Like everyone else in America, military families often face financial difficulties. Unlike everyone else, however, they face those challenges while navigating the heightened expectations and unique challenges of being a member of the armed services or a military spouse.
For example, advancing in one's chosen career poses a tough challenge for a military spouse who is frequently moving from one city to another in accordance with their loved one's assignments. And active duty personnel may find it tough to manage finances when they are focused on the mission and far from home during a deployment.
That is why Military Saves Week, taking place from February 25 to March 2, is such an important idea. It is a time to focus on concrete actions that can help military families reach their financial goals while dealing with the unique challenges they face.
Here are some tips for common financial questions that may arise among military families:
1. How to pay off debt?
According to a survey of military personnel published in October, 2010, one quarter of those who owned a credit card had more than $10,000 in debt. That means one in four is facing a major financial struggle that could threaten the stability of their personal lives.
So what should you do? You need to take action quickly. Three of the most common obstacles to getting out of debt are (A) not having enough income, (B) spending too much every month, and (C) not having a long-term plan.
To begin to conquer your debt, you need to start with a plan, which requires looking at all the debt as a whole and identifying which account has the highest interest rate. Then resolve to pay the minimum payments on all other debts while paying extra (as much as possible) toward that high-interest account until it's gone. Then start on the second-highest account.
We've found that the most powerful way to overcome your obstacles is to share your goal with others and get inspired to improve your situation. That's why we created The Debt Movement, which officially launched at the beginning of this month. The Debt Movement consists of thousands of people who are committed to paying off $10 million of debt together in the next 90 days. We're committed to helping everyone learn how to get out of debt.
By joining the Debt Movement, you can contribute to a larger community goal and that in itself will motivate you to stick with your plan.
2. How to save more?
Let's face it, there is some extra room to save in nearly everyone's budget. The trick is finding where in your budget the opportunities to reduce spending are hiding. If you aren't already tracking your spending in each category (such as groceries, entertainment, etc.) then that needs to be your first step! And what's even harder, but equally important, is that you'll need to do this together -- as a family.
It may help to have a "family meeting" to give everyone -- even the kids -- a chance to discuss their feelings about the family budget. Work constructively to get everyone on the same page and enthusiastic about achieving the goals you all agree on. Keep in mind that some people may be more financially conservative by nature and others may not have a knack for budgeting. In the family meeting you have a chance to identify these differences and create a positive plan that includes everyone.
And each member of the family will need to encourage the others! Of course, this can be even more tricky for military families, because one spouse may be deployed while the other remains home. It can be helpful in these circumstances to use a shared budgeting spreadsheet that each spouse can access online at their convenience. The spreadsheet will hold you accountable and then you should also check in via phone or email whenever possible to.
Once you have tracked your spending for at least a month, go through and look closely to find those opportunities for saving more. An example might be convenience/luxury purchases such as buying a soda every day or eating out at restaurants frequently. These are not necessarily bad, but in the wrong situation they can prevent you from reaching your financial goals. If you are in debt or hoping to buy a house, then you should cut many of these purchases out of your monthly spending plan in order to save money faster.
Another option might be reducing your fixed monthly expenses. These are the bills you have to pay every month, like rent/mortgage, car insurance, and you cable TV subscription. Depending on how badly you need to save money, it might be necessary to get rid of cable and/or make some other drastic changes to lower the amount of cash you have to part with every month. These changes can be very hard, but if you have your goals clear in your mind and have the encouragement of your family, then you can do it!
3. Whether to buy a home?
All-time low interest rates and special grants for military personnel makes this an extremely tempting time to lay your claim to the American Dream and buy your first home.
But is it a good idea? Well, that depends entirely upon your situation.
Just because you have orders to be stationed for three years doesn't mean that you will be. Picking up and moving after buying a home could be a nerve-wracking, not to mention costly, experience. And even if you are in the same base for three years, that doesn't mean it makes financial sense to buy a home. Remember, there's no shame in renting. Many new homeowners that felt (and are still feeling) the housing crisis of 2008 would love to be renters right now rather than owners of an upside-down mortgage.
If you do expect to live in one place for awhile, if you have financial stability, and if you can be relatively certain of avoiding an overpriced house, then buying a home might be a good choice for you. If so, research programs like the "Dream Makers Program" via the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation, which gives military families a grant of up to $5,000 toward the purchase of their home.
4. How to advance one's career?
The skills and competencies that people learn in the military are often very relevant to civilian jobs, and yet civilian employers have not always been good at giving veterans opportunities to prove it. Furthermore, military spouses can face unique challenges in improving their own careers due to the necessity to move frequently and the fact that they are solely in charge of day-to-day operations when their loved one is deployed.
So, what to do? For veterans looking to enter the civilian working world, the federal government has some great resources that can help with the transition. Also, reaching out to other veterans who are currently employed in your target industry is a great way to make a connection and possibly get a long-term mentor, or at the very least someone who can provide an inside perspective on working for a particular employer.
And for military spouses, reaching out to others in a similar position can help you identify opportunities you may not have otherwise been aware of. For those spouses who want to be at home with the kids but who also want to earn some extra income, going the freelance route may be a perfect fit. These days, many sites exist online that can help anyone find freelance opportunities from your own home -- whether you want to write, design, tutor, craft, or anything else.
With these tips in mind, we hope military families will reach the positive financial outcomes they so richly deserve. You can help by spreading the word about Military Saves Week, which is taking place this week.
Benjamin Feldman is a writer and personal finance expert at ReadyForZero.com, a company that builds tools to help people manage and pay off debt. Jeff Rose is a veteran, personal finance blogger, and Certified Financial Planner. His upcoming book is titled Solider of Finance and he writes at GoodFinancialCents.com.