What I Learned About Money During My Husband’s Deployment
I’ve never been very good at saving money, because I’ve never had very much of it. When I did have a little money — like when I was in college working two jobs and living off the free pizza my delivery gig provided — I had some anxiety about spending it. My clothes all came from consignment stores and Goodwill because I couldn’t justify spending more than $20 on an article of clothing. I’d grocery shop at the dollar store because why pay full price for cereal when you can get a knockoff brand for half price? I carried this habit with me when I got married. I felt guilty about buying frames for our wedding pictures, because why couldn’t we just tape them to the wall?
My husband Nick’s deployment completely changed my spending habits, and we’re still trying to find a happy medium between the spending habits I’ve picked up and my pre-deployment, terrified-of-money instincts. Nick was deployed for eight months, from the end of January to the end of September, and for eight months, we got about $1,200 more a month than we did with him home. For perspective, I make about $1,600 a month working as a reporter, so the additional money basically equated to a third paycheck a month for us.
Nick and I have merged our finances pretty completely: both of our paychecks go into one joint account, and we have a joint savings account. Pre-deployment, we’d managed to save less than $500 in a year-and-change of marriage and over the duration of his deployment we saved nearly $8,000. Not only did we manage to save, I never saw our checking account drop to zero, something that happened nearly every pay period before he left.
Shared money is a weird thing when half of a couple isn’t really able to spend it. Yes, Nick bought a lot of stuff while he was away to open later when he came home, but the majority of the spending was mine.
So how did we do money while he was deployed? Every two weeks, $500 automatically moved from our checking into our savings account, and after my paycheck that left us with about $2,400. After bills, that left about $1,200 to throw around. Wash, rinse, and repeat, every two weeks. That was more money than I’d reliably had access to in my (admittedly brief) adult life, and I got used to it.
I signed up for monthly beauty boxes, and Nick signed up for monthly men’s clothing and accessory boxes. I bought an entirely new work wardrobe after I lost weight. I bought nice underwear, cute dresses and nice art for the walls and the shelving units we needed and I signed up for a weekly produce box. After all that, I still wasn’t out of money.
Now that Nick’s been home three months, it feels like those eight months passed in a blink of an eye. At the start of his deployment and while it was happening though, eight months felt like an eternity. You learn to adjust during those deployment months, and I adjusted to living alone with the dogs, to paying all the bills and spending money on whatever I wanted. Eventually, I stopped seeing that extra money as extra — I started just seeing it as our money.
After Nick came home and we got his first “normal” paycheck, neither of us stopped spending in the way we’d become accustomed to. I bought a nice pair of boots from ASOS. We went out with a friend of mine to celebrate him coming home and spent $80 at the bar. Nick spend $60 on a box that had one pair of shoes and leather shoelaces in it. By the end of the week, we had $32 in our checking account.
The thing was, I hadn’t even thought about how much money we were spending until one fateful October afternoon, when I was sitting in my car, waiting for my burger at Cook Out and happened to check the account balance.
I momentarily blacked out and frantically transferred $100 from the savings account to see us through until the end of the week, swearing to myself I wouldn’t spend another penny until payday.
Although we were very lucky while Nick was deployed in that we don’t have any kids and we had no serious emergencies to deal with, it was terrifying to see a negative balance. After that moment in the car, we sat down and made a spreadsheet, looked at what we were spending and where and started to lay out a budget. We decided to keep track of everything we spent for a week, to see how much money was being spent on tiny “invisible” things like sodas, gum, etc.
The budget we set is working so far: $100 every two weeks for a date night, $200 or so for groceries, and $30 a week in cash for each of us to spend on whatever little things we need. We are not perfect at following it, but for the most part, we are curtailing. I deleted the ModCloth app off my phone because the sale notifications were too much of a temptation. Nick stopped getting the very expensive monthly boxes of clothing.
We started making weekly meal plans to cut down on random trips to the grocery store, which we found out cost us $100 extra in groceries over two weeks.
I had read articles about “lifestyle creep” in the past and couldn’t understand how anyone could let that happen. If I could get by on the money I had now, why would I spend more of it if I made more? But it’s incredibly easy to lose track of your spending and to get accustomed to not worrying about your account balance. Now that I’m aware of this, I’m hopeful that when we’re done being a military couple, when we both have jobs that pay a little better, we’ll be more ready to handle it. But we are still trying to find a happy medium. I don’t want to scrimp and save if we don’t have to, but I really don’t want to see a negative balance ever again if I don’t have to.
Oonagh McQuarrie is a reporter, drinker of craft beer and black coffee, lover of bad jokes. Follow her on Twitter @oonaghbeth
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