As military members and families, stability can be hard to come by. Life is hectic with TDYs, deployments, PCSes, and all of the in-between.
While you may not be able to control when and where you move, or when you have to take a short-notice deployment–you do thankfully have control over your finances.
According to a Congressional Research Service report on military families and financial readiness, “financial problems [among servicemembers] are shaped by spending patterns and management skills rather than by income itself.
So, the question is, how can you manage and structure your money to build long-term financial stability for you and your family?
With the proposed 4.6% pay increase beginning in January plus the increases in Base Housing Allowance (BAH) - the opportunity is ripe for making adjustments to your wealth building plan.
There are a million ways to skin this cat, and we’ll toss out a few ideas here. The most important takeaway from this article though is that you DO skin the cat (metaphorically!) and somehow begin saving something, somewhere.
Because it’s been drilled into us over the years, let’s look at finances through a military leadership lens.
That’s right – OODA loops and SMART goals. You’re welcome!
Get to know your current finances intimately.
Yes, it might be painful, but take the time to understand your monthly Military Leave and Earnings Statement (LES), check how much money you’re putting towards your Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) and Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI), and review the amount of taxes being taken out.
What is your monthly budget? Do you actually know, or is it a guesstimate? If you’re a guesstimator, set aside time now at the start of the new year to actually look at your bank statements. You might be surprised at how different your numbers are on paper than they are in your head.
If a monthly budget is foreign to you, or you need a change up from your old way of doing things, there are a lot of great tools out there to help you get started. One of our favorites is Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and the EveryDollar app. A good old-fashioned spreadsheet can do the trick too. Whatever you choose to use, 2023 is a good year to start tracking those monthly money habits.
Once you have a handle on your current spendings, savings and taxes, it’s time to sift through your options…
Are there adjustments you can make in your monthly budget to free up or re-allocate cash? Can a subscription be canceled? Are you over saving for utilities and repeatedly overspending at the grocery store?
Moving budget items around might open up opportunities that you hadn’t noticed before.
Save an Emergency Fund
Many military members don’t see a need for an emergency savings account.
After all, the government provides a stable paycheck twice a month and you can even map out when you’ll be promoted and earn a pay raise. Seems pretty stable, right?
What happens if there’s a long shutdown furlough with a pay freeze? What if you get injured, can’t work and there is a documentation error that causes disability pay to be delayed for two months? You just can’t anticipate everything!
Moral of the story: set aside 3-6 months of living expenses in an emergency fund just in case.
And as a reminder, you don’t have to do it all at once! If you contribute just $20 a week in an emergency fund, your account will grow to over $1,000 in a year without interest. If you put your 4.6% pay raise into savings, you could save a couple thousand in a year!
Paying down debt not only frees up more cash in your monthly budget, but it stabilizes your financial position. It’s a great way to improve your credit score, and if you’re planning to buy a house, it will help raise your chances of being approved for a home loan.
We often see people have success when they start with the smallest debt first, pay it off, then roll that savings into paying off the next debt.
If you are diligent and consistent, over time you will find yourself debt-free with a paid off mortgage!
Roth IRAs offer one of the best ways to save for your retirement. You can multiply your Roth IRA money tax-free for however long you want and then withdraw it tax-free in retirement. The sooner you open a Roth IRA, the sooner your money can begin compounding.
Another option to build wealth is through real estate. You can put your money into real estate either through equity (owning the property), or debt (loaning funds to buy the property). You don’t have to be an expert investor to invest in real estate, but it’s important to learn about the risks, tax benefits, cash flow options, and how to manage it.
Number one rule with investing: don’t invest in something you don’t understand. Ask the experts and get smart on all of your options.
Set SMART goals.
Once you’ve analyzed the bouquet of options available for reallocating, saving and growing your money - brush off those SMART goal setting skills and make concrete plans.
Depending upon your situation, you might set one BIG goal or several smaller goals. Remember, you want them to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.
We’ll use financially responsible homeownership as an example:
You’re hoping to PCS to Phoenix, Arizona in 2027, and you want to be able to purchase a $350,000 home using the VA loan.
You know that if you put 5% down on the home, your VA funding fee will only be 1.65% instead of 2.3%*, saving you thousands in interest.
*In 2022, the VA funding fee on a loan with 0% down is 2.3%
What does that look like as a SMART goal?
Specific: I will save enough money to put 5% down ($17,500) on a $350,000 house.
Measurable: My dedicated savings account needs to grow by $365 a month.
Attainable: Using the pay and BAH increases, I will be able to save $365 extra per month.
Relevant: By saving money now, I will be able to buy the house that I want at my next PCS.
Time-based: It will take me 4 years (or 48 months) to save $17,500 for a down payment.
Let’s put it into practice.
If you decided to contribute more into your TSP, visit https://mypay.dfas.mil/. Once you’re logged in, you can change your allotments on the left hand side under “Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). There it will allow you to edit the percentages you put towards retirement each month.
If you’re interested in investing in real estate or rentals, the first step is understanding what you can afford and the best type of investment product for you based on your current situation. Our affiliate, WeVett Home Loans, has a military-specialized consulting team that is able to help you get started. Reach out here: www.wevetthomeloans.com or 316-669-5272
To learn more about IRAs, mutual funds, or other investment options, check out a local financial advisor near your installation. If you would like a financial advisor who can serve you as you move around the country, feel free to send us a message. We have several potential options that you can also evaluate.
Military OneSource provides free resources to military members and their families on strategies for consolidating and paying down debt, saving for retirement or college, and creating a plan that will lead to financial stability. You can call them at 1-800-342-9647 or use the live chat feature on their website to schedule an appointment.
Monthly is ideal. Quarterly, at a minimum. Yearly is an absolute must if you’re going to even have a chance at building a strong financial foundation for you and your family.
No matter if you have a super detailed or more laissez-faire approach to your finances, it is completely possible to build long-term financial wealth. Choose a strategy that works for you, set reminders for yourself to stay on track, and chip away at your goals year by year.
If you can do that, you WILL get there, no matter what challenges the military throws at you along the way.
The content of this blog post is for informational purposes only. This post is not intended to give tax or investment advice. Please consult a qualified financial advisor for tax or investment advice.
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