Household budgets have been hit hard by the rising cost of living and some army families are struggling to make ends meet. Jill Misson reports…

The price of food and fuel has shot up recently, which is causing financial hardship for some.

“It feels such a struggle just to provide the basics,” says Lauren, whose child has additional needs. She explains: “I receive Carer’s Allowance and we have my husband’s wage but it’s not enough to live on. I have to count nappies hoping we have enough until the end of the month.”

Even working couples with two incomes are having to cut back. Lee says: “It’s harder now on a sergeant and senior teacher’s wage than it was as a young craftsman and newly-qualified teacher. We’re worried about making the decision to either feed the family or heat the house.”

In Aldershot, Garrison Community Support Officer Nicole Bridgman says that more army families are being referred to food banks but, because of the stigma around accepting help, many are suffering in silence. “Some soldiers have incurred debt from trying to support children in two households and some have had to take on a second job,” she adds. “The strain is affecting relationships and there has been a rise in break-ups and domestic abuse.”

Unique challenges

Although the cost of living crisis is affecting the whole population, there are unique challenges for mobile army families which make life more expensive. AFF Policy & Research Director Michelle Alston says: “Many army families need to rely on paid childcare as they don’t live near family and not being able to access NHS dental care in a new posting can mean paying for a private dentist or fuel to travel to their previous practice.”

AFF’s priority is to ensure that you’re getting the best possible support and have the information you need to make the best decisions for you.

Michelle says: “It’s important that families understand their potential eligibility for benefits, where they could access financial grants and how other changes might support them, such as opting for flexible service or flexible working.”

Making a difference

Working parents have welcomed the MOD wraparound childcare (WAC) scheme. It enables families with children aged 4-11 to claim up to 20 hours of funding during termtime. Army spouse Karin Jenkins says: “WAC has allowed me to keep my job after being posted further away from the office.

“With a much longer commute it allows me to make use of an after-school club for my son without the extra expense.

“The fuel cost is hard enough to absorb without having to worry about childcare, so it makes a big difference.”

Bills shock

With soaring gas and electricity prices many families living in Service Family Accommodation (SFA) have faced difficulties. AFF Money & Allowances Specialist Claire Hallam says: “The key issues reported are not being able to transfer utility contracts with the same provider and seeing direct debit costs increase on moving to a new quarter, with some reports of bills tripling. Families are not taking fixed-term contracts because of the risk of posting.”

Some army families are questioning the energy efficiency of their SFA. Stuart Paronuzzi says: “Our heating currently costs around £1.35 per hour which wouldn’t be so bad if it meant our house was warm, however, what little heat is generated is immediately lost through poor insulation. This is echoed across our street and it’s a common topic of conversation.”

Thermal efficiency does affect heating costs and is taken into consideration in the Combined Accommodation Assessment Scheme (CAAS) banding which determines the rent charged, but this is no consolation if you’re unable to heat your home.

Following the rapid rise in the cost of fuel, concerns were raised by serving personnel about travel allowances. Rates for Home to Duty and Get You Home Travel allowances were reviewed by the MOD and increased by seven per cent. However, Claire Hallam says: “Many families aren’t aware that Get You Home Travel only helps with costs towards two journeys a month rather than weekly.”

Fewer trips home

Lauren’s husband lives on base Monday to Friday and was coming home every weekend but has reduced the round trips as they can’t afford the fuel. She says: “The cost of this saving to our family is huge. We miss him dearly and I feel like I’m a single mum. Our three-year-old daughter has a suspected diagnosis of autism and she struggles not seeing him so the meltdowns are frequent and that leaves me feeling stressed and powerless.”

Lauren is thankful to receive practical and emotional help from the charity Home-Start: “The support and advice they’ve given us has helped us through. It’s meant I’ve been able to put food on the table and I don’t know where we would be without them.”

Help is at hand

If you’re struggling, talking to a unit welfare officer can be a good place to start as they can signpost to other charities and organisations. Kate Badcock, Assistant Regimental Secretary Welfare at RHQ RIFLES, says: “We launched a scheme last summer for service personnel and veterans to apply on our Swift website for a £100 Tesco voucher. Our UWOs have actively been following up with many claimants and have uncovered issues that they may not otherwise have discovered.”

Forcesline has seen a significant increase in requests for support. Bill Grant, Forcesline Manager of SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, says: “I’m very worried about the growing number of calls we’re getting from people who need support. An increase of more than 30 per cent in comparison with 12 months ago. While we receive requests covering a range of topics, we’re now also taking daily requests for help with the most basic of needs. People can no longer afford food, energy and housing.”

The Royal British Legion has seen an unprecedented interest in cost of living grants with thousands of veterans and serving personnel contacting the charity for help. Applications can be made on its website for money to buy everyday essentials such as kitchen appliances and clothes or to help with energy bills.

Army&You spoke to a command sergeant major who says: “The majority of our service personnel are very proud and don’t want to ask for help so what we must reinforce is that if you need a hand-up, ask. It is exactly that, a hand-up and not a hand-out. We have to look after our people and each other.”

If you’re experiencing financial hardship, help is available. Check your entitlement to state benefits and claim what you are eligible for

Main photo: Lauren with her family

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