(This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
The ability to transfer the Post-9/11 GI Bill is a huge benefit of military service, but it can be challenging to figure out how to get the most value for your family’s specific situation.
Two common remarks I hear about GI Bill benefits are: “I’m going to save it for my children,” and “I’m splitting it evenly between my kids.” While these are both good things to do, make sure to take into account other considerations to effectively leverage your GI Bill benefits.
Saving the GI Bill for Your Kids
Giving the GI Bill benefit to your kids is a great thing, both from a financial planning standpoint and also from an emotional, feel-good standpoint. Knowing that you’ve got a portion of college money relieves some of the financial pressure of the college planning process. But when worked out mathematically, using those benefits for a parent may make more economic sense than saving them for the next generation.
Let’s say Dad currently has a bachelor’s degree, and he is interested in a master’s degree that costs $40,000 in tuition. At a Yellow Ribbon school, he could potentially get that degree for free, plus a monthly housing allowance, using around 18 months of GI Bill benefits.
If that degree helps Dad earn $20,000 a year more for the next 20 years, that’s a $400,000 benefit from just 18 months of GI Bill benefits. That’s more than enough to help pay for the kids’ college when it happens; furthermore, there will still be money left over.
Splitting the GI Bill Equally Between Kids
Another mistake when using transferred GI Bill benefits is dividing it equally. It makes more sense to divide the benefits strategically, based upon your children’s college choices, financial aid eligibility, and the cost of living where they go to school.
Let’s say you have twins, Chris and Sam. Chris has earned a full-tuition scholarship to a great school in an area that has a low cost of living. Meanwhile, Sam has been admitted to an expensive Yellow Ribbon college in San Francisco. However, he hasn’t earned any merit aid, and your family doesn’t qualify for need-based aid.
If you split the benefit equally, you’d give 18 months each to Chris and Sam. Chris would get zero benefit for tuition because of the scholarship, and Chris would get 18 months of housing allowance for a low cost of living area — maybe $27,000. Sam would get about two years of his tuition covered — about $100,000 — plus 18 months of housing allowance for San Francisco, for a total of around $190,000 in benefits.
In this example, it would make more sense to use all 36 months of transferred benefit for Sam, for a total benefit of $380,000, and find another way to cover the $27,000 of benefi ts that Chris doesn’t receive.
Your family’s variables will be different, but the idea remains the same: Explore all your options for using the GI Bill benefit, all aspects of the educational and career plans for everyone in the family. The best choice for your situation may be more creative than just splitting money between the kids.