In March, my USAA colleagues and I were halfway through a MilSpouseFest event in Killeen, Texas, when we were directed to return home to San Antonio immediately. The pandemic had arrived.
MilSpouseFest is an event that unites military spouses from communities across the country. It’s an opportunity for them to network, make new friends 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 for others.
I’d like to pass along a few of the gems shared that day, grouped by five reoccuring themes:
• Work both ends of the budget. I expected “budget”to bring to mind images of cutting back, cutting out or being frugal. 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 underutilized stuff into cash, this shrewd group was creatively hatching a plan to spend less than they earned.
• OK, really start planning. Another widely shared recommendation centered around planning. A few of the suggestions for financial-planning homework included figuring out what needed to be done to retire, agreeing on goals with their spouse and making plans to save $5 a day. From experience, military spouses know that life can throw you curveballs: deployments, unexpected PCS moves, income disruption. Being able to focus on specific goals and supporting actions can go a long way toward staying afloat.
• Take advantage of the unexpected. The early-March timing of the event probably played a 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.
• Control expenses. 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 effect. The most common expense-management tip: Use cash. The most common suggestion on reducing expenses: Eat out less.
• Nurture financially savvy kids. My wife and I have done our best to walk the talk with our kids. Still, it was exciting to see that this group was focused on teaching their children about money. From piggy banks to shopping lists, they were working to instill lifetime habits.
While these spouses’ advice was given pre-pandemic, I’m sure many of their tips served them well through the economic recession that has followed – and will likely be helpful to you as we move to the other side.
J.J. Montanaro is a certified financial planner with USAA, The American Legion’s preferred provider of financial services. Submit questions for him online.