Hearing about the recent government shutdown gives me flashbacks to my active duty days. Anyone who has been paid on the 1st and the 15th knows that nothing strikes more fear in your heart than those two words. The first shutdown that I remember was in 2013, a couple years after I enlisted. The thought of not being paid on payday immediately sent me into a panic. I had a budget set up for each paycheck, and a shutdown would blow all of it to oblivion. I went to work every day, nervously waiting to hear the latest update.
Luckily, the shutdown didn’t drag on long enough for military members to go without pay. Still, it was an eye-opener for me. For so long, I had subscribed to the belief that being in the military would keep me “safe” from financial hardships. Any time I told someone I was in the Navy, their eyes lit up and they would say things like, “Oh ok, well you’re doing good!” As if being in the military was a magical pill for financial stability. The truth is, finances don’t get easier just because you wear a uniform. Actually, being in the military can cause more financial strain if you’re not careful. Because your pay is guaranteed, you’re more likely to be approved for larger loan amounts. Creditors look at your base pay and don’t consider your other expenses because well, that’s not their job. That’s why I was offered the option to purchase a brand-new vehicle, only six months after starting active duty. After the government shutdown scare, I realized that military pay wasn’t anymore guaranteed than other “stable” jobs in America. I began looking closer at my finances to figure out how to prepare myself in the event of another shutdown. These are some of the things I did to give myself peace of mind.
Saved any “extra” allowances
In the military, you get allowances for nearly everything you can think of. There are allowances for housing, food, clothing, and travel expenses, to name a few. I got a yearly clothing allowance to purchase new uniform items. Being fortunate enough not to lose or gain much weight during my time in, I usually bought a few shirts, then set the remaining money aside.
Moved into a cheap apartment
I was single with no kids while I served. In the military, single + no kids = less money. Service members with a spouse or children automatically get a housing allowance. If you’re single in the Navy, there’s no housing allowance until you’re an E-5. I was an E-4. However, I chose to pay out of pocket for an apartment. This sounds like a no-brainer as a civilian, but paying out of pocket for housing in the military is the equivalent of having three heads. Why not just get married and receive the $1200+? (Yes, this really happens.) Instead of taking the quickie marriage route, I found a place for $650 a month. Then I discovered that I could get a housing allowance beginning my 4th year of service. After paperwork approval, I received an additional $1100 a month, which went to savings since rent was already covered.
Took advantage of deployment
I think I speak for many prior military folks when I say that deployments were my least favorite part of the Navy. Your recruiter vaguely mentions deployment during his sales pitch, but he makes it sound like a luxury cruise. Nothing is further from the reality of an actual deployment. You sit on a ship for weeks with limited phone and internet access, and sleep in a coffin rack (which is literally the size of a coffin). Every day, you decide between eating the slop served onboard, or surviving on Ramen noodles and candy from the ship’s convenience store. You live, work, eat, sleep, and shower next to, the same people. Every. Day. Imagine your most annoying co-worker brushing her hair inches away from you as you get ready for bed. Depressing, right? One of the few highlights of deployment is that you have limited opportunities to spend money…in theory. There are those that become addicted to Amazon and Ebay during deployments, but I won’t get into that. If you’re bored, you can’t hop in your car and drive to Walgreens for midnight snacks. When being stuck on a ship is your life for 9 months, spending money becomes less of a priority. Just deploying twice helped me save enough for an apartment, put extra payments on my car, and build a cushion to live off of when I separated from active duty.
Lived below my means
I know, I know, it’s the dreaded dead horse that’s been beaten by every personal finance blogger. Bear with me. The idea of treating yourself is only amplified 10x when you’re in the military. You tell yourself, “I’ve been stuck on this miserable boat for two months…of course I deserve something nice!” But saving up, only to blow it all on 5-star hotels and shopping when you pull into a foreign port, doesn’t help if the government ever ghosts you on your hard-earned money. Of course I indulged a little during deployment. I usually set aside about $500, which was enough to get some good food, souvenirs, and go sightseeing while overseas. Once that money was gone, I was done. Like everything else in life, allow yourself to be human, but keep your focus on the long-term goals.
I’m speaking on my experience from a few years ago, which may not be much help since the recent government shutdown is already in effect. (Although it appears that it has been reopened, for now.) I’m optimistic that this one will end sooner rather than later. I also believe this won’t be the last one. If you’re already in the military, or thinking about enlisting, these are things to keep in mind if there comes a day when that “guaranteed” money doesn’t hit your account.