My mother hates it when I tell people how much I spend on things. For example: Friend says, “That’s a great outfit, Lisa.” I say, “Well get this — I bought the shirt on clearance at TJ Maxx for $11.99, and I found these pants along with an electric carving knife, hardly used at all, at the base thrift store on ‘fill-a-bag-for-five-bucks’ day. Pretty cool.”
I see this as sharing good news, but according to Mom, it’s tacky.
But nearly 24 years as a military spouse has engrained in me respect for a good bargain.
When I married my husband, I had to quit my job as a civil litigation attorney for a Pittsburgh firm to move to Alexandria, Virginia, to start our new life. I applied for reciprocity to practice in the District of Columbia, but the process took so long, I didn't get my DC license until we PCSed to California. In the meantime, I took a law clerk temp job for $9 per hour, before taxes.
That pattern of unemployment and underemployment continued for our entire marriage. I was never able to practice law again, and I never contributed significantly to our household income, despite my whopping student loans. If I had stayed in Pennsylvania to develop my legal career, I would have easily been making more than $150,000 per year by now.
One way I compensate for my abysmal income is to bargain hunt. However, realistically, shopping on clearance racks cannot compensate for 24 years of financial sacrifice as an unemployed or underemployed military spouse.
According to a May 2018 report from the Council of Economic Advisors, the estimated value of a military spouse’s average annual income loss is $12,374. Over a 20-year military career, that amount adds up to $189,614 of income loss. Enough money to buy a house or send two kids to college. With 690,000 American military spouses today, this loss of individual income costs our society between $710 million to $1.1 billion per year, primarily in the form of unemployment and healthcare benefits paid, and lost income taxes.
But thanks to recent actions being taken to recognize and rectify the financial sacrifice made by military spouses, adverse employment conditions may be easing up. Here’s what’s been done:
- 2011 — US Chamber of Commerce Foundation launches Hiring Our Heroes initiative to engage businesses and to host job fairs for veterans and military spouses.
- 2011 — DoD launches Military Spouse Employment Partnership which now boasts 360 Fortune 500 US partner companies (including my favorite bargain haunt, TJ Maxx) to train, recruit and employ military spouses.
- 2017 — President Trump signs the National Defense Authorization Act, providing rebates for military spouses who apply for new employment licenses after moves, appointment of quality child care providers, and a policy allowing military families to move before or after service members for school or work.
- 2017 — DoD establishes Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) program to offer military spouses free career counseling, resume building, job searching, training, licensing, and tuition assistance.
- 2018 — Military Spouse Employment Act is introduced by Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to address employment of military spouses by federal agencies, childcare accessibility, expansion of eligibility for employment benefits to one year after separation, removal of restrictions on military spouse entrepreneurs, etc.
- 2018 — Starbucks joins Hiring Our Heroes and other big-name companies to launch an initiative to hire 100,000 military spouses by the end of 2021.
- 2018 — LinkedIn offers free premium memberships to military spouses experiencing PSC moves and those within six months of military separation.
These programs represent a pretty good deal for younger military spouses, who now have the chance to reduce the whopping 16 percent milspouse unemployment rate and earn the salaries they deserve. The deal may be too late for older spouses like me — my husband retired last year after 28 years on active duty — but I’ll continue to chip away at my income deficit by using Butterball turkey coupons at the commissary deli, hitting resale shops, and perusing clearance racks.
Call us tacky, but military spouses will keep talking about the cost of things until we get what we deserve.