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Dawna Webb buys groceries at Budgen’s in downtown Mildenhall. Webb, who lives in Mildenhall with her husband, said she buys most groceries at the base commissary to save money and goes to local stores only for things she can’t find on base.
Dawna Webb buys groceries at Budgen’s in downtown Mildenhall. Webb, who lives in Mildenhall with her husband, said she buys most groceries at the base commissary to save money and goes to local stores only for things she can’t find on base. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

RAF MILDENHALL — Airman Cassey Burington arrived in England this fall, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for her first assignment with the Air Force. She was prepared for new accents, strange driving customs and even the rumored bad food.

Then came the sticker shock.

During a weekend trip to London, Burington got her first taste of just how little the U.S. dollar buys in this country.

“Things were like twice as much,” said Burington, 20, an inspector with the 48th Equipment Maintenance Squadron at RAF Lakenheath. “It was very surprising.”

She spent $60 on an Italian dinner — “the most expensive meal of my life,” she said — and held the purse strings tight until she returned to base.

Burington’s experience is typical for airmen arriving in England, where the British pound is worth nearly double the U.S. dollar.

The result? Airmen and spouses said they adjust by changing their spending habits. They shop almost entirely on base, cut back on eating out and restrict travel to places they can visit on one tank of gas. When they can’t find clothes and electronics they want at the base exchange, they shop online.

The U.S. dollar’s weakness against the British pound is nothing new. It has been worth more than $1.50 on average every year but one in the past decade and has not dropped below a monthly average of $1.70 since November 2003, according to the Bank of England. At print time, the exchange rate hovered just below $1.80 for one pound.

But for airmen just arriving, the prices can come as quite a shock.

Airman 1st Class Tracy Cisco, who recently arrived from Frederick, Okla., first learned how little her U.S. dollars were worth on a trip to a shopping mall in Norwich, about 45 minutes east of RAF Mildenhall.

“You’re looking at prices and they’re the same as they would be in the States,” said 23-year-old Cisco, a cop with the 100th Security Forces at RAF Mildenhall. “There’s just a pound sign instead of a dollar sign.”

She didn’t buy anything on that trip.

For others, a trip to Chili’s restaurant in Cambridge crystallizes what a strong British pound means to their wallets filled with U.S. dollars.

There, a regular Oldtimer hamburger costs 7.95 pounds. That’s the equivalent of about $14, which is more than double the price at most Chili’s restaurants in the States.

Sandra Ostrom, wife of RAF Mildenhall-based Tech. Sgt. Dan Ostrom, said prices in England took her by surprise when she arrived here from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey four months ago.

“You go out shopping and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not that expensive,’” Ostrom said. “And then you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s in pounds.’”

To adjust, Ostrom said she shops on base and watches her finances more closely than before.

“We’re definitely more on a budget here that we were in the States,” Ostrom said. “You have to be careful.”

While she still gets out and enjoys England, Ostrom said she has made sacrifices to balance the budget. She and her husband planned to visit Scotland but reconsidered because of gas prices off base.

“When you pay a pound a liter — no, we’ll have to wait,” Ostrom said.

For Shannon Luina and her husband Scott, a special agent with the Office of Special Investigations at RAF Mildenhall, the weak dollar means more meals at home and less entertainment.

“I think I’ve been to the movies once since I’ve been here,” said Luina, who arrived in England from Columbus, Ga., three years ago. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to a mall.”

Families living off base and out of military housing feel the greatest sting from a weak exchange rate when they pay monthly bills.

Carla Gordon said she paid about 225 pounds each month in utilities when she and her husband lived in Methwold, just north of Mildenhall. On the current exchange rate, that’s about $400. An increase of 10 points in the exchange rate meant the Gordons paid an extra $25 a month.

“It just starts adding up when you’re dealing with pounds and the exchange rate,” said Gordon, wife of Senior Airman Gregory Gordon, who works in the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron at RAF Mildenhall.

For single airmen living on base with few bills, the biggest consideration is how much they want to spend on recreation, whether it’s going to local pubs or traveling to new areas.

“I don’t go out nearly as much as I used to,” said 22-year-old Airman 1st Class Michael Noffke, echoing the sentiment of most of the dozen airmen and spouses interviewed for this story. Most said they were still happy to be in England despite the cost.

Others said the exchange rate hasn’t slowed them down.

“Before going out on a weekend, you go up to the ATM and if [the exchange rate] is low, you’re like, ‘Yes!’ and if it’s high, you say, ‘Oh no,’” said 19-year-old Airman Ronnie Sutphin, with the 100th Communications Squadron at RAF Mildenhall. “But you still pull out the money.”

Burington said she falls in the latter category.

“I’m just like, ‘$60 for a meal? Why not?’” Burington said. “We’re in England. So why not have fun?”

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