Money Mistakes Made by Military Families

Lots of us make mistakes with our money — even me. There’s a lot to learn, and we’re always stumbling into new situations.

While I’m educating people about their finances, I see the same oversights again and again. While the big ones are more obvious, there are a couple of seemingly smaller mistakes that can be just as dangerous, but are not always as obvious.

No Renters’ Insurance

Renters’ insurance seems like such a small thing, right until you have a catastrophic disaster and you have to use it. Even if you think that you “don’t have much,” think for a minute how much it would cost to replace even basic furniture, kitchen items, linens, clothes and uniforms.

Plus, renters’ insurance covers more than just your stuff. While every policy may be different, it also usually covers your liability if you do something wrong. (Forgot to turn off the stove? Left the water running in the sink?) or if someone gets hurt at your house. And most policies include loss-of-use coverage, which helps if your house or apartment is uninhabitable for some reason.

Unless your belongings are covered under a homeowner’s policy, you should have renters’ insurance. It’s cheap, and most insurance companies offer it. Check with your auto insurer, and then maybe shop around for other companies. If you really research it, it might take you an hour to find a good policy. Don’t wait.

Lunches/Vending Machines/Drive-Through Spending

This is a personal problem for me. In normal times, I spend way too much of my allowance on crap food and drinks. Even a healthy choice of an unsweetened iced tea is $2-$3 at most convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Start getting into actual food, and/or a car full of kids, and that bill grows exponentially. Do that a couple of times a week and then, next thing you know, you’re spending $200 a month on, well, stuff you probably don’t need.

Thankfully, there are easy ways to cut back on the amount you’re spending on food and drinks. Stock your work and car with drinks and non-perishable snacks. My family likes individually sized bags of popcorn, nut, and granola/snack bars, plus water and Gatorade. It is not uncommon for someone to leave the house with half a meal to eat on the way somewhere. Plus, we try to bring our own drinks when we leave the house. Every little bit helps!

Misunderstanding Your Income-Tax Situation

Taxes can be confusing, so it is understandable that not everyone has a firm grasp on what is happening with their income taxes. Throw in the constantly changing details of military life, and sometimes it feels like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

However, if you don’t know what’s going into your income-tax calculations, you can’t make smart decisions, like whether a second job will be worthwhile, or whether you want to put your TSP contributions in as Traditional or Roth. For example, many military families discover that a second income means that they receive a smaller Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which makes that income a lot less valuable. And if they don’t know how that second job is going to impact their EITC, they can’t add that to the other costs of working to see whether the job makes financial sense.

There are a couple of ways to fix this issue. I recommend that everyone go through their income-tax return line by line, and learn what it means. If you try that, and you’re still confused, have a chat with your installation’s personal financial educator. They can point out important parts that you should know, and help you project how certain decisions will impact your tax situation.

Leaving Military Benefits Unused

Military service provides a wide variety of benefits to service members and their families. Sometimes they are a little hard to find, and sometimes they are a little hard to use, but there is a huge range of programs offered by both the services and private organizations. Many families don’t even know that these opportunities exist! I’ve seen everything from a military spouse who thought she “didn’t have health insurance,” to service members who think that tuition assistance is too difficult to use, to families who aren’t getting a military discount on their cell phone bills.

This one can be a little trickier, because programs and deals and benefits aren’t always obvious, but you should definitely do research to see whether there is any way that you or your spouse’s military service can help decrease some of your expenses.

Each of these items seems relatively insignificant, but you might be surprised at how much they can cost. At the worst end of the spectrum, an apartment fire is a disaster if you don’t have insurance. But even that $2 iced tea adds up!

Not Knowing Where Your Money Goes

The first thing that most people need to do is figure out what they’re spending. Sounds easy, right? You’d be surprised! For most people, when we sit down and write down their income and expenses, there is a relatively large number left over at the end. So I ask, “Do you feel like you have $900 left at the end of every month?” Almost everyone says no, that they’re broke at the end of the month.

This problem is somehow both the easiest and hardest one to fix. It’s easy, because all you have to do is write down what you spend. It’s hard because no one wants to actually do that or they intend to do it, and then they don’t.

This is also the solution that can make the biggest impact on your overall financial health. Just knowing where your money is actually going is the first step in taking control over your financial future. So whether you use an index card wrapped around your debit card, an app on your phone, or throw all your receipts in a basket and tally them at the end of the week, do something to keep track of that money.

(Pro tip: Check your subscriptions. Do you really need Pandora AND Spotify? Netflix, Hulu AND Amazon Prime?)

25 Money-Saving Tips for Military Families

Want to protect your hard-earned cash? Military discounts go a long way. Always ask retailers, restaurants, airlines, motels and other establishments, “Do you have a military discount?” Meanwhile, here are 25 other money-saving tips. Go ahead, wave your frugal flag.

Save at home

1. Trade time/repair skill with a neighbor. Swap services or trade time (a Saturday, for example) with a neighbor. You may know plumbing and your neighbor may be handy with a hammer. Trading time with a trusted neighbor can extend beyond home repairs to other ways to help — lawn, babysitting, etc.

2. Do-it-yourself repairs and maintenance. Whether it’s painting a room, doing yard work or bathroom repairs, even those with all-thumbs can pull these off. If you’re already a DIY’er you can take on bigger projects. Check out service member deals at home improvement stores.

3. Use coupons. Use coupons or join a coupon exchange for home services that require a pro.

4. Shop garage/yard sales and second-hand stores. You can get great deals on things like furniture, dishes and clothes.

Save on entertainment

5. Host a pot-luck dinner. It’s cheaper, you get a variety of tastes and you don’t have to do all the cooking. It’s also fun and social. Tip: Have everyone bring a specific or assigned dish.

6. Think free outings. Check out the local parks, memorials and art galleries. Take a picnic. Go on a walk, hike or stroll. Have kids? Take them fishing, skipping rocks or to playgrounds.

7. Have a leisurely lunch. Have lunch out and eat dinner in. Think mid-afternoon. Lunch often is cheaper than dinner. Or when you’re out for dinner, split an entrée and each get an appetizer.

8. Seek discounts at amusement parks and museums. Most offer military discounts. Google “military discounts at amusement parks”— you’ll find a bunch, especially at the well-known ones. Same goes for museums. Better yet: Visit the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Digital Library available on Military OneSource to find a range of fitness, recreational and skills development programs, tickets and more — some at reduced rates.

9. Shop online. Sure, you’re already doing it. But you can shop for just about anything online and compare prices. You can also look for online coupons.

Save on clothes and school supplies

10. Look for deals. Shop at your military installation’s commissary and exchange. Shoppers typically save more than 30 percent compared to shopping in town. Or shop at outlet and discount stories. Consignment and thrifts shops are good too. And look for deals online.

11. Stock up on basics during sales. When you find good deals on socks and underwear, buy a few extra pair to lock in the savings.

12. Get the most from your wardrobe. Uniforms also can be worn off duty. Sticking to similar color combinations or buying clothes in neutral colors lets you do more with fewer clothes.

Save with military travel deals

13. Fly for free. Service members and family can fly free or at very low cost when space is available on military flights. Space-available Passenger Transportation, or Space-A Travel, can be tricky at times but can save you lots of money on flights.

14. Visit national parks for free. National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. A free annual pass is available for current U.S. military members and dependents.

15. Go camping. It can be cheaper and more fun than hotels. If camping isn’t your family’s thing, pick kid-friendly hotels that don’t charge extra for children.

16. Travel off-season, with a group or on a tour. It’s cheaper than going on your own or on-season.

17. Use Department of Defense Lodging services. Military families are eligible to use military lodging around the world, ranging from cottages on the beach to world-class resorts or recreational lodging facilities. Destinations include resort towns, big cities, oceanfront getaways, mountain top retreats and overseas locales.

Save on transportation

18. Walk, bike or use public transportation. It’s cheaper and healthier for you and the environment. If you can’t, carpool.

19. Shop for car insurance. If you must drive your own vehicle, compare rates online and consider a higher deductible on collision coverage if your car is older. While you’re at it, keep your car maintained — and DIY, if you can.

20. Buy a used car. A two-year-old car with some mileage can save you thousands versus a new car. Have your mechanic check it out, however.

Save on utilities

21. Do the basics. Turn off the lights when not using them. Unplug computers, appliances, charging cables when not using them. Visit the Department of Energy’s Energy Saver website. Don’t heat or cool rooms you don’t use. Close your fireplace damper when not in use.

22. Insulate your attic or other unfinished spaces. Use storm windows and weatherproof your home to reduce heat or cooling loss.

23. Watch the thermostat. Setting your temperature between 68 and 72 degree may be comfy, but it can kill your wallet. Set the air conditioner at 78 in the summer when home (consider running fans instead). Turn the heat to 64 or so and wear extra layers of clothes.

24. Buy energy-efficient appliances. Look for the Energy Star label.

25. Double check your cell phone and cable bills. Make sure you’re not paying for needless services. Also, bundle your phone, internet and cable, if you can. And watch your data use on mobile devices. That can break tight budgets.