? You may want to consider one of the military’s student loan repayment programs.

In 2013, CNN reported on Thomas McGregor, an attorney who enlisted in the Army to help pay off his $108,000 student loan debt. Between his income and a loan-assistance program, he was student loan free within four years.

Military service isn’t for everyone, and you should seriously consider the potential impact of signing up for a multi-year commitment. It was a good fit for McGregor, who decided to stay on after his three-year service ended. However, he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of his friends were injured or died in combat.

If you decide joining the military is a good choice for you and are paying down student loans, the loan assistance programs could guide your decision to choose one branch over another. While the different programs sometimes share similar names, the qualifications, requirements, and award amounts can vary from one branch’s program to another.

Make sure the loan-repayment guarantee is in your contract before enlisting and double-check your loan’s eligibility for repayment through the program. For example, a program may pay off some types of federal student loans, but not state or private loans. Restrictions also apply based on which position you enlist in, your length of service, and whether or not you have prior military experience. In some cases, the loan payments count as income for tax purposes.

The military’s loan repayment programs and offers can change based on government funding and a branch’s need for new recruits. You can find an overview of the programs below, and you should follow-up with a local recruiter to clarify specifics and find out whether or not you’ll qualify.

Air Force

  • JAG Corps Student Loan Repayment ProgramEligible attorneys can receive up to $65,000 in student loan repayments, payable over three years following the completion of your first year of service. The payments can go towards undergraduate, graduate, or law school loans and payments will go directly to your lender. If you stay on past four years, then you can qualify for a $60,000 in cash bonuses: $20,000 for two more years of service and another $40,000 for four more. That’s not specifically earmarked for your loans, but you can use them to pay off your debt. That would be $125,000 over 8 years, in addition to your salary and other benefits.

Army

  • Healthcare Loan Repayment ProgramsThe Army offers special pay and incentives to doctors, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, psychologists, and other healthcare professionals. Depending on your profession and specialty, you may be eligible for up to $120,000 in student loan repayments over three years of active-duty service in addition to salary, bonuses and special pay. Reserve-duty servicemembers may receive up to $50,000 for three years of service for loans.
  • College Loan Repayment ProgramThe Army also offers some highly qualified Military Occupational Specialists (MOSs) student loan assistance if they enlist for at least three years of service. At the end of each of the three years, you’ll receive the greater of $1,500 or 33.33 percent of your outstanding principal loan balance, less taxes. There’s a maximum potential payout of $65,000.

Army National Guard and Reserves 

  • College Loan Repayment Program The Army National Guard and Army Reserves have similar student loan payments for some highly qualified Military Occupational Specialists (MOSs). You could receive the greater of $1,500 or 15 percent of your outstanding loan principal at the end of each year of service, up to a maximum of $20,000. To qualify, you must enlist and serve for at least six years. Parent PLUS loans can be covered. 

Coast Guard

  • College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative Student Loan Repayment ProgramThe Coast Guard offers recent college graduates who are 19- to 27-year-olds up to $10,000 per year, for six years, in student loan aid. The program requires candidates to complete a series of trainings, including basic training and leadership training, and enlist for five years as a commissioned officer. There are some interesting catches: you can’t have more than two dependents and if you’re single, you can’t have sole or primary custody of dependents. Online degrees also don’t qualify.

Navy

  • Health Professions Loan Repayment ProgramThe Navy pays select health care professionals up to $40,000, minus approximately 25% for federal income tax, in student loan payments each year in exchange for agreeing to continue, or begin, active duty service. The hefty tax portion will be taken out prior to sending the payment along to your lender.
  • College Loan Repayment Program Pays up to $65,000 in student loan payments if you’re serving in your first enlistment.

National Guard

  • Student Loan Repayment ProgramYou could receive the greater of $500 or 15 percent of your initially disbursed loan amount each year, with a maximum $50,000 payout and minimum six-year service agreement. You must have at least one disbursed Title IV federal loan.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program isn’t military specific, instead it’s a federal loan-forgiveness program contingent on your employment with a qualified government or non-profit organization. Only federal student loan that are part of the Direct Loan program qualify for PSLF. However, you may be able to consolidate non-qualifying federal loans (such as a Perkins loan) into a qualified Direct Consolidation Loan.

With PSLF, your remaining loan balance will be forgiven after you make 120 qualifying monthly payments (10 years’ worth) while employed full-time. The 120 payments don’t need to be consecutive, and some, or all, of the employment, could be within the military. You currently won’t have to pay income taxes on the forgiven amount.

Additional Military Benefits

In addition to the loan repayment programs, your federal student loans may be eligible for a capped 6-percent interest rate during active duty, and up to five years of no interest if you’re serving in qualified hostile areas. You may also be able to postpone payments during active duty, but the loans will still accrue interest.

Bottom line

The military’s student loan forgiveness programs may be able to help repay your loans, but don’t take the decision to enlist lightly. Other employers offer loan repayment programs, and potentially less-dangerous jobs qualify for the PSLF. If you do decide to enlist, compare the loan repayment programs and be sure to get the loan repayment included in your contract.

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How to Maintain Good Credit While Serving in the Military

Budgeting during deployment or transfer to a new assignment might be on the mind of many military service members. What might not be are credit scores and how they could impact the costs for everything from a credit card’s annual percentage rate, or APR, to a new mortgage.

Here are four tips for how to maintain good credit while serving in the military.

1. Save When You Can

Whether you’re on active duty, in the reserves or are returning from tour, keeping a savings account may help you avoid going into debt now or down the road in an emergency. (Consider these five mistakes to avoid when you start saving.) 

“The best advice is to make savings a priority while avoiding unnecessary spending,” Bruce McClary, the vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, said in an email. “Adequate savings will help avoid financial emergencies that would otherwise lead to unmanageable debt. Savings also helps during periods of transition from military to civilian life.” 

While you’re serving can be a good time to save, as some of your expenses may be covered by the military. This can help you save for emergencies or hefty future expenses, like raising a family or buying a home. (Though some veterans can qualify for 0% down VA home loans.)

2. Communicate With Those Back Home

If you are sharing an account with someone at home, it’s a good idea to discuss payment plans and spending before you leave so everyone’s on the same page. But the communication shouldn’t end there.

“Staying in touch with joint account users, such as spouses, can help avoid any surprises while keeping accounts paid as agreed,” McClary said. “At the same time, you should use all means available to monitor account activity online whenever possible.”

3. Use Online Resources to Your Advantage

Depending where you are deployed, you may or may not have frequent internet access. However, if you do, there are several online tools to help you maintain good financial habits while serving in the military, like online banking and budgeting tools.

“Those serving on active duty can set alerts that help them keep a closer eye on how an account is being used, giving them instant access to charges and balances,” McClary said. “Payment due date reminders can also be helpful, along with automatic payments.”

Having a late payment can subject you to late fees, and missing one altogether can potentially harm your credit score. So even if you have automatic payments set up, it’s a good idea to monitor those and ensure they go through as scheduled.

“If automated payments have been arranged, set a schedule where you can check to see if they were processed correctly,” McClary said.

If you don’t have internet access while overseas, consider having a trusted family member check your accounts to make sure any automatic payments are processed correctly and on time.

4. Keep an Eye on Your Credit

“Credit reports should also be monitored on a regular basis,” McClary said. If you have internet access, you can get your free credit reports once a year on AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can view your free credit report summary, updated each month, on Credit.com. Should you find any inaccurate information, you can dispute the errors on your credit reports with the credit reporting agency or agencies that have it wrong.

Members of the military who are deployed can also consider placing an active duty alert on their credit reports.

“An active duty alert remains on the report for one year,” Rod Griffin, Experian’s director of public education, said in an email. While the alert only lasts a year, it can be renewed. “It notifies creditors that you are a member of the U.S. military and that you are currently on active duty,” he said. “An active duty alert does not require a lender to contact you directly to get your approval before granting credit in your name, but it does enable them to take appropriate action to protect your identity.”

[Offer: If you need help fixing errors on your credit report, Lexington Law could help you meet your goals. Learn more about them here or call them at (844) 346-3296 for a free consultation.]

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

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5 Options for Enlisting in the Military to Pay for College

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Lacey Langford was taking classes at a local community college when she realized she’d rather work full-time to save money for school. “My father was an Army officer, and I decided I wanted to join like him,” says Langford, now 38, who lives in Summerfield, NC. “He convinced me to at least talk to the Air Force recruiter. That was it. I realized it would be better for me and I committed to the Air Force.”

Three years into her active duty, Langford started taking classes at night, using the Air Force’s Tuition Assistance program and the GI Bill. She later separated from the Air Force and completed her degree at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She estimates that the GI Bill paid for 100 percent of her tuition, 85 percent of her books, and about 40 percent of her room and board expenses. “I am happy with the way it worked out, walking out of school with zero student loan debt,” says Langford, who today is a financial planner. “I also gained valuable work experience and discipline. The discipline alone has reaped major rewards.”

With the average 2015 graduate coming out of school with more than $35,000 in student loans, being able to get a degree without all the debt is appealing, to say the least. Langford’s path to tuition coverage is one way to do it, but the military offers a variety of ways to pay for schooling or even to pay back student loans. Here are a few options:

1. ROTC Scholarships

Some schools offer the opportunity to apply for a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program that could pay for nearly all of your tuition, fees and books charges for four years of school, in exchange for a commitment to enter the service as a commissioned officer when you graduate. You generally promise to serve for at least four years post-graduation. There are also two- and three-year scholarships available, depending on how many years you have left in school. Each branch of the military has their own information and program.

2. Montgomery GI Bill

During basic training, recruits get the chance to sign up for this GI Bill plan, paying for it with $100 a month during their first year in the service. Once enrolled, however, eligible members can receive a monthly stipend while attending classes, based on their active duty status and how long they’ve served. For instance, effective October 1, 2015 through September 30, 2016, those who have completed an enlistment of three years or more and enrolled in full-time school qualify for a monthly stipend of $1,789. Rates generally go up every year.

3. 9/11 GI Bill

Any veteran with at least 90 days of active duty after September 11, 2001, with an honorable discharge, is eligible to take advantage of this benefit. The biggest benefit goes to those with at least three years of active duty service. For those with three years of active duty service and attending a public school, the 9/11 GI Bill will pay up to 100% of tuition and fee payments for an in-state student. For private or foreign school attendees, payment is up to $21,970.46 per academic year.

4. Tuition Assistance

Each branch of the military also offers its own tuition assistance program, in which active duty members can get money toward tuition and fees for qualified programs. The Air Force, Army and Marines offer up to $4,500 per fiscal year with caps on credit hour costs, and the Navy offers up to $250 per semester credit hour or $166 per quarter credit hour. The Coast Guard offers up to $3,375 per fiscal year. This may also be an option for you if you belong to one of the service’s Reserve units.

5. Student Loan Repayment

If you’ve already incurred student loans, you may be able to enlist in the military and have them paid off over time. Each branch offers its own program for this. The Army and Navy, for example, will repay up to $65,000 of a soldier’s qualifying student loans, and the Air Force will repay up to $10,000. Generally, after each year of completed active duty, your service will pay 33-1/3 percent or $1,500, whichever is greater, of your total unpaid balance.

There are other programs that may assist with school costs or loan repayment, depending on your position, active duty status and career field. You can get more information on all programs at military.com/education, or find specific information from the military branch you’re interested in.

A word of caution

Although these are all valid pathways to an education without massive student loan debt—or any debt at all in some cases—experts advise that students shouldn’t join the military for the tuition assistance alone. “There are people for whom the military is great, but for some people, the military is just not for them,” says Ryan Guina, founder of TheMilitaryWallet.com, who used the military’s Tuition Assistance program to get his degree while on active duty with the Air Force. “If you’re going to join for a specific benefit, make sure all the other aspects are in line with your values and what you’re looking for out of life. I encourage people to look at the military as a whole and not just a means to an end.”

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