Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anh Tran was in elementary school the first time her father showed her how to manage her money wisely.
“My parents didn’t make that much money when we first came to America from Vietnam, and my dad said, ‘Let me show you how to go over our budget,’” Tran said. “I began looking at all their expenses and income, and I thought, ‘I don’t know how they’re doing this.’”
It was a lesson that stuck with her as she grew and eventually became a reservist in 1998. Nearly all her military jobs since have revolved around finance. Today, she is a senior budget analyst for the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve, where she works on the organization’s $5.2 billion annual budget.
In some ways, it’s quite a change from budgeting for her family. Yet in others, the principles remain: people ― including guardsmen and reservists ― need sound money management skills.
Army National Guard Capt. Jordan M. Thompson became interested in money management as a career after he earned a law degree and lost a political election. A mentor called and asked if he wanted to work in finance. Thompson said he “knew nothing about finance” but agreed to give it a shot.
He quickly became enamored with the industry, eventually settling at a Fortune 500 company as a financial advisor.
“I really feel like I can help a lot of people with this role,” he said.
That includes veterans, as serving those who have served is “very important” to Thompson. He is a member on his company’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee as the veterans’ committee chairman. He’s also given company presentations on working with military members.
“I’m really big on hiring veterans, so they themselves can be financial representatives and advisors,” he said. “I make it a big part of my practice to help civilians understand how to best help military clients and families.”
Finance careers about more than money
As a fraud and claims operations manager for a major bank, Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Mark Divers sometimes sees an uglier side of finance. But his time in banking has hammered home important military money principles, like budgeting (weekly, in his family’s case), undergoing financial education courses (“I think it should be offered in basic training.”) and setting aside drill or AT pay for specific goals.
“When I became a reservist and realized it was a full-time commitment but not a full-time job, I knew you couldn’t rely on that money ― you have to treat the military and your reserve service as supplemental income,” he said. “Take care of the bulk of your budget, bills and savings with the money you make from your full-time employment, then apply the reserve pay to things like your children’s education or paying off your car faster.”
His civilian job isn’t simply a paycheck, either. Serving in finance, Divers said, helps him be a better airman.
“Coming from active duty, where you don’t serve a face but your country, it was kind of eye-opening to now work for a company where you’re customer-focused,” he said. “I think that has actually helped me be a better manager in the military.”
One commonality to both finance and the military, according to Tran, Thompson and Divers: being able to quickly adapt.
“In the military, the entire mission might change, and finance is also constantly changing,” Thompson said. “In both fields, you have to be willing to look at the situation from different perspectives and have different ways to go about accomplishing the mission.”
Money mistakes and how to avoid them
Take note of these blunders and prevention methods from Tran, Thompson and Divers:
- Failing to budget: Imagine that each of your dollars has a job (rent, groceries, fun money, etc.) and use a simple spreadsheet to ensure they accomplish exactly that.
- Avoiding financial literary education: Many bases offer classes on budgeting, building credit, saving for future goals and investments. Take them.
- Ignoring your Thrift Savings Plan: Similar to a 401K, the military-offered TSP is a way to save for retirement. The way you handle your account affects your earnings, so research and act accordingly.
- Not distinguishing between wants and needs: Just because you really, really want to buy something doesn’t mean you should. Will something bad happen if you don’t get it right now? Or can it wait until you have reached your savings goal?
- Overusing credit cards & loans: That nice lady at the PX or bank might have promised all sorts of financial benefits from signing up for her company’s card or loan ― but they can be dangerous in too-eager hands. Get used to saying “no” until you are ready to handle the consequences of utilizing loans and credit cards.