For military families, financial concerns outweigh deployment issues

Members of the military face hurdles every day — and financial challenges are among some of the biggest.

Eric Wanner, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and his wife, Jana, have moved four times in the last 12 years — most recently to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Because of frequent deployments and moving expenses, as well as cost-of-living adjustments and erratic pay, the couple struggles when it comes to managing their household finances.They are raising a family on a single military income.

For example, “when we came back from overseas we had to rent a car for two months while we waited for our other car to get shipped,” said Jana Wanner. “That was a massive expense.”

In fact, service members and their spouses ranked financial stress as their greatest concern, even over deployment, according to Blue Star Families’ annual military family lifestyle survey.

Members of the Arizona National Guard listen to instructions on April 9, 2018, at the Papago Park Military Reservation in Phoenix. – Arizona deployed its first 225 National Guard members to the Mexican border on Monday after President Donald Trump ordered thousands of troops to the frontier region to combat drug trafficking and illegal immigration. 

Caitlin O’Hara | AFP | Getty Images

Nearly 9 in 10 active service members and 84% of spouses or partners have worries about personal finances, according to a separate report by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which also did the same survey of military personnel five years ago.

Rather than have some of those challenges subside as the economy improved, more military families are worried about meeting basic household needs and debt payments today than in 2014, the NFCC found.

In fact, service members are now twice as likely not to be able to pay all their bills on time than they were just a few years ago.

Roughly 3 in 10 spouses or partners of service members said they do not pay their bills on time and about 1 in 10 said they currently have debts in collection, according to the survey.

Still, because of issues such as increased childcare costs during periods of deployment and the likelihood of relocation, it can be hard for spouses to find full-time employment to supplement their military incomes and build retirement savings.

As a result, about half of service members and their spouses of service members say they rely on the gig economy to stay afloat, the NFCC found.

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In general, people are struggling to make ends meet, said Rebecca Steele, president and CEO of the NFCC. That’s “amplified in military households.”

“Men and women in uniform face many challenges and daily sacrifices while serving our country,” she added. “Financial concerns shouldn’t be one of them.”

To that end, Josh Andrews, a certified financial planner and advice director at financial services firm USAA in San Antonio, offers the following tips to active duty military and their spouses or partners:

Start early

Beginning with your first paycheck, opt to take the full Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage amount and increase automatic contributions to the military’s Thrift Savings Plan to at least 10%.

With what is left, learn to live well within your means — spend less than you earn and put what you can into an emergency fund.

Pay down debt

If you do have debt, develop an attack strategy. Figure out which loans are costing you the most, and make it a priority to pay those off first.

Payday loans, also called cash advances, are the worst offenders, with interest rates that can easily run into the triple digits.

Plan for the inevitable

Consider where you will be living with every Permanent Change of Station, or PCS, and then adjust your budget accordingly.

From groceries to gasoline, the cost of living can vary substantially by location.

Take a long-term view

The majority of those in the military do not serve until retirement. Consider other education options and training programs and make sure a transition plan for benefits, including health insurance and pensions, is secured before departure from the service.

You can keep on top of the many benefits the military offers, as well as whatever financial education it makes available, through Military OneSource or other channels.

For its part, the NFCC offers financial education and credit counseling through its member agencies.

Institutions such as USAA also regularly work with current and former service members and offer a range of banking and insurance products.

And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau site for service members has many resources related to protecting finances and planning for the future.

Check out Don’t Fall For These 5 Myths About Money via Grow with Acorns+CNBC.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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