I have always believed in the importance of having a back up plan, or if that phrase doesn’t sit well with you, then a need to maintain a level of self-sufficiency. After all, life is known to throw curveballs when least expected.
When I was first married, my mother imparted some very wise advice. ‘Always, always take care of yourself,’ she added, ‘and keep your own checking account.’ Of course, my mom adores my husband so her advice wasn’t meant as some sort of a warning sign, but rather the sage advice of a woman who happily celebrated her fortieth wedding anniversary the week before I embarked upon my first year.
The truth is, that curve ball may not be in the form of a drastic betrayal. Marriages do fall apart, this is true, but in the military world there are a number of other factors that could influence your life and financial situation. Having a back up plan does not need to mean ‘wagering bets on your marriage,’ nor does it mean giving up. A back up plan is, in fact, EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE.
Having a back up plan means taking responsibility for yourself. You are NOT saying to your spouse, ‘I am creating an escape plan in case I need to leave,’ as saying, ‘if we find ourselves in an emergency, we both have granted ourselves as much knowledge as possible to get through X, Y or Z.’ Think of it as strengthening the foundation of marriage and not searching for cracks.
After all, it is a VERY real fact that the military can leave you stranded; and while the military boasts a grand tradition of ‘taking care of its own,’ in the case of service member misconduct, forced downsizing or even certain kinds of injury, the government may cease paying the service member. And, if it is the fault of the military member, or even if it isn’t, it’s possible your family benefits will be terminated without regard to you or your situation.
Even more so, there are simpler, more common occurrences in which having a back up plan is essential. Unfortunately there do exist an unfortunate number of corporations and ill-intentioned individuals that prey upon service members. It is a running joke, though based in reality, that some military members fall victim to predatory loans, or purchase new cars (with those predatory loans) or succumb to peer pressure that may involve a big night out with comrades and…a big hit to the bank account. If this occurs, you will want to have a plan.
The following advice has been passed down to me by those who came before while some of the advice I impart comes from good, old fashioned experience (and mistakes). Some of this is financial advice, as outlined in the first section, and some is emotional—both are equally important. It is up to you and your spouse only to define marriage how you wish, but it is imperative both for you and for your marriage to make certain that you always have a course of self-sustainment. I genuinely hope that you never need to use your plan B, but even if you don’t, you’re likely a stronger person and partner for having made one.
Obtain Your Own Checking Account: I firmly believe that each partner should have their own checking account. This is simply an account for finances or purchases that might not necessarily come out of the family account and might even exist for simple purposes: if you want to purchase your spouse a gift, for example. Perhaps you and your spouse decide to put $20.00 into that account a month, the amount doesn’t matter- just that it exists.
I have seen friction in marriages occur because the spouse that earns the bulk of the income decides that that is his or her money and therefore gets to make every decision on how that money is budgeted. On the flip side, I have witnessed the non-earning spouse take advantage of the spouse earning money by simply depositing a paycheck and spending it frivolously. Now, I am not a marriage counselor, nor to I purport to be, but when you enter a marriage, I believe you enter as partners and that means sharing a financial partnership. This means sitting down, hashing out the finances and setting up an appropriate budget. If that means taking away $10.00 per month from the ‘beer money,’ fund to put into your checking account, please consider. If that means putting aside $30.00 in your checking account and $30.00 in your spouses and the rest in your combined family, then by all means. This will allow you control over managing your own money and will also help both you and your spouse ascertain a bit of independence.
In MANY marriages, military or otherwise, financial friction might commonly creep up when one spouse elects to leave the work force in order to raise the children. Typically, this means a tighter budget. But remember, your work is important and while it might not garner a literal paycheck, it does an emotional paycheck. This stress is often amplified in the military, even without children, as constant military moves don’t always provide a stable environment for the non-military spouse to maintain a career. If you have children, it’s likely you aren’t near family who might even help out with child-care. More wise words from my mother at these times: ‘Being a parent is HARD WORK. If you stress out about not bringing in a paycheck, remember how much money you’re saving your spouse from having to hire full time child care!’
Know How To Manage A Budget And Balance A Check Book: It’s important you understand where the family money is going and where it comes from. Even if one spouse decides to take the bulk of the financial responsibility, say, paying the bills, you should both know how to manage the budget in an emergency. Make it a point not to hide anything from one another: your financial situation should be transparent to you both.
Make Sure Your Name is On The Title Of The Family Vehicle: Make sure your name is on the title of the family vehicle, especially the one you drive. Your name doesn’t have to be on every vehicle, but make sure it’s on at least one. For example, if your family has a minivan and your spouse also has a motorcycle, you don’t need to insist your name is on your spouse’s motorcycle. But do make sure it’s on the minivan.
Have Access to All Your Accounts And Power Of Attorney: Much financial interaction occurs online these days. Make sure both you and your spouse share the requisite passwords to any and all accounts with one another: checking, savings, electric, gas, etc. And, as a general rule, make certain you have a Power of Attorney. The Power of Attorney gives you the ability to pay bills, receive insurance claims and accept salary type money and allowances from the government if your spouse is away or injured.
Monitor Your Credit Score: Your credit score is extremely important: it can help you receive emergency loans, buy a car, a house, etc. Even if you aren’t working, it is important to keep up your credit score. One of the easiest ways to do so is to take out a low balance credit card (sometimes recommended as a TJ Maxx card or a Sears card). Keep the balance low and pay it off every month. This will help you build that important credit for your future.
You and your spouse may want to invest in a credit-monitoring program, as well. After all, the world is quite different today: with increasing online transactions and the prevalence of Internet savvy hackers, your credit information and your identity could be stolen. It’s always best to monitor this in order to squash a problem before it escalates. Service members are often preyed upon by thieves, as well, because during deployments it may difficult for them to monitor their report (or file a report from a foreign country).
If You Can, Consider Your Own Savings Or Investment Account: I understand that it might be difficult to find the money to put into a checking account, much less a savings account, but even if it is a few dollars every month, it’s always great to build a savings account. Down the line, you might want to consider a Roth Investment account, which would allow you to withdraw your money in case of an emergency.
Whether it is in your checking or your savings account, I recommend keeping enough balance in the account in order for you to ‘survive’ for a period of time. You’ll decide what that period of time is: if it’s enough money for you to have transportation to a safe place, or a cell phone, a taxi and an airplane ticket, or even if you or your partner are out of work for three months, you’ll figure it out. This is something to build toward, but consider it your own personal safety net.
INVEST IN YOURSELF
Keep Up Your Resume: You don’t need to be working a 9-5 job to keep up your resume-this is especially important advice for stay at home parents. Responsibility can come in a variety of forms. When you can, consider volunteering or participating in other charitable activities, get involved with your church, children’s school, local community or base. Become a PTA parent, lead a worship group, try your hand at freelance work, build up a website…everything-including a hobby– can be translated into workable experience.
Always Have A Safe House: Like looking for the fire exit, always have a place nearby that can serve as a trusted safe house. This can be a close friend, neighbor, fellow parishioner, or a fellow military spouse. You will want this if you have a lapse in housing or if you are in an emergency situation and need a quick exit.
Keep Up Friendships And Family Relationships: Technology is a beautiful thing: it helps put us in touch with long lost friends and it also helps us maintain relationships with those who live very far away. Cultivate these relationships. Military life can be very isolating and can lead to stress in a marriage. If you have a trusted family member, like a mom, dad, aunt, brother, grandparent, make sure you check in with them as often as you can. Not just to stave off isolation, but to help remind yourself that you are a person that extends beyond the title ‘military spouse.’ You were a unique individual before you became a military spouse and you will be a unique person after you become a military spouse, (whether it’s because of a break in the marriage or simply a retirement!)
Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone Occasionally:The military lifestyle can be very overwhelming at times and I know this seems like that LAST advice you want to hear (especially because you’re already likely tackling so many already), but set up personal goals and push yourself to accomplish those.
Like I said before, you’re much more than a military spouse. Yes, being a military spouse will hopefully fill you with pride, but it’s important to remember that you are a person beyond that moniker. So, take control of the finances and work toward that education you desire. With the increasing availability of online education and financial aid, that degree might not be so far off. Or, try your hand in that one hobby you’ve always wanted to check out-it might actually become a lucrative venture, or a source of much needed relaxation. Strive to create strong, solid and encouraging friendships and let those (and your family) be the center of your life—not, as we so often do, allow toxic situations to pull us down.
Don’t forget, you and your spouse married one another as individuals-unique and wonderful and lovely individuals-separate from any titles or ranks you may possess. You both owe it to one another to be the best partner you can be and part of that entails taking responsibility for yourself and your knowledge.