When you joined the military, you probably were looking forward to seeing new places and learning new skills. But you may not have anticipated new financial trials.
The first few years in the military can really strain your budget — assuming you have one. A few wrong moves and you could find yourself in a financial hole that would be hard to escape.
Here are 10 money missteps that all new recruits and junior enlisted personnel should avoid.
1. Failing to track expenses
First, figure out where your money is going.
Track your expenses for two months. The reality of where your money goes is at the heart of developing a spending plan. A lot of folks who have started the process this way have been shocked at the opportunities to cut back and cut out to find cash for paying off debts or building for the future.
While she was in the Army, Glenda Oakley, USAA employee and former Army platoon leader, says she set aside a reasonable amount of “play money” at the start of every month and used it to pay for nonessentials like entertainment or eating out. She had only one rule: “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Another important financial decision concerns where you choose to live. Many junior enlisted personnel want the freedom of living off-post, but it can be much more expensive than the low-cost housing and amenities available on base.
2. Buying too much car
Springing for a slick new ride falls into the spending plan discussion, but is so common among new recruits that it deserves a separate mention. While buying a new economy car or a sensible used car may not impress your friends, it can help you stay on solid financial footing.
3. Blowing your bonus
Enlistment bonuses and other special pay just scream to be spent on a bigger TV or a new tattoo. But chances are, you can think of a more responsible use of a good portion of that money. One of these days, you’ll thank yourself for paying off debts or setting aside a rainy-day fund.
4. Putting off retirement saving
For people just starting their careers, retirement seems like a lifetime away. But taking advantage of the military’s Thrift Savings Plan from the beginning could make it easier to start a nest egg for later in life.
“Making it an automatic occurrence is critical,” Montanaro says. “It becomes a first thing you do each paycheck, and not a last.”
5. Spending money you don’t have
The “I want it now” mindset is even more dangerous when you don’t have the cash to pay upfront. Putting big purchases on credit cards — or worse, taking out a payday loan — can come back to bite you in the form of high fees, interest charges and mounting debt.
6. Thinking short term
Learn to separate a good deal from a dud by looking at the total costs involved. Rent-to-own-furniture stores or promises of “no payments until 2015” might tempt you with low initial costs, but they can nickel-and-dime your budget to death if you don’t adhere to strict payment policies.
As with any major purchase, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
7. Not protecting your property
Even if you don’t own a home, you likely have possessions worth thousands of dollars, especially if you live off-post in an apartment.
“Your landlord has coverage. Make sure you do, too,” Montanaro says. “Many landlords have coverage that covers their property; with a renters policy you can insure yours.”
8. Ignoring your credit report
Once a year, take advantage of your right to get a free credit report at annualcreditreport.com from each of the three major reporting agencies. Your report details your history of borrowing money and making payments on time.
Correcting any errors on your report could save you money by helping you qualify for lower interest rates on loans or get approved for affordable housing. If you’ve had a troubled history of managing debt, now’s the time to change your ways and help improve your credit.
9. Opting out of life insurance
As a military member, you’re automatically enrolled in Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, unless you opt out. For young members without a family to support, saving a few bucks a month by forgoing life insurance might seem like a good idea. But Montanaro says to think carefully before taking that route.
10. Jumping without a parachute
Unpleasant surprises can drain your bank account — or worse. A broken washing machine or a medical emergency could set you back hundreds or thousands of dollars. If you have no choice but to pay with credit cards, the expense could haunt you for years. It’s better to plan for these setbacks in advance by setting aside a financial cushion.
Contributing a small amount to your emergency fund every month can take some of the tension out of trouble. (Content provided courtesy of USAA.)