You will hear a lot of different things when it comes to military retirement. There will be those who will tell you, “You just know when it’s time.” Others will tell you to get out when it’s no longer fun.

It is not an easy decision, nor is it a solo one. The active duty service member, of course, has the final say in whether they stay in for twenty, stick around until twenty-five, or hang on for thirty. As with active duty service, retirement also affects the entire family. Having your spouse on board with your decision will make the transition easier.

Before you drop your papers, get out your military retirement calculators, or hang up your uniform, there are some crucial questions you need to ask and answer for yourself and your family.

1. What do you want your post-military life to look like?

You really can’t answer this question until you answer all the questions to follow. Give some thought as to what you want daily life to look like, not just for yourself but your spouse and children too. You have been living the active duty lifestyle for many years and retirement will offer a huge change in your daily life. Unlike the last two decades, from now on you decide where you will live and how you will live.

2. Where do you plan to settle?

Many retirees head ‘home’ to be near extended family. Others, having spent the better part of two or three decades moving with the military, don’t feel they really have an emotional tie to any specific area and may pick a part of the country that is new and appealing to them. Still others decide to stay in place when they retire to allow their kids to finish school or their spouse to continue in the workforce.

There are many factors that can influence your decision about the location of your “forever home.” If you aren’t feeling tied to a particular geographic location, then consider the benefits that vary from state to state. Will your future state tax your military pension? Some do and some don’t. If you plan on working after coming off active duty, where is the best place to try to land a new job? Is being near a VA hospital important to you? You might not need one now, but it is something to consider in the years to come. What about military benefits for your spouse and children? Some states have college tuition discounts, tax benefits, and more. 

3. Do you have to work after military retirement?

There is always a bit of sticker shock when it comes to military retirement. Benefits like housing and healthcare were always covered in your military paycheck, but now you must pay them out of pocket. Yes, you will get a pension based on your rank at retirement. And you may also qualify for disability pay, depending on your VA disability rating. Nevertheless, many military retirees are a bit disappointed with their first pension check. Depending on where you decide to live, it may or may not be enough to cover all expenses. Many military retirees HAVE to continue working to pay college tuitions, home purchases, and to cover monthly bills.

4. How long can you afford to be unemployed?

If you decide you need to continue working, do you need to start working right away? Some service members like to take a few weeks or a couple of months off before starting a new job. Others feel they have to continue drawing a paycheck and can’t afford any lapse. You need to decide this before you retire. It will effect when you start looking for work, and whether you pursue classes towards a degree or certification.

What is the state of your savings? Maybe your spouse’s pay will cover your expenses for a few months. Figure out the financials to determine what makes you most comfortable. Only an honest assessment of your financial status will give you the clarity and peace of mind to make these important decisions that will impact your family for years to come.

5. Do you want to go back to school to earn a degree or certification?

Some service members have G.I. Bill funds available. Others will apply for grants through various veterans’ programs. If you make the decision to go back to school, you need to answer the following questions:

  • Will you attend full-time or part-time?
  • How will your new status as a student affect the rest of your family?
  • Do you need to work while you attend school?

It is a good idea to make sure you and your spouse are on the same page and share realistic expectations. If you know you plan to pursue a degree in retirement, it is wise to start taking classes during active duty, if possible. The Tuition Assistance (TA) program covers tuition costs for several classes each year. It is available during active duty only, and does not have any impact on the G.I Bill. Getting some classes under your belt now, while you finish your military career, will give you more flexibility with your time and your funds after retirement.

Before reaching for your military retirement calculator

Giving some serious thought and answering these basic, but essential, questions with your spouse will provide you with the clarity you need to begin the retirement process. And it is a process. For example, you will need to give notice, schedule your final physical, and sign up for the Transition Assistance Program. And that is just for starters. There are insurance and other financial decisions to be made.

Once you’ve decided you are done, you will want to begin the planning process about a year before you actually take off the uniform. Involve your spouse through all of it. There are family decisions to be made about benefits and rights which affect the military spouse as well. Look for retirement classes on your base, especially sessions your spouse is invited to attend. Many veterans recommend taking the retirement seminars twice–once when you are over a year from retirement, and again when you are just a few months away. You will have different questions and absorb different information each time. 

Remember that retirement benefits are approved by Congress, which means they are never set in stone. There are always military retirement changes on the horizon which you need to keep on top of, so you can be prepared for how they might affect your family.

Carla Olivo is a veteran military spouse who has garnered numerous TV industry awards including the Associated Press award for Spot News Reporting and Documentary Reporting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a retired USMC Lt. Colonel, and their two children.