Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Serving in the military, both enlisted and as an officer, can be overwhelming, especially financially. The military brings new opportunities, as well as challenges. From transitioning from base to base, long deployments, and the general demands of serving. Although there may be a lot on your mind, one thing to consider early on is your financial plan, including savings, investments, education, insurance, and other benefits coming with your service.
One study shows that more than one-third of military families responded that they struggle to pay the bills every month, and 20% also had to borrow money from entities other than banks. Although one significant benefit of joining the military is a steady paycheck, getting your finances in order early on is essential.
Here are some best tips for new military members & families to help organize and improve their financial situation.
Set up a military bank account
Now that you are military, you are eligible to join an armed services-specific financial institution. Most join the credit union associated with their branches, such as Marine Federal Credit Union or Navy Federal Credit Union. Members can join as early as a poolee in delayed entry, during boot camp, or anytime during or after their active service.
TIP: Join a military credit union before shipping to boot camp training. Make sure you take your debit card and a deposit slip to set up your direct deposit easily.
Many advantages of joining a military credit union include getting paid early, favorable mortgage and car insurance rates, and easy access to services, especially when deployed. Depending on the financial institution, family members are also qualified to join. Always compare rates with other lenders before finalizing any financial contract.
TIP: Identify a trusted family member or friend to be on your account, at least initially. You may also consider setting up a power-of-attorney allowing this person to make specific decisions on your behalf.
Managing your Pay
For many, the military is the first time they receive a steady paycheck, and the newness of having money can be overwhelming. While in recruit training, it can be challenging to manage your new checking account; and sometimes, unbeknownst to you, the military automatically debits your account for uniform expenses, educational benefits, and miscellaneous costs associated with your training.
The one good thing about being paid by the military is they ensure you pay your taxes by deducting them from your payroll. And yes, taxes can seemingly be a lot of money if you aren't expecting them.
TIP: Wait for at least 6-months after recruit training before making any financial debt obligations such as a vehicle.
As a service member, many businesses would love to get a piece of your paycheck. And many are located directly off the front gate, tempting you each time you leave or enter the base to make a purchase. Be patient and commit to always sleeping 24 hours before making any purchase over $500. Or better yet, establish an accountability partner/mentor who can politely challenge your decisions.
Savings Account and Investments
It's never too early to start saving for a rainy day or retirement. In most cases, your credit union will recommend opening up a simple savings account, which is a great way to initiate your emergency fund.
TIP: Start creating an emergency fund equal to 3 to 6 months' worth of living expenses by stashing $50 - $100 per month into your savings account.
If this is your first paycheck, you may not understand investments, which can be a good thing - no bad habits. Be careful! There are many so-called financial advisors out there ready to gobble up their share of your investments (they call fees).
The best way to get started is the Thrift Savings Plan, or TSP, a retirement savings plan for military members that gives you two ways to sock away some cash. The TSP gives you a straightforward retirement strategy that makes saving money easier. Like the 401(k) plans offered by many private employers, TSP saves a percentage of your pay – you decide how much – through payroll deductions. Any contributions you make are yours to keep, whether you leave the military or stay in until retirement. It's a good deal any way you look at it.
TIP: Once you establish a foundational investment plan such as a savings account and TSP, you can spread your wings and find a creditable financial guide to support your ongoing investments.
Set Up Short-Term and Long-Term Goals
First and foremost, you'll want to make sure you're set up with financial goals to keep you focused and allow you to strategize appropriately. Short-term goals like a simple budget and creating an account to be used as an emergency fund can get you on track right away and motivate you for long-term goals.
As a young service member, significant purchases like buying a home or even retirement may not be on your short-list of priorities. The key is not to become overwhelmed but instead create a list of short-term and long-term goals revisiting them every 6-12 months. You will be surprised as to your progress.
Monitor your Credit Score
First, find your credit score and understand what your score means.
A great place to start is with Credit Karma, a free financial credit monitoring service. Your credit report is more than a number but provides insight into all your financial accounts, such as credit cards, loans, and even past employment.
Monitoring your credit is often overlooked, but it can be the difference between being accepted for a loan or credit card, and more importantly, the interest you pay.
For example, if you're looking to buy a house or vehicle, your credit score (risk level of repaying your loan) will determine your interest rate (how much you will pay beyond the principle amount.)
As an active duty service member or veteran, you qualify for Veterans Association (VA) loans. Your credit score will still be a factor, but the terms and rates will be more favorable.
Expect Financial Adjustments
Financial adjustments are a necessary part of anyone's journey, and for military families especially, changes are to be expected. Starting with recruit training, service members will make many transitions, including deployments, permanent change of station (PSC), and separation from active-duty service.
TIP: create a secure 'go-to' file, either paper or electronic, with all your financial account logins and site links, insurance documents, and last will and testimony. Ensure at least one trusted person has access to this file in case of emergencies or you are indisposed.
Review your budget, logins, and documents every few months, especially when preparing for deployment. Your progress toward financial goals can help you stay ahead of the game and prepare for expected and unexpected adjustments.
Plan For Retirement or Separation
There are two big days for every military person - the day they join and separate from active-duty service. Preparing for retirement or transitioning out of the military should be addressed early in one's career. Whether your service is four years or 20, the importance of being prepared is the same.
The priority is to make sure you have a financial plan, including your last deposit and the expiration of your health benefits. The second is to use your time-in-service to build a resume of personal and professional achievements.
Learn How to Manage Money Stress
Lastly, knowing how to handle stress over money will be a massive advantage to your overall wellness. It's no surprise that financial worries tend to be the main factor for pressure in most Americans.
Make sure you learn how to step away from your budget and not obsess over every cent to an unhealthy level. Although budgeting is essential, a few financial slip-ups are inevitable and part of the learning process. Give yourself (and your family) time to relax and focus on their transition as a new military family.
Financial wellness is key to new military families. Making sure you establish a plan will ensure financial success in the long term. And most importantly, it allows you to focus on what is most important - you and your family.