Don’t Gut It Out To 20: Leave Active Duty For The Reserves Or National Guard

6

This post gets personal. Let me give you the permission to think about these questions in your own career.

A reader writes:

I’m active duty and coming up on year #9 this May. I have owned your book for a few years and dig into the blog content on occasion. Love it!

My question has to do specifically with one of the closing paragraphs in your last post on the BRS:

“I should’ve left active duty for the Reserves at the 12-year point (when we started a family and my career priorities changed). The money would’ve worked out about the same, and we would’ve reached financial independence within a year or two of when we did, but our quality of life would’ve been way better.”

This is what I wrestle with the most. I dread the slog that years 12 through 20 will bring and the separation it will cause from my family. Can you expound on that, or point to a place you have already expounded on these statements?

Specifically: How would the money have worked out the same in the Reserves vs active duty?

 

This is what I struggle with. Monthly drill pay would hardly prove comparable to my current active duty compensation, and I know little of what other opportunities might be available.

 

One of the reasons I write is to help today’s servicemembers avoid my mistakes– or at least anticipate them. I’m also basing this post on 15 years of forum threads and reader e-mails.

Let me start by agreeing that people should stay on active duty as long as they find it challenging and fulfilling. When the fun stops, though, then it’s time to think about leaving active duty for the Reserves or National Guard.

A couple of clarifications:

  • There will be no doubt in your mind when the fun has stopped. It’s different for everyone, but you’ll know it when you see it.
  • You could leave active duty straight to total civilian, too. The Reserve/Guard is an intermediate step toward work/life balance, with more of the things you enjoy(ed) about the military and less of the not-so-enjoyable parts. Readers tell me it’s a lot easier to go this way than to go total civilian and later try to affiliate with a Reserve/Guard unit. You can try a drill billet for a while and then still decide that you need to go civilian.

 

Stay on active duty for as long as it’s challenging and fulfilling.

Image of Doug Nordman typing on a laptop computer in 1990 aboard the USS NEW YORK CITY (SSN 696) as a lieutenant. | The-Military-Guide.com

1990 on USS NEW YORK CITY (SSN 696)

Personally, I enjoyed my first 10 years of active duty. After my second submarine, my dual-military spouse and I wanted to stay in Pearl Harbor. I could’ve taken just about any career-enhancing billet (as long as it was Nuclear Power School instructor or BUPERS) but we wanted collocation. There seemed to be plenty of billets in Hawaii and we weren’t interested in moving thousands of miles just for the job. Again.

I took the first Pearl Harbor vacancy that came up at my rotation date: shore duty on an admiral’s staff. I didn’t appreciate that Ops & Plans was a 60-hour/week deadline-fueled job, and I wouldn’t have cared. (After sea duty, every other billet seems like a paid vacation.) We were perpetually overwhelmed by real-world crises with submarine missions or by the inevitable paperwork crisis du jour. (No PowerPoint back then– only Lotus Freelance.) Even message traffic was largely screened by hand and routed in paper.

We also started our family as I started shore duty, which meant we encountered sleep deprivation (in a good parenting way) at home as well as from work. We were overwhelmed on the domestic front too.

 

Learn about the Reserves and National Guard– just in case the active-duty fun stops.

I was surrounded by Navy Reserve officers on the staff. Some of them were full-time civil-service employees while others were contractors, and I’d occasionally see them in uniform for active duty or drill weekends. One of the Reservists had even been a shipmate on our first submarine. I asked them a few questions about their billets, pay, & pensions– yet I never really made the time to learn about the system. My spouse was working alongside Reservists, too, but we only saw them once a year for their two weeks of active duty.

To be fair, the Reserves were a minority of the staff. Our commands were also filled with active-duty junior servicemembers who were separating at 8-12 years of service, and older ones who were retiring at 20-30 years. I identified much more with those groups.

If I’d made the mental bandwidth to analyze my options then I would’ve eventually realized that Reserve pensions are based on the pay tables in effect when the pension starts. (They’re not based on the pay tables in effect when you apply for retirement.) By federal law 10 U.S. Code section 1407(d)(1)(a), the pension’s length of service would have also been at the maximum pay scale in retirement rank, not just the years of service when a Reserve/Guard member applied to retire. That’s also in the Financial Management Regulation (DoD 7000.14-R) section 030205.A.2.

I didn’t understand any of that.

[Surprisingly, those pension facts are not widely understood even among today’s Reserve and Guard servicemembers. That post in the last paragraph has been the most popular post on the blog, by far, for over five years. I still get at least an e-mail a week ranging from “But wait, does this mean…” to “D’oh!”]

Image of the cover of the first edition of the book "Your Money Or Your Life", which influenced many people to save for financial independence. | The-Military-Guide.com

It transformed me.

 

Save and invest as much as you can for financial independence…

Back then the book “Your Money Or Your Life” had just been published. Sure, today we all know it’s one of the classics which jumpstarted the financial independence movement, but back then it was just a wacky lifestyle polemic written by some Wall Street burnout. The 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate was only Bill Bengen’s research project filling a deadline hole in a financial journal, and a quarter-century later we’re still fiercely debating its relevance. (Today, I’m on Bill’s side.) Back then, financial independence was still traditional Social Security planning for 65-year-olds.

I was familiar with inflation and healthcare expenses but I didn’t make the time to learn how the Reserve pension handled those issues. I thought that if I retired from the Reserves in my 40s then my pension (at age 60) would’ve been eroded by two decades of inflation. I didn’t see any value in the Reserves and I certainly wasn’t going to leave my “safe” active-duty career. I was grossly wrong, and if I’d talked with enough Reservists for a while then I would finally have figured out my errors. However I had my active-duty blinders on and I didn’t see any other path.

If I’d joined the Reserves then I would’ve drilled until 20 total good years (active + Reserve) to earn the pension. I would have had an inflation-fighting pension (and Tricare) at age 60 instead of at age 41. The Reserve pension would’ve been about 70% of my active-duty pension, and our savings & investments would only have needed to bridge (at worst) a 19-year gap. If I was a drilling Reserve/Guard member today then I would’ve also had Tricare Reserve Select, and after I “retired awaiting pay” then I would have bought Tricare Reserve Retired until age 60.

The Reserve pension solves the same issues that are handled by an active-duty pension, and I would only have had to fill in the financial planning holes with other paid employment.

In retrospect, a “real job” would’ve been straightforward– even easy. I didn’t know it back then, but (like many Pearl Harbor submariners) when I showed up at my drill weekends I would’ve eventually been offered a contractor or civil-service job on that same staff as a tactical development officer. I would’ve had other opportunities to go back on active duty for 30-179 days at the submarine staff or Pacific Fleet headquarters or PACOM. On the civilian side I would have networked my shipmates for nuclear work at shipyard or an electrical utility career at HECO. I could have used my graduate degree to teach at local high schools or colleges, and I could’ve easily moved into the state or federal civil-service systems. I’m confident about this because those are the same job offers that I received when I retired from active duty, and a lot of the offers came through those same Reservists.

Yet I was suffering from the “military inferiority complex”. The Cold War had ended and we were all scrambling to keep our jobs during the largest drawdown since WWII. (The staff was rightly concerned that submarine missions would be suspended and the force cut to less than a third of its size.) I thought that I was worthless & weak and would never be able to make it in a civilian career. I feared that I’d never get hired by anyone for anything and would end up fixing leaky toilets. I was not just ignorant about the Reserves and National Guard but even more ignorant about building a civilian career. At that chronically-fatigued time in my life, the fog of work made it easier to keep dragging my sorry butt into the staff’s classified concrete bunker to either scramble a submarine or write a point paper. Or both. With extra bonus points for doing it on Sunday morning.

Today I know that within five years after leaving active duty, my total compensation (Reserve/Guard drills + civilian earnings) would’ve been higher than my active-duty pay & benefits. The first couple years would have been a big dip in paychecks and a huge disruption on the homefront, but we would’ve figured it out. We would’ve kept about the same expenses and eventually recovered our savings rate and a much higher quality of life.

Sure, life would have still been complicated. My active-duty spouse might have been sent on an unaccompanied tour to Diego Garcia. I might have been mobilized to support contingency operations in Kosovo or the Middle East, and certainly after 9/11. I might have struggled to figure out what I wanted to do with my life as the Navy bounced my spouse from one homeport to another. We might even have had to leave Hawaii for a few years. (Guam! Japan!) But would Reserve life have been as stressful as the dual-military active-duty life that we dealt with for another decade?

 

… Because then you’ll have choices.

How did I (finally) learn all about the Reserves? Why do I now know more about the pay & benefits today than most servicemembers?

We learned all of these details when (a year before I retired) my spouse hit a career speedbump and left active duty for the Reserves. Our life immediately got awesome. Better yet, her unit was full of Reserve submariners who happily explained to me the lifestyle that I’d missed out on during the back half of my active-duty career. Then they offered me jobs with their civilian employers. Today I’ve been retired from active duty for over 15 years and I’m still getting a job offer every year or two– and these offers are coming from outside of my robust network of personal-finance bloggers & entrepreneurs.

That’s when I started reading everything I could find about Reserve pensions & benefits. When I realized how the pension actually worked, I knew that gutting it out to 20 on active duty had been a mistake.

Image of an early book cover of The Millionaire Next Door, another book which inspired millions to save for financial independence. | The-Military-Guide.com

They’re even in the military.

My spouse and I also way overshot the mark on our finances when we persevered for the active-duty pension. We were saving for financial independence long before those marketing guys wrote “The Millionaire Next Door”. (Another classic which took a few years to gain traction during the Internet decade.) That was also years before those researchers at Trinity University replicated Bengen’s results and popularized the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate. I placed too much value on an active-duty pension when a Reserve pension would have accomplished “enough” of the inflation adjustment and the health insurance.

With what I know now, I could’ve worked part-time for a few extra years to build up the same investments (and continued to drill for a Reserve pension) instead of full-time for the 60-hour weeks to get an active-duty pension. We would have reached FI (at 25 x expenses) a few years later than we did, but at a half-marathon pace instead of a 1500-meter sprint.

Maybe I wouldn’t have worked those few extra years after all. In the early 2000s (as we were approaching a delayed FI) I would’ve learned more about this blogging fad and created a part-time income of $20K/year. We would have lost less money on buying real estate during active duty, and maybe we would’ve invested in a few dirt-cheap rental properties.

We would’ve had more quality family time together.

But back then I didn’t even see the possibilities, let alone the opportunities. I was too focused on gutting it out to 20 for that cliff-vesting pension. I was clenching my jaw (and grinding my teeth) to deal with the daily pressure, and I have the medical records to prove it.

 

Today, at age 57, I’d happily trade a million dollars of our net worth to recover the overtime life that I worked during my 30s.

The Reserves and National Guard offer similar challenges & fulfillment of active duty, yet with less of the sucky parts of active duty. Work/life balance is still complicated but there’s less stress (physically, mentally, & emotionally) and there’s less time in the field. There are still deployments, but they’re at a slower cycle (perhaps one-out-of-five) instead of every other year. (Even that’s negotiable during peacetime, based on your career priorities and on federal funding.) If you have a traditional civilian career then once a month you’ll work 12 straight days around the drill weekend, but it’s still a lower operating tempo than active duty.

Reserve servicemembers near a four-star staff command might find more opportunities for active-duty orders. The large staffs are chronically short-handed (and on short notice) while You’re. A. Reservist. Right. There. and ready to work. A phone call on Thursday asking if you want a Saturday midwatch? Yeah, we could handle that. I got those calls on active duty anyway.

For some servicemembers, the National Guard might be a better deal than the Reserves. National Guard armories are generally closer to home (for drill weekends) and there are opportunities for state-funded orders as well as federal ones. Instead of traveling hundreds of miles to Reserve centers you might network with local Guard members for civilian contractor gigs or even full-time employment. Some Guard billets work with state civil-service and government staffs.

When you’re saving for financial independence during active duty (instead of living a consumer lifestyle), then your rising net worth gives you choices. You don’t have to fear unemployment. You’ll have time to network (real life as well as Linkedin) and learn about civilian careers. It’s never been easier to freelance the gig economy or to (eventually) start your own business.

You have skills. You can make the finances work. You don’t have to live in fear.

Now you should track down those Reserve & Guard members in your area (of any rank) and learn how they do it.

Even if you’re still feeling challenged & fulfilled by active duty today, it’s worth learning about the alternatives now. Someday you’ll slam into a billet where you’re too overwhelmed (and too exhausted) to figure out your transition. You’ll get the “unrefuseable offer” from the chain of command or your assignment officer. When (not if) that happens, you won’t have a lot of time to figure things out, and you may be too tired to tackle the research.

Better yet: when you’re saving for financial independence, you’ll have choices.

The best time to save for financial independence was yesterday. The second-best time to save is today. Start here to begin your path to financial independence.

 

 



WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

39 Comments
  1. Reply
    Randall Carlson October 23, 2018 at 11:29 AM

    I left active duty at the 9-year mark, and embarked on a part-time career in the Guard and Reserve. As it worked out, I left active duty in the massive draw-down of the early to mid 1990’s, and by the turn of the century, had received no fewer than three offers to return to active duty, all sins forgiven. The Army is notoriously bad in planning and executing drawdowns, and it showed.

    What happened after 9-11 is well known, but what isn’t as well known is that Reservists have considerably more control over their careers than their active-duty counterparts. Don’t like a tour with that particular HQ? Don’t accept it. There’s no penalty for turning down a tour. If you find yourself on active duty in a rotten billet with a miserable boss (like I did once) just let the orders run out and REFRAD. My contemporaries from my early career that were still on active duty were furious when they realized just how much control I had as a Reservist. While they were at the mercy of their Branch Assignments Officer, I was free to pick and choose.

    A job as a DA Civilian helped immensely. You are a protected class in those jobs; they must retain your job for you while you are on tour. There are some limits (five years total active service) but few if any agencies take the time to figure those rules out. You can use that institutional ignorance to your advantage.

    The result is a full military career of 33 years (20 active duty and 13 Reserve/Guard) early payment of retirement benefits (early age drop), buy-back of active duty time into the OPM retirement system, and subsequent early retirement from the civil service. It worked out far better than I could have hoped.

    Do your homework and learn the rules! There are going to be many times where you are going to go up against people who don’t know the rules of the agency or the process they are in charge of. You have to be the expert. It isn’t that hard: get the regulations and read them. I am continually astonished at how few people do that.

    And a note to those with military-acquired disabilities: the VA is an independent organization. Their disability ratings have nothing to do with your ability to serve. The individual service has to make a determination on your fitness. It is theoretically possible to be 100% VA disabled and on active duty (although I expect it wouldn’t be common). I personally maintained a 30% disability rating (payment suspended while on active duty of course) and completed the majority of my military career in that status. If you are like many, and leave the service without a disability rating from the service and later apply to the VA and receive a disability pension, the service knows and cares nothing about it.

    Remember that you are dealing with a vast bureaucracy that has little idea of what it is doing on a day-to-day basis. use this “Left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” to your advantage. Stay within the law and stay within the rules, but leverage your knowledge to your maximum advantage. I know of far too many comrades who have told me “If I had only known”.

  2. Reply
    Keegan July 24, 2018 at 10:43 AM

    Thanks for the great content Doug. I have been waffling on my decision to leave after 8 years of active duty in the sub force (USS Louisville) but am happy to find out that my thinking lines up roughly with your rear-view thoughts. The Reserve is another beast and I feel I still have a ton to figure out. Currently I’m in hot standby waiting for approval of my application as a CANREC recruiter, which I’ll use as a 2-5 year bridge career before transitioning to a civilian career or the HSCP program. Would really appreciate an opportunity to chat personally if you have the time. Best, Keegan.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman July 26, 2018 at 2:05 AM

      You’re welcome, Keegan, I’m trying to give people permission to think about their exit strategy!

      I’ll e-mail you my contact info, and if you’re inport Pearl Harbor we can just get together for a cup of coffee near you.

      If you’re looking into the Health Services Collegiate Program then I’d also recommend the website Vet2MD.ORG.

  3. Reply
    That mom June 18, 2018 at 11:53 AM

    Can you help me? My dad retired from the Navy in 1988. I have his 20 year letter but he moved and never changed his address. I’m standing in the VA office where we are being told it is a possibility that even though he served 12 years active duty in the Navy as a Master Chief petty officer and then spent ten years in the reserves again as a mcpo. h he retired completely in 1988. I search all over and see he is entitledy to his pay and can’t get any help. He is 71 and didn’t get his check when he turned 55 or 60. I’m tired of having to be pushy and so tired of figuring this out since he just had a stroke and I’m also working full time, raising an autistic child all as a single mother. This is the only represent that my dad has hopes of since my mom took all of the other accounts when she left. Thank you for anything.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman June 19, 2018 at 3:54 PM

      This is way outside my circle of competence, ThatMom.

      If you’re not getting any help from the VA then I’d suggest contacting a Veteran Service Officer from a local chapter of your Disabled American Veterans, or the American Legion, or the VFW, or even MOAA. Their VSO services are free and they’re typically used in filing VA disability claims, but they might be able to help with the Navy Reserve pension as well. They’ll want to review all of the Navy records & paperwork you have for your father, even if it’s only the letter. If you’re not near one of those chapters then you could also contact your state Veteran Services office to meet with one of their staff.

      As a long-shot possibility, you could contact Navy BUPERS about his 20-year Notification Of Eligibility letter to see whether you’re able to obtain a set of retirement orders and process the application for the pension:
      http://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/career/reservepersonnelmgmt/ReserveRetirements/Pages/default.aspx

      If your father is within the low-income limits then he might also be entitled to a VA “Aid and Attendance” pension. (The VA calls it a pension, but it’s actually a stipend.) That’s completely separate from the Navy and DFAS.

  4. Reply
    average joe May 9, 2018 at 9:29 AM

    Doug
    Thanks for this blog. I heard you on Mad Fientist podcast and came right over to check out your articles. I am being commissioned this Fall in the AF in the Healthcare field after almost 10 years working as a civilian with the VA. I am already wishing I would’ve joined after college in my 20’s but oh well. This is very insightful as I’m worried I won’t enjoy the military lifestyle but will enjoy the perks(free healthcare, housing allowance, etc). I hadn’t thought about the reserves and will definitely keep that option in mind down the road. My goal is to retire in my 40’s like you. I will be checking out the rest of your posts.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman May 10, 2018 at 12:05 PM

      Thanks for listening, Joe, I enjoyed guesting on Brandon’s podcast!

      Congratulations on your commission, and let me know if you have any questions on the posts.

  5. Reply
    Troy March 6, 2018 at 5:26 PM

    Dear Doug, I am so happy to find your blog today. I am in a giant transitional phase in my life. I have nearly seventeen years active duty with one more to go at my current assignment. I love what I do, but this is coming to an end soon. We love the area in which we live. Our family is close, our children are happy. What happens when I want to leave active duty at 18 years and move to the reserves and continue to serve for another 12-15 years and make it to COL if I can. Is this crazy? Is it crazy to be only 24 months away from active duty retirement and then bail? I have asked to extend my current assignment, the answer was no! What is your advice?

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman March 7, 2018 at 9:41 PM

      It’s a tough decision, Troy.

      When you reach 18 years of service, federal law guarantees that you’ll be allowed to continue on active duty until 20. If you leave active duty for the Reserves or National Guard you’ll still be able to serve up to at least 20 good years, but you may also have a six-year commitment to the unit. (Talk with your Reserve recruiter to verify this.) You’ll also want to know that you have a Reserve/Guard unit near you, and that you can get a drill billet.

      If you have more than 16 years of active duty when you transfer to the Reserves or National Guard, then your service’s sanctuary policies will limit the active duty which you can take.
      https://the-military-guide.com/sanctuary-in-the-reserves-only-on-active-duty/

      You’ll also want to reassess your financial situation. If you’re near financial independence then you have a lot more flexibility. (Your savings/investments only have to cover the gap between leaving active duty and starting your Reserve/Guard pension at age 60.) If you’re still pursuing FI then you’ll have to consider the employment prospects for you and your spouse. A Reserve/Guard career offers more of what you enjoy about the military and less of the not-so-good parts, but you’ll still have to focus on work-life balance.

      If you still feel challenged & fulfilled by active duty, then maybe your goal is finding a billet in a location where your family can thrive– while knowing that you’d move back to your current area in a few years. That’s not an easy decision either, and you’ll have to have lots of long discussions with your family.

      • Reply
        Troy March 14, 2018 at 11:38 AM

        Thank you very much, Doug. Your words of advice are important to me. Your work and blog is vital to the men and women in the service. Keep it up! Yes, lots to talk about, but I believe we are leaning towards the twenty and out. We are almost there. I am sure many jobs will be available. I guess it is the unknown future that makes me stay awake at night. Many blessings, Troy

  6. Reply
    DEREK February 27, 2018 at 9:08 PM

    Doug,

    First, thank you for this site/blog. I saw you on a MMM comment thread, clicked over, and with the whole military and Hawaii thing I was instantly intrigued. I am from Hawaii, in my 30’s, a Coast Guard Reservist (12 good years in April 6active/6reserve), and working towards financial independence.

    One thing that struck me was that you said something to the effect of “I would give up a million dollars of my net worth to get back overtime hours worked in my 30’s.” I am currently struggling with this work-life balance. In 2017 we had our second son and the provider instinct kicked in. I work a full time job (with an unfortunate long commute) at Stanford in California, I was going to school full time collecting San Francisco BAH, and drilling. I even tacked on a second part-time school to learn MRI imaging during all of that. I was so overwhelmed that I began to get sick and my overall health was diminishing. I am currently on a break from that and working to get Voc Rehab for my Master’s so I can quit full time and work part time or per diem. Working full time and School (SF BAH) allowed me to save 5k/mo but it was at the expense of my health.

    I could potentially provide a guest post or just share stories about leaving active duty in 2012. I actually had a colleague in the Coast Guard ask me what I was going to eat and where I was going to live. Seriously!? It is good that a socialist system like the CG exists for someone like him who enjoys being institutionalized and “comfortable.” I had a plan though. I carried out my plan, exceeding my expectations, and now my overall compensation 5 years off of active duty = $165k/yr pretax and including benefits.

    I also really appreciate the point of “when the fun is over you need to consider a change.” I may be ambitious or I may be arrogant but whatever you call it, I was not going to be one of the many people I worked around who spent their days talking, googling, and dreaming about life after the Coast Guard. I did the math (both numerically and mentally; math to calculate the value of my soul in my 30’s), and I could not stay. It was not the right thing for me or for the CG. I was no longer a great Coastie. I was maybe shooting par and I knew I had much more potential. My current career as a Clinical Instructor in Pediatric Radiology is so fulfilling and I pour my heart into it willingly. I am also a better part time Coastie. It was the better option for tons of reasons and now I am consider becoming an officer to close out the last 5 years or so. I will retire as an O-3E which will double my pension and free up my current dollars for real estate and other investments as opposed to having to attack a 401k so aggressively.

    Again, thanks for all of this. I have been brainstorming a similar blog idea to help people realize the reality of their decisions. This is another one I like to throw out there: Let’s say you know at 6 years (like I did) that you aren’t enjoying active duty anymore and want geographic stability and all of the other things you can achieve as a reservist with a more fulfilling and suiting career. If you stay in for the remaining 14 years, googling, talking about, and dreaming about what you really want to do with your life, you will have spent 16.5% of your life (assuming you live 0-85) in a soul sucking situation with no stability and maybe even a divorce….we could go on and on. The other option would be to take that 16.5% of your life and use the GI Bill, any disability rating you get, stability, reserves, maybe a GS position…..and create an amazing life.

    Cheers. Would love to chat more. dokahashi@gmail.com

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman March 1, 2018 at 12:49 AM

      You’re welcome, Derek!

      Military servicemembers, vets, and families are welcome to send a guest post anytime. If it helps with your writing, we have guidelines here:
      https://the-military-guide.com/guest-posts/

      By the way, I know that many of the time-in-grade rules are different in the Coast Guard. However federal law for the other branches requires officer retirees to have at least 10 years’ commissioned service. That sounds like a different timeline than your plan for your final five years as an O-3E, so just make sure that you’ll still be able to draw a pension from the O-3E row of the pay tables.

      • Reply
        DEREK March 4, 2018 at 9:59 AM

        Doug,

        I saw you were teaching some of the Bigger Pockets guys how to surf. I grew up at Barbers from the mid/late 90’s into the mid 2000’s when I left for the Coast Guard. I went to Campbell and was on the surf team in my last year when a lot of the rippers graduated (mainly Venton Siliado, one of the best underground long boarders in the world).

        Anyways I didn’t realize you were a BPL (Barbers Point Local) haha. I’ll be back home in June for a visit and maybe staying for good. We go surf!

        Best,

        Derek

        P.S. Brandon is like 6’6″ or something yea? Looked like he needed a bigger board or maybe he just makes a 10’0″ look small.

        Much aloha!

        • Doug Nordman March 7, 2018 at 7:31 PM

          Ha! You never know when you’ll run into another surfer!

          White Plains Beach is my favorite. Let me know when you have the time to paddle out… the winter has been pretty good and I’m really optimistic about south shore summer.

          Brandon’s at least 6’4″ and yeah, he makes a 10’0″ look like a toothpick. I think he’s surfing a used 9’6″ or 9’4″ that he just bought from Kimo’s Surf Hut. Kimo (James Moore) is a retired Marine and he takes good care of military surfers.

  7. Reply
    Michael February 20, 2018 at 2:12 PM

    Nords,

    I have a different twist but a similar dilemma. I have been in for 17 years and will absolutely continue on to 20 and retire at age 44. It’s really not “time” for me yet and I expect the next three years will go by quick enough.

    My spouse is the same age and has been in for 14. The first 10 were rough for her but I convinced her to press ahead. With a little more rank, she actually enjoys it now. However, we have long since passed FI status and I see little financial reason for her to continue. While she enjoys it, we have big plans to drive around the country, spend our summers in the Rocky mountains, and take the occasional overseas vacation.

    Her options could be to (1) stay to 20, (2) join the reserves now, (3) join the reserves in three years when I hit 20, or (4) get out completely. The closer she gets to 20, the harder I foresee it being to pass up the full 20-year pension.

    I really struggle with this and would like to discuss it more with her. But first, is there much difference in joining the reserves at 14 years vs. 15 years vs. 17 years? I also wonder if I’m being selfish by either pushing her to get to 20 or by pushing her to get out at some point before 20.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 22, 2018 at 11:26 AM

      It’s a tough decision, Michael, but when one spouse retires from active duty (and you’re financially independent) then the other spouse has more choices.

      The Reserve difference is just like any other community: the availability of billets and the promotion opportunity. Assuming she’s still feeling challenged & fulfilled (and especially if active duty has the higher probability of promotion & retention) then she’d stay with active duty. If she’s ready to go Reserve/Guard now, then some billets are more scarce at the senior ranks or might even require competitive selection. Not being in a pay billet can make it difficult to get enough points to meet the requirements for a good year, and correspondence courses are no longer an option for earning points. It might make more sense to get into a Reserve billet now so that she’s more competitive for other Reserve billets later.

      If she goes to the Reserves at 14 years then there’s the possibility of being mobilized for a deployment during the next six years. If she goes to the Reserves at 17 years that would be less likely (but still possible).

      You’d have to talk with other Reservists in her community (and with a Reserve recruiter) to parse the billets at each year (and at each prospective rank).

      I don’t think that the discussion is selfish– it just reflects that she has more options. Challenge and fulfillment are the entering arguments. There’s certainly no mathematical reason to raise your net worth from “enough” to “way more than enough”, but the extra margin of financial security (and behavioral financial psychology) might help her sleep better at night. How does she want to balance career, family, and quality of life? How will she feel 20 years from now when she looks back on her decision?

      For those readers with very long memories, there is no longer any requirement to finish a 20-year Reserve career with 6-8 years in a Reserve unit.
      https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/12731

  8. Reply
    Gary W February 19, 2018 at 6:11 PM

    Great article and thoughtful comments. As always, “your mileage may vary.” I had a great experience with 8 years AD followed by 30 in the USNR. I had zero regrets leaving AD and was able to juggle career, family, and reserves to the point where I retired at 60 with a retirement check. I was fortunate to work with understanding organizations (public utility, pharma and state university) and have a supportive wife. By far the biggest benefit was to continue to serve and model my values for my three daughters who also serve, 2 on AD and the oldest now in reserves. Keep up the great work.

  9. Reply
    warner25 February 19, 2018 at 9:39 AM

    Even though I’ve read your story several times over the past decade, I appreciate when you bring it up again. I think it’s a unique perspective that you offer. But… I don’t know… Is drilling for 12 more years really less of a “slog” than staying on active duty? Is life in the Reserves/Guard really less stressful? Is there really more quality time with family? I remain deeply skeptical. It seems that experiences vary widely, and there are a lot of implementation details that make-or-break this idea.

    I’m a mid-career active duty Army officer. One of my best friends is a mid-career NCO in the Army Reserves, and another is a mid-career Army National Guard officer, and I wouldn’t trade places even if the money worked out better for them (and I really don’t think it will). My time on active duty has been luxurious compared to what they describe.

    The life of my Reservist friend is absolutely brutal as he tries running his own small business while driving several hours one-way for drill each month, and being away from home about 25% of the time on orders (plus small children and wife who works full-time because the small business income and Reserve pay definitely don’t cut it). The last time he deployed, his fledgling business totally collapsed and he had to start from scratch when he came home.

    So you could argue that entrepreneurship and the Reserves don’t mix well. How about my other friend, the ARNG officer? He struggled for years to find stable employment in the private sector due to coming up on orders repeatedly for training and deployments. For a while, he found that his best option was to just seek orders as much as possible and grit his teeth through the inevitable bouts of unemployment. Eventually he got a civilian job like you describe, working in the same place, doing roughly the same thing he did on drill weekends. But it pays less than he’d be earning as an active duty O-3, and to be honest I think the hours and stress are just as bad because of the ARNG work (often unpaid, which sounds like a simple fact of life for officers and NCOs) on nights and non-drill weekends on top of the full-time civilian job.

    Maybe the other services treat their Reservists better, but I think Army Guardsmen/Reservists have been abused over the past 15 years like contract/temp labor in the corporate world. Many of them deployed nearly as often as those on active duty, but they were unemployed in between and will end up earning a fraction of the pay and benefits. And I think we’ve seen a paradigm shift. The National Guard now has its own seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior leaders seem eager to have their folks in the game proving that they’re equals with the active duty force, and the active duty force has learned to be dependent on the Guard/Reserve to meets its mission.

    Obviously, active duty experiences vary widely too. Special operations folks, Air Force cargo plane crews, and Navy submarine crews seem to deal with an exceptional amount of family separation. I have an infantry officer friend who seems to be in the field 50%+ of the time when he’s NOT deployed, and calls himself an absentee father. But at least he earns enough for his wife to stay at home with the kids and live comfortably, and his next assignment will be full-time graduate school for a couple years – an incredibly generous opportunity (and one of many, in my experience) that is well beyond anything that folks in the Guard/Reserves have available to them.

    If I were to leave active duty, I think the best option would be a federal civilian position (maybe even as a DoD/Army Civilian, working in the same places and doing the same things) but WITHOUT continuing in the Guard/Reserves, just rolling my active duty years into FERS instead.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 19, 2018 at 9:55 PM

      Good points, Warner25 and GaryW!

      I think the best conclusion from everyone’s data is that the Reserves and National Guard offer far more ways to achieve work/life balance than being on active duty.

      Of course the apocryphal joke is that you know you’ve achieved the work/life balance when your family, your civilian employer, and your Reserve/Guard unit are all equally annoyed with your time-management skills…

  10. Reply
    peter gregory February 18, 2018 at 12:25 PM

    In my times in Iraq and Bosnia earlier I worked with many Guard/Reserve and had no idea they were, unless they told me. At the time I thought the Guard/Reserve option was a bad deal. They were the only class/group of Federal employees I knew who “retired” at age X and had to wait until 60 to collect any pay or benefits of service under the old legacy cliff vesting system. In another tour at The Navy Yard DC I ran into many Navy VTU types, folks who would drive all the way at times as far as away as Kentucky, to drill weekends with zero compensation, save “retirement” points. Mostly 0-5,0-6 not in pay billets and filling out 28,30 year careers. Allot of JAG,SC,CEC, CHCs did this.

    There was a time I think the lines or walls of demarcation between AC and Guard/Reserve were hardened to the point that one was always forces to choose one path, against an other and never the twain meet. I sense the services evolving into a more fluid and elastic force structure were one can go AC to Reserve/Guard and back AC and back again. Far healthier for the service-member and families involved. How does all this play into FI or those plans. Again, military service is not about FI per se, or even a path to it. It can be AC or Reserve, but FI is a result of a set or learned and adaptive behaviors with money and how one relates to it. A retired CPO can be a Vanguard or Fidelity millionaire while the retired 0-6 lives paycheck to paycheck, its all about choices made, and not.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 19, 2018 at 9:52 PM

      Good points, Peter, and I think the Reserves and active-duty counterparts are much better integrated since 9/11.

      I hear you on the senior ranks in the Navy Volunteer Training Unit for all the wrong reasons. Many many senior enlisted and senior officer Reserve/National Guard servicemembers think that they have to continue drilling for the longevity raises. As you know, federal law guarantees that Reserves/Guard who “retire awaiting pay” will have their longevity continue to accrue (just as if they were on active duty) up to the start of their pension.

      Once those O-5s/O-6s reach time in grade (three years by law, two years with a waiver) they can apply to retire awaiting pay and they don’t have to drill for the longevity.

  11. Reply
    DK2055 February 18, 2018 at 8:32 AM

    Wonderful article and now I have something to reference when I tell my AD friends that there is more than one path. Quick background: I was prepared to get out after 12 years of AD because I was burnt out as well. As a single parent I feared what “sucking up” the last 8 years of AD would truly mean. I always told myself that I won’t always be in the Army, but I will always be a mom and that was more important than anything. After reading/following/listening to many of your work as well as Ryan’s, I submitted the paperwork, found a great GS job and was ready to get out and until the Army said “um, we are going to need you to stay since we aren’t drawing down anymore and that ADSO waiver you submitted, that won’t get approved.” I had used tuition assistance, incurred an ADSO, asked for a waiver, said I was going to join the reserves and they said no. Fast forward a full year later, the Army moved me somewhere that I feel reinvigorated for my service AND now I’m promotable. But now I’m 6 years, 2 months and 2 weeks away from AD retirement (who’s counting?) and I’m back to your blog and others because I do NOT want to work another full time job. I want to achieve FI, so I’m trying to educate myself on where to put that extra money.

    Anyway, I still have one more move before that time and although I’m happy now, I already decided that if the Army decides to send me somewhere that isn’t aligned with my personal goals that I will have no problem getting out and going reserves/guard largely based on the information you put out. I appreciate your work and look forward to learning how to achieve FI in 6 years so I can be there for my son during those important middle/high school years!

    Thank you again for the great work!

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 19, 2018 at 9:46 PM

      I appreciate your insights, DK2055, and let me know if I can help with any of the details in your plan!

      The higher your savings rate (both cutting expenses and raising income) the faster it happens.

  12. Reply
    Ryan Guina February 15, 2018 at 7:48 PM

    Doug, this is the article I wish I could have read when I was on active duty. You know my story, and we’ve had many discussions about my situation. And your book was the eye-opener I needed to understand that the Guard / Reserves was a still an option for me.

    For anyone reading this comment who is curious – I served 6.5 years on active duty, and I was completely burned out. I knew it was time for me to go. No regrets getting out when I did. But I didn’t want to immediately transition into the Guard or Reserves because I needed a break. After a few years, I thought the door was closed forever. But I read Doug’s book and did a lot of research on my own and realized it may still be an option.

    8.5 years after leaving active duty, I swore into my Guard unit. I’m now just over 10 years of service. 10 more to go before I’ll be eligible for retirement. But I don’t regret leaving active duty, or my time off in between. The quality of life changes were immediate and amazing. Now I get to balance wearing the uniform with running a business. It’s been fun.

    The only thing that might have changed was joining the Guard a couple years sooner, and not having such a long break in service. But I’m not second guessing. It’s all worked out well.

    Great article, Doug. I hope it helps others make their decision!

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 17, 2018 at 9:24 AM

      Thanks, Ryan!

      For anyone else who’s curious, Ryan is my blogging mentor and a good friend. (Not necessarily in that order.) TheMilitaryWallet is another outstanding resource for the details of pay & benefits.

  13. Reply
    Findependentone February 14, 2018 at 5:40 PM

    Much respect ✊. Opening with a negative review of your work. You can’t please everyone.I think you will get more readership for it. Sharing this with my brother. I am sure he wii find this useful.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 17, 2018 at 9:22 AM

      Thanks, FIndependentOne!

      Mike made a good point about those who have been involuntarily separated.

  14. Reply
    Mike McAvoy February 13, 2018 at 6:28 PM

    Your article was poorly written and didn’t factor in those individuals who have suffered through training injuries and combat wounds that couldn’t make it to 20 years.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 13, 2018 at 11:24 PM

      Thanks for the editorial feedback, Mike. Military servicemembers, veterans, and families are welcome to submit a guest post to The-Military-Guide to share your side of the story as you’d like to see it. Perhaps I’d benefit from the constructive criticism of another perspective, especially when it’s written better than my post.
      https://the-military-guide.com/guest-posts/

      I think those who’ve dealt with injuries & wounds should also stay on active duty as long as they’re feeling challenged & fulfilled. I appreciate that not everyone can get the approval of the MEB/PEB process to do that. However I’ve also seen many stories of veterans who’ve been forced out of uniform and have gone on to even greater careers, entrepreneurialism, volunteerism, and public service. They’ve improved on the hand they were dealt.

      I think that anyone who’s gutting it out to 20 is not only risking their own health but possibly weakening the team by poisoning its morale and affecting everyone’s safety. I served with a few of those people who were simply charming company as well as facilitating a hostile workplace environment.

      You also raise a good point. To those of you who are worried about leaving active duty with physical or medical problems, the Reserves and National Guard are still recruiting servicemembers who have a VA disability rating. I know servicemembers as high as 30% who are in drill billets, and that’s just my limited experience. If you’re hoping to get through 20 years without further injury, then I’d encourage you to find a Guard/Reserve mentor who can show you how to make the transition.

  15. Reply
    peter gregory February 12, 2018 at 8:14 AM

    Close to retirement in 2008 I did a rough day to day calculation of the actual nights spent away from home during my 23 years of active duty, deployments, work ups, short-long ops, that year in Okinawa and Guam, 300 days in Iraq, unaccompanied. It came to about 10 1/2 years of actual away time in that 23. Now, 10 years out, do I regret those times? Missing kids birthdays, anniversaries, family life? Yes. At at any point in my career, my own decisions to stay vs. get out, vs USNR was driven not by monetary. pay, retirement issues, but by matters of job satisfaction, career issues, and that concept, “fun”. I accepted an Iraq tour thinking that I would set my self up for 0-6. When that did not happen and they wanted to send me back again, that was the day I filed the retirement paperwork. No emotion, no regret. But in hindsight I went and accepted that tour for the wrong reasons. But even if I could take a time machine back to 1985 and saw my career arc play out as is did, I would still have raised by hand at MEPs Pittsburgh.

    And that is the point. Military service at the end of the day is not about your personal happiness or joy. Or even if it is a path to FI or some sort or retirement plan. We all take an oath, and implied in that is out own death, if need be in national service. 60% of the casualties in my units in Iraq were not active duty, but Guard, Reserve. Active or Guard ,reserve, 20 years plus, or just one enlistment, sure the money can be very good, and sure there is fun and adventure, but if you ever have any doubts about the call or sacrifice required, or if you for whatever reason that work-life balance no longer can be worked out. Yes, do not “grind” out 1, 2, 3 tours to some magic 20. You will pay a price for that in some means, personally and professionally. In your heart, you will know what is the right thing to do.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 13, 2018 at 3:04 PM

      Thanks, Peter.

      “You will know when it’s time to go.”

  16. Reply
    Linda February 11, 2018 at 9:29 PM

    Sure wish this kind of info was avail when I was making the switch over to the civilian side. I tried the reserves and like you mentioned later opted for a closer National Guard unit. Loved it and actually did several years of ADSW assignments back to back. Ended up with 11 yrs active time, but was also going back for a second degree in nursing. Too many CA riots, fires, and potential deployments to contend with. Had just started having kids and well you know the amount of sleep deprived pressure one faces. Something had to give so I resigned my commission. For the record, now at 54, it sure would be nice to have had another income stream to look forward to. Thank you for providing a forum for those that need to make informed choices. I was stationed at TAMC for a while.

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 13, 2018 at 3:03 PM

      Thanks, Linda– yours is one of the most frequent comments from readers in their 50s (and older).

      Wise words for the younger servicemembers…

      • Reply
        Godwin April 13, 2018 at 8:28 AM

        Doug, hope you also get comments like mine once in awhile:

        I enlisted at 20, served 4 years active duty plus 2 in the Reserves. Got out, completed college, was out for 15 years, then decided at age 41 to go back to the Reserves. 15 years later I am sitting on 21 years with a 20 year letter. I thank God every single day that I made it back. I am 56 years old and I am getting a little tired, but I have 4,780 points and would like to finish above 5,000. I am wrapping up my 5th deployment which will put me well over 4,850 points, and I have a very robust TSP account. As a civilian I work at financial services company and I get the heartbreaking calls from individuals in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who have little to nothing in retirement. Doug, please tell your readers that staying 20 years Active Duty or Reserves might be hard, but retiring without a decent retirement is 100 times harder.

        • Doug Nordman April 16, 2018 at 4:55 PM

          Thanks, Godwin, I hope more readers take heed of your experienced advice!

  17. Reply
    Military Dollar February 11, 2018 at 7:49 PM

    Thanks for directing me to this post, Nords. While today was annoying with having to work on a Sunday, in general I still love being active duty. I’m not quite ready to hang it up! But I definitely agree that people need to be more aware of their options. I know quite a few of those “gritting teeth, gutting it out” types in my friend set…some that have had a daily countdown to retirement since they hit 10 years! I’m not at that point, but if I ever end up there I know who to talk to.

    And I’ll admit – I didn’t know the Reserve pension was based on the pay table at pension start either!

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 13, 2018 at 3:01 PM

      Thanks, Military Dollar!

      The Reserve/Guard pension system is probably one of the world’s most complicated. I regularly have to quote the federal law and the CFPs from the military-association websites.

  18. Reply
    ARCPT February 9, 2018 at 1:50 PM

    Wow, this is your best post! It should be required reading all active duty military who are burnt out on the full time grind.

    What you write on the Reserves/NG is spot on. I re-joined the NG some 12 years after I left active duty, partly out of a desire to serve again, but also for the retirement benefits. It was hard to juggle my civilian career with the NG/Reserves, but now that I have my 20 year letter, it’s all been worth it.

    Thanks for all you do!

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman February 11, 2018 at 5:06 PM

      Thank you, and congratulations on your 20-year letter too!

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?