Handling Finances in the Military — A Personal Account
The Few, the Proud, the Underpaid
Whenever you think of what life is like in the military, what comes to mind first? Is it the assumed thrill of a firefight? Perhaps the excitement of seeing massive explosions? Or maybe you simply think of the travel? Those that serve in the military will oftentimes tell you that what comes to mind for them first is payday, specifically the 1st and 15th of every month. Of course, when we do receive that highly sought after paycheck, we find that there never seems to be enough zeros at the end of our checks — only zeros in our bank accounts. Why is that?
To me, it is quite the predicament. When I first joined the military, I was a 22-year-old college drop-out with credit card bills and student loans, as well as a wife that was still in college, plus legal bills that had to be paid. Still, I wasn't planning on joining for the money, as I had been told repeatedly that the military doesn't pay enough to sustain the number of bills I'd inevitably have to face. That thought never seemed to even phase me, as I was joining to be a part of something greater than myself in the first place. After joining and hitting the fleet, my wife and I needed a car for the family so that she could go to school and work, while I needed a car for my job, as well. A second car meant double insurance costs on top of the monthly car payments. Of course, we already had pets — a cat and dog, the latter of which was paid for on lease (an idea I have since regretted; the dog is fine, leasing was not the best idea). Other bills began to pile on as well, such as internet, cellphone service, etc.
Why do I tell you this? It's simple: the military does not pay enough on its own for the average married military member to live in any sort of real comfort. Some family units make it work swimmingly, and, to them, I give a hearty salute. Others barely seem to scrape by. The average E-3 (Lance Corporal) in the Marine Corps, for example, makes between $18-2000 before taxes each month, though clear maybe $14-1600 monthly. This may not sound too shabby to some, and married Marines tend to make roughly $300 for meals, unless they are on a field op, which they dock that pay, and $1150 more per month for housing for their family, unless, of course, they live on base, in which case, they only see the base pay. Many spouses of Marines have a difficult time finding work in town because most employers know that the individual can and will pick up and move on a moment's notice. So now you're left with two individuals living off between $16-1900 a month before any bills have been paid. You start subtracting for meals, car payments, insurance, bills, loans, and whatever else an individual would have to pay for for a family to sustain a healthy lifestyle, and that almost two grand is down substantially. Personally, there have been times I've resorted to donating plasma and driving for Uber just to make sure my wife and pets can live comfortably and to put food on the table.
You may find yourself asking: "What about the benefits?" It is very true that the military provides health insurance for the military member, for which a portion of one's base pay is subtracted before the check is ever seen. The same is true for dental and life insurance. The military also provides basic health insurance for spouses and children, though dental and life insurance costs extra and has to be paid for separately. The life insurance policy is the real big ticket item, some offering up to $400,000 if the individual were to pass while on duty, which does provide some peace of mind for those that serve to know that families will be taken care of. Still, when you consider the bills that accumulate, it can be easy to see why so many struggle financially, especially since the majority of those in the military, mainly those on the enlisted side, are young men and women that haven't even had a chance to learn about life, some being as young as 17-years-old. Youth tends to be the great divider in terms of financial mistakes, though there are plenty of older Marines in financial despair, as well. I don't claim to know the statistics, but I would believe that at least one third of all military members are suffering some form of financial distress, many of whom should not be faulted for it. When you consider the job title of a military service member, there is no way that that many should have to struggle. Some have just blindly made every mistake in the book and will learn from their mistakes, but others have gone into poverty paying for only the necessities.
Is there a solution? I do believe so. It starts with increasing the pay of those that serve in the military. I may be a bit biased in this category, but I do personally believe that a service member should make more than someone in New York City flipping burgers, but that is simply because the job has more inherent risks and dangers, not to mention daily life takes a massive toll on the body. The military should also force new joins to take classes on finances which they are required to pass. If one does not pass, they should be required to retake it as often as possible until they do. Educating others on finances is an important step in the right direction in fixing financial distress, though the more obvious fix would be to increase pay. I know of several individuals that reenlisted solely because they could not afford to pay their bills if they were to get out after their four years were up. One should only reenlist if they truly desire to do so and should never feel forced because of finances. In the end, I look to the day that all those that serve will feel comfort when they look at their bank accounts, and that their only worries or stresses will be the job itself and not the pay.