You made it through basic, then follow-on training in your job field. Maybe you’ve deployed — multiple times. You’ve had to navigate the service member’s transient life and figured out how to be a leader, often going on nothing but your own intuitions.
And you think investing is hard? Please.
Trying to make your money work for you can be scary and disorienting. It may seem like something you don’t need to worry about, if you’re still young and spry and interested in blowing your monthly housing allowance on a Yeti cooler ($249.99) that fits in your just-bought Jeep Sahara ($37,845 at a gazillion percent).
But if you could get yourself up to PT at 0600, you can build a nest egg — and you can do it now. Just look at the guys below — all on the Forbes lists of wealthiest American investors, all military veterans. They could do it; so can you. And if you think their time in the ranks didn’t inform their money moves, think again.
Can you even imagine being “the Bond King” of the financial world, with a net worth estimated in the billions? Neither could Bill Gross, when he dropped out of Navy flight school and ended up an engineering officer on an amphibious ship off Vietnam. But after the Navy, Gross studied for an MBA and went on to co-found PIMCO Investments, where his portfolio — with trillions of dollars in assets — became the world’s largest mutual fund.
Today, Gross is an investment manager at Janus, and his television comments can still move markets. A lot of the mettle and the straight talk that made him a financial cause celebre came straight from his Vietnam service.
“The biggest lesson was in terms of speaking up and clearly communicating,” he says. But it’s also taught him to take failure and fear in stride. “The Navy experience was a life or death type of situation in many cases,” he says. “The financial markets are not life or death.
Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, center, talks to the media at the annual Allen and Co.'s media conference Friday, July 13, 2007, in Sun Valley, Idaho.AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac
“My time in the Army wasn't like your typical war movie,” Sumner Redstone says of his stint as a World War II Japanese code breaker. “But it was the most demanding, exciting desk job that I could have imagined.”
Redstone built an empire out of his father’s small theater and nightclub chain, becoming a legendary chairman of CBS and Viacom (along with MTV Networks, Simon & Schuster, and Paramount Pictures) through decades of savvy investments and well-timed acquisitions. But it’s his time with “Special Branch Military Intelligence” that set him up for lifelong success.
“I know that even for those of us who served only briefly, the military can be a molding experience,” he says. “I learned that you have to be tenacious — even relentless — and you can't be deterred by obstacles. I've held these beliefs all my life.”
Must be nice to be the guy that Warren Buffett goes to for advice. Munger’s first job was packing groceries in an Omaha store owned by Buffett’s grandfather; he’s been Buffett’s close friend and right-hand man more or less ever since, helping to build up Berkshire Hathaway.
But he didn’t do it with a college degree. He dropped out at 19 to become a meteorology lieutenant in the Army Air Corps when the Second World War was on. After his tour, he took his GI Bill benefits straight to Harvard Law School and never looked back, becoming famous for his philanthropy and investing advice.
And some of that investing advice comes straight from Munger’s time in uniform, where he says card-playing was one of the key skills he learned. “What you have to learn is to fold early when the odds are against you, or if you have a big edge, back it heavily because you don't get a big edge often,” he says. “Opportunity comes, but it doesn't come often, so seize it when it does come.”
Bill Miller III
Bill Miller’s path to becoming a successful hedge fund manager and charity donor certainly was a different one: During the Vietnam War, he served overseas as an Army intelligence officer… then he studied for a PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins.
Now, the Miller Value Partners founder and former manager of the Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust is a legend in the investing world whose philanthropic giving is as big as his yacht. And he’s had to endure plenty of ups and downs along the way.
Miller doesn’t talk about his service much — intel officers, go figure — but his investment philosophy, a blend of analytics and fortitude, sure sounds military-inspired. Unlike most of his peers, “I have virtually no loss aversion as far as I can tell,” he says. “My view, instead, is that the evidence is overwhelming that most people are too risk averse. And that therefore they should be taking a lot more risk than they feel like is right.” Fortune favors the bold.
U.S. Army/Gertrud Zach
In the Military? Tips For Saving Money at Every Stage
- Young soldiers may face many financial pitfalls, including low starting pay
- Throughout their enlistment, soldiers typically experience trouble with debt and family obligations
- Toward the end of their military careers, servicemen and women are often faced with forking paths, and re-enlisting can have financial benefits
The average U.S. soldier spends between seven and 10 years in uniform. While that might not seem long to civilians, it could be a lifetime to a fresh recruit in his or her late teens or early twenties.
Not only is the prospect of a seven-year stint in the armed forces daunting enough, but wrangling the rest of your life into order–your finances, in particular–can add an extra degree of difficulty.
And by the time you’re ready to hang up your boots and retire, or otherwise move on to civilian life, soldiers have other things to consider. Should you stick it out and earn a pension? Or go back to school and earn a degree?
There are many viable paths after serving in the military, but if you want to leave the service with a sense of financial security, you’ll probably want to consider what you’re facing during each phase of your enlistment.
Here are some of the major money challenges that soldiers experience during those phases, from conscripts to commanders, and some tips to help you work through the financial bottlenecks at every stage of your service. Keep in mind that these are only tips, however, as every soldier’s experience is going to be different.
As a recruit, you should expect money to be tight–you’ll be earning less than $20,000 per year in base pay as a private at the E1 rank, according to the Department of Defense. For that reason, probably the most important thing you can do is to make a budget, stick to it, and establish healthy money habits.
Also, if you’re packing debt, keep up with your bills. Debt doesn’t disappear just because you’ve joined the military, and ignoring it is only going to hurt you in the long run.
“The number of people joining the military with student loan debt is increasing. The number of with large student loan debt and no degree to show for it is also increasing,” Lacey Langford, a financial advisor, veteran, and founder of North Carolina-based advisory Sage Services, tells Stash.
Young recruits should also be wary of predatory financial products targeting military members. You’re likely to be offered all sorts of high-interest loans and be tempted to make big purchases, like a car or a house. Stick to your budget, make sure you understand the terms of any loans you take out.
Also, you’ll want to check out the military’s available retirement programs, including the pension system and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which is similar to a 401(k) program.
After a few years in the military, the pay scale ramps up. So, the good news is that your paychecks will be a bit bigger and you’ll have more resources to work with. The bad news, though, is that a military career could start to take a toll, with frequent relocations and deployments.
If you’re deployed, unforeseen issues can arise with family members. “When one spouse is away, all the burdens of running a household, (including) child care, fall on the other,” investment advisor and U.S. Army veteran Eric Nager, of Alabama-based Southern Capital Services, tells Stash.
“(Deployment) can be tricky when banking systems, time zones, languages, and postal services are different from home,” Nager says. “If families fall behind, they can be assessed late fees or other unnecessary charges.”
Leaving the service
If you worked for the service for 20 years or more, you’ll qualify for a pension. But most soldiers leave long before that.
So, for most soldiers, getting all of your financial ducks in a row in preparation for a career in the private sector is a good first step. However, many soldiers struggle with two aspects of their new life: Losing a steady, reliable paycheck, and finding a job.
That can make it tough on family members, who rely on soldiers’ earnings. And not just immediate family members; Many soldiers help out extended family, too.
“For many service members, they are the highest earning person in their family,” said Langford. “Because of this, many of them are overextending themselves to help family members out.”
Once out of the service, many veterans have trouble finding jobs. There are a number of reasons why including skill mismatches and stereotyping of service members–many employers don’t understand how military service translates to their needs.
What about re-enlisting? Bonuses typically abound for those willing to extend their time in the armed forces, and the armed services often use them to keep trained soldiers in the ranks. But the military’s retirement system (pensions and the TSP) is generally the primary motivator for keeping soldiers enlisted. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service says that accruing 20 years of honorable service–no less–is the only way to qualify.
The net value of a military pension is roughly $200,000 for an enlisted soldier, and $700,000 for an officer, making it a powerful incentive.
No matter what stage you’re at, the best day to start saving is likely today.