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The Budget Passed: How Military Families Can Take the High Road

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Sitting around the sleek stainless steel table at a swanky San Francisco restaurant, a group of friends -- all well-educated folks -- wound up discussing a rather touchy subject. One of the diners, a former Navy officer recently learned his mentor in the military, a highly decorated Navy officer, was disciplined for having an affair. The mentor's career was deemed all but over.

The reaction from the table was swift.

"The military shouldn't interfere just because the guy's personal life was a mess," said one.

"I don't think that's any of their business," said another.

My husband, a recently retired Marine Corps officer, had a different reaction.

"As members of the military," he said, "we are and should be held to a higher standard than civilians."

Silence.

Had the recent Ryan-Murray Budget buzz not bubbled up over the past few days, I might have forgotten about this conversation. But now that the bill has passed and the affect it will have on active duty and retired service members and their families is a foregone conclusion, I cannot ignore its larger message.

Discipline and high standards are the hallmarks of military service. From high and tight haircuts, smartly pressed uniforms to storied revere for rank, history and order, the service members' lens is ringed with great responsibilities. Our high standards mean we discipline our own for infractions as small as uniform violations but also for reprehensible behavior like adultery. And our high standards also mean that with the passage of this tax and spending plan, service members and their families will have an opportunity to exercise this ethos while everyone watches. Bear with me here while I explain.

On Friday, December 13 (anyone else see the irony in that!?) word of the bill and its implications began to spread. Almost immediately the twittersphere and the airwaves blew up with comments dissing the proposed deal for wrongly taking aim at COLA for vets. Bravo to those who implored representatives to keep their promise; retweeted, commented, wrote and facebook'd. Hat's off to the more than 150,000 people who sent messages to Congress. But the reality is that no one's jumping the shark here. The deal is essentially done.

This isn't a win, let's be very clear about that. But here's why it doesn't have to be a complete loss either.

1) The 2013 Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle Survey reported that military families exhibit positive financial behaviors as compared to the general population. 87 percent report using a household budget, 70 percent say they've checked their credit scores in the past 12 months, 63 percent report owing less than $5,000 in credit card debt and a healthy chunk owe nothing at all. We are doing a good job managing our financial health but we can always do more.

"You own your own retirement," says JJ Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA. "The reality of this deal and how it will impact your financial picture should be a catalyst so you can put yourself in the best financial picture possible." "There are opportunities to make up the loss through systematic savings, mutual funds, brokerage accounts, and the Thrift Savings Plan," he says.

2) The groundswell in opposition focused heavily on the fact that the 9-member independent Military Compensation And Retirement Modernization Committee, established by the National Defense Authorization Act FY 2013, was not allowed to do its job and make smart recommendations on military compensation, benefits and retirement. But the reality of a Congress with so few members who have served in the all-volunteer force (or military spouses) means that we will continue to be marginalized. Run for office, vets and spouses. And as a member of the media, I promise not to dig in your trash or read and question you about a paper you wrote while hungover in college. And I will keep my promise. (read: higher standards!)

3) The mission of non-profits like Blue Star Families is support, connect and empower military families. BSF will continue to provide guidance to our elected leaders, but regardless of their decision, BSF will help prepare our families and in some cases, mitigate any effects from bills like the Ryan-Murray.

"There's a certain amount of change and uncertainty inherent to the military lifestyle," says Dr. Vivian Greentree, BSF's Director of Research and Policy. "And, this is a rapid, unexpected change to our families' financial planning. We are working with our partnering organizations to ensure that they are prepared as best they can be. This is also an opportunity for our partners, like USAA, to highlight their programs and resources that set families up for financial success. "

Budget cuts are inevitable. The military retirement program, one that has escaped change since WWII, needs reform. Everyone has to participate, including military families. But in our willingness to absorb some of the necessary adjustments, we had hoped for a different process by which the cuts were made. The deal is pocked with flaws and Representatives have flogged themselves repeatedly citing their dysfunctionality and unwillingness to compromise and yet here we are. This post is bound to be unpopular. I realize that but it's not my job to be popular -- it's time to be the adult in the room.

Let's look at this new reality as if it were a challenge. Cheesy? Maybe. But military families and service members are famous for overcoming challenges, doing more with less, running in boots with packs on, moving to unfamiliar towns, being told to deploy on a moment's notice -- you get the picture.

Lead by example yet again, fellow military families. Adjust your budgets, save more, spend less and invest your money wisely. Who knows, you may end up with more money in your pocket than before.

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