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Living in Washington, DC, my husband and I saw it all the time: military veterans who traded their uniform for civilian clothes and returned almost immediately to the same or a similar job.
While working for the government or a federal contractor is a logical use of military experience and can be quite lucrative, do you really want to sign up for years of doing the same job you just left?
As a veteran, it’s by no means your only option. Why? Because you’ve earned valuable benefits that you can use to help you do something completely different.
Thinking About Your Transition
Transitioning out of the military—whether you’ve served 4 years or 20+—is the perfect time to think carefully about what you want to do with the rest of your life. Not just about how you can pay the bills 6 months from now, but about your broader goals and personal dreams:
- Do you want to be financially independent by a certain age?
- Are there places you want to visit or things you want to experience?
- Do you have a hobby or expertise that you could turn into a business?
- Is there a skill/sport you’ve always wanted to learn?
If you think hard, I’m sure you will come up with something you want to do besides “the same thing I did in the military for the past X years.”
Here’s where your GI Bill comes in.
A Valuable Benefit
One of the greatest benefits you can earn from serving in the military is the Post-911 GI Bill. If you don’t remember the details of how it works, here’s a quick refresher.
When you use your GI Bill, the government pays for up to 36 months of schooling. They cover tuition, plus you receive a monthly housing allowance equivalent to the BAH of an E5 with dependents (based on the ZIP code of the school). You also get up to $1,000 per year for books and supplies. VA’s website has the detailed rates.
It’s an amazing deal, but unfortunately, this incredible benefit often goes to waste.
Why Don’t Veterans Use Their Post-911 GI Bill?
There are several common reasons why veterans don’t take advantage of their GI Bill. The ones I hear most often may sound like you.
Maybe you already completed various degrees, certifications, and military “schools” while still serving and don’t see a need for more course work. Or you never liked school, so you prefer to focus on getting a job ASAP after leaving the military. You might also be planning for one of your dependents to use it.
To be sure, transferring your GI Bill to one of your dependents can save you a ton of money if you otherwise would have paid for their schooling. But there are restrictions on the transfer, and if you don’t meet the criteria, the benefit is yours to use or lose.
Creative Ways to Use Your Benefit
Using your GI Bill doesn’t have to mean 4 years of sitting in a classroom, memorizing facts, and taking tests. There are a lot of other ways to take advantage of it. You can use it for vocational school, professional certifications and licenses, college certificate programs, flight school, on-the-job training, distance learning, and many other educational programs. Here are a few ideas to get the wheels turning.
Start Your Own Business
Think about your school or training as a ticket to independence. What skills can you learn that you could turn into a business?
One great example I’ve heard of this entrepreneurial approach is a retired Marine Corps pilot who is in Gunsmith school. He plans to open his own shop when he graduates.
Find something that interests you that someone else would pay for, and research how to become an expert!
If you already have expertise that you want to turn into a business, use your GI Bill to help you learn the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship. You can take business classes in important topics like marketing and financial management, or you can do an entrepreneurship training program offered by the Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
Learn New Skills for a New Career
I’ve heard several examples of veterans using their GI Bill for training at the police academy.
You can also learn practical skills like HVAC repair, auto mechanics, or electrical work. Having this expertise will allow you to save on maintenance and repair of your own property while earning a living doing it for others.
Many other vocational and professional programs could equip you with skills and certifications that would come in handy for future job opportunities.
Pursue a Hobby
If you enjoy cooking (or, like me, you’re terrible at it), you can enroll in culinary school. Whether you use your new skills to prepare better meals at home, or you decide to make a career of it, it’s an opportunity to try something new. One veteran retired after 24 years in the medical field and is using his GI Bill to attend the Culinary Institute of America.
Like cars? How about a degree program in auto restoration?
Are you a yogi? Become a certified instructor!
Other veterans have used their GI Bill for fun pursuits like the Golf Academy of America or SCUBA certifications.
Study or Live Abroad
When it comes to your GI Bill, don’t limit your thinking to the U.S. You can use your benefit to study abroad or to prepare you for a career that allows you to live overseas.
Many universities have partnerships with schools around the world and allow you to do some of your studies in another country. You can also enroll in an overseas school directly. Studying the native language is one option, but it’s by no means your only choice. Many schools and universities in countries around the world offer classes in English.
One of the most interesting examples I’ve heard of using a GI Bill to study abroad was Neal Brinn, a retired Navy officer, who went to Israel to become a Rabbi. Sara Boling, a Navy veteran, is going back to school for broadcast journalism and has an opportunity to study abroad during the summer. Mark and Debb, an Army couple, will each use a portion of Mark’s GI Bill when he retires this year after 27 years. They plan to become teachers and to do some of their student teaching overseas.
Becoming a teacher opens up a lot of doors to living overseas. You can work at a Department of Defense school on one of the bases OCONUS. There are also international schools all over the world where instruction is in English.
Teaching English to speakers of other languages can be quite lucrative in many countries where native speakers are in demand, especially in Asia. You can even teach English online and live wherever you want.
These “location independent” opportunities are near and dear to my heart, because I’ve always liked the idea of choosing where I want to live without having to worry if I can get a job there. There are so many jobs you can do remotely, including digital media, website development, IT support, graphic design, programming, and cyber security. Use your GI Bill to learn these skills so you don’t have to live somewhere exclusively for the job opportunities.
One GI Bill Can Cover Multiple Programs
Keep in mind that with eligibility for 36 months of schooling, you can use your GI Bill for multiple pursuits—some for your career and some for fun or your side hustle. Melissa Wilkerson, a Navy veteran, used her GI Bill for a community college real estate course, 7 professional fitness certifications, and an MS in Exercise Science. She is currently working on a graduate certificate program in Nutritional Science.
How Will You Use Your GI Bill?
Did you come up with any good ideas? I hope these examples gave you some inspiration to think about how you could take advantage of your GI Bill for something you’d actually be excited to do when you leave the military.
Whatever you do—even if you take that federal contracting job—don’t let your GI Bill go to waste!
Stephanie Montague is an independent consultant, freelance writer, and the owner of Poppin’ Smoke. A strong champion of maximizing military and VA benefits, Stephanie created Poppin’ Smoke to encourage active duty and retirees to take advantage of their benefits and privileges to travel. She is happy that her husband did not return to work at the Pentagon when he retired from the Army in 2015.