Sally Cunkelman, the wife of an Army sergeant, rarely shops at the Fort Myer post exchange in Arlington. Cunkelman says her family can't afford the designer clothes and other high-priced items at the PX.

When Barbar Terino, the wife of an Air Force colonel, looks for school clothes for her three children, she is shocked by the price tags on the Pierre Cardin suits and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans at the Cameron Station PX in Alexandria. Since her children rapidly outgrow their clothes, Terino says she wants some moderately priced things, not budget-breaking name brands.

For Cunkelman and Terino, the PX prices are just one symptom of the financial pressures military families face -- pressures the two women say are compounded by the high cost of living in the Washington area.

Sally Cunkelman and her husband Douglas have four children. As a platoon sergeant (E-7), Doug Cunkelman brings home about $1,000 a month. Out of that must come $400 for groceries, $158 for a car payment, more than $100 for creditors and about $100 for utility bills. After the Cunkelmans pay these monthly bills, they have about $240 a month for incidentals: clothes for the kids, emergency car repairs, an occasional night at the movies.

But every month Sally Cunkelman mades sure she has $50 to invest in mutual funds so she and her husband will have a down payment for a house when Doug, now 32 retires.

Although Sally Cunkelman sometimes toys with the idea of getting a job, she always rejects the idea, mainly because three of her children are pre-schoolers and the cost of babysitting would exceed what she could earn.

The Cunkelmans have always watched every penny, Sally Cunkelman says, but at their last post in Roswell, N.M., the financial problems were not quite so difficult as they have been since the family came to Arlington three years ago.

In New Mexico the Cunkelmans had saved enough money to buy a $35,000 house. That dream was punctured when Doug Cunkelman was transferred to Fort Myer, where he is involved primarily in ceremonial duties such as funerals and White House functions.

When Cunkelmans first came to Arlington, they had a monthly housing allowance of $183 to cover off-base housing for a family of five. Today, because of recent legislative changes, they would be eligible for a variable housing allowance (VHA) -- designed to help families in high-cost areas -- of about $350 a month.

That first year, says Sally Cunkelman, they could find very little in the Northern Virginia rental market, so they lived in government-subsidized housing in Alexandria. Two years ago they moved into a small, three-bedroom apartment in the 12-story Tencza Terrace at Fort Myer.

"It was a relief (to get into base housing)," Sally Cunkelman says. "All told, we probably saved around $100 amonth, between the rent and the gas, because we could live on base and everything we need is right here."

Barbara Terino and her husband, Lt. Col. John G. Terino, live in Fairfax County. Terino is a public affairs officer at the Pentagon, and with the pay he earns as a lieutenant colonel (about $2,700 a month, including a housing allowance for living off base), his family's financial picture is considerably brighter than that of an enlisted man's family such as the Cunkelmans.

For instance, the Terinos are able to afford a four-bedroom house in the Fairfax subdivision of Kings Park West. Out of Terino's monthly pay, $605 goes for the mortgage payment and the family pays nearly $300 for groceries, $370 tocredit union and credit card debts and $150 for utilities. Transportation costs them $50 and they give $60 to church and charities. Whatever is left, beyond the $1,900 spending ceiling they try not to exceed each month, is set aside for insurance, clothing, emergencies.

"We try to bank the rest of it," says Barbara Terino, 37. "Sometimes we make it and sometimes we don't. Once we get our bills paid off, we'll start thinking about (orthodontic work on) the kids' teeth." and, her husband adds, for college tuition and their own "old age."

Because the Terinos live off base they get the variable housing allowance, which brings their total housing allowance to about $639 a month. Without the VHA and the 11.7 percent pay raise all military personnel received this fall, John Terino says, his family wouldn't be able to meet the mortgage payment without dipping into their savings.

"The VHA certainly helps," says Erino, 40. "It covers our monthly mortgage payments. So with my housing allowance and the VHA that's been tacked on, those two now allow me to pay my mortgage."

Terino says the family is fortunate tghat it could find a house and start building equity. "If you move frequently, you never really have a chance to build any sort of equity in terms of housing, which your typical nonmilitary employe does have a chance to do. . . When the day comes to retire, you could find that you have no equity in anything. Unless you've been very frugal and saved, you're going to find yourself in a very difficult situation."

Many military families, particularly those in lower ranks, do not consider the financial situation of a family like the terinos to be typical.

Although military officials contend that nearly all service personnel are not being adequately compensated, they add that the problem is especially acute in the lower ranks. Several military-sponsored studies say the financial problems faced by those in the lower ranks must be addressed in the near future if the four major service branches are to attract and retain qualified personnel.

Ann Demarest's husband Thomas is a Marine sergeant stationed at Quantico. Says Demarest, "Civilians tend to think the military's got it made and they tend to snub the military person. They think we're living off their taxes, they don't realize we pay taxes, too."

The family support for a military career is a common thread running through conversations with the Cunkelmans, the Demarests and the Terinos.

For instance, Ann Demarest says she is a strong supporter of her husband's career despite drawbacks such as inadequate pay.

"For the work my husband does, he could go out and get more money in a civilian job," says Demarest, who is president of the NCO Wives Club at Quantico, "but he likes his work and he's only two years away from retirement."

"I love being in the military," adds Sally Cunkelman, who is studying German because the family is going to West Berlin in March. "The only thing I don't like is the pay.

I think the best thing . . . is that you get to travel, meet new people. The kids mature earlier, become more outgoing and deal with a lot of aspects of life that civilian kids don't have to."

Still, according to many military families in Northern Virginia, there are problems, in addition to pay, that the military must address. Those problems range from frequent transfers and long separations to special educational needs, martial problems, single-parent families or two-career families.

The military is well aware of what it sees as an increasing need to foster family support of a military career and to provide services not only for the military member but for the family as a whole.

"The most important factor related to retention decisions among married men and women is spouse support for an Air Force career," a special Air Force study found this year. "Without that support, only 30 percent of the men and 26 percent of the women still make a career commitment," the report said.

Rosemary Locke, president of the national Military Wives Association, couldn't agree more.

"In all these families, the military memebers share that common call -- the call to serve county, the willingness to sacrifice and perform duty. For those families who remain with service life, it is a family decision and commitment, too."