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Here's How to Make the Most Out of Your Military Benefits

Here are four ways to make the most of these benefits for those on active duty and veterans.

Image: Stacia Zachary, Ava ::  |
Air Force Sgt. Stacia Zachary and her daughter play at an Eglin Air Force Base park in Panama City Beach, Fla. in 2010. Ava is among thousands of children with both parents serving in the military.
Air Force Sgt. Stacia Zachary and her daughter play at an Eglin Air Force Base park in Panama City Beach, Fla. in 2010. Ava is among thousands of children with both parents serving in the military. | Melissa Nelson | AP, file
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Long deployments and frequent moves can be tough for members of the military, their families and their finances. But special benefits programs designed for servicemen and women can help them reach major financial goals, including reducing their debt, paying for education and housing or saving for retirement.

Here are four ways to make the most of these benefits for both veterans and those still on active duty:

Waived card fees and 0 percent down

For active-duty service members, federal law requires lenders to cap interest rates on preservice charge card debt at 6 percent APR and waive service and renewal fees, such as annual fees, foreign transaction fees and late fees.

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Several major card companies offer even lower interest rates — or no interest — on existing credit card balances and new purchases, sometimes extending low rates for up to a year after a service member's active duty has ended. NerdWallet has a list of credit-card offers available to eligible service members.

Active-duty service members and veterans may also be able to take advantage of no-cost credit to purchase thousands of products and services through Zebit, a San Diego-based company that recently extended its direct-to-consumer offering to military personnel.

"We offer free credit as long as you buy from us," said Zebit CEO Michael Thiemann. "It's no-stress financing on 17,000 products," including big-ticket items like appliances.

No-money-down mortgage

Active and former service members can get a no-money-down loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and pay no private mortgage insurance.

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But be careful, because with little or no equity in your home, you could find yourself owing more than the house is worth if home prices drop.

The VA loan must be for a primary residence, and can be an existing structure or new construction. With a VA loan, closing costs are also less than if you were to go with a traditional bank. And there is no limit to how many times you can take out a VA loan, although you can't have more than one loan at a time.

Mostly free higher education

If you served at least 90 days of active duty after Sept. 10, 2001, you, your spouse or child are eligible to go to college almost for free under the "Post-9/11 GI Bill."

This bill covers your full tuition and fees at public colleges, provides a monthly housing allowance and even offers money for books for a maximum of 36 months.

If you choose to go to a private college or attend school overseas, Veterans Affairs will pay up to $21,085 a year in qualified college expenses. Just keep in mind that the amount of the benefit depends on the number of days you were on active duty.

More ways to save

Service members also have more options when it comes to retirement savings.

Invest up to $10,000 in the military's "savings deposit program" — each time you're deployed. You'll get a guaranteed rate of return of 10 percent a year.

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Also, there's the Thrift Savings Plan, basically a low-cost version of a 401(k) savings plan, which is open to all service members. In 2016, you can contribute up to $18,000, or $24,000,if you're age 50 or older. You can also choose either a traditional TSP or RothTSP, which allows tax-free withdrawals in retirement. And, with tax-free combat pay, you could increase your contributions to $53,000 this year

These are just a few of the perks for military service members and veterans, who often aren't aware of the wide range of benefits available to them.

"For those who have questions, it's imperative that they contact Veterans Affairs to find out more," said Scott Scredon, co-author of "The Veteran's Money Book."

"Taking advantage of their hard-earned benefits could make a significant difference in their financial lives," he said.

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