2023 was a tough year for a lot of Americans. Higher gas prices, mortgages and rents through the roof, and inflation still driving up the cost of standard goods and services. As you rearrange your financial priorities for the new year, having a solid plan is more important than ever.

Even for military members with a guaranteed paycheck, (tax-free if you’re deployed), many are left with enormous credit card bills, little to no savings, and a poor credit score. For a lot of struggling servicemembers, the thought of reaching out for help is seen as an admission of weakness, or inability to control their situation. Some leaders are more understanding than others, but unlike in a civilian job, commanders can still get a phone call from a creditor if you don’t pay your bills on time. That adds an entirely new level of stress and uncertainty to those already fighting to get control of their finances.

Thankfully there is a way out, and it’s not as difficult as you’d imagine. Navy Federal Credit Union has been helping servicemembers and their families with financial tools and advice for decades. Below are a few simple (but extremely important) tips to get you started.

Take a realistic look at your budget

Anyone who’s tried to plan out their finances knows that the difference between making a budget and sticking to it is a big one. Every carefully laid plan goes out the window the first time you’re smacked with an emergency purchase then blows your savings out of the water.

However, keeping your budget realistic will help control the chaos those unforeseen expenses can cause when they inevitably do pop up. We’re not telling you what to spend your hard-earned cash on (that’s the point of having money), just to track it accurately. If you can’t live without that $6 breakfast sandwich from the corner deli, no worries, just make sure you account for the hefty sum that amounts to at the end of each month.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when creating a budget is not to be honest with themselves about where their money is going. If you’re spending on anything with regularity, it needs to be accounted for. It’s not very fun, but when you live within your means that allows a person to accrue wealth when they’re younger, to enjoy the fruits of their labor in later years. No one wants to be working while their peers are enjoying the retired life!

Save whenever you can

No matter how small the amount, you should always make an allotment in your budget each month for some type of emergency savings, whether it’s a mutual fund, TSP, or just a savings account labeled ‘rainy day funds’. The more you’re able to put away, the less of a hit your overall finances will take when something unexpected occurs. All that time spent making an accurate budget is wasted if the first setback can completely derail your well-laid plan.

Navy Federal Credit Union offers a variety of amazing savings options with competitive rates of return so you can put your money to work, even when it’s just sitting around to offset emergencies. More is always better.

Consolidate your debt

Even professional accountants aren’t perfect. Emergencies are a fact of life. That’s why credit cards are so useful for unplanned expenses. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of companies out there that know this and charge borderline predatory rates or hide variable terms in their contracts which ensure you’ll never be able to dig out of the pile of debt you’ve created.

A great solution for this is to transfer all your debt and excess charges onto a single card with a much more manageable interest rate. Navy Federal Credit Union has been helping servicemembers do this for years and is now offering competitive introductory rates with APR as low as 1.99% for the first 12 months to qualifying applicants who transfer their non-NFCU balance to a More Rewards card within 60 days of opening the account. Unlike many other banks, NFCU will also waive fees for balance transfers to the account and allow you to earn up to 20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days.

Increase that Credit Score

Think of a credit score as a financial representation of your life that lenders evaluate when deciding whether or not to issue you a loan. The higher the better, since that means they’re more likely to be paid back, and institutions will reward that score with a lower interest rate, which means less money paid out over the term of the loan.

A very poor credit rating is 300-579 (out of 850). Anything over 800 is great.

If your score isn’t amazing, don’t sweat it. NFCU offers its members great tips and classes on how to increase your credit rating and manage your finances once everything is under control.

The earlier in life you can establish good saving and debt management habits, the easier things will be, so take control now and let Navy Federal help you get your financial plan back on track.

This article was sponsored by Navy Federal Credit Union. Navy Federal Credit Union is federally insured by NCUA.