Securing Military Family Finances

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By: Emma Johnson

Originally published in Forbes

Despite the many health, income and retirement benefits afforded veterans, the immediate families of enlisted soldiers’ spouses are especially vulnerable financially. A recent study by the Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families found that 90 percent of female spouses reported being underemployed or overqualified for the positions they hold, and spouses of both genders earn 38 percent less than their civilian counterparts and at 26 percent, are 30 percent more likely to be unemployed. A full 95 percent of military spouses are women, and 80 percent of military spouses say they want to work.

BG Michael J. Meese, USA, Ret., PhD, and chief operating officer for the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association, a non-profit that provides insurance and financial planning services to military personnel explained that military spouses face challenges that much of the civilian population finds hard to understand.

“The fact that these young families have government income that is secure means all kinds of people show up to help them spend money,” Meese says. Payday loans, offers of credit cards with high interest rates and financing for furniture and appliances are common. Many of these families are young and living away from their extended family, on whom many of their age peers rely on for financial advice. “They’re often away from their parents and people they would normally turn to to help them buy their first washing machine, and who will help them pick out a reasonable machine rather than the $2,500 thing that does everything but make soup,” he says.

Frequent moves are often cited as the main reason it is difficult for spouses to develop a successful civilian career. Further, the typical enlisted solider and spouse have a high school education (though the report did find that even spouses holding doctorates faced unemployment rates of 16 percent, while 47 percent of those with associates degrees were unemployed), and often military bases are located in areas with few career opportunities off-base.

Once a spouse is deployed, the remaining husband or wife is then faced with making all of the financial on their own at a time when deployment pay means their income has jumped by as much as $600 to $1,000 — additional money that a young person is not accustomed to managing, especially during an especially stressful time, Meese says. “The last thing you want to do is deal with all those emotions through retail therapy,” he says.

These periods of deployment make holding a job–much less developing a professional career — even more difficult, as the burden of caring for children and the home is entirely on the spouse at home.

Meese stories about bankrupted military families has dropped dramatically in recent decades, in part thanks to aggressive on-base support and financial education. But is are still a lot military spouses and their families can do now to protect their families financially:

Be financially smart 

Seek out advice for creating a budget, living within your means, building credit and saving for the future. Be wary of too-good-to-be-true offers for credit cards, home loans and other deals, and be conscious of how your stress levels impact your spending habits. In the event your spouse is deployed, save money by:

  • Sell a second car, or at least reduce the insurance coverage while they’re away.
  • Cancel or pause their cell phone plan.
  • Consider breaking your lease and moving into a smaller home (all of the above are legally allowed by the Service Members Civil Relief Act)
  • Seek out the Financial Readiness program on your base.
  • Be conscious of how you use deployment pay. Consider socking all of this extra income into an emergency or investment account.

Find support

Life can be overwhelming. Life as a military spouse is tough, and when your spouse is deployed, it is a universally tough situation. Add career and financial stresses and it is unreasonable to expect yourself to do it alone. SpouseLink, the Veteran’s United spouse page, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program, and take advantage of financial, career, education and child care resources through your base and community.

Find a career that easily transitions

Michelle Obama-led Joining Forces is an initiative that promotes military spouse employment opportunities, including national portability for certifications in education and medical fields. Administrative, medical and information technology skills are easily transferable to many industries and locations, and an increasing number of telecommute opportunities that can be done from anywhere. Resources include the flexible job board FlexJobs and advice on career from MilitarySpouse.com.

Are you a military spouse? Have you had success in developing a career? What are your challenges? Please share in the comments! 

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