In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.
Today, one woman shares the challenges that come with managing a military family’s finances solo and the money talk she and her husband had to have early on to get on the same page when it came to their spending, saving and retirement.
For the past 13 years, I’ve been a military spouse. My husband, Josh, is a major in the Army and has done two tours in Iraq—I couldn’t be prouder of his service.
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But being in a military family doesn’t come without its share of challenges. I had to cope with having a partner who was away for extended periods of time, which was not only emotionally difficult but also forced me into making decisions alone that normally should have been made as a team.
That became the case with our family finances especially. Since we’ve been married, Josh has been on two year-long deployments, as well as countless weeks- or months-long training exercises. There were times when we didn't have any contact at all for two or three weeks. I quickly learned that his long periods away meant that managing the household money—and making sure we reached our long-term goals—would largely become a solo act.
The Transition to Becoming Household CFO
Josh and I started out sharing the financial decisions. As newlyweds, we lived in a small town in upstate New York; he was earning beginning captain pay and I took whatever business and finance-oriented positions I could find in such a small market. I initially made about $25,000 working for a small picture-frame manufacturer before moving onto a part-time office administration and research assistant position that paid about $20 an hour.
We weren’t making a ton of money, but we were mostly on the same page when it came to our financial priorities. For example, we decided that one of our first big goals would be tackling our student loans. Although we were lucky to have parents who financed most of our education, we still had about $25,000 in combined college debt that we wanted to pay down. Together, we decided to prioritize those payments and were able to pay off that debt within a year.
But as long work hours and time away started to become the norm for Josh, it became apparent that I would have to take over the financial decision-making—something that required a lot of trust on his part and a lot of responsibility on mine. He had to be willing to give up control of his paycheck, and I had to ensure that I was making the best choices when it came to everything from budgeting to retirement. Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but it was what we had to do to keep our household running. So with that understanding, I officially became our home’s Chief Financial Officer, so to speak.
When Money Personalities Clash
Neither Josh nor I was afraid of crunching numbers—he was an accounting major, and my degree was in finance—but that’s pretty much where the similarities ended when it came to our attitudes toward money. I’m a classic bargain hunter and have no problem choosing the generics over the brand names; Josh, meanwhile, believes you get what you pay for, and he associates better quality with a higher price tag. I like having a purpose for every cent of my paycheck; he likes a cushion for fun spending.
Those differences really came to light when I showed him the first household budget I put together on my own. It actually wasn’t a chore for me because I've always loved budgeting, even from the time I was a kid jotting down what to do with my allowance and birthday money in my Lisa Frank notebook. So when Josh came in from a long day of flying, I thought he would be as excited as I would be to see that I had plotted out every cent of our take-home pay, allotting portions to our fixed expenses, an emergency fund, other long-term savings and retirement contributions.
As I walked him through our Excel spreadsheet, however, I didn’t get the response I was expecting. Instead of thanking me for having such a detailed plan laid out, I saw his face fall. He was irritated that I was making the money disappear before he even got a chance to enjoy any of it. My response? I started crying—I didn’t feel like he valued my effort or the fact that I was looking out for our future.
Reaching Budget Détente
After several discussions (that may or may not have included raised voices and tears), we realized that we needed a compromise. So we decided that every month, we could each spend $50, and then $100 as a couple, on fun. This would ensure that we could do things like eat out or go to the movies without me feeling like we were blowing our budget.
Ultimately, what worked for us was stepping back and realizing that we’re both on the same side, we just have to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. We also had to make sure the trust was always there—I had to trust that he was going to provide for our family; he had to trust that my budget and savings strategies were in the best interest of our future. I’m happy to say that this trust has grown stronger through the years.
Plus, it’s not like he’s totally removed from the decision making. For example, when it came to retirement, I researched all our options but ultimately, we had to sit down together to choose what types of accounts we wanted to put our money into, as well as the mix of funds we wanted to invest in. In the end, we went with a Roth IRA and a Thrift Savings Plan (a type of government retirement plan), and we’re happy with our current investment mix. Then, when our two sons Kaden, now 8, and Cameron, now 4, entered the picture, we had to sit down and decide which state 529 plan we wanted to use to save for their college, based on the plan's benefits and past performance.
One cool outcome of becoming our home’s CFO? All the research I did to help put our budget and retirement plan together factored into my decision to pursue my Accredited Financial Counselor certification—training that I eventually used in both volunteer and paid capacities to help people learn how to budget responsibly and plan for the future.
My Advice for Other Military Families
It’s not easy trying to juggle fiscal responsibilities when your significant other isn’t always around to chip in. But it’s not impossible, either. Here are a few lessons learned from my experience that I’m hoping will help other military spouses.
Take advantage of government resources. I have found the Financial Readiness Program offered through Army Community Service (and other similar organizations in the other armed services) to be a gold mine of information. They employ a staff of trained financial counselors who can provide free budgeting advice, retirement information, bankruptcy help, etc., in both group and individual sessions. Another one is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), which provides free tax prep and filing help. This can be especially helpful for military families who have a complicated tax situation because they have to file in multiple states. I've volunteered with both organizations and can attest to how helpful they can be when it comes to navigating the sometimes confusing world of a military family's finances.
Leverage technology. When you’re managing a budget solo, you’ll need all the organizational help you can get. Mobile banking (which USAA offers) can help you manage your deposits, pay bills and make transfers even when you’re on the go. I also love using a budgeting app because it helps keep you accountable when your spouse is gone.
Come up with a shared vision of your financial future. Most important, take the time to sit down with your spouse to discuss how each of you defines financial success and what your future dreams and goals look like. That way, when the service member is suddenly out of the picture and it’s up to the spouse to carry out the family’s financial plan, he or she can make the best decisions possible. Yes, this piece of advice will require multiple heart-to-heart money conversations, but the return on that time investment is well worth it.