FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Many Soldiers and Families may be struggling to keep food on the table and gas in the tank with inflation at a 40-year high, but specialists on the installation can help them make the most of their money.
Samantha Cote, a financial counselor contracted with the Fort Campbell Transition Assistance Program, works directly with Soldiers on spending plans as they prepare to leave the service. Although her job is focused on transitioning Soldiers, she said the principles are universal.
“It’s really important to budget so you see where your money is actually going,” Cote said. “Typically, we see that people’s disposable income and spending habits are a lot different from what they think ... for example, a lot of people budget $150 for dining out for the month, but when you track that it’s usually two or three times as much.”
Setting goals and guidelines
Those expenses can make a big difference for Families paying more at the pump, so Cote recommends looking at previous bank or credit card statements to break down spending habits. She also encourages Soldiers to follow the 50-30-20 rule when creating a spending plan from there.
“Your mortgage and car payments, food and other things that you need should only be about 50% of your after-tax income,” she said. “Thirty percent should go towards your wants, and you should ideally be saving up to 20% of your income. That can encompass various savings like your retirement plan as well as your personal savings.”
Soldiers and Families can adjust their spending to those guidelines with the SMART method of goal-setting: Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
“For example, if you want to pay down $3,000 of credit card debt, that’s a specific, measurable amount,” Cote said. “Saying you want to do it within four months makes it a short-term goal, and whether it’s achievable or realistic is going to be based on your finances.”
Putting plans in action
Once Soldiers and Families have outlined their financial goals, they can look more closely at making changes to their spending habits.
“You’ll definitely want to start with your wants when making budget cuts,” Cote said. “Things like gym memberships, nail appointments, hobbies, entertainment, and subscription services. I always tell people to look over their subscription services because they may have things they don’t realize they’re paying for every month. You can also bundle services and save money in that way; you don’t need to pay for each one separately.”
While it may be difficult to make cuts in those areas, Cote said it’s important to resist any temptation to scale back spending on savings or necessities.
“People always try and cut their grocery bill,” she said. “That’s the first thing people want to cut – their grocery bill or their gasoline – and those aren’t really things you can do. You can realistically cut your food budget but doing it on a spreadsheet isn’t going to cut your grocery budget in reality, and inflation is only making it worse.”
Soldiers and Families can also take advantage of military discounts, tax savings and the financial resources available on the installation if they need assistance.
“Every brigade has a financial counselor of their own, so if a Soldier wanted to meet with a financial counselor their unit would have one,” Cote said. “Military OneSource has some information on financial benefits, and Army Community Service also has different grants, loans and things like that for Families dealing with hardship cases. They offer some financial resources and planning as well.”
Terrence Jones, ACS-Financial Readiness program manager, said both unit classes and one-on-one counseling services are available through ACS to assist Soldiers with financial planning.
“We provide them with a spending plan they can link up to their computer or laptop, and it automatically calculates expenses for them,” Jones said. “It helps them understand each pay period, how they plan on spending, and gives them a running total to help avoid overspending.”
The Transition Assistance Program also requires a four-hour financial readiness class for Soldiers preparing to leave the service with information that includes spending plans and taxes, among other financial topics. Cote said that information is critical in helping transitioning Soldiers prepare for living without active-duty benefits.
“Only part of a military income is taxable, for starters,” she said. “When they separate, they may not understand the actual amount of income needed to maintain their current lifestyle, so we do several activities that show them. There are also tons of extra expenses, like how health care as a civilian is vastly different than health care as a service member.”
No matter a Soldier or Family’s circumstances, financial readiness directly supports Fort Campbell’s mission by ensuring Soldiers can focus on their day-to-day responsibilities.
“Being accountable for financial affairs ensure Soldiers are not distracted from their wartime mission,” Jones said, adding commanders can help by including financial stability in their unit readiness goals. “You have to know what you want in life, because if you spend unnecessarily or you don’t have those financial skills it’s going to hurt you ... that’s one of the things we try to help with.”