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Hidden Costs of PCS Moves

by Lizann Lightfoot - September 7th, 2022

Hidden Costs of PCS Moves

We all know that moving can be a costly process. But during a PCS move, it can be difficult to estimate your total budget because of all the hidden or unexpected costs that are part of relocating your family.

We are here to pull back the curtain on the real cost of a PCS move. We have surveyed service members and military spouses to discover the numerous costs that military families pay out of pocket almost every time they move.

Doesn't the military pay for PCS moves?

We get this question a lot, and the honest answer is yes, for some things, and no for many other things.

If you are doing a traditional military move, using the military-approved moving companies to pack up and relocate your household goods, then the cost of the moving company service is paid through the DoD contract, not out of the service member's paycheck. There are, of course, weight limits determined by the service member's rank, so it is possible to have out-of-pocket expenses if you go over your weight allowance. But in general, military families using the military movers shouldn't expect to have out-of-pocket expenses for the moving company and transportation or storage of their household goods.

However, if you choose to move yourself through a Personally Procured Move (PPM), then the military will reimburse the service member for the bulk of their moving expenses, up to a certain limit based on the service member's rank and the distance of the move.

Please note that a reimbursement is not the same as the military paying for the move. During a PPM, the service member must reserve and pay for their own moving truck, boxes and packing supplies, and for any professional labor they hire. Those expenses are all out of pocket, and won't be reimbursed until several months after the move has been completed. So if you put it all on your personal credit card, you should expect to pay that bill first, then get reimbursed for it later when the DoD processes your moving claim.

But no matter how you move--whether you use military movers or do a PPM--we have currently only discussed the cost of the moving companies and supplies. When you relocate your family, there are many more expenses that go into the moving process. Some travel expenses are covered for military families, but most other moving-related expenses are not.

Are you preparing for a PCS? Download the FREE PCS Checklist on our homepage. Scroll about halfway down the page to find your downloadable checklist.

What expenses are covered during a PCS?

First, the good news: military families usually receive a per diem travel allowance to use during their move. This is calculated by the distance of the move and the number of family members (dependents) who are traveling with the service member. It is usually enough to cover gas, average hotel rooms, and moderate meals for all family members during a few days of driving to get from duty station A to duty station B. Remember that this payment will come as a reimbursement after the move, so you must save receipts, and the service member has to file a travel claim to receive this payment.

Many families take advantage of a PCS move to squeeze in some type of vacation. This is an excellent opportunity to visit family, explore new parts of the country, or stay at a more comfortable all-inclusive resort while you travel. However, any travel expenses above the per diem cost and outside the allotted days of travel will all be paid out of pocket.

What moving expenses are not covered during a PCS?

Now, the less good news: Many additional moving costs are not covered by the military, either through reimbursement or through any type of additional pay.

Military families have numerous out-of-pocket moving expenses like closing out utilities, opening new utility accounts, transporting a vehicle, paying for pets, paying for cleaning services, paying a rental deposit, restocking a pantry, or redecorating a home. These are all potentially hidden costs of moving, which you must factor in to your moving budget. All of these are even more costly when moving overseas.

Depending on your PCS plans and your housing situation, you may also end up paying out of pocket for temporary lodging, if you go beyond the initial hotel stays that are approved in the service member's orders-- usually 10 days for a domestic PCS move, and up to 30 days for an international or OCONUS (Outside the Continental United States) move.

Military families also frequently experience a loss of income if the dependent spouse is unemployed or underemployed during the move. It can take months for a spouse to find a new job at the next duty station, and the loss of that secondary income affects the entire family. While you may not see it as a moving expense, it will absolutely impact your household budget after a move.

What do military families say about hidden moving costs?

Unexpected expenses during PCS moves are nothing new. According to the 2016 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 86% of active duty families cite PCS costs as the number one reason for incurring unexpected expenses as a result of the military lifestyle, including expenses directly related to “relocating” and “replacing items broken during PCS.”

The following year, that same survey reported that 26% of military families cite “Frequent Moves/PCS” as one of their top five obstacles to financial security. 38% cite “Cost of Housing” and 51% cite “Spouse Under/Unemployment.” All of these are impacted by PCS moves.

The Status of Forces survey of active families reported the following as problems of moderate to very large extent in their most recent PCS:

  • 37% reported the “costs of setting up new residence (e.g., curtains, carpeting, painting)”

  • 38% reported the “change in cost of living” 

  • 37% reported the “loss or decrease of spouse income” 

  • 30% reported “non-reimbursed transportation costs incurred during the move”

  • 25% reported the “accuracy of reimbursements”

  • 25% reported “temporary lodging expenses”

  • 23% reported the “costs related to security deposit(s)”

If you have done a PCS move before, you can probably relate to these costs. If you are preparing for your first PCS move, know that the out-of-pocket expenses can be different every time, depending on your family's needs and your housing situation. Research so you are prepared for all options.

What are the hidden costs of housing during a PCS move?

If you are moving into base housing, the service member's BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) will cover the "rent" cost of living on base, so there will be a minimal impact to your housing budget. However, if you are moving into a home off-base, you should expect to have additional housing costs. Rental units typically charge a deposit fee, which is equal to the first month of rent. That's a huge out-of-pocket expense that won't be covered by BAH.

If you find yourself on a waiting list for housing, you may get stuck paying out of pocket for hotel rooms, an RV site, or a month-to-month rental fee for temporary lodging.

Even buying a home can cost more for military families than their civilian counterparts. Military families often buy a home from a distance, or sight-unseen. If they take a house-hunting trip before their PCS move, they must make decisions quickly, during a single weekend. This gives them less negotiating power, and less ability to negotiate housing costs and fees.

When asking to negotiate a real estate agent’s commission and fees, only 12.5% of active military clients are able to do so, while 75% of civilian clients can. When negotiating better sales contract terms through a real estate agent, only 31% of active military clients are able to do so while 47% of civilian clients have this option.

When military families lose negotiating power to buy homes, we incur additional out of pocket costs. Pre-sale costs like repairs, the housing inspection, testing, etc. are all negotiable items that can be covered by either the buyer or the seller. These hidden costs of a PCS move can have a huge impact on the final terms of the housing sale.

When you are preparing for your next PCS move, remember to factor in these hidden costs, which will not be covered or reimbursed by the government. Many military families average several thousand dollars in out-of-pocket expenses during a PCS move. Depending on your family situation, start saving well in advance, and be prepared for all these small costs to add up along the way.

Lizann Lightfoot

Lizann Lightfoot

Lizann Lightfoot, the "Seasoned Spouse" is a professional writer and speaker for the military community. After two decades with her service member, her family has been through 7 deployments and 6 PCS moves. Lizann has raised 5 children and published several books for military families. Her most recent book is "Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses" published Sept 2021 by Elva Resa. You can find Lizann's articles and resources at