If you're a new recruit or junior enlisted service member, the military can throw a lot your way in a short time.
While you're getting a handle on your new life, make time to check your finances, too. A few simple steps now can set you up on solid footing. Here are eight easy ways you can manage your money as a new member of the U.S. military.
1. Get some help: Free help from people who know what they're talking about can be found if you know where to look. "Every installation has counselors available to help with budgeting and financial basics," says JJ Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA. Military OneSource is another great resource.
2. Track expenses: Any plan of attack starts with solid recon. When it comes to your finances, tracking your expenses for two months is a great place to start. You'll know what you spend and where you can find new ways to save.
3. Save it: The military pay system can be tricky, so understand how it works. Pay increases for cost of living (COLA), time in service, promotions and tax-free combat pay are opportunities to boost your savings. The military also offers a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement, called the Thrift Savings Plan. "Start saving before you get used to spending all your money," Montanaro recommends. It's easy to sign up at My Pay.
4. Weigh big purchases: A motorcycle, car or engagement ring will set you back a pretty penny. Take time to carefully weigh whether large-ticket items such as these fit into your big picture. Then, compare and shop around for the best deal and financing.
5. Manage your credit: "The fact that you have a steady paycheck can make you a target for unscrupulous lenders," says Montanaro. "Just because they will give it to you doesn't always mean you should take it." Speaking of credit, you're entitled to a free credit report every year at the government-mandated site annualcreditreport.com. Check with financial counselors on your installation, since they also may be able to provide your credit score.
6. Protect what's yours: You work hard for what you have, so be sure to keep it safe. Whether it's your vehicle, home or all the other stuff you need (game systems, computers, etc.), insurance policies can have you covered, and cheaper isn't always better. "People often opt for policies with the minimum coverage because they cost less," says Montanaro. "Sometimes, for less than you'd spend on a coffee each week, you can get a policy that would cover you so much better in case the worst happens."
7. Make the most of your deployment: When you deploy, you could be gone for months at a time. Cut expenses and boost savings while you're gone.
8. Get used to asking for military discounts: Many businesses, especially those around military installations, offer discounts with valid military identification. Don't hesitate to ask for military discounts. Every bit helps.