Strong yen dipping into troops’ pockets
Servicemembers in Japan will see a steady or slightly lower cost-of-living allowance in their paychecks this week, despite the dollar’s fall to 2½-year low Wednesday against the yen, according to military finance officials.
The stagnant COLA rate comes after servicemembers in Japan enjoyed a more favorable exchange rate this spring and summer, according to Chief Petty Officer John Valentin, the leading chief petty officer for military pay at Personnel Support Detachment at Yokosuka Naval Base.
For much of the year, a dollar bought at least 116 yen and often bought as much as 120 yen or more.
“Back in May this year, the rate was 117,” Valentin said. “We were drawing a COLA similar to the rate we draw now.”
To counter those richer days earlier this year, the Pentagon already had scaled back COLA rates to some servicemembers in Japan in October.
But as of Wednesday, a dollar bought only 108.5 yen, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s Web site. The last time the dollar fell lower was in June 2005.
Still, in next week’s paycheck, servicemembers at Naval Air Facility Atsugi and Yokosuka will see a slight decrease of a dollar or two each day, according to Valentin and a Pentagon Web site.
“The COLA isn’t making up for it,” said Spc. Lucas Credeur, who is with 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery Regiment on Kadena Air Base. “That’s what everyone talks about … complains about.”
The Pentagon is scheduled to review the COLA rates on Tuesday, Valentin said. He believes officials will begin to increase rates to make up for the dollar’s recent decline.
But those increases, if approved, will take time to show up in paychecks, Valentin said. The earliest increase would likely come in January, he added.
That slow turnaround means belt-tightening in the midst of holiday spending and $3-a-gallon gas prices, some servicemembers say.
“Sadly, [we cut out] a lot of the fun things that we like to do,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Shaunte Mauldin, with the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron on Kadena Air Base.
In Sasebo, Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Cook said living expenses in Japan’s neighborhoods, called chos, are exorbitant and hard to keep up with as the dollar falls.
“The bills in the cho — water, gas, electric — you have to be real frugal,” said Cook. “I don’t even take a taxi anymore.”
COLA is meant to balance the value of servicemembers’ dollars on base with the foreign currency and costs off base.
Evening out those costs, however, doesn’t work as quickly as some would like.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Zenaida Desiderio lives about 20 minutes from Sasebo Naval Base and says shopping on base is not always an option.
That means Desiderio must spend more money to get less while shopping at the Japanese stores in her neighborhood. She said the reduced buying power cuts into her budget for groceries and other everyday necessities.
“Every dollar counts,” she said.
Counting dollars — rather than yen — is exactly what Air Force Capt. Rob Marshall and his family do.
Marshall, of the 5th Air Force at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said his family has learned not to count on COLA for necessities. He and wife Brandy have two small children.
“We use COLA to pay off debts and other financial investments I have — and for saving up for trips back to the States,” said Marshall, 29, of Baton Rouge, La.
The allowance’s flat rate at the moment also won’t affect their holiday shopping plans, he added.
“My wife and I typically start buying Christmas presents before Halloween. We get a lot of stuff online,” Marshall said. “We don’t depend on COLA to buy Christmas because we budget our holiday shopping in.”
Sgt. 1st Class Steven Landon, also with the 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery at Kadena, lives off base but said the dollar’s poor performance hasn’t affected him as a single person.
But, he added, the poorer exchange rate “sucks” for off-base renters.
“It needs to go up,” Landon said, “especially for those that live off base.”
But at least it’s not summer, he said, when he typically has $400 air conditioning bills.
To check individual per diem rates, go to: http://perdiem.hqda.pentagon.mil/perdiem/ocform.html.
Stars and Stripes reporters Cindy Fisher, Vince Little and Travis J. Tritten contributed to this report.