My husband made the decision to retire from military service during our last assignment at Fort Richardson, Alaska. He had pondered the idea of retirement for some time, and then one day, he said, “Babe, I’m going to retire.” He said it with such confidence and enthusiasm that I knew that he meant it this time. With the announcement of his retirement now being official, we knew that we would have to begin the daunting task of getting our credit and finances in order, beginning with a review of our credit report to ensure that our life after retirement would be just as enjoyable as our active-duty life. Ensuring that our credit report and finances were on par was extremely important to us both because we had worked very hard to rebuild our credit rating and financial portfolio.
Early in my husband’s military career, we fell into the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck. We were young, immature, and financially irresponsible with our finances and credit. Neither one of us came from wealth. Like many working-class families, our parents worked hard to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. They paid their taxes and met their monthly obligations. Sitting down at the table to discuss credit reports and finances just wasn’t a priority. Call it pride or sheer ignorance, but back in the day, military couples did not discuss their finances, and no one spoke to us about things like building and maintaining a healthy credit rating, saving for retirement, starting a college fund, or even the possibility of one day buying a home. There were a few basic programs in place to help military families with establishing family budgets and setting up a checking and savings account. Truth be told, I don’t think that either I or my husband thought to reach out for help. Could it have been shame or embarrassment? Probably both. Note: today, military families have access to more expansive money and credit management resources; aggressive savings programs; home-buying seminars, investment workshops, and so much more (refer to the end of the post for resource links).
Fast-forward to September 2000. My husband was offered a top-level assignment that required a thorough background investigation before he could officially begin. What the background revealed was just how much we needed help getting our credit and finances in order. The investigator reviewed not only my husband’s credit and background but also mine with a fine-tooth comb; it was not pretty. The investigator, a retired soldier, offered some genuine words of wisdom that catapulted my husband and me into credit fix-it mode, and we didn’t pay a single dime to have our credit repaired. For the first time in our lives, we got serious about our finances and credit. The next day, we began writing letters to our creditors as well as the credit reporting agencies, and within 30 days, our reports were updated to reflect current information. All three agencies provided us with copies of our updated credit reports. Over the next 60 days, our FICO scores increased significantly.
Eleven years later, we retired and purchased a home. We learned some valuable lessons through that life-changing ordeal. I will share with you our top five (5):
1. Mind your money and credit. Be responsible with your finances and credit; create a family budget and stick to it. Monitor your spending, and keep an account of what you spend. You should be able to account for every cent you earn and know what it is being spent on. Manage your credit card debt. Pick one card, and as you use it, try to pay it off in full each month. Be aggressive about keeping credit card debt low. Tip: trying to live like the Joneses can cause great and unnecessary hardship. Pay all bills on time, and if you find yourself in financial hardship, contact your creditors immediately to make realistic payment arrangements, and stick to the arrangement.
2. Free credit report & FICO score. Make it a habit to get a copy of your credit report every year. Annualcreditreport.com offers this service for free. Tip: obtain a credit report from one credit reporting agency in January, from another in June, and from the last one in November. Take time to review it and address any discrepancies immediately by contacting the credit reporting agency directly; refer to their contact information located in the actual credit report. The three (3) recognized credit agencies are:
- Equifax: http://www.equifax.com
- Transunion: http://www.transunion.com
- Experian: http://www.experian.com
3. Get help. Do not be ashamed to ask for help. If your credit situation is at the point where you feel like you’ve lost control, get help:
Retirees and veterans can seek help from the following organizations: moaa.org, usaa.org, saveandinvest.org, your credit union, and family and friends.
4. Save, save, save. Saving may not seem important early in your military life, but it is. Your time in the military goes by fast, so the earlier you start saving, the better off you’ll be. Try to max out your Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). If you don’t have a TSP, learn more by visiting http://www.dfas.mil/militarymembers/tspformilitary/tspac.html, or contact DFAS for guidance. Start a personal or family emergency fund. Start small and increase as you are able (i.e., $50 bi-weekly); start an allotment or set up your checking account to automatically transfer a specified amount bi-weekly. Do not stop saving. Military spouses, if you work either through traditional employment or self-employment, max out your 401k and any employer matching programs. Keep a record of your retirement accounts. In the event that you fall on tough times (it happens), do everything possible not to touch your retirement accounts; make it a last resort.
5. Educate the kids. They may not want to listen to you, but teach them anyway; they will appreciate you later on. To help make learning about money and credit fun for the kids, tweens, teens, and young adults, checkout this great website: www.moneyasyougrow.org.
I hope that my story has inspired you to look at your credit report and finances in a different light. Let’s face it—you need money and/or good credit to get the things you want and need. Taking control of your credit and finances now will save you high interest rates and humiliation later on. Wishing you all the best with your credit and finances!