Military Saves Week and MilCents are coming!
During 22-27 February you’re going to see lots of inspirational stories about paying off debt, saving for a goal, and planning for retirement. Then you can spend another nine weeks on short tutorials to boost your own financial skills.
Take care of your future you.
Let me share some experience with you younger military servicemembers & families– those of you in your 20s and 30s, even your 40s. This advice is not my opinion. It’s coming from my readers who used to be in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
The #1 regret that I get from my older readers– in their 50s and 60s– is that they wish they’d saved more. Many of them wish they’d stuck with the Reserves or National Guard for a few more good years to get credit for a 20-year pension, even if it was just for a few hundred bucks a month at age 60.
Last month I heard from a 95-year-old WWII veteran who’s still trying to resolve his veteran’s benefits and his VA claim. Over the decades between 1943 and 1967, he did years of active duty and many more years of Reserve duty– but he never managed to complete more than 15 good years. I’m sure he had compelling reasons at the time, but now he’s outlived his assets. He’s barely paying for his care with Social Security, limited VA benefits, and Medicaid.
I’m not the only one getting reader feedback. Over the last few years of blogging about military personal finance, I’ve learned that all of us writers hear about these situations. Here’s a report from my blogging mentor and servicemember Ryan Guina at TheMilitaryWallet:
I receive a ton of emails from veterans right around their 60th birthday. Many of them are wondering if they have any benefits floating around in the ether. I think many are looking at retirement and wondering when/if they can afford it. Some of the comments can be difficult to answer because it seems like they are going through a difficult time.
Unfortunately, that seems to be a time when many people appear to start their retirement planning. At least based on some of the comments I receive. I’m sure that’s mostly selection bias at work though. Those who planned at an earlier stage of life already know their benefits. Of course, there are unforeseen circumstances that can derail even the best plans… so it’s not always a lack of planning.
Several months ago the Paycheck Chronicles blog (run by my friend and military spouse Kate Horrell) pointed out that the military exchanges were carrying high-priced brands. I suggested that this was because the exchanges were carrying items with prices skewed toward older military retirees with disposable income. In retrospect, I was wrong. 56 comments later(!), it was pretty clear that many retirees didn’t feel they had disposable income. Even worse, it’s possible that the exchanges are stocking expensive designer brands because it’s the spending habits of their younger shoppers, not their older ones.
It’s not always the older readers, either. I answer questions in several Facebook and Linkedin groups for military veterans and their spouses. Some of those questions indicate that they didn’t manage to save and invest during active duty, and now they didn’t have enough assets to handle the transition. They didn’t have an unforeseen catastrophe that drained all of their savings. It’s not that their transition fund was too small for a prolonged career search or that they’d have to tap into college funds or retirement accounts. It’s that they had almost no savings at all.
It would be bad enough if life’s unforeseen circumstances derailed your retirement plans. It would be even worse if you had never saved enough for those plans in the first place.
Your next steps:
Learn from those who’ve gone before you. If you’re deep in debt, then get advice from a financial counselor and figure out how to pay it off. For inspiration, check out this list of over 200 bloggers who track their net worth: 20 of them are blogging their loan payoffs, and a third of those are over $100,000 in debt. (One has already paid off more than $80K in two years.) Most of the rest of the list started blogging because they were in debt, and now they’re growing their net worth.
If you haven’t started saving yet, then get into the habit and automate the process. Don’t wait until “later” or get discouraged by the media complaints that you’ll never be able to stop working. The younger you are, the longer your investments can grow before you’ll need to live off them. When you’re younger, you can save less per paycheck and invest it for decades of compounding. If you start saving when you’re older then you’ve missed all those years of growth and you have to save a lot more money to reach the same goal.
If you’re not signed up for the Thrift Savings Plan, then sign up for it and start contributing. (See that graphic back up there?) You can invest as much as $18K/year in the TSP, but if you’re just starting out then try for at least $100-$200 per month. Build your emergency fund to at least $1000. If you’re maximizing your TSP contributions then save even more in your Roth IRA and taxable accounts. Raise your savings rate as high as you can for as long as you can. Spend only on the things in your life which bring you value. (If you value them then you’ll have to be willing to work for them.) You can find the limit of your personal frugality and avoid crossing over into deprivation. Everyone in the military (and their families) knows where deprivation starts, and if you’re not near that line then you can save more.
Set your goal, make your plan, and put the savings in autopilot. You can visit America Save$ to take the Military Saves pledge:
I will help myself by saving money, reducing debt, and building wealth over time. I will help my family and my country by encouraging other Americans to Build Wealth, Not Debt.
If you’ve participated in Military Saves week before, then assess your progress and reaffirm your commitment. Visit the USAA Educational Foundation to see how you’re dealing with debt or use their link to get your free annual credit report. If you’re getting a tax refund this year then consider putting that money right back to work to pay off debt or boost your savings. America Saves is even sponsoring a contest through Save Your Refund where saving $50 could win a $25,000 prize. If you’re coming up on a transition during the next two years, then boost your emergency fund and decide how much job-search cash you’ll need between leaving the military and starting your bridge career.
A new program returns next week (after last year’s pilot) in conjunction with Military Saves. The nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network will relaunch MilCents — a free 10-week financial literacy program designed specifically for military families.
MilCents connects you to tools that will help you understand, manage, plan, and protect your finances. During the 10 weeks you’ll:
- Learn how to read a Leave and Earnings Statement
- Understand your current financial situation
- Get your credit score and learn how to improve it
- Categorize your spending and saving
- Create a budget
- Learn how to protect your money and avoid predatory lenders
The best part: MilCents is archived on the MFAN website. You have the flexibility to check back for a financial refresher whenever you need it. Did I mention that it’s FREE?
MilCents was developed last year with the Better Business Bureau Military & Veterans Initiative, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Foundation, and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. More than 1200 servicemembers, vets, and military family members participated in the pilot.
Register for MilCents here. Remember that it starts on Monday 22 February, at the same time as the beginning of Military Saves Week.