Military service is a calling. It is a patriotic duty. But it is also a job that provides a salary and benefits. Are you prepared to manage the money you will make in 2016?
As a young service member, spouse or veteran, you’ll have a bewildering array of options, choices, and financial decisions to make. Should you rent or buy? Do you need two cars? What’s the right amount to spend on an engagement ring? How much money do you need to be saving? What is a smart investment?
If you make good money decisions, you stack the deck in your favor at this game of life. Make bad money decisions and, well, you get the picture. The decisions you make as a young service member, spouse, or veteran can have life-changing consequences, both good and bad.
To start with a focus on the positive side of personal finance, here are three basic moves you can make today that could create a big difference in your life:
1. Have a (smart) plan for your money.
Don’t get caught up in the notion of “I’ll have fun now and get responsible later.” Lifestyles and spending habits are hard to change once established and “later” can easily become “never.” Not sure you believe that? Ask your parents or grandparents and see what they think. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with using some of your money for fun, just be sure to strike a balance so that you can have fun later too.
2. Save first.
As part of that smart plan for your money, be sure to save some of it — preferably right off the top before it can get used or allocated to something else. Allotments are great for this. Try to save 10-15% of your gross pay if you can, starting with an emergency fund set aside in a separate savings or money market account.
If you can’t save that much right now, start smaller, then use the regular pay increases built into the military pay system to increase your savings rate over time. And don’t forget about the Thrift Savings Plan. It’s a great, low-cost way to invest for your future.
3. Don’t buy an expensive car (yet).
One of the first major and exciting purchases many of us get to make is buying a set of wheels. Who doesn’t love that new car smell? Unfortunately though, if you go too big when you are too young or financially insecure, this particular purchase decision could be wreaking havoc on your finances long after the excitement and new car smell has faded.
To put yourself on a better path, buy a starter car instead. Get something that doesn’t squeeze your finances or commit you to a long-term loan repayment. While you’re at it, try to keep your all-in transportation costs under 10-15% of your gross pay. Then use the extra money you would have spent on the more expensive car to put yourself in great financial shape. That way, you can buy a more expensive car (and other nice things) later.
Over the next few months, I’ll continue to share key personal finance lessons I’ve garnered from 23 years in the financial services industry, including my current position with The USAA Educational Foundation, which in 2015 alone provided in-person financial education training to 46,000 service members and ROTC cadets.