I Cleaned up My Bad Financial Habits to Stay in the Air Force

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  • Before joining the Air Force, I was in a lot of debt.
  • While joining a financial counseling program was life-changing for me, fear drove me to change.
  • For overdrawing your bank accounts or failing to pay bills, the military can discipline you.

I spent over 20 years in Air Force. My service is something I am extremely proud of. It shaped me in every way possible. But one of my greatest early challenges was to stay one step ahead of getting into financial irresponsibility.

After two years of college, I joined the Air Force without a degree. I had changed my major three times and accumulated $20,000 in student loans.

My student loans were sent to collections. My debt predated military service so my creditors didn’t know I was military. If they had known, these collection letters would have arrived at my commander’s desk rather than in my mom’s mailbox. I found out that I could get financial counseling at my local Family Support Center. I made an appointment.

Financial counseling made a difference, but fear was also a major motivator.

I was assigned a financial advisor who helped me to create a budget. Instead of ignoring my creditors, I contacted them and devised a plan for paying off my debts. My counselor encouraged me to enroll in group classes on money management, credit establishment and use. These classes were life-changing. I learned how fix bad money habits, and how to set goals.  

Fear was a strong influence. Contrary to civilian jobs where your boss doesn’t care if your bills are paid, the military exerts a greater control over off-duty activities than civilian jobs. Discipline can lead to disciplinary action, which can affect your advancement or ability to continue service.

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I had to learn to stick with a budget

I had large debts and a low income. An unplanned car repair or splurge — even something small like getting ice cream — would put me in the red.

My counselor taught me how to use a budget spreadsheet and forecast my expenditures. I learned how to budget for the things I would pay monthly like rent and other expenses that don’t occur every month like car maintenance.

There was no magic bullet or overnight miracle. There were times when I was tempted to overspend and fall behind, but having a plan helped me eventually.

I used credit wisely when I first started.

I was in trouble for using credit with a “buy now, think about it later” approach. I was an instant-gratification consumer who didn’t consider the reality of a maxed-out, high-interest credit card at the other end of the purchase.

A young soldier can borrow money very easily. Financial institutions are tempted to lend money when they have a steady income and the knowledge that the commander will put pressure on anyone who defaults. Furniture stores and car dealerships advertise “easy credit approval”They are a common sight near military bases.

I learned to be savvy about interest rates and credit offers. I also realized that only making the minimum payment was what caused my problems and fixed it. It took some time, but I finally learned that I could only use credit cards for planned purchases or emergency situations.

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I learned to live within my means

Classes and budget sheets won’t do much good if I continue to overspend. I was and am an emotional spender. It is important to change your behavior in order to stay within my limits.   

When I was considering a new car purchase I realized how much financial flexibility I could afford by choosing a reliable and safe car over the flashier, more expensive one.

Instead of trying to find a way I could afford, I focused on what I needed in order to get promoted and make money. I am so grateful that counseling and classes were included in my military benefits.

Fear factor

Despite being financially irresponsible, I didn’t get in trouble. I ignored my creditors when it was impossible to pay a bill. This was another lesson I learned. Not To do), and if the collection agents would have known they could get me attention by contacting my commander I’m sure I would be telling a completely different story today. I was a model Airman every other way. Fear of being disciplined or getting kicked out was a great motivator.

Today, I’m comfortable. I have money in the bank, investments and a retirement account. I have the same habits of sticking to my budget and evaluating what I want versus what is necessary. 

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