You might feel that military budgeting advice begins and ends with “spend less than you make and save all you can.” While that’s an easy, distilled version of budgeting that applies to all individuals and families, it’s more complicated than that, especially if you’re in the military.
Military servicemember budgets are different than civilian budgets because you have access to benefits and aid that civilians don’t. You also can face unique challenges, such as a high probability of needing to relocate more often.
Learning how to budget in the military can help you streamline your finances and leave you with more money for your savings at the end of each month. Get started on building your budget with this guide on the basics, created specifically for servicemembers.
How to Budget in the Military
Planning your budget gives you the ability to track expenses and income. The initial creation of the budget is the most time-consuming part, which is likely why people struggle to get started. Rest assured that the ROI of the time spent here is worth it.
Aside from your bills, your budget will tell you how much you can spend on more frivolous expenses. Keep goals like this in mind and you’ll have a much easier time learning how to budget in the military.
Calculate Your Monthly Income
Every dollar that comes into your household needs to be accounted for. What are all of your sources of income? Examples of income streams include:
- Spouse’s income
- Side jobs
- Social security and other government programs
- Alimony/child support
Notice that “stuff you sell” isn’t listed here — if you sell an old video game console, a car, or another object you already own, it’s not really “income” (unless you have a side job making items and selling them). Selling such things can be beneficial, especially if you have a tight month, but your income is money you can count on receiving every month.
Calculate Your Monthly Expenses
Once you have figured out your income, it’s time to write down your outgo. You need to list every regular expense you have, including:
- Rent or mortgage payments
- Recurring bills (power, internet, water, subscription services, etc.)
- Car payments (including insurance, gas, and regular repairs)
- Average grocery bill
You may have more than these, but this list is a good start. You may have to use an estimate for bills like power or gas that don’t have a set price point, and that’s okay. You can adjust as you go. If, for example, you estimate that you only spend $200 a month on groceries but then find it’s actually closer to $400, you can correct your budget to reflect the change. This is also where you benefit from the power of tracked budgets to “shine a light” on areas where you actually spend more (or less) than you previously thought.
Estimate Extra Spending
What do you spend on entertainment? This includes seeing movies, going out to eat, buying music, going to events, visiting theme parks, etc. These aren’t essential purchases, but they’re things you spend money on.
Calculating these expenditures will show you whether you can continue to spend at your current level. These are the first items to cut when you’re looking to save money. That might be slightly frustrating, but you may have to seek cheap or free alternatives if your budget needs tightening.
List Your Savings
Do you have a certain amount you put away each month? You should! Saving money is necessary in case of emergencies. General guidance says to have three to six months’ worth of expenses saved up — which is easier said than done.
For military members, this includes saving for moves. But you could also have a category of savings that are intended for fun items. If you’re saving for a big flatscreen TV, a new bike, musical instruments, or whatever you look forward to owning, make a savings category just for that.
Time for Math: Subtract Your Expenses from Your Income
Once you know where every dollar comes from and where every dollar goes, it’s time to weigh your expenses vs. your income. This may be your least favorite step in learning how to budget in the military: Watching your paycheck dwindle is never fun. However, you might be surprised by how much you have left over.
Be sure to check your math to make sure you crunched the numbers properly, then start making adjustments. If you need to, get a budgeting app to make this easier.
Managing Your Budget in the Military
Now that you know what the balance between spending and income is, you can adjust where your dollars are going. Eating out less, enjoying cheaper or free activities (like local parks and playgrounds), and getting a handle on frivolous spending are great first steps to proper military budgeting. Don’t worry, the budget isn’t here just to squelch fun — there may be other ways to loosen it up. Just stay on top of your budget and adjust as needed over time.
Analyze your monthly expenditures (including all bills). You may be spending more than you need to. Where can you save? Sometimes, seeing everyone laid out can inspire some creative thinking to find new ways to save in expense areas that seemed to already be as tight as possible.
You may be using too much power. Setting your thermostat for a higher temp when you leave the house will keep the AC from kicking on, and you can turn it back down when you get home. If you have a smart thermostat, you can just adjust it to come on at specific times.
Using the smart cycle on your dishwasher and only running it when it’s full saves a surprising amount of water. Cutting showers down to five minutes will also mean less money coming out of your account.
Driving less will save you on gas and wear and tear. Instead of driving to the park, take your bike, use public transportation, or walk!
You may be able to negotiate a lower payment on your phone, TV, or internet. Look for deals and take advantage of them when they pop up. And since you’re in the military, don’t forget to look for military discounts!
Find Military-Specific Assistance
Programs such as the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) can help reduce interest rates, protect you from foreclosure and eviction, and guard you against repossession. Each military branch also has specific relief organizations that provide grants and loans.
Lean on AAFMAA for Military Budgeting Advice
As a servicemember, you have a lot on your plate. Learning how to budget in the military doesn’t have to be complicated. Reach out to us for financial resources and insight to aid you in being smart with your money. Learn more about AAFMAA’s Membership benefits and become a Member today!
This article was originally published June 17, 2015.