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Real People:
Millionaire in the making
A long list of benefits helps make a military career worthwhile.
November 25, 2003: 1:18 PM EST
By Les Christie, CNN/Money Contributing Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The armed services used to provide inductees with little more than "three hots and a cot."

When soldiers enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attack, for example, the U.S. Army paid buck privates $21 a month. Today's military man receives much more.

Michael Wentzel and his girlfriend, Jenn, consider themselves a frugal couple.  
Michael Wentzel and his girlfriend, Jenn, consider themselves a frugal couple.

When Michael Wentzel graduated from high school, his parents, both of whom were hearing impaired and on disability, could provide little financial help toward college. And the self-proclaimed "mediocre student" received no scholarship offers.

"My Dad told me, 'that leaves the military,'" said Wentzel, a native of Tularosa, N.M. "I didn't know what I wanted, so I decided to have someone else tell me what to do for the next four years." He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

Now 10 years later, he's an officer with a nursing degree, an income of $55,000, savings of about $20,000, and a townhouse in a gated San Antonio community all courtesy of hard work and the U.S. military.

Basic training

Wentzel's education in money-handling commenced during his induction process, when the service required him to take a financial class, where the instructor lauded the advantages of getting a jump-start in investing.

Wentzel took this advice to heart, and saved more than $15,000 during his four-year tour of enlisted duty.

During that stint, which he spent as a security policeman, Wentzel attended night classes. He then went on inactive reserve while he studied nursing at New Mexico State. He graduated in 2001, and returned to the Air Force, minus almost all of his $15,000 nest egg, but with a new vocation and a brand new commission as an officer.

Today, Wentzel's gross income from the military comes to about $45,000, but it stretches far, with a long list of benefits to provide the elasticity. They include:

Millionaire in the Making
Personal Debt

Health care The service takes care of medical needs, with no co-pay, no prescription costs, and no paying for diagnostic tests.

Tax savings He gets monthly, tax-free allowances for housing ($700) and food ($166).

Discount shopping He buys groceries and other goods tax-free at the base exchange and the commissary where "the prices are lower than Wal-Mart."

Low-cost gas Buying on base saves a nickel a gallon.

Dental plan All dental work is free.

Lasik surgery Instead of spending the civilian price of $750 per eye for vision correction, airmen get it for free.

Air travel If space is available on an Air Force flight, airmen can hop aboard.

He has a 15-year, 6.2 percent Veterans Administration mortgage on the townhouse, obtained with no down payment. It costs $910 a month, including $375 in taxes and common charges; a roommate offsets $300 of that. He also pays off a car loan at $350 a month.

Despite these expenses, Wentzel says he manages to "put away 20 percent of my income into my portfolio," $650 a month.

And Wentzel works two 12-hour shifts a month for a San Antonio nursing services company. That pays an extra $8,400 annually, all of which, after taxes, goes straight to Edward Jones, his broker.

Shipping out

Recently, Wentzel learned that he would be deployed overseas, to Landstuhl hospital in Germany, where many Iraq War casualties convalesce.

Although he won't be moonlighting during the four months he's away, he will get an overseas deployment per diem of $30. He's also due for a promotion to first lieutenant next month, which "will give me an extra $650 a month to invest."

Wentzel has much of his future planned. He wants to retire at 42, when he'll have 20 years in, and his pension will be 50 percent of his base pay. The alternative is to wait until he turns 45, when it will be 57.5 percent.

"If I'm done at 20," he said, "I'll get $38,000 the rest of my life. That's what majors get. If I make lieutenant colonel, that number will be $48,000 at 45 years old."

Before Wentzel leaves the service, he plans to attend graduate school for nurse anesthesia. "The Air Force has a fantastic program for that kind of training," he said. "It pays you to go to school. I'll be making my salary, getting trained, getting school paid for, and my time applied toward my pension."

Then, it's back to the civilian sector. Wentzel figures on taking a job as an anesthetist for a plastic surgery practice. "Nurse anesthetists make up to $125,000 a year," he said.

Not that he's particularly materialistic. What he really craves is the freedom money brings. "Money equals options," Wentzel asserts.

Wentzel and girlfriend Jenn ("she's even more frugal than me"), an intelligence officer in the Air Force, have talked of marriage.

After they leave the service they would like to travel, too. "I can see myself behind the wheel of a big RV, driving all over the country," said Wentzel.  Top of page

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