When it came time to leave the military, I had no idea what to do, other than to "go to TAP class," because that was the Army's requirement. So, I fell back on what servicemembers always seem to do when facing a new challenge or a new assignment … I started talking to my buddies to pick their brains and get their advice on how to approach transition.

The best advice I got was from a buddy who told me that, before doing anything—TAP classes, resume writing, job hunting, interviewing, and the like—I needed to do a realistic, honest self-evaluation. Getting out of the military, regardless of how long you served, affords an ability to explore new opportunities and redefine what matters most to you in your life and new career. As part of that self-evaluation, he advised me to figure out three things:

  1. What do you want to do? Whether you're transitioning after four or twenty-plus years, getting out of the military presents a unique opportunity. Whether you’re going right into the workforce, going back to school, or doing both work and school, you have a shot to go pursue the career field you want to pursue, instead of simply just following the one that you had in the military. So, do what the military trained you to do as far as planning—start with your end-state in mind, and backwards plan from there. Just realize that if you decide to pursue something really different from what you did in the military, it may take you longer to get to your end-state, and you're likely going to have to work smarter and harder than your civilian peers who are already in that career field. Most importantly, you may have to take a step back, as you transition to the civilian world, in order to pursue that new passion.
  2. What is the "number" you want to chase? News flash: Most people underestimate the cost of leaving the military; I know I did. When you think about that "number," you need to think about it in totality. What you made in the military doesn't equal "the number" you want to chase on the outside. There are many tools out there to assist you with figuring that out, so use them!

    Understand the ramifications of state and local income taxes (which many don't pay while in the military), taxable income (military housing and subsistence allowances are not taxed by the IRS), paying for life and medical insurance (which, in the military, is pennies on the dollar compared to private sector costs). All of those things, and more, impact your post-military financial bottom line.

  3. Where do you want to live? This sounds like the easiest question of all, and for younger people with fewer family responsibilities, maybe it is. However, think of this with your end-state in mind, and not simply in terms of where you land once you get your DD-214. Does the area provide you with the quality of life you desire, as well as diverse career, educational and professional opportunities?

Then, after figuring out those three things, put them in priority order: which is most important, least important, and which is in the middle? After prioritizing, do a "common sense" check to ensure they make sense. Here's an example of what that means: If you decide the most important thing is "where you want to live," and number two is "the 'number' you want to chase," those two things need to make sense together. If you really want to live in Fargo, North Dakota, and the number you want to chase is $100,000 annually, that could be difficult—current US Census data indicates that Fargo’s median income is $60,000 per year. You may need to adjust your expectations, and plan relative to those three things, if Fargo is really where you want to be.

The other piece of advice I'd offer on transition is this: Don't go it alone! Everything you did in the military was a team effort, and transition should be no different. There are lots of people and resources out there to assist you—use them! Good luck!