A Military Approach to Managing Your Money

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Stacks of 100 dollar bills in the foreground with shadows of troops cast on a wall
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Recently during a meeting here at USAA, someone used the term "80% solution." I don't remember the context, because I immediately flashed back to my days in the military and an old commander who was fond of the approach.

While it has been awhile, I did learn a lot during my time in uniform. Like the 80% solution, a lot of those lessons learned, and timeless tidbits, can translate into ideas to manage your money better.

Taking a few liberties, here are five pearls of wisdom that may help you elevate your money game:

The 80% Solution

Back in the day, the idea was that action was imperative. You'd be better off getting the ball rolling in the right direction and adjusting on the fly than waiting until every last detail was nailed down. The same approach can be applied to your finances.

For instance, it would be ideal to have a detailed financial plan projecting exactly how much you need to save to meet your goals after accounting for assumed growth rates, inflation, taxes and the whims of the market. But instead of waiting until you've mastered every detail, why not just sign up for the Thrift Savings Plan and start socking away 5% or 6% to get started?

And although budgeting where every penny goes each month is a good idea to get your spending under control, don't stop there. Set up a savings account for emergencies, investments into a Roth IRA and college savings plans for the kids. Put things in motion and then tweak them over time. You can plan, plan, plan, but until you take action, you've really made no headway.

Take a Little Off the Top

Many have uttered these famous last words before getting that first military haircut. You may remember the buzz job that introduced your scalp to the sun. You can apply that same phrase to your money by taking it off the top and paying yourself first.

Setting aside money for short-, medium- and long-term goals before it gets swept away by your normal spending routine is ideal. And speaking of taking a little off the top, every pay raise, cost-of-living bump or promotion provides an opportunity to increase those savings without even feeling a pinch in your lifestyle.

If It Wasn't Good Enough, It Wouldn't Be the Minimum

Not everything from back then was a positive example for your financial endeavors. I hate to admit it, but on more than a few occasions -- especially after some late nights on the town -- this phrase captured my approach to the physical fitness test. While I doubt that this applies to you or yours, it's definitely not the way to knock down your debt.

Checked out your credit-card bills lately? The minimum is definitely not enough. In May, we marked the fourth month in a row in which credit-card balances across the country grew. Find a way to do more.

A Checklist for Everything, and Everything on a Checklist

Whether it was preventive maintenance, battle drills or a formal briefing, everything we did seemed to come with a list to guide us. In the same vein, create your own checklist to keep yourself on the right financial track.

It could be a game plan to pay down debt or short-term goals you want to accomplish, such as saving for a new TV. Often, putting things down in writing is the first step toward making them a reality. I still have a checklist at my desk, and few things are as satisfying as putting a big check mark next to another mission accomplished.

A Battle Buddy Has Your Back

Sure, it might be "shipmate" or "wingman," depending on your service, but regardless, the concept is the same: someone who is looking out for you. On your financial journey, your battle buddy could be an accountability partner, a cheerleader or a sounding board. In each of those roles, you've got someone who is helping you achieve what's important. If you don't have one, find one.

These are just a few military tidbits that translate nicely into sound personal finance ideas. I'm sure there are dozens more! What do I hope you take from all of this? Make your finances a priority and leverage your unique lifestyle to make a financial difference today -- not decades later.

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