Charlene shares four financial lessons she learned from the military. This week on the podcast she shares her story of serving in the Army, meeting her husband in Korea, and then leaving the military to be a mom and military spouse today she is the Assistant Secretary at AAFMAA. You can check out the latest podcast episode here.
Four Financial Lessons Learned in the Military
By Charlene Wilde
Lessons learned during military service stick with you, regardless of your branch of service or length of time served. Financial planning is one major area where military skills and discipline can really come in handy. Even for veterans or those who’ve never served. I’ve gone through a military retirement transition, spent time as a military spouse, and advise servicemembers and veterans on their financial wellbeing. Through it all, I consistently fall back on four key lessons from my time in the Army.
Organization is Key
In the military we consider every decision from all angles, weighing options, and using decision matrixes to identify every possible scenario and ensure all resources are accounted for. My husband and I still rely on this approach and often put together a decision matrix when facing major financial decisions. I know, spreadsheets and lists can be tedious. But it’s worth the time and effort to lay everything out and get organized before making a major financial decision. Not only will this approach help you hold yourself accountable. It also creates a record you can refer back to—these decisions are rarely made overnight! What’s more, writing down information on your savings, expenses, and aspirations in simple terms helps you gain clarity on your current financial situation. It also can prevent you from making snap decisions based on emotions.
Think in Terms of Goals & Objectives
During military initiatives, we’re trained to think several steps ahead, keeping goals and objectives in mind. Even if you didn’t serve, you’ve likely used this approach for personal goals – laying out a five- or ten-year plan, citing education aspirations, family plans, and career goals. Without an idea of where you’d like to go and what you’d like to achieve, you cannot create a plan for getting there.
Financial goals go hand-in-hand with career and personal goals and should be treated the same way. If purchasing a first home is in your five-year plan, you’ll need to think about the costs involved and map out your saving and spending strategies accordingly. As you identify goals, also try to remain realistic and flexible. Things won’t always go according to plan and, while setting goals is important, make sure you’re setting yourself up for something that’s financially achievable.
Have a Plan (And Backup Plan) For Everything
In civilian life and during military initiatives, short- and long-term planning must occur with every new objective set. For each goal identified in step two, you’ll need to address some strategic questions to get there. For most financial-oriented goals, the first questions will deal with saving and investing. How will you bolster your savings to buy that house in five years? How much do you need to put away on a monthly basis to cover college tuition in ten years? Can you afford to take time off work to care for children?
Because military lifestyle is fluid, with frequent moves, spousal employment interruptions, and deployments, having a ‘Plan B’ or even ‘Plan C’ is second nature to us. Depending on your lifestyle and goals, your backup plan likely won’t have to be quite as robust. But you’ll want to be ready for ‘What if’ scenarios. Identifying possible challenges ahead of time can help you plan for them without causing a major setback that derails your longer-term goals. Often, the planning phase of your financial journey will turn up more questions than answers, that’s alright! Understanding where you are. What tasks you can handle yourself. And, where you might need to seek help, is a crucial step toward financial readiness.
Trust the Professionals
Every military unit has personnel specializing in certain tasks – we’re taught to trust everyone on the team to do their individual job and seek out the help of specialists when a task arises that is outside your purview. As I mentioned before, it can be easy to let your emotions take over when facing a major financial decision. If you find yourself at a loss or feel as if you can’t make a sound decision on your own. It’s crucial to take a step back and enlist the help of others with the skills to guide you in the right direction.
This doesn’t have to be a big process, either! For instance, if you’re unsure of which retirement plan is right for you. A simple google search can turn up helpful articles and give you a good starting point. From there, you can decide if you need to consult an advisor. Then when you do, you’ll already have done some homework and can come to the discussion as a more informed client.
Crafting a strong financial plan and sticking to it requires attention and discipline. Fortunately, you don’t need a military background to exercise these qualities in your own financial planning. Throughout all stages of life, it’s crucial to recognize goals and needs. And remain diligent when you organize, plan, and implement your strategy. By adhering to a few time-tested, veteran-approved lessons, you can approach financial decisions with competence and confidence.
Charlene Wilde is a veteran, military spouse, and Assistant Secretary of AAFMAA, our nation’s longest-standing military financial services non-profit organization.