A hand putting money into a green piggy bank with the U.S. Army logo on it.

Budgeting for Military Families

Budgeting was not something my husband and I began immediately in our marriage. It was a skill we learned over time, and one that has changed not only how we manage our money in better ways, but how we plan for the future of our family.

Like many military families, we live off one salary. This is not always easy, so I wanted to share a few budgeting tips that have worked well for us since we began a couple years ago.

  1. Tackle your debt before your savings. My husband and I began our marriage in debt. We both had car payments that added up to almost $800 per month. At the end of each month, we found that we were able to save very minimally, if at all. It was discouraging for both of us, feeling like we were making little progress in either category; that is, paying off debts or We decided we needed to actively focus on our debt before we could think about saving; so, we endured a painful year and a half putting every extra dollar we could find towards our car payments and becoming debt-free. Once we were no longer spending that money on car payments, we found that we could pay it forward into savings and investing.
  2. Budget carefully and consistently. I’ve tried many budgeting tools over the years and have had most success with “zero-based budgeting”. This is a budgeting system in which you anticipate unique expenses for the upcoming month and plan where every dollar will go for that specific month — whether that be into an expense category or into savings. Your goal is to reach a balance of zero at the end of the month and plan a new budget for the next month. In other words, there is no “carryover” money into the next month. Whatever money is not used that month goes into savings. Successful budgeting takes consistency and discipline. Entering your expenses into your budgeting tool or app is a task you must commit to doing every few days to stay on top of your spending and remaining allowances.
  3. Anticipate your expenses. Anticipating your expenses is an important skill to develop when using a zero-based budget. You should always be thinking about the month ahead. For instance, this past September I began working on our October budget, listing any unique expenses I knew of such as a hair appointment, Halloween, hosting friends for a weekend and my husband’s promotion ceremony. I knew we would be spending more than usual that month, so I cut our spending allowance in other categories such as personal spending, family fun time and eating out. By cutting the budget in some categories, you allow room to spend more in other categories that month — with the goal of meeting your typical monthly savings goal.
  4. Pace yourself. Since becoming debt-free and budgeting well, my husband and I no longer live “month-to-month” like we did for those first couple years of marriage; however, we choose to. What I mean by this is that we pace our spending throughout the month, so we do not ever use our entire paycheck. We can pay off our credit card at the end of the month without dipping into savings. In fact, usually there is a good bit left to save. I like to challenge myself at the beginning of each month to spend money only on needs and buying the extras in the latter half of the month. This is helpful in preventing me from “blowing the budget” in the first week or two of the month.
  5. Be realistic. If you are new to keeping a budget, it will take a few months of closely monitoring your spending to be able to set up a realistic budget for yourself. I still find myself tweaking certain expense categories when I find that we are going over budget in those areas for consecutive months. Of course, there are times where instead of tweaking your budget, you need to tweak your lifestyle (we have had to do this with eating out less than we’d like to), but other times you may be going over budget because you have set unrealistic expectations for yourself.

As the popular American financial guru Dave Ramsey preaches, “A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.” And I really mean it when I say that creating a budget has been the best decision my husband and I have made in our marriage, and for the future of our family.

A woman is sitting, drinking coffee and looking out the window.

Preparing for New Beginnings

January is traditionally a time for making plans, resolutions and revving into high gear for the new year ahead. For many of us, the holidays are a stressful time versus a restful time, and for many military families there can be complex nuances during this time depending on deployment status. Additionally, PCS season is right around the corner. Yet, this time of year we often ask ourselves to speed up even though in nature, winter is usually a time for slowing down and hibernating.

This January, what would it look like to slow down? What if instead of requiring more and more energy to keep up with resolutions and plans, we instead turned inward and gave ourselves permission to rest?

This time can be used to reflect on the last year. What worked well for us? What would we like to change and do differently? What is truly important to us and how can we make time and space for the people and things that really matter? January is a great time to settle, quiet our minds and listen to our intuition about how we want the upcoming year to look, and how our military life impacts our plans.

As the winter moves on and we have a firm understanding of what we want in the upcoming year, February can be devoted to making concrete plans, setting intentions, reviewing boundaries and how to implement them. We are still resting, still reflecting, still in a hibernation of sorts but we are now, slowly, moving toward the newness of spring.

As the days grow longer and we prepare for spring, we put our plans into action. We may stick to our plans longer, having taken the time to rest and reflect. We may have a new understanding of what is truly important to us. And we will be ready for the business of spring and summer.

Two kids standing against their luggage which is on a bell cart.

The Last Act

“I can do anything for three years.” That is the way I’ve approached five sets of orders. Home was always just temporary — transitional, really, because we were always on the way to the next step transitional; it was temporary. So, when that 20-year mark that was so far out of sight and mind, PCS after PCS, that it was more like fantasy than reality is suddenly staring you in the face, telling you to make some big choices, it’s a little jarring to say the least.

What’s Her Deal?

The whole “should we stay, or should we go” question that activates military retirement is a pretty heated debate — totally get it, and the separation doesn’t need to be retirement to carry all the what-ifs and agonizing rounds of Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide where to go and what to do when you’re free to make those choices. To all the service members and spouses (and heck — kids too) counting down to the end of service, I see your point. The moving is hard. The separations are hard. Making new friends and reacclimating is really just exhausting.

But it’s also comfortable. It’s also all we know, and for families like ours who never really had a home base (husband was a military brat) or have no desire to return to home base (I love you, South Texas —I’m just not in love with you anymore), there’s no “going home” to look forward to.

With one remaining (and believe you me, I am throwing some strong air quotes around “one” because I know literally anything can happen that could keep us in another year or two) — anyway, with one more set of orders with our name on it, here’s what we know.

  1. We have no idea where we want those orders to take us. And 18 months out, we barely know what our choices might be.
  2. Ideally, we’d like orders to a place where we wouldn’t mind staying a while after the military to give the kids some continuity for middle school and high school.
  3. As dreamy as it would be to put down roots at our last stop, I don’t count it likely because for that to happen, the kids would have to love it, my husband would have to find a full-time job, and I would also have to find a full-time job.
  4. We could stay put in the Washington metro area at the cost of waiving off one last adventure.

It’s a bit of a suffocating, stuck feeling to think about moving (or the absence of it) as something so permanent. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I’m the girl who has to rearrange the furniture on off-PCS years to “shake things up.” The idea of being “regular people” as my daughter sometimes says is weird and foreign.

Two kids posing in front of a home.

Mountains or Mole Hills?

Deep down in my gut, I think I know that all the stress — is self-inflicted, first of all — but all the stress is in the “wait.” When the conversations start happening with the monitor, I know things will clarify somewhat, and I won’t have nearly the infinite choices to make all at once like I think I will. We’ll have the usual wish list. Decide — I mean as long as it’s cool with the Marine Corps, obviously, then go do our thing wherever that is. This pressure to get it right is only a mountain of pressure if we try to figure it all out at once. Take it one step at a time, one decision at a time. And for the love of everything, fight your inner Kristi who wants it all decided right now. In the words of everybody’s kooky friend, Phoebe Buffet, it’s OK if you don’t have a plan, because “I don’t even have a pl–.” And, you know what else? If we settle post-military, decide that map dot isn’t a good fit, we can just pick a different one. We’re pretty good at the whole moving thing, and I don’t think it would really phase us one bit.

Featured Topics