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A 49-year-old Army retiree shares the 3 tips he'd give himself about retirement if he could turn back time

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  • Rob Patton retired from the military after 26 years in the Army. 
  • If he could tell himself anything about retirement, he’d say to prepare for the costs of healthcare.
  • He’d tell himself to save for the gap before retirement pay comes, and consider what comes next.
  • Have a retirement story you’d like to share? Email reporter Liz Knueven at lknueven@insider.com.

Rob Patton retired from the military in April 2020 after 26 years in the Army. Since then, he’s found himself taking on a new life. 

After his retirement, Patton, now age 49, and his family decided to put down roots in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where they’d been living on and off for years. Patton now works full-time as the vice president of Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation.

Like many retirees, the change from his former life to his new life took some getting used to. “I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do when I retired,” he said. But, now that he’s figured it out, there are a few things he wishes he’d known sooner. 

If he could tell himself anything in his 20s and 30s about military retirement, here’s what he’d say.

1. Consider the costs of healthcare, and be on top of your health while in the military

For all retirees, military or not, healthcare costs are a big part of deciding how much money you’ll need for retirement. With healthcare costs only rising in the US, it’s likely that it could cost more than you think. 

It’s something that Patton said he’d tell himself if he could turn back the clock. 

“Take into consideration all your other benefits. You can still use military treatment facilities and hospitals for your family, and things like that. But if you don’t locate near a military installation, there are copays and things to consider as well,” he said. “There will be some additional costs that you’ll have when you retire.”

For anyone currently in the military, Patton recommends taking your health and any injuries seriously, as they could affect the amount you’ll receive in retirement.

“Document your medical stuff, it’s extremely important. When you retire and you go through your retirement physical, if you can’t prove something, you won’t get compensated for it,” he said. “It’s extremely important that when you get injured, go in and at least get it documented. That will help you in the long run.”

The VA told Insider that it will “make reasonable efforts to obtain” documentation for the veteran if they don’t have access to the needed paperwork. Ultimately, however, documentation is required to make a successful claim.

2. Save for the gap between your duty pay and your retirement pay

Patton said that saving for your life after the military is critical, and there’s one period when it’s especially important. 

“When you retire, be prepared: Have at least six months’ income saved up. When you retire, it pays retroactive of course. But you can go four to six weeks without getting your first military retirement paycheck based on when you retire,” he said. “That can be a shock to the system if you’re not prepared.” (The Defense Finance and Accounting Service says that it can take between 30 and 45 days after your retirement date to receive your first check.)

Saving up several months’ worth of expenses in an emergency fund, or a savings account that’s dedicated to unexpected expenses, is always a smart idea. This is one point in your life where it’s likely to be used.

Patton said there’s another gap anyone retiring from the military should consider: Your retirement pay likely won’t be the same as your active pay.

“Any other additional pay or incentive pays that you might’ve been drawing, those go away. So each month, if you’re on active duty, you get a basic allowance for housing, which helps pay for your housing. You get a basic allowance for subsistence, some people get foreign language pay or hazardous duty pay, etc. All that stops,” he said. “You’re only getting your base pay for retirement.”

Saving for this gap will be important — while working after retirement might help to cover some of those costs, having your own cushion will be critical. 

3. Make a plan for what comes after military life

When military life ends, it can be jarring, Patton said. Just like anyone else retiring, it’s important to make a plan for what comes next. 

“Look at things like when you retire, where do you want to live? What kind of job do you want to have? You need to look at all the factors for retirement,” he said. 

In terms of work, he said he was fortunate to come across his current full-time position. “A lot of people will retire and they’re looking for their dream job. That may or may not happen initially,” he said.

Instead, he recommends just taking any work to start out. “Get a job, get to work, get to know the customs and culture, if you will, of the civilian world. And then if you’re not happy with it, move on, find something else. But get that experience coming out of the gate,” he said. 

It’s also about keeping expectations in check. “Don’t think that you’re going to make $150,000 a year straight out of the gate. Some people do, of course, but don’t fall into that trap and think, ‘Well, I’m going to get out and make six figures the first day,'” he said. “Go into it with a little bit of humility, and play that into your calculus as well.”

For many retirees, both military and not, retirement can be a big shock. But, a little planning and thinking ahead can go a long way for anyone leaving their old life behind.