Amy Miller, AFC®
We’ve been reviewing topics from MFAN’s recent Military Family Programming Support survey and how it highlighted the obstacles military families face when securing housing and found that many find they are paying more than they can comfortably afford. (Remember, that is around 60% of military & veteran families)
Spending a disproportionate amount of your income on housing makes it more difficult to afford other necessities like food, clothing, and utilities. So, what can families do if they find that housing is costing more than they can comfortably afford and is making it hard to make ends meet? Here are a few steps I take when coaching families in this situation.
Current Expenses & Spending
I always start with a review of your current expenses and spending. This is an eye-opener for many. I recommend starting with your past 3 months. List and tally all the expenses and then calculate to come up with a monthly average. You can then compare this to your monthly income to know exactly where you stand.
I like to break them down into the following categories:
*Housing: this includes mortgage/rent, homeowners/renter’s insurance (not escrowed), property taxes, electricity, Gas/heating/propane, homeowner’s association dues, maintenance, and security systems
*Food/Groceries: all food including dining out plus any cleaning supplies, paper goods, etc purchased
*Vehicles: all payments (this is a good time to look at loan terms and rates if you don’t know them already), vehicle Insurance, gas/fuel, and any required maintenance
*Insurance premiums: any out-of-pocket medical costs and prescriptions, etc.
*Savings: 401Ks, TSP, IRAs, plus any charitable giving
*Miscellaneous: phones, cable/satellite/streaming services, clothing, child support, personal care like haircuts, recreation and entertainment, pet care, alcohol, and tobacco, etc.
If you have trouble finding these numbers or are not sure of all the small things you may have paid for in cash (say at the convenience store or the drive-thru), take a month and track. You can do this manually using something like the envelope method (keep all receipts in an envelope with a tally running for each category) or use one of the many apps available.
When the “Ends” DO NOT “Meet”
You’ve done the tracking and run the figures – there are more expenses than income (or close to it). Here are a few steps and suggestions for improving the situation.
–Prioritize: Look at every expense and rank them in order of necessity (needs, not wants – recognizing the difference is a fundamental basic of personal finance)
–Track: It’s important to track every dollar when you are dealing with a housing burden that is causing a cash flow shortage and other money issues. You must know what is being spent to make changes. I often work with individuals that are SHOCKED when they see what they are actually spending on things that they hadn’t even considered being a contributing factor – a few examples I’ve seen: $65 in one month on snacks at the vending machine, $238 at Chick Fila for breakfast and milkshakes during the workday or $1300 on take-out dinners for 2 adults. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of seeing it in black and white. (Stay tuned later this month, we’ll talk about tracking tools & apps)
–Minimize: Maybe it’s the cable, a streaming service, or the drive-thru, decisions (and possibly sacrifices) will need to be made. Reducing expenses is key. Look at your phone plan and insurance policies and check for possible discounts, reduce utility usage, avoid impulse shopping, and cancel that unused gym membership
–Adjust: You must be flexible and willing to adjust as needed. Create new plans and budgets as you go. Looking at behaviors and adjusting them is normally necessary.
With all that said, it’s important to note that sometimes, there’s just not enough income, and more must be done. Maybe that is refinancing or selling your current home, moving to a cheaper rental, trading in a car, selling old stuff, or finding a new job, 2nd job, or side hustle.
Maybe the situation was outside of your control, maybe not. Either way, you can start taking steps to improve the situation. It’s never too late. It does take discipline, time, and a good strategy.
If you find that you need help and guidance, consult a professional. You can start here: https://findanafc.org/ or here https://www.militaryonesource.mil/confidential-help/interactive-tools-services/financial-counseling/financial-counseling-the-essentials/