Personal Finance

I cleaned up my bad money habits to stay in the Air Force.

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  • I got into debt and let my student loans go to collection before I joined the Air Force.
  • Joining a financial counseling program changed my life, but fear also motivated me to change.
  • The military can punish you for overdrafting your bank account or missing a bill.

I spent over 20 years in the Air Force. I am incredibly proud of my service. It shaped the person I am in every way possible, but one of my biggest challenges early on was staying ahead of financial irresponsibility issues.

I joined the Air Force after two years of university and being far from having a diploma. I had changed majors three times and racked up $20,000 in debt, mostly from student loans.

My student loans went to collections. Since my debt predated my military service, my creditors did not know that I was now in the military. If they had known, those collection records would have landed on my CO’s desk instead of my mother’s mailbox. I learned that I could see a financial advisor at my local family support center, so I made an appointment.

Financial advice made all the difference, but fear was also a strong motivator

I was assigned a financial advisor who helped me establish a budget. I contacted my creditors instead of ignoring them and came up with a plan to pay off my debts. My advisor also encouraged me to enroll in group classes on money management and building/using credit which have changed my life. I learned to recognize and correct problematic financial habits and to set goals.

The things I learned in financial counseling had a strong influence, but also fear. Unlike a civilian job where your boss doesn’t care if you pay your bills, the military has a greater influence on off-duty life. Overspending on a bank account or being late on a bill may result in disciplinary action which may jeopardize advancement or continued service.

I had to learn to stick to a budget

I had big debts and a small salary. An unscheduled car repair or a splurge – even something small like an ice cream – would put me in the red.

My advisor showed me how to use a budget sheet and how to forecast expenses. I learned to budget for things I would pay monthly, like rent, as well as expenses that didn’t happen every month, like car maintenance.

There was no magic wand or overnight miracle. There were times when I overspent and slipped back, but having a track record ultimately helped me.

I started using credit wisely

I’ve had issues using credit with a “buy now, think about it later” approach. I was an instant gratification consumer who didn’t consider the reality of a high interest, maxed out credit card on the other end of the purchase.

It is quite easy for a young soldier to borrow money. A steady paycheck and the knowledge that the commander will pressure anyone who defaults are strong incentives for financial institutions to lend money. Car dealerships and furniture stores advertising “easy credit approval” are a familiar sight in neighborhoods near military bases.

But I learned to be smart about credit offers and interest rates. I also learned that only making the minimum payment was the root of my problems and corrected the course. It took a while, but I finally got to where I was using credit cards only for emergencies or planned purchases.

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I learned to live within my means

Classes and budget sheets would be useless if I continued to overspend. I was (and still am) an emotional spendthrift, which requires some behavior modification to stay in check.

As I considered buying a new car, I learned how much financial leeway I could give myself by buying a safe and reliable car versus the flashier, more expensive car I wanted.

I started focusing on what I needed to do to get promoted and earn money to buy what I wanted rather than trying to find a way to pay for what I couldn’t. I am incredibly grateful that tuition and counseling have been part of my military benefits.

The fear factor

I’ve never gotten in trouble for being financially irresponsible, although I’m sure I’ve had some hard knocks. I ignored my creditors when I couldn’t pay a bill (another thing I learned not do) and if the collection agencies had known they could get my attention by contacting my CO, I’m sure I’d be telling a different story today. I was a model aviator in many ways. The fear of disciplinary action or even being expelled from the army was a huge motivation.

Today I am comfortable. I have money in the bank, investments and a retirement account. The habits of sticking to a budget and weighing wants versus needs are still with me.

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