“Your Money or Your Life:” How to Avoid Military Family Overspending

As an active military or Veteran household, to protect your family’s wellbeing, it’s vital to consider whether your personal resources (money, time, health, etc.) are aligned with your personal values. Does your current pay grade overly define your sense of self-worth? Are financial problems delaying your spouse’s retirement? 

I’m going to apply to military life some key ideas from my favorite financial literacy book: “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (editions published 1992, 1998, 2008, and 2018). 

Get Busy Living (Not Buying) 

We can all agree that “ready-fire-AIM” is not the essence of good marksmanship. The same is true for managing our finances. As Vicki and Joe say in their book: “frugality is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.”  

There are so many possessions we under-utilize (sports equipment, kitchen gadgets, etc.) and experiences we under-enjoy (like driving a luxury car instead of the base model.) When budgeting is approached from the lens of valuing enjoyment, might it have been wiser to invest the extra effort elsewhere? 

The real issue is whether we’re getting sufficient satisfaction from all the ways we spend our precious ‘life energy:’ our time, health, and sanity. For example, a tropical vacation may have been a fantastic investment for Corporal Jones … if she’d chosen the year before to rent an apartment without the extra bedroom.  

Give Me Liberty (Or Give Me Debt?) 

An essential part of budgeting is learning to spend your money where it truly matters. Many of us can admit to mentally judging that newly-promoted service member who couldn’t make the payments on his garish muscle car. But plenty of older officers, NCOs, veterans, and spouses also make vanity purchases. Perhaps we co-signed exorbitant loans because we promised our daughter she could attend the school of her dreams. Or maybe we’re renting a house at the outer limit of our BAH because we dread snide comments from our peers.  

When we live on the edge financially, we shouldn’t be surprised when it puts us on edge emotionally. If a lavish cruise becomes a lingering debt on the credit card, it may cause resentment that will undermine whatever family bonding happened that week in the Caribbean. And if you’re genuinely tired of serving as a petty officer, but re-enlist due to that monster credit card, you might become an irascible chief petty officer whom no sailor (or spouse) wants to approach.  

Rank Excess (Gross vs. Net Pay Raises) 

For service members and spouses, your job or career is the biggest factor in your household budget. But it should contribute to your family’s well-being, too. This is especially important for service members weighing the decision to re-enlist or accept a promotion.  

One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard on leadership is: “a promotion simply means you work for more people.” If you genuinely want to serve, then achieving higher levels of responsibility is a noble thing. But if your ambition’s totally a matter of personal ego, then your potential subordinates will thank you for retiring sooner than later. But for most people, the motive to advance oneself is some mixture of the two. 

Before signing yourself up for longer hours and more family separations, it’s important to do the math. If you’re not around to mow the lawn, cook meals, or fix leaky sinks, then that’s money you or your spouse may have to spend on hired help. You might be happy to pay professionals to do chores while you’re busy flying a helicopter (or even a desk). But what about the additional non-monetary burdens your new job might impose? 

If you earn $100 more a day, but also sit in traffic for an extra 60 minutes daily, you could be worse off in the long run. Missed exercise, additional car maintenance, eating more take-out, paying the nanny overtime, and needing extra therapy sessions are just a few of the costs potentially associated with increasing your commute. 

When making major decisions about where to live or work, consider all the associated costs! 

Get in the Game (No Shame, No Blame) 

It can be easy to let fear and pride prevent you from altering your habits and the underlying beliefs which drive them. But as Joe and Vicky say in the book: “no shame, no blame.” Like quitting tobacco or training for a race, it can’t happen until you’re ready to embrace change. In both life and investing: “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second-best time is NOW.”  

That’s why the financial tools on The Edge are designed to meet you where you are and help you make small financial changes that can add up to big improvements. You can get informed through videos and courses, then use interactive tools to help weigh your financial options.  

Join The Edge for free to get financially empowered!

You also don’t have to (nor should you) try and go it alone. Just like medical doctors and sports coaches support athletes, there are financial advisors and counselors who can help you chart a new path and stay on it. Look for professionals with respected designations like Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC), who are also committed to only working in a fiduciary capacity (i.e. being legally obligated to put your interest first). 

Your family has already made sacrifices to preserve our nation’s freedom, so why not declare your household’s independence from misaligned spending? Now that sounds like an all-American dream. 


Author Bio: 

Ian J. Gates is a Coast Guard spouse, Army veteran, former Spanish teacher, and founder/host of the #BLUFFbooks podcast (Building, Leading, and Understanding Financial Freedom). He’s studying to take the CFP exam in fall 2024, and lives in Beaumont, Texas with his “Coastie” wife and their two young kids. To find out more, please visit his LinkedIn page or his podcast website

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