What I Wish I Knew BEFORE All This Debt!

Got debt? If you are part of a military family you probably have more debt than your civilian neighbor.  Gah.

A survey of military families recently found that 27% of service members have more than $10,000 in credit card debt. That’s a lot. Only 16% of civilians have that much debt.

At our recent Spouse Experience event at Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, spouses told us that even when they avoided credit card debt, they still had car loans, crushing student loans, and mortgages on homes from three duty stations ago.

In order to help YOU avoid debt traps—cuz we are always thinking of military life hacks around here--these spouses came up with a hindsight list of seven things they really wish they would have understood before they got into debt.

1. I wish spending with a credit card felt like pulling a tooth without anesthesia.  

Spouses agreed that you shouldn’t spend beyond your means. Great advice, yes. But it is awfully hard to remember in the moment of buying. If only pulling out a credit card physically hurt instead of sliding onto the counter so easily.

Many spouses suggested getting around this by spending only cash—especially at the commissary. Other cautioned that credit cards are only for true emergencies. Kristen Buddenbaum said, “If you don’t physically have it, don’t spend it. Credit is the devil!!”

2. I wish we really knew the difference between “need” and “want.”

Before you enter the military, you think you know the difference between need and want. A need is a car. A want is a sunshine yellow Ferrari 458 convertible, right?

The hard part gets to be when you get another flat tire and the Goodyear guy says you need four new tires and you lose your phone and your daughter’s preschool check is due. What is a need and what is a want then?

Martha Beabes says the most powerful question you can ask of any and every purchase is: Do I really need this?

3. I wish a magic mirror would show me how old we would be when we paid off this debt.

When you are buying something on credit you figure you will pay it off this month. Or, maybe, next month. It is easy to spend when you let yourself think like that.

Would you let yourself buy that item if you could see how many years it would be before you paid off that dinner at a restaurant or the weekend getaway or the matching motorcycles?  I'm pretty sure I will look like Snow White's stepmother (post poisonous apple) before I pay off my current house.

4. I wish we squirreled away money like pistachios.

As much as spending can be a problem when you are young, spouses reported that failing to start saving is just as bad of a problem.

Many SpouseX participants said that they wished they had started a savings account sooner—the more automatic the savings, the better. Spouses said that you could put away just ten dollars from each paycheck. Or $20. Or $25. You could save 10% of every check by having it automatically deducted from your account. Even a small amount automatically deducted and invested into TSP turned into big dollars over the years.

5. I wish we realized no one cares about what car we drive.

One wife told us that in 8.5 years of marriage, her husband bought 7 cars. There was a lot of agreement in the group about how the act of buying a car is often driven not by what you can afford, but what you want other people to think. Then you have that scary monthly payment for your punishment. Sigh.


Houses seem like a really good investment. But when we asked spouses about their worst money mistake, real estate purchases came out right on top.

Our participants wished they hadn’t bought in an area where it was easy to rent. They wished they hadn’t bought a house when they were moving in three years. They especially wished they had never invested in timeshares.

7. I wish we had a money interpreter.

USAA money man Scott Halliwell often says that military couples should have a designated time to talk about money—preferrably NOT when paying bills.

Spouses agreed. They wished they had developed the habit of doing finances together so both people know where the money is going. That way they could have compromised together about what to spend. Jayne Dodson also advised that keeping yearly meetings with your financial planner makes a big difference.

One of the advantages of military life is that we are surrounded by people who are a few years ahead of us on the life curve and a few years behind us. There is always something we can learn from each other. What would you add to the list of wish-I-woulda-knowns?




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