Is military service a good way to pay off student loans?

By Stew

People who speak often or write a lot in the public arena sometimes make mistakes and leave themselves open to criticism. That has happened to me a couple of times on this blog and it will probably happen again. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article responding to a question about college loan payoffs. If you read down to the comments, you will see where a regular reader who goes by the moniker, “Damsel” shared how her husband’s military service has been good for their family finances.

My response, a hastily typed comment via my Blackberry, came across as rather flip:

The military can be a great financial option . . . as long as you don’t catch a bullet in the head . . .

My statement was not intended to show disrespect toward military families. I highly value the sacrifices made throughout our country’s history by military families. My brother is a Marine and did a tour in Iraq, my intent was not to diminish or make light of the dangers faced by our volunteer servicemen. My point was simply that one’s reasons for pursuing a career in the military should not be financial – and I’m not implying that Damsel’s husband enlisted with that goal in mind, my intention was to put some perspective on her comment. Granted, my attempt was poorly phrased.

I work with college aged young people and I have know many who have signed up for the military over the years. I believe that it is a high calling, however, much of the marketing that surrounds military service is misleading. Over the years, we have had military marketing campaigns that sell the following ideas:

  • Join the Army and maximize your potential!
  • Join the Marines and be one of the few and the proud!
  • Join the Air Force and use your video game skills!
  • Join and you will be a leader when you get out!
  • Join and you will get great job’s training!
  • Join the National Guard and you will get paid for not much work!
  • Join the military since you have nothing else to do!
  • Join ROTC and you will graduate from school with no debt!

My point is not that these benefits of military service are not positive benefits and much deserved, my point is that military service is for an individual who has a strong desire to serve his country and is willing to lay down his life for that country. I wrote an article along similar lines last summer that made the point that while there are financial implications and concerns surrounding the decision to marry, the heart of marriage is not a financial arrangement.

I know that Damsel understands this idea, but any young person who is considering military service needs to balance all of the benefits against the real (especially nowadays) possibility that military service could result in major injury or death. The person who is motivated to join the military because he is unemployed or wants to pay for college has not considered all of the implications of his decision. I think there are two Scripture passages that have value in this situation:

No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other You cannot serve God and wealth. Luke 16:13

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13

There are certainly great financial and life benefits to successful military service, but if you are not prepared to “lay down your life” or as someone once crudely wrote, “take a bullet in the head”, then you need to find a different way to pay off those school loans.

By the way, I have a blogger friend who specializes in the financial idiosyncrasies of military life at The Military Wallet. If you are in the military, I recommend adding TMW to your blog reader. I also would like to pass along condolences to the family of a college acquaitance of mine who was recently killed in action in Afghanistan. It is my belief that Dale served with the purest of intentions: to provide spiritual ministry and comfort to our military men and women.

Photo by Nevada Tumbleweed


9 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Is military service a good way to pay off student loans?”

  1. Damsel Says:

    Stew, this is a great article. I agree with you that joining the military is not completely a financial decision. However, it is worth looking into. Many people have a preconceived notion of military service that isn’t always correct. While the miltary definitely isn’t for everyone, there are tons of perks that I never even knew about until we reached our first duty station. You can read a little about how we ended up in the Army here.

    Thanks for linking to TMW – I subscribed and will be reading through the archives. The military definitely has its own set of rules when it comes to money, and they can sometimes be difficult to navigate.

    Please offer my thanks to your brother for his service and my condolences to your friend’s family for their loss. We sincerely appreciate their sacrifice.

  2. dramon Says:

    For my nephew, the military gave him the direction and discipline he needed. He has had good opportunities for training and learning skills that he would have had a hard time getting in the private environment (as he barely graduated high school). It is not a decision for everyone, as stated. But one should not ignore the opportunties it can provide.

  3. GrannyAnnie Says:

    Military service is indeed a complex decision. So is ANY career decision worth it’s salt. The risk of death is there for more careers than just the military. The ad campaigns also hold more water than you have given them credit for. Some are silly (Army of One?), but some are right on the money (Few and Proud). As a military mother, I helped my son look into all of it, including the financial aspects. To read something so flip about a decision we took great care with was insulting. I also disagree with you that one’s reasons for military service should not be financial. The BEST financial decision my son made given our particular set of circumstances at the time was military service. This is so for many young men and women. After 6 years of service, with prudence and planning, my son has enough money saved to purchase a small home outright should he choose to do so. Not many 25 year olds can say that. Not a bad financial decision, would you say?

  4. christopher becker Says:

    Perhaps there’s controversy because there was a latent anti-war message in your comment. When the war in Iraq first began, many anti-war lefties pushed the message: Join the military AND DIE. Truth is, there are plenty of relatively safe ways to serve. Being a front-line combatant is not for everyone, nor is slaving away in a cube a la “Office Space.” What about the TV series, Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel? Commercial fisherman endure very dangerous conditions for a big paycheck; I ask which is worse? By the way, I write this from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan and with tomorrow’s paycheck, I will be 100% debt-free, something that would be impossible if I were still in a cube somewhere.

  5. Getting Out of Debt Says:

    I love my country, however I didn’t want any of my kids to the serve in the military. I had uncles and cousins that had some real emotional and mental damage from their tours in WWW II and Vietnam. Not to mention someone I dated that was in Desert Storm. Wouldn’t you know, my oldest went straight to the Navy. Down deep inside, I knew he was going to do it.

    It has been a great experience for him. He is in Hawaii. Went in at 18, no debt. He is a non bio, but lived with me full time for 2 years. Within that time, I taught him about wealth, investing, passive income. He opened a sharebuilder and practiced. He’s really good at it. Earned $12,000 overnight! He doesn’t have any debt and is in the process of buying his first home to keep as a rental property. He is also going to school, paid for by the military. The service has been an excellent experience for him, but he didn’t have any debt. He’s also not in harm’s way and far from the NY snow. :)

  6. Deb Says:

    I went into the military straight out of high school. Best decision I ever made – but it was peace time, not war time. Not sure I would be willing to do the same today.

    I was able to take several college courses and maxed my contributions to my education fund. The education bill was different then because it was peace time, and not as rewarding as today’s GI bill, but I didn’t have to experience combat.

    Working 32 hours a week and using my VA educational benefits, I graduated from college debt free after leaving the military. I also had a leg up because my military field of health care admin is still in high demand and is very marketable. I was able to work in my career field while going to college.

    For me, the military was good in many ways – travel, responsibility, independence, education assistance. But it’s a tough life, it can get lonely, and these days there are a lot more risks than when I served in the 80s.

    I would advise people to consider it carefully, but it is absolutely worth considering!

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  8. Stevie Says:

    I have to disagree with Christopher Becker: I don’t think Stew was being political in this post at all.

    Great post. And I appreciate your humility in recognizing how your initial response to Damsel might have been harsh. But it’s also worth mentioning that military life in general is quite difficult. To make the decision not only to be in (what COULD be, as Christopher and Damsel pointed out) a dangerous line of work, but one that also requires a great deal of moving and orders and papers etc…. I’m not sure it’s worth the financial benefits if your heart isn’t in it. I think it’s a very quick way for a man to resent his family, and that’s a very brutal truth.

  9. Jonathan@Friends and Money Says:

    I think you make some fair points. Unfortunately there will always be some that take offence without reading the full context. :)

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