Serving in the US Air Force made me good with money forever

Our instructors made us write down the serial number of every dollar we earned.Marco Garcia/AP

When I first joined the U.S. Air Force, I was scared out of my mind.

I had just committed four years of my life to something I wasn’t 100% sure I could do. Not to mention, I was getting yelled at and working harder than I ever had in my 19 years of life. There was a lot to process. Through it all, I learned many life lessons.

It wasn’t just life skills I picked up in the military. I also learned financial lessons. Today I’m a financial coach helping others with money. My service in the military laid the foundation for my financial career. Some of the lessons I learned there were harder than others, but each contributed to how I handle money today.

Here are the financial lessons I learned while serving in the military.

1. Have control of your money at all times

Physical money management is taught early on in basic training. Every bit of cash you have needs to be accounted for and neatly organized. Our instructors asked us to write down the serial number of every dollar you earn. This reduces theft and teaches the habit of keeping track of the money you earn and spend. Not everyone keeps the serial number of all their bills, but you should know where your money is and how it’s being spent, saved or invested.

If you don’t have a handle on your money, who will? You are the one in charge of your money, not anyone else.

2. If you’re on time, you’re late

2. If you're on time, you're late

Lance Cpl. Austin A. Lewis/USMC

In the service, you quickly learn you need to be ahead of schedule for everything. Being late is not acceptable. If you’re late, it could affect an entire mission. Planning to complete tasks early ensures you’ll be on time even if something unexpected happens.

This applies to paying bills and saving as well — something could come up to make you late. Instead of waiting until late on the day your bill is due, take care of it in advance to ensure that even if problems come up, your financial life stays on schedule. Even better? Consider automated payments so you don’t have to worry about being late.

3. Save money from every paycheck

Every supervisor I had while serving made it clear to me: Living paycheck to paycheck was not the way to live. For most young folks joining the military, it’s their first time away from home and their first time earning a paycheck. The sudden influx of money and freedom can lead to crazy spending and zero saving. (Even if you don’t serve, this is a common experience for recent graduates starting their first job and receiving their first salary.) Each supervisor I had encouraged me to live within my means and save part of each of my paychecks. By saving money from each check, you’ll build up money for when the unexpected happens.

4. Use your resources

4. Use your resources

Wikipedia

As a new Air Force recruit, I didn’t know all the resources available to me. Fortunately, I had supervisors who mentored me through some of my early financial mistakes, like charging all new things for my apartment instead of borrowing household items from the lending closet on base. I could have used the borrowed items and bought the things I needed as I was paid instead of running up my credit card debt.

The lesson here? Take advantage of any free resources you have before spending money unnecessarily. Asking for help to find the free resources available can save you money. (Use this free credit report summary to your advantage to see how your spending habits are affecting your credit.)

5. Learn from your mistakes

When you make a mistake in the military, your supervisor, drill sergeant or peers will call you out on them immediately. Mistakes will happen — they’re part of learning and growing. In the military, I learned not to try to hide or forget my mistakes but to review them to figure out ways to avoid them in the future. That way I don’t make the same mistakes over and over.

When it comes to finances, this applies in several ways. For example, charging a bunch of household goods on my credit card was a mistake, but I learned ways to avoid making that mistake in the future by using free resources or only spending what I had saved for.

Lacey Langford is an Accredited Financial Counselor and military veteran with more than 10 years experience providing financial coaching to United States service members and their families. This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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