Tens of thousands of veterans return to school in the next week as they utilize their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits in the pursuit of their education. While the GI Bill covers nearly every imaginable school related expense from tuition, books, fees, and even a living stipend it can still be difficult to make the most out of your earned benefits. Here are 8 tips, including some not so highly advertised ones, in order to better plan your education.

1. Decide on a major

The Post 9/11 GI Bill pays for 36 months of education. Time spent taking classes you don’t need if you switch your major will still come out of your 36 months of entitlement. If your benefits run out before graduation you may have to come out of pocket to pay for those classes. This can be prevented by taking extra classes on top of being full-time throughout your education in order to catch up if you can handle the workload. That brings us to the next tip…

2. Take extra classes if you can

The Post 9/11 GI Bill pays for “36 months” of benefits, not a bachelor’s degree. Whatever you can squeeze out in those 36 months is all up to you. If you don’t have summer plans consider taking summer classes. They are shorter and you earn the same amount of credit for the same classes during normal semesters. The difference is you can pocket about 6 weeks of benefits for later use due to the shorter term. Ultimately, you could pay for some or most of a graduate program, earn a certificate, or go to a trade school with what’s left over.

3. Consider online classes

To receive BAH payments you need only take ONE class on campus. For people with children or a busy work schedule this could be ideal. Consider your personal learning style and difficulty you may have with certain subjects where being in a classroom might be best when learning the material. If you’re enrolled online at another campus far from where you live and would like to receive BAH you will need to find a local campus that has a class you can transfer into your primary school’s curriculum for your major.

4. Supplement you income

There are still other bills to be paid but being a full time student might put you at the mercy of your academic schedule when it comes to finding work. The VA has a work study program that pays veterans to work at certain organizations that in some way assist veterans. For the most part these places are pretty flexible about when you can work. These can include the school itself, veteran service organizations, your state workforce commission, or VA facilities. It’s not advertised anywhere where these positions are and you likely have to reach out to these organizations and ask if they accept work studies through the VA program.

5. Plan ahead financially

The GI Bill’s BAH payments are always paid for the previous month. Keep this in mind for partial months where only a partial pro-rated payment is owed. The BAH rates can change every year so be sure to check the amount on the Department of Defense’s website using their BAH calculator by plugging in your school’s zip code and choosing “E-5 with dependents” to calculate your BAH.

6. Still apply for Financial Aid, scholarships, and grants

Applying for FAFSA is a no-brainer as you can receive free educational grants. Your tuition is already paid for by the VA so any additional grants you can qualify for may be paid to you directly depending on various factors.

7. Save on books, pocket the book stipend

The Post 9/11 GI Bill pays up to $1,000 per school year for books. Some school textbooks can cost as much as $200 for one class! Be thrifty and consider used books by shopping online or checking local message boards for students finished with theirs. You can also consider renting your books or checking with your professor to see if a previous edition is acceptable for the class as some textbooks often don’t change a whole lot from year to year.

8. 1 day = 1 term

As your benefits start to dwindle at the end of your education you may find you have fewer weeks of benefits than the current length of the term. If this is the case the VA will automatically extend your benefits in full to the end of that school term, even if it’s only one day of benefits remaining. If you’ve been out of school for a while and think you may still have some benefits you can call the VA at 1-800-827-1000 to verify. Keep in mind the Montgomery GI Bill expires after 10 years from discharge and the Post 9/11 expires 15 years after your last date of discharge.

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