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Military update: $30,000 decision means massive loss in retirement pay

Would an E-6 careerist nearing retirement accept a $30,000 car loan if forced to pay back a total of $390,000 in principal and interest?

Would an E-7 accept a $30,000 loan to make a down payment on a home or to wipe out credit card debt if the lifetime cost of that decision were $386,000 in lost retired pay?

The answer to both questions, regrettably, is: You bet.

Hundreds of career service members every month make a comparable choice while in their 15th year of service. That’s when, in return for an immediate cash bonus of $30,000, they make an irrevocable decision to opt out of “High-3” retirement and accept the less generous “Redux” plan.

The loan shark here is the federal government, the same Congress and Department of Defense that like to get tough with payday lenders outside of military bases who prey on young or naïve enlisted members.

Meanwhile, they offer their own rotten deal, which every year gets a little worse, say economists at the defense think tank CNA.

Under contract to the Marine Corps, CNA in late September sounded anew its periodic alarm over the Redux retirement option and its onerous $30,000 Career Status Bonus, in a report titled “Retirement Choice 2014.”

Applying current military pay tables and fresh assumptions about the lifetime value of military retirement options, CNA spells out in blunt terms the penalties careerists impose on themselves when they take the $30,000 bonus while five years from initial retirement eligibility.

For those who elect Redux, retire at 20 years and live until age 79, which is average life expectancy for their generation, E-6s among them will reduce lifetime retired pay by $335,529.

E-7s will lose $391,600. CWO-3s will lose $451,303. An O-4, who presumably retires at age 44 rather than 38 for enlisted, would see lifetime pay cut by $382,522, CNA says.

“The best way to think about this is to consider Redux’s $30,000 Career Status Bonus as an early cash-out” of part of a member’s retirement. “We can calculate how much this cash-out costs … by thinking of it as a ‘loan’ to be paid back later in the form of lower retirement checks,” CNA says.

While car loans and mortgages have fixed loan periods, often five years for cars and 30 for mortgages, the Redux bonus “has a rather peculiar payback scheme.” The member “pays nothing until retirement, pays quite a bit from the beginning of retirement until age 62, and then continues to pay back smaller amounts over the rest of his or her lifetime.”

To fully grasp the impact, careerists eyeing the bonus must consider how retired pay is calculated under High-3 versus Redux.

Both plans provide an immediate annuity after 20 or more years of service computed on a base amount of their highest three years of basic pay.

But rather than 50 percent base pay after 20 under High-3, retirees under Redux receive 40 percent.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:

[email protected]

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