Those who serve our country deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. Instead, a large percentage of military members wind up financially disadvantaged. That's the takeaway from a National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) survey, which found that military personnel typically carry higher levels of credit card debt and own fewer assets than civilians.
Why are so many military members in financial distress? For one thing, the lifestyle itself lends to instability, which leaves military personnel more vulnerable. Those who join the military are forced to relocate frequently, and so buying a home often isn't feasible, thus contributing to a lower level of assets. Furthermore, deployment can make keeping up with one's bills challenging to say the least, thus opening the door to greater debt loads. Throw in the fact that many tend to enlist at a young age, at a time when they're unaware of how to manage their finances, and it's no wonder so many military members are struggling.
Just how bad are things for military personnel? According to the NFCC, the average military family has $400 to $500 more debt than the typical U.S. household, and 16% fewer tangible assets.
If you're a military member, you should know that there are certain things you can do to get ahead of the financial problems that plague so many others. Here are just a few ways to get started.
1. Have an emergency fund
This piece of advice applies to military members and civilians alike, but if you fall into the former category, it's even more crucial to have three to six months' worth of living expenses available in savings at all times. An emergency fund is the way best way to protect yourself not only from unplanned bills, but in the event that your living costs suddenly go up. Remember, if you're relocated to a more expensive city as part of your service, your military allowances will only go so far. You'll still be on the hook for certain expenses, so it's crucial to have that safety net.
2. Contribute to a Thrift Savings Plan
Similar to 401(k)s, Thrift Savings Plans help federal employees save for the future in a tax-advantaged fashion. Not only are contributions tax-free, but investment fees are considerably lower than what you'd find in a typical 401(k). Come 2018, the annual contribution limit for Thrift Savings Plans will reach $18,500 for those under 50, and $24,500 for those 50 and over. (The current limits are $500 lower in each category.) Setting aside even a fraction of these totals could help you not only accumulate some wealth, but pay less tax at present.
3. Learn to manage your finances electronically
It's hard to keep up with your bills when you're deployed to a foreign country. Unfortunately, your financial obligations don't disappear just because you're in the midst of a war zone. If you're in the military and don't have anyone to pay your bills in your absence, set up an automatic payment system so that you stay on top of them. (This may be a good idea even if you have a spouse or partner who can manage things while you're deployed.) It also pays to create a power of attorney for your spouse or someone you trust who isn't in the military. This way, that person will have the ability to make financial decisions on your behalf when you're unavailable to do so yourself.
4. Stay away from credit card debt
Credit card debt is a vicious trap that countless Americans fall into, and the only way to avoid it is to learn how to use a credit card wisely. For one thing, pay every bill on time and in full, and only charge an amount you can afford to cover by the time your payment is due each month. Also, be sure to avoid maxing out your credit card. Not only will this put you in a situation where you're likely to rack up interest charges, but you'll also risk lowering your credit score, which will make borrowing more expensive in the future. Finally, be sure to take advantage of credit card rewards. Getting a little extra cash back could work wonders for your budget.
As a military member, the last thing you deserve is to struggle financially. If you follow the above tips, you'll get a better handle on your finances so that you can instead focus on the thing you do best -- defending our country.
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