How to Make Ends Meet as a Military Family on One Salary

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Less than $5,000.

That’s what I made–cumulatively–during the first half year I was a military spouse.

I had a master’s from a major university. I had five years of work experience with outstanding recommendations from my superiors. I had worked hard– really hard– during that first half year of marriage. I was teaching as many credits as I could as an adjunct faculty member of an online graduate program. I had tried my hand at mystery shopping. I was freelancing as opportunities arose and I was consulting for a start-up. I tried taking surveys and doing online tasks for points to earn gift certificates. I had begun to monetize my blog.

I was doing everything that I possibly could.

It's intimidating to go from having a career to leaving it all behind. #milspouse

And yet… as I added up my earnings, I felt myself starting to tear up. I already knew what the outcome would be, but as it stared at me in my own handwriting, I was so ashamed. I couldn’t push away the cold feeling of shame bubbling up. I wanted to be an equal earner in our relationship. I didn’t want to stick John with the burden alone. I was surprised, too, at my visceral reaction. I never before thought that a paycheck meant so much to me.

But it did.

It’s tough to make ends meet on a junior enlisted sailor’s salary. It’s even harder to make ends meet on a junior enlisted sailor’s salary when you’ve got six-figures in student loan debt. (Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae want those benjamins, too!) I can’t imagine doing it with kids, too. (My hat is off to those of you who do!)

It was not an option to default on our student loans and we didn’t want to live paycheck-to-paycheck longer than we absolutely had to. Maybe I wasn’t going to be able to earn anywhere close to my old career’s salary… but I knew it wasn’t an option to shrug our shoulders and give up, either. We had to be the best stewards of what we had at the time while I tried my best to increase my earning power.

This is what we did to keep our family afloat until things got better financially:

Make a for-real budget

Make a budget based on your family’s actual income, expenditures, and savings goals– not the ones you wish for or think you have. Make sure, too, that you can follow that budget and that there’s a little bit of wiggle-room for unforeseen expenses. Finally, stick to it. A budget on paper is absolutely no good if you’re not willing to stick to it.

Use governmental and non-profit resources

There are tons of resources for military spouses– no matter what stage you are at in your career or what you want to do. Find the programs in your career field or interest and use them to your advantage. Make sure that you get to know organizations like Hiring Our Heroes which have job fairs and opportunities to enhance your skills. Huge businesses– like Chevrolet– partner with Hiring Our Heroes to help veterans and military spouses find meaningful careers in military-friendly environments. Don’t let those programs–and potential connections from them– go to waste. Use them liberally.

Take advantage of discounts

I don’t need to tell you that many businesses offer military discounts; everyone and their mom knows that. Make asking for military discounts a habit when you purchase. I don’t care if those purchases are small at, say, a froyo place (but seriously, ask at froyo places. They have military discounts too!) or large. Those discounts really do add up and you can feel the impact of that saved money, especially on a tight budget.

It's intimidating to go from having a career to leaving it all behind. #milspouse

And ask about military discounts for really big purchases, too. Yes, you can even get military discounts when you’re buying your next car, like when you buy a Chevrolet. Now through May 31, nobody offers a more comprehensive discount – available to active duty, retirees, and all veterans.* The discount takes your purchase price to a special one below the MSRP and can be combined with most current offers.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned on a very (VERY) tight budget, it’s that asking about a military discount isn’t shameful or weird. I’m grateful to businesses who help us save on our purchases… and I’m loyal to them, too.

Keep networking

While I didn’t intentionally mean to, I continued to freelance and reach out to other people. I did a lot of work for free (or nearly free). Slowly but surely, more opportunities availed themselves to me as I continued to get to know the niche I freelanced in. Even keeping my LinkedIn up-to-date yielded results– I had a short-term gig writing grant proposals because my client did a search for “freelancers” and my name popped up.

It's intimidating to go from having a career to leaving it all behind. #milspouse

Search for the best offers

I have to hand it to John– he was relentlessly dogged in his pursuit of lowering our student loan debt and when it came to big-ticket items.  (You know, because the best thing you want to do when making a huge purchase is to have a deadline on it and be totally at the purchase’s mercy.)

It's intimidating to go from having a career to leaving it all behind. #milspouse

Use the military’s resources

I chose to keep TRICARE Prime in order to cut back on out-of-pocket costs. I’ve also shopped around with dentists to make sure our TRICARE Dental Plan goes the furthest. On vacation, we’ve cut expenses by staying in Navy Lodges and we’ve used MWR discounts, too. If it makes financial sense, we’ll shop at the Exchange and the Commissary– although we absolutely price check to make sure that the drive to base is worth it.

Don’t give up

Rebuilding (or building) a career as a military spouse can be really, really, terribly, horribly frustrating. It can be lonely. And discouraging. It can feel like ten steps back for every one step forward– especially if you’re facing external pressures like debt or deployments. I have felt all of those things tons of times. I am right there with you. But don’t give up. (I know, I know, easier said than done, right?) If you need to, have a bad day– or even a bad week– and then pick yourself up and dust yourself off. Opportunities will present themselves as you continue to look for them and network with others.

* Eligible military personnel includes Active Duty members, Reservists, National Guard members, Veterans and Retirees — including their spouses — of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Excludes 2016 Malibu, Equinox and Traverse L models, Colorado 2SA, Impala Limited and Spark EV; 2016 Cruze, Cruze Limited L Manual and Corvette Z06. Take delivery by 5/31/16. See participating dealer for details.)

This is a sponsored story from Chevrolet and SoFluential | MSB New Media.

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