Talking finances can be boring. When I hear the words “you need to budget,” there’s a good chance my eyes roll. Let’s say we go a step further by making the plunge to be financially-responsible by meeting with an expert in the field. One of the biggest turn-offs can be unrealistic advice. Plus, if you’re scheduling an appointment to talk budgets and finances, it’s for one of two reasons: proactive or reactive assistance. There may just be a whole lot of expenses and, not enough income.

1. Establish a savings account even when there doesn’t seem to be any money to save

Have you ever heard the saying ‘champagne taste with beer pockets’? I am guilty as charged. With my husband just shy of a year and a half from exiting the military, I decided to be open-minded to meeting with a financial counselor on base. After all, it is free, and nothing like trying to step up our finance game in the 4th quarter. The first thing the guy asked about was our savings account, of which we had none. How do you save money when it seems there is no money left over at the end of a pay period – that is the question? Well, he had an idea that seemed doable.

The idea of committing to x percent of each paycheck was not a reality for our family. 18+ years around the military, frequent moving, a house sitting on the market at a former duty station, bad choices and a whole lot of loans have made for a tight budget. So, this expert suggested starting small – $25 a paycheck. I thought, we could spare that amount. It is reasonable. Then, we slowly increased it where we could because rather than being intimidated by being told we should be putting aside an unachievable percentage each paycheck, this counselor understood he couldn’t place an unattainable demand on us. And, what do you know? We have a savings now.

FINANCIAL HACK: Put it on paper – old-school style. Military Saves houses a link to a worksheet on their website that allows you to map out all expenses and income so you can look at the big picture. It is an ah-ha moment when you see the numbers, then see where you actually trim some of those costs: FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT PLAN WORKSHEET

2. Cut food costs in two ways

The average family of four spends anywhere from $600-$1200 per month on groceries, and couples from $380-$750, according to a December 2016 report from the USDA. The commissary offers a substantial savings for military families, but it may not be a reasonable option if you live out in town. But, being prepared can help cut grocery costs regardless of where you choose to purchase food. Check out these three tools:

  1. Meal planning: This will help you avoid purchasing items you won’t need. There are a number of apps free for Android and iPhone users, such as AnyList.
  2. Write out your list (and remember to bring it with you), or if you are more inclined to using technology, build a list with your phone.
  3. Try online ordering: Even though there is a cost with using to-go grocery services, some shoppers say seeing the whole virtual cart in front of them helps them stay within a budgeted number.

3. Stay on top of your credit – for free

Your credit can make – and break – everything from important purchases, such as a home or car, to qualifying for employment. Plus, identity theft is a very real thing in today’s digital era so it is vital to your financial health that you monitor your credit reports. Every 12 months you are eligible to pull one, or all three, from the major credit reporting agencies of EquiFax, TransUnion, and Experian. Click to request your free credit report

FINANCIAL HACK: Rather than pulling all reports at once, spread them out by requesting one report every four months to have an eye all year long on what is attached to your name.

4. Make a budget based on real-life

38% of service members have more credit debt than their civilian counterparts, according to the 2016 Blue Star Families survey. It is way too easy for a service member to be approved for financing, especially by predatory lenders. The word budget does not have to be a dirty word. Rather, let’s think of getting your hard earned money straight.

USAA offers some great tips for participating in the sometimes unfun activity of budgeting, like make it a friendly competition among spouses and partners. Or, remember to build fun into your budget – leisure activities, date nights, etc. Check out How Do I Create A Budget?

5. Use programs exclusive to the military community

There are so many no-cost programs and services that military members and their families qualify for that it is overwhelming. One benefit of your service is that the Department of Defense and private organizations want to help you save money, so why not utilize them?

Here are a few of my favorites:

It is tax season, do not pay to file. There’s a free program for that! MilTax: Free Tax Services from Military OneSource

Installation offerings: From the Army’s MWR to the Marine Corps’ MCCS, you can see movies for roughly $2, participate in family camping trips for virtually nothing, and access fitness centers on base for free. Just a little research of your local installation can help you find an entire range of current happenings that are free or discounted. Use them!

Starting in May, a program opens allowing military families free access to thousands of museums around the country: Blue Star Museums

Annually, military ID holders get a free pass to national parks and federal recreation lands: How to obtain your pass

Every year, there is a focus on military financial readiness through the Military Saves program. The thought is to help service members and families get their monetary health in order to avoid added stressors to military households. If you find it challenging to work on a realistic budget that fits your very unique lifestyle, both Military OneSource (MOS) and the service branches offer opportunities for you to connect virtually or in-person with those trained to work within the parameters of military pay and benefits. Connect with a MOS counselor here or, check out your installation’s financial management office to schedule an appointment.

For more information on other military-affiliated resources, check out AMPA’s page on education, career, taxes & more: Resources