6 personal finance tips for military spouses
Frequent moves, job changes, can take a toll on finances and careers
By Susan Johnston Taylor | Published: November 11, 2016
Credit card technology and savvy card use
Military spouses have to pick up families and move – and oftentimes leave jobs – when service members receive a permanent change of station. Frequent relocations not only make it challenging for military spouses to build a career, but paying for those moves can also strain the family’s budget.
“Families will often have to cash flow a $6,000 or $8,000 move and hope that they get the money in time to be able to pay the mortgage,” says Emilie Burke, the blogger behind Burke Does. “These are not things that you can plan for, because you might get orders that you have to move in the next 30 days.”
Burke, whose partner is in the Army stationed at Fort Bragg, says her income and spending mean they can afford to front the money for each permanent change of station (PCS) without going into debt, but many military families struggle with this.
Unemployment and underemployment of military spouses costs the U.S. economy nearly $1 billion, according to research by the Sorenson Impact Center, a division of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, in consultation and collaboration with Blue Star Families, a nonprofit serving military families.
That study also found that of the roughly half a million female civilian spouses of active-duty military members across the country, 43 percent are not in the labor force. Of those who are working, 38 percent are underemployed, meaning their jobs don’t match their education level.
In honor of Veterans Day and the financial and emotional sacrifices made by military spouses, CreditCards.com compiled these personal finance tips for military spouses.
Families will often have to cash flow a $6,000 or $8,000 move and hope that they get the money in time to be able to pay the mortgage. These are not things that you can plan for.
Blogger for Burke Does
1. Seek out flexible income.
Forty-six states now offer military spouses unemployment benefits when they lose their job due to a PCS, according to the Military Officers Association of America. Some states offer reciprocity of licenses for professions such as nurses or attorneys, but others require relocated spouses to get a new license.
While unemployment is still a huge problem for military spouses, telecommuting options have improved the employment outlook for some.
“Some of the most successful spouses do remote work in tech like I do, or maybe they’re a freelance writer or they work for companies that have gone out of their way to employ military spouses,” Burke says.
Military.com has a list of military spouse friendly employers. Programs such as Patriot Boot Camp and the Milspo Project encourage military spouses to start their own businesses rather than seeking out traditional employment.
If you don’t find a job at your next station, be sure to adjust your spending accordingly.
“I’ve seen people make the mistake of not planning for the spouse losing a job when they move and not changing their lifestyle to account for that,” says Rob Aeschbach, a retired Marine, Navy spouse and a financial planner at MilitaryFinancialPlanner.com.
“They’re used to living on two incomes and then you move and your spouse doesn’t have a job, but you’re still doing the same ballet classes and soccer.”
2. Consider consolidating retirement accounts.
Spouses who do find solid employment may have retirement accounts scattered across several states. Having multiple retirement accounts is an enviable problem, but perhaps not the best way to manage your money.
“The military member has a straightforward retirement plan, then you look at the wife’s finances and she’s got three different retirement accounts that are invested differently or not very efficiently,” Aeschbach says.
“Often it makes sense for them to consolidate or roll over into an IRA. It makes it easier to plan and possibly reduce costs.”
3. Understand the military member’s
paycheck and benefits.
Service member pay works differently from civilian pay, so spouses should review the service member’s leave and earnings statement and understand it.
“Service members receive two different paychecks,” explains Jim Meehan, managing partner at Penn Mutual’s 1847Financial and a former commissioned officer in the Navy.
“The first paycheck will be with taxes taken out. Deployment is technically tax-free, so they get a reimbursement check later. That separate check of returned taxes is a perfect opportunity to save.”
Ryan Guina, founder of The Military Wallet, served in the Air Force and married an Air Force nurse after he transitioned into civilian life.
Start saving a couple hundred dollars a month so you’ve got a little bit of a cushion if your car breaks down the same month that you’re PCS-ing.
Founder of The Military Wallet
a military spouse, “The big thing for me was understanding and
navigating benefits: health care, dental insurance,” he says.
“The best recommendation I have is to see if there’s any kind of in-processing seminar where they can learn about the benefits available to them from health care to base facilities.”
4. Get a handle on the bills.
A deployment can derail the family’s finances if the spouse at home isn’t clued in to when the mortgage is due or how to pay the utility bills.
“Anytime somebody deploys, if they’re the main person who takes care of the bills, that can be a huge problem,” Guina says.
Civilian families similarly need to go over financial obligations together, so they’re on the same page, but it’s even more important for military families. Before deployment, since the military member could be deployed overseas for months at a time, the American Bankers Association recommends having a family conversation about managing the household budget.
“It’s so crucial for families to communicate about money,” Burke says. “Being deployed doesn’t mean the mortgage isn’t due. It needs to be a team effort.”
5. Use your bank or card issuer’s budgeting and savings tools.
USAA, one of the largest issuers of credit cards to service members and their families, has personal finance management tools that help military families set up savings goals, alerts to keep users on track to achieving those goals and automatic transfers to savings.
Those tools came in handy for Ryan Clark, USAA product management director for credit card and transaction experiences, when he was deployed to Afghanistan five years ago.
“We had a bit of debt,” he says, but that was gone in eight months, and Clark’s family was starting to build some savings.
“My wife and I used the personal finance management tools to set up a budget – so we would spend only so much on groceries and electric and save five to 10 percent.”
Instead of the bonus pay for family separation and hazardous duty being used as discretionary income, “we also applied that to savings.”
6. Create a PCS fund.
The government is cracking down on payday lenders and other predatory lending practices that prey on military members who aren’t financially savvy. But to avoid having to borrow money to pay for a move or other reasons, it’s a smart idea to create a separate PCS fund for that next move.
“Start saving a couple hundred dollars a month so you’ve got a little bit of a cushion if your car breaks down the same month that you’re PCS-ing,” Guina says.
Burke adds that in the military, “job security makes people a little more comfortable with debt than they should be.”
By setting aside money in advance, spouses can set their families up for a smoother transition into the next station and create financial peace of mind should other circumstances require extra cash.
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