Military Couples and Money

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Couple preparing taxes

Whether you said "I do" six weeks ago or six years ago, it probably didn't take long to recognize that military life is a little bit different. From a financial planning perspective, you have opportunities and pitfalls different from the ones faced by your married civilian neighbors.

My wife grew up in a military family, so when we got married at the Fort Carson chapel, the transition wasn't huge for her. But even with our backgrounds as a military brat and a young Army officer, there was a lot we didn't understand about marriage, money and military life as we set out to meld our financial lives.

If you're like us, here are a few of those unique details that can make a difference for military couples:

You both better be ready to assume command. There was a brief time span during our marriage when I felt like I was in charge ... a very brief span. All kidding aside, military life may not allow you to settle into clearly defined roles. A PCS you're forced to make alone, a deployment you must endure or a month-long training period that leaves you isolated on the home front could push you out of your comfort zone. Never mind that somehow these events coincide with every bit of household drama, repairs and money mischief to put you in a sink-or-swim situation where you find yourselves fixing broken stuff, hiring contractors and taking care of other tasks that aren't normally in your wheelhouse. Sure, Michael Phelps may have won all those gold medals by staying in his lane, but as a military spouse, your lane can quickly change. Financially, that means understanding all the details in terms of bills, accounts, account access and the like -- and being prepared to take charge at a moment's notice.

Income may be regularly irregular. While there are a lot of Coast Guard families that would beg to differ, a twice-a-month government paycheck is normally a safe bet. However, military spouses have long battled unemployment or underemployment, thanks to frequent moves and a host of other challenges. While there are options -- self-employment, remote work and working from home to name a few -- the trend continues. Making financial commitments through this lens should make you more conservative, whether you're looking at regular monthly outlays or big purchases.

Yes, you need a moving fund. While Uncle Sam will do most of the financial heavy lifting, there will inevitably be expenses that aren't covered. Too many of these, and you'll find yourselves buried in bills and trying to tread financial water. Set up a savings account designated for your next move and slide a little money into it each pay period. At some point, you'll transition to civilian life, and if you've done this religiously you could have the six to 12 months of expenses USAA recommends smoothing the move out of uniform.

You are protected by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The SCRA provides valuable protections for your military family. From the ability to terminate leases (auto, residential, service provider) to last year's expansion that allows a military spouse to use the same state of residence as their service member for state and local tax as well as voting purposes, the SCRA provides relief unique to the military family.

You are going to receive regular pay increases. For our family, the move out of the military and into a world of uncertainty regarding pay raises and benefits was a bit traumatic. The military pay system, with regular promotions, time-in-service pay increases and annual cost of employment pay, raises provides consistent opportunities to use those pay raises -- money that hasn't seeped into your regular spending -- to pay down debt, build savings or invest for the future. Don't miss out on the opportunity.

Uncle Sam could foot the bill for your education. When our son joined the military, our concerns about the sustainability of our college fund disappeared. The Post 9-11 GI Bill provides unmatched education benefits for the service member, or, through transferability provisions, to you or your children. Recent changes require the transfer to happen prior to the 16th year of service, so don't procrastinate and miss out on this uniquely military money benefit.

Understanding these money aspects of military life can help you shift from "I do" to "we can." Good luck.

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