I hope you’ll forgive me for talking about a Veteran topic even though Veterans Day has already passed.
It’s a chapter of my life I don’t discuss much on this blog, but for the better part of a decade, I proudly served as a soldier in the U.S. Army.
Chief among the many reasons that convinced me to sign up was a desire to serve. And yet even though I joined to give of myself, it doesn’t mean I didn’t take plenty away from my time in the military. I managed dozens of subordinates and million-dollar projects at a young age, can adapt to solve any problem, and if you’re worried about finding someone who can walk real far and tell you how to point your cannons, don’t you worry about it anymore.
But the life lessons didn’t stop there. My time in the Army also taught me a number of lessons that I’ve carried with me to be more responsible with money.
Self-awareness can turn good ideas into good habits
Everyone has some sort of bad behavior they say they want to change — like watching too much TV, for example. Unfortunately for many of us, just saying we want to change is a good guarantee that we’ll find ourselves plopped back on that couch, remote in hand, passively absorbing whatever the TV wants us to, and swearing that tomorrow we will actually get started.
So what does this have to do with my Army service?
Time in the Army is famously well regimented. I recently found the following schedule in one of my old notebooks from 2009:
0500 Wake up, brush teeth, shave
0530 Bring reflective belt, leave house
0550 Arrive base
0600 Meet with commander
0615 Meet with squad leaders
0630 Physical training
0730 Leave base
0750 Arrive house
0800 Eat breakfast, shower, floss and brush teeth
0830 Leave house...
Trust me; it doesn’t get much more exciting than that. But did I really need to tell myself to brush my teeth after having breakfast? Wouldn’t I still be able to taste the garlic and pepper from my eggs?
Probably not, but a few years of neglecting my teeth while sleeping in the woods or in the desert had left my mouth in a pretty bad situation and saying I should take care of them just wasn’t enough. Self-awareness means waking up to what you suck at and building a schedule, writing it down, setting alarms, and otherwise FORCING yourself to do it time and time again so that it becomes a habit.
This is, after all, what all the Army training was all about — forced repetition of shooting or maintenance or cannonry so that when it comes time to put the training into action, you’ve built long-lasting habits that let you perform without stressing about whether you’ve remembered each step.
It’s the same way with money. Just saying I want to save by not eating out isn’t enough. In the beginning, I had to be overly aggressive; meal-planning a week ahead of time, scheduling time to buy the ingredients to have them in the house, writing down that schedule and being militant about adhering to it.
Be your own lawyer and do you own research, even when dealing with answers from authorities and experts
Here’s a sad story: Shortly after I left active duty, I applied for the Montgomery GI Bill benefits I thought I was entitled to. I swiftly received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs telling me I wasn’t eligible. With little reason to not trust the VA, I accepted the rejection letter as fact.
I checked the rules again a few years later while looking into school and became pretty certain I should have been eligible. After again applying with the VA, I received another denial letter. Now doubly sure that I was not eligible, I took out some pretty massive loans to pay for school.
After graduating, I looked into the rules again and, surer than I’d ever been, applied one last time — this time enlisting the help of a Veteran Service Organization and a Elf-lord’s office, as well as sending the VA a copy of every document that I had previously assumed they would have received from the Army anyway.
Then this time, of course, got a letter saying I was eligible.
The benefits could not be applied retroactively — only to future education. And the last thing I need right now is another degree.
Anyhow, the lesson here is to not accept anything as final — even when the answers come from an authority. I might be $50,000 less in debt had I not trusted the VA’s at their word those first couple times.
Camaraderie and a sense of perspective
There is surprising diversity within the Army — you can be officer or enlisted, reserve or active duty, combat or support, and so forth.
And yet all of these different types of soldiers all eat the same dirt.
That is, when times get tough, nearly all soldiers are subject to pretty similar circumstances. Few things can build camaraderie quite like knowing that, even though things may suck, they suck just as badly for the guy to your left and to your right.
Now that I’m on the outside, when times get tough with money — when student loan debt feels too overwhelming or when the sacrifices I make to pay it off feel too heavy — I reach out to a community of friends who I know are in the same struggle to commiserate a little before we motivate each other to keep pushing toward that finish line.
Also, it doesn’t hurt that, as badly as debt sucks, at least I don’t have to worry about people trying to explode me anymore.
Not being tied to stuff
As a cavalry officer, traveling light was just part of the job description. When you have to carry everything you need on your back or strapped to the front of a tactical vest, you decide very quickly what’s important to you. When I saw someone with something big, fancy, and new, my brain would immediately switch to how dumb he’d feel when it was time to carry that thing for two weeks next time we were in the field.
Moreover, when no one has anything, no one covets what anyone else has. In other words, there’s no such thing as keeping up with the Joneses, because Pvt. Jones doesn’t have anything but the same camouflage uniform you do.
This could be why I’ve just never understood the stifling, in-your-face consumerist culture on the outside where people seem to buy things to cheer themselves up, because they’re on sale, because they feel like they “deserve” it because of their status, or sometimes, for no reason at all.
In the Army, I could spend nothing and feel comfortable in my own skin with people for whom I would have given my life. On the outside, people seem so pressured to buy things that they don’t need to impress people they don’t actually care about.