I cleaned up my bad financial habits to stay in the Air Force

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  • I got into debt and let my student loans go to collections before I joined the Air Force.
  • Joining the financial counseling program was a change in my life, but fear also prompted me to change.
  • The military can discipline you for overdrafting your bank account or not paying a bill.

I have spent more than 20 years in the Air Force. I am very proud of my service. I shaped the person I am in every possible way, but one of the biggest challenges I faced early on was staying ahead of getting into trouble due to financial irresponsibility.

I joined the Air Force two years after college and wasn’t even close to getting a degree. I changed majors three times and accumulated $20,000 in debt, mostly student loans.

My student loans went to collections. Since my debts preceded my military service, my creditors were unaware that I am now a military man. If they had known, this collection data would have been on my captain’s desk across from my mother’s mailbox. I knew I could go to a financial counseling center at my local Family Support Center, so I made an appointment.

Financial advice made a world of difference, but fear was also a huge motivating factor.

I was assigned a financial advisor who helped me Budget preparation. I called my creditors instead of ignoring them and put together a plan to pay my debts. My advisor also encouraged me to enroll in group classes on money management and creating/using credit which was life changing. You’ve learned how to recognize and correct problematic money habits and set goals.

The things I learned in financial counseling had a powerful impact, but so was the fear. Unlike a civilian job where your boss doesn’t care about paying your bills, the military exerts a greater influence on off-duty life. An overdraft or delay in billing can result in disciplinary action that could jeopardize the progress or continuity of the service.

I had to learn to stick to a budget

I had big debts and a small salary. An unplanned car repair or a waste — even if it’s something as small as getting ice cream — would put me in the red.

My advisor showed me how to use the budget sheet and how to forecast expenses. I learned how to budget for things I would be paying monthly, like rent, as well as expenses that didn’t happen each month, like car maintenance.

There was no magic wand or an overnight miracle. There were times I would overspend and fall backwards, but having a roadmap eventually helped me.

I started using credit wisely

I’ve had trouble using credit with the “buy now, think about it later” approach. I was a consumer of instant gratification and didn’t think about the fact that there was a high-interest credit card with a maximum limit at the other end of the purchase.

It is very easy for a young service member to borrow money. A steady salary and the knowledge that the leader will put pressure on anyone who defaults on commitments are strong incentives for financial institutions to lend money. Car dealerships and furniture stores advertising “easy credit approval” are a common sight in neighborhoods close to military bases.

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

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I learned to live within my means

Classes and budget papers won’t do me much good if I keep overspending. I was (and still am) an emotional spender, which takes some behavior modification to stay in control.

When I was thinking about buying a new car, I learned how much financial breathing space I could give myself by buying a safe and reliable car versus the more glamorous and more expensive car I wanted.

I got into the mindset of focusing on what I need to do to get a promotion and making money to buy what I want versus trying to find a way to afford what I can’t. I am so grateful that the classes and counseling were part of my military merits.

Fear factor

I’ve never had a problem for being financially irresponsible, although I’m sure I did get some close calls. I ignored my creditor when I couldn’t pay a bill (Another thing I learned Not to do so) and if the collection agencies knew they could get my attention by calling my leader, I’m sure I’d tell a different story today. I was a model pilot in every other way. The fear of disciplinary action or even expulsion from the military was a great motivator.

I am satisfied today. I have money in the bank, investments, and retirement account. The habits of sticking to a budget and weighing needs against needs are still with me.

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