This guest post is brought to you by Rob Aeschbach.
There was a good post about saving money while deployed. Years ago, as an embarked Marine, I accumulated about 700 days underway during at-sea deployments and work-ups. I left active duty shortly after getting married, and now I’m a stay-at-home-dad and Navy dependent. A comment on that post spurred me to write about my experiences during my wife’s recent deployment in an aircraft carrier.
Deployments for carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups used to be 6 months long in the ’90s, but they are commonly stretched to 7 months, or 8 or 9 or 10 now. In addition to the actual deployment, the units spend 6 months training up for deployment with several periods at sea or away from their home station. In my family’s case, my wife was away from home for a total of about 9 out of 12 months, even though she came back early in order to PCS (that the Navy will PCS people during deployments is weird to this Marine, but not really important here).
We started getting sea pay once my wife’s unit, the strike group staff, moved aboard the carrier. That was about $100 a month just for extending her commute by walking out the pier and onto the ship, rather than working in an office ashore
About 60 days after the deployment started we started getting family separation allowance ($250), and when they attached to 5th Fleet in the combat zone, the tax-free pay and imminent danger pay started. Overall that was a bunch of extra pay for us, but it was concentrated late in the work-up/deployment cycle.
Based on my own experience, I know you can save money at sea because while you are underway there is practically nothing to spend your money on, especially during work-ups. A few trips to the soda machine or some Pringles from the ship’s store should be small potatoes compared to the family’s monthly grocery bill. Officers such as my wife have to pay for their food on the ship, but it is a predictable expense, usually pretty close to the Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS). With that in mind, my wife and I set up a budget for her that amounted to her mess bill plus some money for port calls. The rest of our income was in my hands to spend on the family at home — and save!
I should say here that in our family I take care of the money, paying the bills, managing our savings, and tracking the budget. All of our bills — rent, utilities, insurance, etc — I pay out of our checking account. All of our other monthly expenses — groceries, gas, clothes, toys, books, dining out, etc. — we charge to our joint credit cards and I pay off the next month. We also both have separate credit cards, and my wife used hers for port calls.
Most credit cards charge an extra fee for transactions in a foreign currency. USAA will waive those fees while you are deployed, but you have to let them know ahead of time. One of our cards is the Capital One Venture Card, which has no foreign transaction fees at all.
There usually aren’t any port calls during work-ups, so for our budget, we only planned on the actual deployment. We looked at port calls as a one weekend vacation for my wife about every 4 or 5 weeks. In port, my wife and her friend would share a hotel room, go out to eat, and do some sight-seeing. She charged it all to her credit card, and I would pay it off from home. Using her card kept those charges from mixing with our monthly family expenses.
At home, I had a few extra expenses while my wife was away. I took our young boys out to eat at least once or twice a week while mom was away, even though as a family we usually only eat out a couple times a month. We became regulars at ‘kids eat free’ Tuesdays at a local pizzeria/brewery. I bought more prepared meals for dinners and more pre-packaged snacks for school lunches. To cut down on my dishwashing duties I bought paper plates and cups. I paid for a few ‘parents night out’ at the YMCA to get a break for myself. And postage was another extra expense as I kept up a steady stream of care packages out to the Middle East.
Even though we were paying for my wife’s food on the ship, we didn’t have to pay to feed her at home so it was probably a wash. We were able to save money in other ways though. We called USAA to adjust our car insurance during the deployment, to reflect that my wife was not a regular driver anymore, and neither of our autos was being used for commuting.
When my wife was commuting to the ship every day it was about 30 minutes each way. With her gone, that was about $100 a month we saved right there on gas. I drive a truck that gets half the mileage of my wife’s car, so while she was gone I drove her car around town and saved even more while my truck was in the driveway.
While my wife was living large on the rare occasion her ship made port we still saved money on family vacations overall. For example, I ‘roughed it’ on 4 unforgettable tent-camping trips with my boys over the summer. Campsite fees ranged from $0 to $22 a night.
As for utilities, our house used a heat pump, which can really burn up electricity to heat your home if you try to keep it too warm. When winter came around I turned down the thermostat a bit since I’m a little more warm-blooded than my wife. I kept the house at a comfortable-for-me 61F while she was gone, keeping the electric bill down too.
The deployment cliché is that once your spouse leaves town the dishwasher fails, the car breaks down, and the plumbing springs a leak. We had a few of our own curveballs, and what saved us was a combination of credit cards and emergency savings.
About 6 weeks after the deployment started a family member suddenly died, and I needed to buy a last-minute, coast-to-coast plane ticket. Luckily other family members were able to take care of our boys for the weekend.
Two weeks later another family member was on his death bed. As his condition continued to change I bought 3 different trans-continental plane tickets for myself, but I made sure they were fully-refundable. I also bought a plane ticket for my mother-in-law to come to take care of the boys. I was able to get refunds for 2 of my tickets, but in the end, I still wasn’t able to get back before my relative died.
In this instance, I appreciated having multiple credit cards with high limits. I don’t know how to buy one plane ticket without a credit card, never mind three or four. As a family, we were able to compartmentalize our spending on different cards between our daily expenses, emergency expenses, and my wife’s expenses overseas. On top of that, USAA had already automatically lowered our credit card interest rate to 4% during the deployment. If we didn’t have the savings to pay off the bills, the credit card interest at only 4% would have been relatively easy to handle while paying off the unexpected expenses; with multiple cards we could have carried a balance on one for the plane tickets, and used another for daily expenses without incurring additional interest charges.
There was one other curveball that was less dour, and I still think is kind of funny. While I was cutting the grass one day the mower kicked up a stone and completely shattered the back window of my wife’s car. USAA had it repaired in less than 24 hours without the car ever leaving the driveway, but the $500 deductible was still a hit on our savings.
I’d like to point out that for financial planners ’emergency savings’ is usually based on providing living expenses if you lose your job. In the military the chances of losing your job without warning is practically zero, so we tend to downplay emergency savings. During this deployment, however, that cash on hand saved us more than once.
Rob Aeschbach served 12 years on active duty in the Marine Corps, and retired from the Marine Corps Reserve last year. He is starting a new career as a personal financial planner. His blog is at www.MilitaryFinancialPlanner.com