These money lessons I learned in the military have shaped my life and helped find financial freedom
It’s been 15 years since I got out of the Marine Corps and I still look back and remember some really good times. Another thing I remember is what my experience in the military taught me about money.
You don’t get paid much as an enlisted member of the armed forces. Getting out as a corporal, I think my last semi-monthly paycheck was something like $600 after taxes. That’s for two weeks, not one.
Pay has gone up for military service members but not by much. The experience taught me three very important money lessons.
Military Money Lessons #1: Show me a budget and I’ll show you how to live above it
The first money lesson I learned as a Marine was that it really doesn’t matter how much you make, it’s what you do with it. Even on pay that wouldn’t amount to Donald Trump’s pocket change, you can actually save a lot of money while serving in the military.
Nearly everything is paid for including room, food and healthcare. Most military bases have a large grocery store on-base or nearby and a rec center. It’s different for those with a family but, for a single person, your paycheck is basically free-and-clear.
I knew Marines that saved up to half of their paycheck, investing it for when they got out or when they wanted to buy a house. I was able to save just under $20k while I was in.
Then I also knew Marines that were constantly taking out personal loans and living paycheck-to-paycheck. They spent it faster than they could make it and more than a few had to be counseled on their problems with debt.
If getting into trouble with debt is bad for everyone, it’s twice as bad in the military. You can lose your security clearance, have your pay garnished and even lose your chance at promotion.
It doesn’t really matter how much money you make, it will never be enough if you don’t learn to budget and be happy with what you’ve got. Look at the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel, who has filed for bankruptcy three times despite making hundreds of millions on his music.
It’s one of the toughest money lessons to learn but you don’t have to cut your spending to the bone. If you’re having trouble saving enough to meet your financial goals, take a good look at your monthly budget and look for ways to save money.
Military Money Lessons #2: Make it more than a job and pay won’t matter
Probably one of the best money lessons I learned in the Corps was the difference between a job and a career.
A job is something you hate waking up to every morning. You sit out your eight hours and just pray for the weekend and early retirement.
A career is something more. The work is in something you enjoy and you actually try to learn more about it. Sure, you’re not going to jump out of bed and rush to work every morning but you generally enjoy what you do.
It really doesn’t have to be something you love doing either, but something with a purpose that drives you. I didn’t get much enjoyment as an armorer, fixing machine guns and rifles, but I found a purpose in the mission and the pride of being a Marine.
If you’re working a ‘job’ and can’t find some purpose in it to drive you and make you happy then you need to look for something else. It’s tough to do when trying to support a family but you can’t spend your life miserable. You may not be able to rush out to find your career this instant but you can work towards it by finding out what you enjoy and starting to freelance. Check out an earlier post on how to make money freelancing and nine websites to help you do it.
One of the biggest lessons I learned while writing my book about passive income myths is that most don’t live up to the promise of ‘passive’ income but can still be great opportunities for extra income or even a full-time career. I work harder blogging and freelancing than I ever did in a traditional 9-to-5 job but love what I do. I make great money and really don’t even worry about retirement anymore because I can’t imagine not doing this.
Military Money Lessons #3: Always Take the Free Money
It always amazed me how many Marines didn’t contribute into the G.I. Bill when I was enlisted. At the time, it cost you $100 a month for the first year. After you got out, you could get a monthly stipend to pay for tuition and educational expenses. It’s been a while but if I remember correctly, it worked out to nearly $800 a month for up to 36 months.
That’s almost $29,000 for an investment of just one grand…a better return than you’ll find in any penny stock or hot growth company. Yet many Marines just couldn’t stand to give up that hundred each month.
The GI Bill is actually free now, you don’t have to pay in to receive the benefits. The analogy is still relevant though to personal finances outside the military. So many people don’t take advantage of 401k matching by their employers and tax programs around education and health expenses.
- 529 Savings Accounts – Put money in for future educational costs for you or anyone in your family. You get a deduction when you put the money in, it grows tax-free and you pay no taxes on withdrawals if used for educational expenses.
- Health Savings Accounts (HSA) – Like the 529 accounts but for medical expenses. These triple-tax savings are even better than retirement accounts where you get an immediate deduction but have to pay taxes on withdrawals. Money in HSAs doesn’t have a deadline so you can just accumulate it forever without paying taxes.
- 401K match plans – C’mon people…this is about as free money as you can get! Why are you worrying about trying to ‘beat’ the stock market for a couple of percent when you could double your money immediately with a company match. Even if your employer only matches for half, that’s still a 50% return.
Money lessons are all around, you’ve just got to look for examples. These three money lessons I learned in the military have shaped my life and made me a happier person. I’d love to hear the money lessons you’ve learned, please share them in the comments below.