By Alicia Dennis
December 24, 2012 12:00 PM

As Christmas nears, Navy Electronics Technician Third Class Riley Butler and his wife, Ashley, worry about buying gifts for their 6-year-old daughter Phoenix, a wise-beyond-her-years first grader who knows the family’s finances are strained. “If I say we can’t afford something, she will offer up her piggy bank,” says Ashley. “Sometimes I feel helpless, but after a good cry, I feel better.”

The Butlers, who live in San Diego, are one of thousands of military families who are making do on modest incomes in high-cost areas of the country-and finding themselves stretched to their limit. “Friends and family tell me, ‘Oh, you are in the military now and you don’t have to worry about money,'” says Ashley, 29. “That is so far from the truth. It’s hard, and everyone is struggling.” With three years of service under his belt, Butler’s annual basic pay is $25,888. Like all service members, he gets an allowance for housing and some other expenses that, according to the Department of Defense, brings the annual compensation for a junior enlisted member up to $43,000. Still, “a high cost of living is a factor for some of our families,” says Barbara Thompson, director of the DOD’s Office of Family Policy/Children and Youth (military

For the Butlers, welcome relief comes from the Lousville, Ky.-based nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack. Every Friday, Phoenix leaves Doris Miller Elementary School with a food-filled backpack that cuts the Butler’s grocery bill and provides the popcorn that rescued the family’s movie night. “Every little bit helps,” says Butler, 27, who joined the Navy after being laid off from Walmart and plans to stay in for the long haul. Adds Ashley: “It’s phenomenal. These backpacks are making a huge difference for our family.”