Growing up in a military family I experienced the full array of housing situations. As a family of five tagging along with an E-7 we were sometimes offered clean, adequate housing. Other times we were offered cramped quarters without the base housing perks such as a commissary and youth centers. Housing off base was a bit more predictable but we definitely lived in our share of “emergency” apartments while we waited for something to open up on base. My mother was the epitome of the frugal military wife and she always seemed to make the right choice when it came to our housing situation. From pocketing the moving expenses to assessing the cost and benefit of living on base she always knew how to get the most from the basic housing allowance. Now that I am grown and faced with the same question it is time to unpack the methods my mother used.
Whether it is better to live on base or off base is ultimately a personal question. Which it is cheaper, luckily, is a quantifiable question that can be answered with thorough research. Before you even begin to research housing you should sit down and assess your family’s lifestyle. Are you outdoorsy? Do you spend a lot of time indoors, cranking the AC? Are you active in your communities? Do you need a lot of space for yourself or your children? These questions will help determine your actual cost of living. Once you have answered them, you should begin researching the availability of base housing, and the cost of living in nearby cities. You can use the calculator here BAH Calculator to determine your housing allowance in your new city, then begin to consider the following aspects of the housing offered to you on base versus the housing you can find yourself off base:
- Square footage. Sometimes base housing can be small for a family. Often times my older brothers had to share a room when we were in base housing, but they had their own room when we were in the city. It is important when considering the size of your house you are realistic about how much space you actually need. Taking a bigger place on base is not always the better option if you don’t actually need the space.
- Yard size. Often times on base you don’t need a large yard because there are playing fields and parks open, and safe, for you and your children. However, if you are the gardening type you can save quite a bit of money growing your own vegetables during the summer, which you might not be allowed to do on base.
- Utilities. Most base housing includes utilities such as gas, electric, water, and trash pickup. When living in the city you will be expected to pay these on your own. If your family is frugal in their electricity usage it can make a big difference in comparing the cost of living on base or off base.
- Rental insurance. Again, this is included in the package for base housing. You will have to pay for it out of pocket if you are living on your own.
- Transportation. Sometimes military housing is within walking distance of your work. Other times you will have to drive a bit to get there. Compare the driving time and cost of fuel between the base housing location and where you would look for housing off base.
- Recreational activities and shopping. Activities for children and shopping for groceries is almost always cheaper on base, but if you are living off base it may not be logical to haul your children across town for swim lessons. Find out if these perks are offered at your current location and compare the cost to the same facilities you would use in town.
Once you have added up all of these expenses, if living in town is less than the full amount of your basic allowance for housing you might want to check out your off-base options. However, if the cost of living off base is only slightly less than living on base you might want to avoid the hassle and go with military housing. Keep in mind the social perks of living on base including being around other military families that understand your lifestyle and can commiserate with you on your problems, and celebrate your joys.