Early last March, my USAA military advocacy coworkers and I were halfway through a MilSpouseFest event in Killeen, Texas, when our leadership team at USAA directed us to return home to San Antonio immediately. The pandemic had arrived.
If you’re not familiar, MilSpouseFest is an event that unites military spouses from communities across the country. It’s a celebration, a way to say thanks, and an opportunity for spouses to network, make new friends, relax and have fun. That day, I had embarked on an effort to tap the collective minds of the 200 or so attendees for tips on how to empower military families to take control of their finances. These are the folks taking care of business on a day-to-day basis, and I knew they would have great practical advice.
I look forward to getting started again, but in the meantime, I thought I would pass along a few of the gems that were shared that day. I’ve grouped suggestions using the following five common themes that popped up repeatedly.
1. Work both ends of the budget. I say “budget,” and you think _____. I expected that beyond “ugh,” images of cutting back, cutting out or being frugal would pop to mind. I was surprised at the number of spouses who suggested working the other half of the budget: income. Whether it was finding a job, working a side hustle, or looking for opportunities to turn under-utilized stuff into cash, this shrewd group was creatively hatching a plan to spend less than they earned.
2. OK, really start planning. Another widely shared recommendation centered around planning. A few of the suggestions for financial-planning homework included: “Figure out what we need to do to retire;” “agree on some goals with my spouse;” and “make a plan to save $5 a day.”
From experience, military spouses know that life can throw you some curveballs -- deployments, unexpected PCS moves, income disruption -- and being able to focus on specific goals and supporting actions can go a long way toward staying afloat.
3. Take advantage of the unexpected. The early March timing of the event probably played a significant role in multiple suggestions to use tax returns to pay off debt or build savings, but that advice is evergreen. A windfall -- whether a lump sum like a tax return or inheritance, or one that comes in the form of increased income -- offers an opportunity to check some items off your financial to-do list.
4. Control expenses. This was a tip that did not surprise me. Years of working with military families has shown me that they can do this like no other. Typically, as with weight loss and calorie counting, just tracking expenses will have a positive impact. The most common expense management tip: Use cash. The most common suggestion on reducing expenses: eat out less.
5. Nurture financially savvy kids. Over the years, I’ve written about this, and my wife and I have done our best to walk the talk with our own kids. Still, it was exciting to see that this group was focused on teaching their kids about money. From piggy banks to shopping lists, they were working to instill habits that will serve their kids for a lifetime.
While these spouses’ advice was given pre-pandemic, I’m sure many of their tips served them well through the economic recession that followed, and will likely be helpful to you as we move to the other side.