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Learning How to Budget for Civilian Life

how to budget for civilian life

Leaving the military comes with its own set of unique challenges for veterans and their families. One of the areas that can cause stress for many is figuring out how to budget for civilian life while waiting for various pieces of this new life to come together.

Budget & Plan for Transition

Finances can be a delicate subject to talk about, especially among military families. There are so many perks that come along with being in the military – housing allowances, separation pay and non-taxable income, for example – that make life in the military much different from civilian life.

As if going through transition isn’t tough enough, we must try to understand the maze of financial benefits and differences that we will experience as we go through transition.

Of course, I received my customary finance briefing with the obligatory handout explaining everything I needed to know. And of course I stared at this document as I listened to what sounded like the teacher from Charlie Brown explaining how my last paycheck and other benefits would work.

Just like any other move associated with the military, transition can come with a number of expenses that we must account for. Many of us must factor in moving expenses, new wardrobe expenses, and new home expenses among various other things. Considering the significant difference between military and civilian pay, it is important to establish a budget and financial plan for transition as soon as possible.

A good friend of mine who had been through transition once told me, “It is much better to have money and not need it than to need money and not have it.” Start saving money as early as possible; it can make a huge difference when your finances begin to experience the unexpected turns of transition.

Managing Your Budget

Many people say hindsight is 20/20, and I am a believer that this is true. If I knew the things that I know now when I started my transition, I would have started saving my transition money years ago.

By far one of the best tools that I left the military with was a budget to help me through the transition from military to civilian life.

Learning to manage my personal finances after leaving the military became very important for me as I began to prioritize the expenses in my budget. It is important to consider cutting things like cable, eating out and even eating more expensive meals. For me, managing my budget meant making things stretch. It meant being disciplined about every dollar I spent until transition began to move in a positive direction.

Have a Plan B

When I left active duty, I did my due diligence in creating a great resume and putting my energy into finding a job that I could easily transition to while on transition leave. It was a great plan until the job that I accepted fell through just days before my separation date. I quickly jumped back into the job search.

My savings began to dwindle while I waited for the hiring process to run its course. This can be a tough time, even after you have accepted a job but must wait for certain things to happen before you can begin work.

In some cases, it can be a process that takes months. Still, bills and expenses will continue to pile up with no regard for your situation. I soon found myself struggling to make ends meet and knew I needed to use my plan B in order to make it through this time.

For some people, a plan B may be finding a temporary job in order to pay the bills. Driving for a company like Lyft can also be a great option because it allows you to earn extra money while maintaining a flexible schedule to conduct job interviews and other transition-type business.

Finances might be one of the most important areas to get a head start on when you begin transition. Taking time to understand your finances, making a transition budget and saving money can make transition from military to civilian life much easier. Be honest and be frugal. It just may be the best decision you make in your transition.


Jamaal Wheaton is a recently transitioned Army veteran with more than 12 years of active duty service. He is founder and owner of the Wheaton Group, a public relations firm that specializes in being a voice for veteran and military-related issues. Jamaal currently works as a government contractor for the federal government and shares his personal experience of transition with the hopes of helping others navigate through their own transition.

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Need help coming up with a budget that works for your transition? Check Out “7 Ways to Budget for Your Civilian Transition

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