Building a Solid Financial Foundation

With all the hoopla about a possible government shutdown, and talk that the military might not get paid, it seems a fine time to think about improving your basic financial situation. Paying off debt and building an emergency fund are great, but what if you are living paycheck-to-paycheck?  Where are you going to find the money to pay off the debt and build that emergency fund?  We’re all tired of hearing how we can save a ton by cutting out our daily Starbucks. I don’t know about you, but I get Starbucks maybe once a year.  Let’s talk about some real ideas for saving money. Hopefully many of you are already doing these things, but here goes:

(drum roll please)

  1. Keep track of your spending.  Write down everything you buy for a week, or even a month.  I always find this exercise fascinating and also scary.  Notice anything interesting on your list?   My newest revelation:  we spend a ton on trips to the grocery store for snacks.  Not like munchies, but more like “we’re stuck on base unexpectedly and we’re going to save money by not going to the food court and so we spend $20 on carrots and cheese and crackers and water at the commissary.”
  2. Plan your meals!  (See #1)  First, go through your pantry, fridge and freezer and make a list of things that can make the basis of meals.  Then, make a menu to use all those items.  Depending on your family, you might do this weekly, every two weeks, or even monthly.  Our family finds that 10 days is about the right length for us.  Making a menu has several benefits:  you use the food you have, you aren’t making impulse buys, and you aren’t tempted to eat out or order pizza because you are exhausted at dinner time.  Making dinner at home makes lunches easier, too, because you can use the leftovers for lunch.
  3. Use your leftovers.  Don’t waste food that doesn’t get eaten the first time it is served.  Invest in some solid containers that can take leftovers to work for lunches.  Have a regular leftovers meal, and give it a snazzy name to make it more appealing to the kids.  At our house, we call it smorgasbord, and my friend calls it CORN (clean out the refrigerator night.)  Lastly, make soup.  It is amazing the stuff that you can put into soups or stews.
  4. Take advantage of the financial education and assistance available through the military.  Your family support center offers classes on a wide variety of financial management topics, and many locations have financial professionals through the Military and Family Life Consultant program.  Trained counselors at your service’s relief society would be glad to help you make a spending plan.  You can also access financial counseling via Military OneSource.
  5. Set up overdraft protection on your bank accounts.  The cost should be very minimal if you are with a good bank or credit union, and it can save you from expensive fees and hassle if you make a bookkeeping mistake.  Be sure that you have enough overdraft protection to cover the largest check you can ever imagine writing.
  6. Stay away from stores.  And catalogs.  And shopping websites.  And QVC.  Seriously.  It is hard to buy stuff if you are not exposed to it.  Do not buy things just because they are a good bargain.  If you are not going to use it within the next six months, don’t buy it.  This goes for clothes, food, office supplies, craft supplies, power tools – pretty much everything.
  7. Declutter your house.  This saves money in so many ways!  Just being able to find the stuff that you need is a tremendous money (and time) saver.
  8. Think about saving a little bit over a bunch of categories.  What if you could cut your grocery bill by 10%, and your entertainment bill by 10%, and your utility bills by 10%?  That would really add up, and it would be a lot less painful than trying to cut one category drastically.
  9. Learn to entertain at home.  Going out to eat with friends is fun, but it can be just as fun to have them to your house for a meal.  Movies at the movie theater are good entertainment, but so are movies at home.  Break out the board games or have a card night.  Think about the kinds of things that your grandparents did for entertainment.
  10. Reconsider having a second car.  Yes, I know, lots of families must have two cars.   We’re in that position right now, too.  However, sometimes you can get by with only one car, and it will save you a bundle.  Between the cost of the car, and insurance, and maintenance, and registration, and gas…wow, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.  This won’t work for everyone, but carefully consider whether it would work for you.

Now I’m anxious to hear your ideas for stretching your paycheck just a little bit further.  Please add your thoughts in the comments.

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.