How to Handle a Last-Minute Move Without Losing Your Mind
Looking for some PCS tips for moving to a new installation?
Relocating to another part of the country — or even the world — without much notice can be par for the course with service members and their loved ones. And while last-minute moves are tough when you’re single, they’re even tougher when you’ve got a partner — and at their toughest when kids are involved.
“In a military family, we typically know how long people are going to be somewhere. When the end of an assignment is coming up, we’re looking for deployment orders. Those are the kinds of moves you can plan for,” says Ingrid Bruns, director of personal finance and military life advice at USAA and an accredited financial counselor. “You have lots of time to get your stuff ready, your mind ready and your family ready.”
The ones that throw you for a loop, she says, are the ones where you may only have a couple of weeks or less to completely pack up and move.
“You have to get your stuff together and your family together and not lose your mind,” Bruns says.
If it’s your first experience of receiving permanent change of station orders without much lead time, here’s a tip: Take a deep breath.
You can do this.
Weighing Your Options with a Military Move
Before you start taking down framed photos and packing up the silverware, consider the choices available to you. Service members must follow their PCS orders, but their spouses usually have options regarding if, when and how to relocate. An exception is when a service member is given a remote tour assignment, usually overseas, where family members aren’t allowed to accompany them without special permission.
In such instances of involuntary separation, the military may give the spouse a housing-and-separation allowance. But voluntary separation is also an option, says Bruns, who moved 18 times during her husband’s 29-year active-duty career.
The two main factors in a decision by a military family to take an extended separation are kids and work, she says. Taking a child out of school in the middle of the year is difficult, especially when they’re close to graduation or committed to a sports team or other school activities .
“Military spouse employment is another big factor in choosing to be separated,” Bruns says, “because it can be tough for military spouses to find jobs in new places, and you can wind up with a career that keeps going in fits and starts.”
Separation does come at a price, the most obvious one the emotional toll of families being apart. But an extended separation can also take a financial toll on military families. Traveling to see a separated service member can be expensive, Bruns says.
PCS Tips for Managing the Move
- Once you’ve come to a decision about moving, it’s time to actually do it. Your first order of business is to prioritize tasks, because you’re on an accelerated timeline and every minute is precious.
Bruns advises thinking about a hurried move as an exercise in “change management,” a business term for the process of making organizational changes in a structured but efficient and adaptable way.
“Getting your stuff moved actually isn’t the worst part of it because the traffic management office on a military base can often help with that,” she says.
You may be restricted in what you can bring on your move; orders for overseas may include strict limits. You may have to put some of your possessions in storage, which the military may or may not pay for.
- Action Tasks. As you pack and organize the physical logistics of moving, start checking off other items on the list of tasks you hope to accomplish before hitting the road:
- Find out what services and financial assistance the military can provide during your move
- Inform landlords, employers and other creditors that you’re moving
- Find out what facilities, programs and services will be available if you have children with special or medical needs
- Inform your children’s current school that they’re leaving, inform the school district to which you’ll be moving that your kids will be arriving and organize the exchange of transcripts
- Arrange for an inspection with your landlord if they’re holding a deposit on your rental
- If you’ll be living off-base, determine if rentals are easily available or if you may need to stay in a hotel for a while
- If you’re able to secure a rental house or apartment, arrange for utilities and garbage collection to be turned on when you arrive
- Tell family and friends that you’re moving
- Submit a change-of-address form at your post office or online
- If you’re traveling by air, consider travel insurance
Making a New Home
Once you and your possessions have arrived, unpacking will be a small step in how well you turn your new base of operations into a home.
If you have school-age children, managing their transition to a new school is likely to be your first priority — your new installation’s Student Liaison Officer (SLO) can be a big help. And depending on how hurried your move was, you may still have tasks on your pre-move checklist to complete.
When you’re ready to start connecting with your new community, Bruns has one overriding piece of advice: Don’t be shy. Here are some of her tips for military spouses seeking to make new friends:
- Check out your local installation’s spouses’ clubs
- Go to your installation’s family support center to discover volunteer opportunities, classes to build your skills, résumé workshops and employment assistance
- At most installations there’s a spouse-run social media page to learn about the area and meet people with similar interests
- Contact the leader of the family readiness organization supporting your spouse’s unit, which is called a Family Readiness Group (FRG) in the US Army and US Navy, a Key Spouse Program in the USAF, a Family Readiness Program (FRP) in the USMC and a Work-Life Program in the US Coast Guard
- Be sure to keep in touch with previous contacts — the military is a small community, and you never know when your paths may cross again
More Ways You Can Prepare
Ideally, before you ever receive word that you must move with little notice, you’ve had time to prepare for the possibility. And the first thing you can do is to try to live as simply as possible.
“Keep the clutter down in your home as much as possible,” Bruns says. “If you have to personally pay for moving your stuff, keep in mind that movers charge by weight. If you have a lot of things, it will cost you more.”
You may also want to set up a PCS fund to cover the out-of-pocket and reimbursable expenses you’ll incur during a move.
Another important step in preparing for a sudden move is to familiarize yourself with your protections under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The SCRA allows active-duty service members, including Reservists and National Guard members who are called to active duty, to postpone or suspend certain civil contractual obligations when orders make fulfilling those obligations difficult or onerous.
For example, you may be able to break a rental lease or an insurance contract without penalty if you get PCS orders. But there’s a catch: Legal agreements may contain language that waives your SCRA rights, so make sure to read all contracts thoroughly before signing them.
Prepare a Military Moving Checklist
Moving on the fly will never be easy, Bruns says. There will always be unexpected hurdles. But if you prepare as best you can ahead of time, keep your head about you during the move, and are proactive in introducing yourself and your family to a new community, your move won’t be nearly as stressful as it could be.
Interested in more tools and tips for managing a big move? Consult USAA’s comprehensive PCS guide.
Ingrid Bruns is the director of personal finance and military life advice at USAA. She is also an accredited financial counselor and holds the Accredited Domestic Partnership AdvisorSM designation. Prior to joining USAA in 2013, Ingrid worked as a personal finance counselor for service members and their families as a Department of Defense contractor. Before that, she was the director for the Stuttgart, Germany USO, where she worked to help provide a “home away from home” for military families.
This material is for informational purposes. Consider your own financial circumstances carefully before making a decision and consult with your tax, legal or estate planning professional.
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