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- I got into debt and let my student loans go to the collections before joining the Air Force.
- Participating in a financial counseling program changed my life, but fear also motivated me to change.
- The military can punish you for discovering your bank account or failing to pay an invoice.
I spent over 20 years in the Air Force. I am incredibly proud of my service. It shaped the person I am in every possible way, but one of my biggest starting difficulties was staying one step closer to getting in trouble for financial irresponsibility.
I joined the Air Force after two years of college and nowhere near a college degree. I had changed major three times and amassed $ 20,000 in debt, mostly from student loans.
My student loans went to collections. Since my debt was prior to military service, my creditors did not know that I was now in the military. If they had known, those tax collection statements would have ended up on my commander’s desk instead of in my mother’s mailbox. I learned that I could go to financial counseling at my local family support center so I made an appointment.
Financial advice made a difference, but fear was also a big motivating factor
I was assigned a financial advisor who helped me set 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 sign up for group classes on money management and creating / using life-changing credits. I learned to recognize and correct problematic money 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 the bills, the military exerts a greater influence on life off duty. Drawing a bank account or being overdue on an invoice can result in disciplinary action that can jeopardize the advancement or continuation of the service.
I had to learn to stick to a budget
I had big debts and a small salary. An unplanned car repair or splurge, even something as small as getting 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 plan the 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 nocturnal miracle. There were times when I overspent and slipped backwards, but having a road map ultimately helped.
I started using credit wisely
I got into trouble using credit with a “buy now, think about it later” approach. I was an instant gratification consumer who did not consider the reality of a high-interest, high-interest credit card at the other end of the purchase.
It is quite easy for a young service member to borrow money. A stable paycheck and the knowledge that the commander will pressure anyone who defaults on their obligations are strong incentives for financial institutions to lend money. Car dealerships and furniture stores that advertise “easy credit approval” are a familiar sight in neighborhoods near military bases.
But I’ve learned to be smart about credit offers and interest rates. I also learned that doing only the minimum payment was the root of my problems and corrected the course. It took a while, but I eventually got to where I only used credit cards for emergencies or scheduled purchases.
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I learned to live within my means
Classes and balance sheets would do little good if you continued to overspend. I was (and still am) an emotional spendthrift, which requires some behavioral changes to keep him in check.
When I thought about buying a new car, I learned how much financial breathing space I could give myself by buying a safe and reliable car compared to the flashier and more expensive car I wanted.
I got into the mindset of 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 afford what I couldn’t. I am incredibly grateful that the lessons and advice are part of my military benefits.
The fear factor
I’ve never gotten into trouble for being financially irresponsible, although I’m sure I’ve had some close calls. I ignored my creditors when I couldn’t pay a bill (another thing I’ve learned Not to do) and if the collection agencies knew they could get my attention by contacting my commander, I’m sure I’d tell a different story today. I was an Airman model in every other way. The fear of disciplinary action or even being expelled from the army was a huge motivation.
Today I am at ease. I have money in the bank, investments and a retirement account. The habits of sticking to a budget and weighing desires versus needs are still with me.