Military families are no stranger to budgeting. For years the military has hammered into our heads that smart financial decisions are crucial to our futures. They provide classes, mandatory training for our service members, and lots of tools. They also have several safety nets available to us if we should need them. Programs like Army Emergency Relief and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society are standing by to help out service members with unexpected and emergency bills.
Smart budgeting, planning for the future, and spending within your means are the best ways to ensure your financial future. Today’s technology has made these things even easier. From online banking to budget apps to various ways to save money with your phone, there are so many ways to keep track of your finances — or just to get started.
Building a budget is intimidating. For military families it can be challenging, especially when COLA, a secondary income, and housing expenses are involved. The standard budget calculators online prepopulate housing costs to be anywhere from 25% to 30% of income. With the basic allowance for housing, housing costs are largely negated. These programs can help tremendously with creating a budget and sticking to it.
One of the best things about Mint is its longevity. It’s been around for 10 years! It also links to your accounts, including all assets, to help you easily keep track of transactions. It’s great for people with predictable incomes and helps you easily set monthly spending goals by category. Setting up the information is easier done on a computer, but you can download the smartphone app and then check in daily on the go.
You Need a Budget
This program emphasizes the zero-balance budget, where every dollar is accounted for before it is spent. Like Mint, you can import transactions from your bank and other financial institutions. YNAB costs $5 per month or $50 per year, which often feels counterintuitive to getting out of debt, but they do offer a free trial period.
Every Dollar is the program created by Dave Ramsey, and follows his seven baby steps. The program is free, and can be accessed from mobile devices. You assign a planned amount to each category and then update transactions as they occur to make sure you stay within it. To have the transactions update automatically and connect with your bank account, it costs $99 per year. As you accomplish each baby step, the program offers tips to tackle the next one.
Most banks offer online banking, and many also have a built-in budget or tracker tool. With USAA, a budget tool is included with your account, which helps you predict the balance of expenses and income each month. You can also easily mark your transactions so they are accurately categorized. Along with helping you prepare for things like PCS and ETS, there are ways to monitor your credit report and set up financial goals. Many banks offer similar services for free — you may just have to ask!
If your family is like mine, any little bit of extra money that I can save is worth it. And while I won’t drive all around town to save a few cents on my groceries, I will scan them into my phone for a few cents of savings. Here are a few of the apps that help you save money on things you’ve already decided to buy.
App couponing has become incredibly popular with Ibotta. Simply check the store where you plan to shop and see if there are any deals. Cash back ranges from $0.25 for a gallon of any brand milk to a few dollars on Cliff Bars or other products. When you get home, scan the barcode of the product and the receipt and that’s it! There are team bonuses and several other bonuses to increase your savings. Once you hit $20 you can transfer it via PayPal or onto a gift card. Extra bonus? The commissary is included on the list of stores!
Wal-Mart Savings Catcher
The Savings Catcher is quite possibly the easiest app ever. If you shop at Wal-Mart, you simply scan the QR code at the bottom of your receipt, or type in the code on the website, and it will match prices around town. You will then get reimbursed for anything you bought that was more expensive at Wal-Mart than one of those other stores. Super easy.
This is a free app that helps to analyze your spending and then takes small amounts that you don’t need and saves it for you. It’s all done via text messaging, so you can check on your account and withdraw or transfer savings at any time. The average transfer is $9 and it never transfers more than you can afford, based on your spending. Digit Savings Accounts are FDIC insured up to $250,000 and you earn a very low interest rate. It won’t make you rich, but it can help you save.
These apps and websites are designed to help you save and manage money better. If even these sound overwhelming, start by talking to a financial advisor, either through family services or your home bank. Make 2017 the year you take control of your family’s finances.
—Rebecca Alwine is a military spouse and freelance writer who currently lives near Washington, D.C.