Back in the spring of this year, there was an intense peer-pressure situation sweeping Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni — no, not in an afterschool-special, say-no-to-drugs kind of way. Residents were pressured by friends and neighbors and Facebook groups to complete the Living Pattern Survey (LPS) in an attempt to adjust the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) rate, making it more in line with living expenses in the region. Surveys were taken by service members and military spouses at U.S. bases all over Japan. The results are in and they’re hitting your paycheck as soon as right now. Let’s get into the COLA changes sweeping the U.S. bases in the land of the rising sun.
We know there’s only one reason you’re reading this: You want to know how much more (or less) you’re getting on each paycheck. So, let’s get into the results.
- Iwakuni, this year’s big winner, is getting a six-point raise in COLA, from 122 to 128.
- Yokota will see a four-point raise, going from 118 to 122.
- Misawa gets the same four-point raise, moving from 124 to 128.
- Sasebo squeaks out a small increase of two points, taking them from 122 to 124.
- Camp Fuji will see the biggest drop in COLA, going from 124 to 118 — a six-point loss.
- Camp Zama’s COLA will decrease by four points, dropping from 130 to 126.
- Naval Air Station Atsugi will see a COLA decrease from 124 to 122.
- Anyone stationed in Okinawa will also see a slight COLA drop, from 120 to 118.
Yokosuka and Yokohama won’t see any change in COLA this go around.
Just when you’ll see the changes hit, depends. According to a Stars and Stripes article released on October 19th, any service members receiving a bump in COLA will see those changes reflected in November paychecks. If you’re expecting a decrease, you get a few extra weeks of riding high — decreases go into effect beginning in December 2018.
The Value of a Point
We get it. You’re thinking, “What the heck do I do with points? Last time I checked, the commissary does business in dollars.” Aside from just making a confusing, math-heavy concept even muddier, the point system is simply a percentage. If you think of the cost of living in the United States as 100 (yeah, we know, it varies state-to-state, but let’s stay on track), any number over 100 is how much more expensive it is, percentage-wise, to support a family where you’re stationed. Take Sasebo, for example. At the new COLA rate, 124, we’re basically gathering that it’s 24 percent more expensive to live in Sasebo, Japan than it is to live in the U.S.
To keep you from going cross-eyed as you try to multiply, move decimals, and carry the two, the Defense Travel Management Office (DTMO) will do the number crunching for you with its Overseas COLA Calculator. Choose the year, month, pay period, and your duty station up top, and pay grade, years served, number of dependents, and yay or nay on barracks living at the bottom. You’ll be able to see what your current COLA rate is and compare it to previous pay periods to see how much more or less you’re bringing home.
If you’re bored and playing around with the DTMO calculator — never know, maybe you’re caught up on your Netflix programs or you’re sitting on the sidelines waiting for your kid’s practice to wrap up — you’ll notice that COLA rates aren’t one-size-fits-all. Daily rates are determined by location, pay grade, years served, the number of dependents, and your housing situation. And, since COLA is calculated on a daily basis, your COLA grand total for the first through the 15th of each month could be slightly different from your total for the 16th through the end of the month (EOM). So, your best bet is to use that DTMO calculator — that’s the easiest way to know exactly what changes to expect.
Good News and Bad News
Since U.S. bases in Japan are essentially split down the middle of this rate change, we get that this isn’t good news for everyone. But, these rates aren’t forever.
The LPS — the reason for this big change — is conducted every three years. But, it’s only one of three components of setting COLA rates. The Retail Pricing Schedule (RPS) happens annually; it’s basically a price report of what is called a “market basket” for basic goods and services, both on and off base. DTMO also tracks the currency exchange rate and adjusts COLA accordingly as often as each pay period, but these changes are typically very minor when they do occur.
Can’t Complain if You Don’t Vote
Oh, where are they? Where are the Facebook warriors ready to protest the changes that didn’t take the survey. Come on out — this is a safe space. Complaining once the results are final won’t put more COLA in your pocket, but participating in the survey (and getting your friends and neighbors to do the same) when it is offered can.
How often do you really get to have a say in military pay? This is a unique opportunity to impact the pay that will support your family’s day-to-day life. The more data available to the decision makers, the better job they can do setting a realistic COLA rate for your area. Don’t brush the opportunity off when it comes around.