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what's the deal with post deployment gifts
(Photo: Minnesota National Guard, Staff Sgt. Ben Houtkooper)

By Lizann Lightfoot

Near the end of one of my husband’s deployment, spouses were discussing homecoming. Almost everyone planned to serve their service member’s favorite foods or go to their favorite restaurant. Many couples had planned a vacation or special family activity for post-deployment leave. After a seven month deployment (or longer), most military spouses wanted to spoil their service member.

Then. . . we got onto the topic of post-deployment gifts.

“I want to get something nice for my husband to thank him for all his hard work,” wrote one Marine wife. “Any ideas for a good post-deployment gift?”

“I’m surprising mine with front-row tickets to see his favorite team,” one wife replied.

“Mine has been wanting an Xbox for a while now, so I’m finally getting it for him,” another wrote.

“My husband is getting a new motorcycle when he returns!”

“Haha, we need another vehicle too,” agreed another wife, “except instead of a motorcycle he is getting a new Jeep.”

And so it went, each gift more extravagant than the last. Some of the wives could only sit back in stunned silence. We all had different opinions on what made a suitable homecoming gift.

Yes, service members sometimes earn extra pay during deployment. But what’s up with homecoming gifts?

Should military spouses purchase expensive post-deployment gifts?

Here’s the deal: No one can tell a military family how to spend their money. Unless you are their personal accountant, you have no idea what their financial situation is, how much they have saved, how they pay off their credit cards, or make any other financial decision. No one should guilt trip any military spouse who wants to give an extravagant gift to their service member after deployment, especially if they have been saving for it. However… I can share some advice as a military spouse who has now been through six deployments and homecomings. Our concept of deployment gifts has changed over time.

Realities are different for single and married folks

Single service members probably return to large bank accounts. Married service members often do not. That’s not always the spouse’s fault.

The first three times my husband deployed to Iraq, we were not married. We were dating and engaged, but we had our own jobs and separate bank accounts. When a single service member deploys, they have absolutely no bills–no rent or mortgage, no cell phone, no car insurance. . . nothing. If they deploy to a combat zone, they receive additional payments for being in a hazardous area and income earned in a combat zone is tax-free. This means that a single service member could return from deployment and have quite a nest egg in their bank account. That can purchase some incredible post-deployment gifts for themselves, especially if the service member is not responsible for a family or anyone else.

Fast-forward a few years to deployments during marriage. During my husband’s married deployments, I was not employed because I was home with our two or three young children. We had a monthly mortgage, car payments, and typical family expenses. During the deployment, we had planned for expenses like my master’s classes and home improvement projects, and also had some unexpected payments–when the car broke down and the computer crashed. Even though I was a responsible wife and didn’t spend money on shopping sprees, there wasn’t $10,000 floating around when he came home. Far from it.

This was extremely disappointing to him. He hadn’t been paying attention to bills during the deployment. His disappointment stung me, as if all my hard work during deployment wasn’t good enough. Towards the end of deployment, I started mailing him receipts and detailed records of my spending to show the cost of raising our family, which had grown by one baby in his absence. He eventually accepted our financial situation, but the post-deployment gifts were modest things like board games and a waffle iron.

Here’s how to avoid homecoming gift overspending in your house

Bottom line: What you spend on a Homecoming gift depends on your family’s financial situation. If you both have been working and saving and agree that it is the right time for a large purchase, go ahead and enjoy your new vehicle, TV, gaming system, or computer. However, these guidelines will ensure the gifts bring more joy than disappointment:

  • Avoid making large surprise purchases. They may have a plan for that deployment cash, and you don’t want to spoil that, even with a well-intentioned surprise.
  • Communicate major deployment expenses. In emails or letters, don’t just write “the car broke down but I got it repaired.” Let them know exactly how much was spent on repair bills so they won’t be surprised.
  • Discuss homecoming gifts together. Every couple has a different version of the “best” homecoming gift. Maybe you would love to get a hotel for a weekend away from the kids, but your spouse would like to take the family to Disney. Talk about your hopes and plans so you can get on the same page.
  • Some service members buy their own gifts. After months without internet, some of those Amazon purchases when they get into the first decent base can be extravagant. Try to be understanding and not criticize the service member’s first purchases in months.
  • Be patient. If only one of you has been managing the finances, it will take time to get back on the same page. Large purchases can be stressful and frustrating. If you disagree, wait until things are getting back to normal before you discuss the big ticket items again.

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at lizann@militaryoneclick.com.

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