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 a financial counseling program was life-changing, but fear also motivated me to change.
  • The military can discipline you for overdrawing your bank account or missing a bill payment.

I spent 20+ years in the Air Force. I’m incredibly proud of my service. It shaped the person I am in every way possible, but one of my biggest early challenges was staying one step ahead of getting in trouble for financial irresponsibility.

I joined the Air Force after two years of college and being nowhere close to a degree. I’d changed majors three times and accrued $ 20,000 in debt, mostly from student loans.

My student loans went to collections. Since my debt predated my military service, my creditors weren’t aware that I was now military. If they had known, those collection statements would have landed on my commander’s desk versus in my mom’s mailbox. I learned I could go to financial counseling at my local Family Support Center, so I made an appointment.

Financial counseling made a world of difference, but fear was a big motivating factor, too

I was assigned a financial counselor who helped me set up a budget. I contacted my creditors instead of ignoring them and came up with a plan to pay off my debts. My counselor also encouraged me to sign up for group classes on money management and establishing / using credit that were life-changing. I learned how to recognize and correct problem money habits and set goals.

The things I learned in financial counseling were a strong influence, but so was fear. Unlike a civilian job where your boss doesn’t care if you pay your bills, the military exercises a greater influence over off-duty life. Overdrawing a bank account or being late on a bill can result in disciplinary action that can put advancement or continued service at risk.

I had to learn to stick to a budget

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

My counselor showed me how to use a budget sheet and how to forecast expenditures. I learned how to budget for things I’d pay monthly, like rent, as well as expenses that didn’t happen every month, like car maintenance.

There was no magic wand or overnight miracle. There were times I’d overspend and slide backwards, but having a road map ultimately helped.

I started using credit wisely

I got in trouble by using credit with a “buy now, think about it later” approach. I was an instant-gratification consumer who didn’t consider the reality of a maxed-out, high-interest credit card at the other end of the purchase.

It’s pretty easy for a young service member to borrow money. A steady paycheck and the knowledge that the commander will apply pressure for anyone who defaults on obligations are strong incentives for financial institutions to loan money. Car dealerships and furniture stores advertising “easy credit approval” are a familiar sight in neighborhoods near military bases.

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

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I learned to live within my means

Classes and budget sheets would do little good if I continued to overspend. I was (and still am) an emotional spender, which requires some behavior modification to keep in check.

When contemplating a new car purchase, I learned how much financial breathing room I could give myself by buying a car that was safe and reliable 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 earn money to buy what I wanted versus trying to find a way to afford what I couldn’t. I’m incredibly grateful classes and counseling were part of my military benefits.

The fear factor

I never got in trouble for being financially irresponsible, although I’m sure I had some close calls. I ignored my creditors when I couldn’t pay a bill (another thing I learned not to do) and if the collection agencies would have known they could get my attention by contacting my commander, I’m sure I’d be telling a different story today. I was a model Airman in every other way. The fear of disciplinary action or even getting kicked out of the military was a huge motivator.

Today, I’m comfortable. I have money in the bank, investments, and a retirement account. The habits of sticking to a budget and evaluating wants versus needs are still with me.

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