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

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  • I got into debt and called in my student loans before I joined the Air Force.
  • Participating in a financial counseling program was life changing, but fear also motivated me to change.
  • The military can discipline you if you overdraw your bank account or miss a bill payment.

I spent over 20 years in the Air Force. I’m incredibly proud of my ministry. It shaped who I am in every way, but one of my biggest early challenges was staying ahead of the curve to get into trouble for financial irresponsibility.

I joined the Air Force after two years of college and was still a long way from graduating. I had switched majors three times and accumulated $20,000 in debt, mostly on student loans.

My student loans went to collections. Since my debts predated my military service, my creditors did not know that I was now in the military. If they had known, these dunning notices would have ended up on my commander’s desk and not in my mother’s mailbox. I found out I could go to my local Family Support Center for financial counseling, so I made an appointment.

Financial advice made a big difference, but fear was also a big motivating factor

I was assigned a financial advisor to help me set up a budget. I contacted my creditors instead of ignoring them and devised a plan to pay off my debt. My advisor also encouraged me to enroll in group classes on money management and credit establishment/use which changed my life. I learned to identify and correct problematic money habits and set goals.

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The things I learned in financial consulting were powerful influence but also fear. Unlike a civilian job where your boss doesn’t care if you pay your bills, the military exerts a greater influence on off-duty life. Overdrafting a bank account or being late with a bill may result in disciplinary action that may jeopardize promotion or continued service.

I had to learn to stick to a budget

I had big debts and a small paycheck. An unplanned car repair or wastage – even something small like ice cream – would put me in the red.

My consultant showed me how to use a budget sheet and how to forecast expenses. I learned how to budget for things I would pay monthly, like rent, as well as expenses that don’t come up every month, like car maintenance.

There was no magic wand or overnight miracle. There were times when I overspent and slipped backwards, but ultimately having a roadmap helped.

I began to use credit wisely

I got into trouble using loans with a “buy now, think later” approach. I was an instant gratification consumer who didn’t consider the reality of a maxed out credit card with high interest rates on the other end of the purchase.

It’s pretty easy for a young soldier to borrow money. A steady paycheck and the knowledge that the commander will put pressure on anyone who fails to meet their obligations are strong incentives for financial institutions to borrow money. Car and furniture stores touting “easy lending” are a familiar sight in neighborhoods near military bases.

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But I’ve learned to be smart about loan offers and interest rates. I also learned that just the minimum payment was the root of my problems and corrected course. It took a while, but eventually I got to where I only used credit cards for emergencies or scheduled purchases.

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I’ve learned to live within my means

Classes and household sheets would be of little use if I kept spending too much. I was (and still am) an emotional spendthrift, which requires some behavioral changes to stay in check.

As I was contemplating buying a new car, I learned how much financial flexibility I could gain by buying a safe and reliable car versus the flashier, more expensive car I wanted.

I got into the mindset of focusing on what I needed to do to get promoted and make money to buy what I wanted instead of trying to figure out a way to afford what I couldn’t afford. I am incredibly grateful that teaching and counseling has been a part of my military accomplishments.

The Fear Factor

I’ve never gotten into trouble for being financially irresponsible, although I’m sure I’ve had some tight decisions. I ignored my creditors when I couldn’t pay a bill (another thing I learned Not to do) and if the collection agencies had known they could get my attention by reaching out to my commander, I’m sure I would be telling a different story today. I was a model aviator in every other way. Fear of disciplinary action or even expulsion from the military was a big motivator.

I feel good today. I have money in the bank, investments and a retirement account. I still have the habit of sticking to a budget and balancing wants and needs.

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