5 Ways a Military Career Helps Me Keep Expenses Low

Jake - Wealthy Corner Author/Founder

Jake - Wealthy Corner Author/Founder

Hi, I'm Jake. I help people under 40 reduce money stress and grow wealth.

The past 12 years in the military has helped me keep expenses at rock bottom while maintaining a high quality of life.  Examples include a fully funded post-secondary education to reduced reliance on material goods.

I’d have to earn an additional $40k/year – $25k/yr after tax –  for a job outside of the military to make sense financially. 

This is true because my expenses would balloon if I left the military. Shelter, transport, and benefit costs skyrocket if I enter the civilian sector.

A career in the military also fosters great expense management behaviors. If you fail to build frugal habits you fail to grow and maintain wealth, regardless of income. 

This is affirmed by a recent study that showed 60% of American millennials earning over $100,000/yr were living paycheck to paycheck. Wealth is based on what you save and invest, not what you earn.  

Here are 5 ways a military career facilitates a low expense lifestyle.

1. Low Clothing Costs

When I wake up daily, I know what I’m wearing – the uniform. I make no decisions about what to wear, and I spend zero time or money shopping for work clothes. The uniform saves resources in three areas:   

  1. Money.
  2. Time.
  3. Decision-making power.  

Money savings are obvious, but time savings not so much. Consider all the time allocated to a work wardrobe. Shopping for clothes, deciding what to wear, maintaining and organizing the wardrobe. This is all time you’ll never get back. It’s time that may provide more utility elsewhere.  

And each decision you make eats into your finite reserves of decision-making capacity. This is called decision fatigue, related to ego-depletion, and it’s one of the reasons that CEOs like Jeff Bezos focus their energy on a small number of high-quality decisions each day. These hyper-productive people save their decision-making resources for a small number of important decisions.

All limited resources should be treated with great care – money, time and decision-making efforts.  And the military uniform frees up all three. Ironically, the restriction on freedom of what to wear actually increases overall freedom. Plus, the uniform is as comfy as pajamas. I’d wear it over a suit any day.

2. Zero Student Debt

Education is becoming more expensive, with tuition growing faster than inflation between 2006 and 2021. In Canada, tuition costs grew at 2.94% per year1 while inflation over this period was 1.7%/yr. Avoiding tuition costs will free up money that can be invested at a young age while also removing student loan interest payments. 

Undergraduate Education

Military enrollment programs such as the Regular Officer Training Program cover all tuition costs. Plus you get benefits and a salary while in school. And your time in school counts as pensionable time. It’s the best path to independence,  you don’t need a wealthy family.

I started my 1st year of my engineering funded by my grandfather’s RESP, and in the second year I joined the Air Force under the ROTP program. The military covered all tuition costs for the remaining three years of my undergraduate degree. 

This decision in the face of uncertainty was hard, especially at age 20. Will I like the job? Is the military for me? Will this close doors on other opportunities? Would I see my girlfriend while away with the military in the summer?  I had to commit the next 8 years to the military – 3 years at school, 5 years of follow-on service in a specific occupation. 

Looking back today, 8 years later, it was the best decision I ever made. I was paid a salary, gained great experience during summer employment. Plus, I had a job when I graduated. And now, 5 years after graduation, I’m still employed in a job I love.  

Post Graduate Education

The military is a place of lifelong learning for both officers and non-commissioned members. I was fortunate enough to gain 100% funding for a part-time MBA. I had to first prove that the program would be beneficial to my employment area. Over two years I was able to complete the MBA outside of working hours. 

There are other post-graduate opportunities, but they are dependent on the occupation. The Aerospace Engineering Officer occupation has the most post-graduate opportunities out of any trade. 

The military fully funded an Engineering Degree and an MBA. I was fortunate to avoid student debt and to invest for compound growth.

3. Discipline

Discipline and personal finance are closely linked. Therefore the military indirectly aids expense management through self-discipline. 

The military has a national monopoly on force, and that force must be carefully controlled. Otherwise, people can lose lives, tax payers can lose money, and an entire country can lose credibility.

So, it’s no wonder the military instills discipline through boot camp, physical training, and adherence to high standards of conduct. And good leaders must further hone strong self-control, suppressing one’s own desires and ego for the benefit of the group.

Similarly, to grow the financial wealth you must suppress the desires of “present you” to improve the life of “future you”. Slashing expenses to invest is a sacrifice of present gratification for a better future. Examples include waiting out impulsive spending urges, electing not to drop $50,000 on a new car, and living in a modest home when you can afford more. Delayed gratification – self-discipline – is the central principle behind wealth building.  

4. Low Living Expenses

In 2019, Canadian’s spent 30% of their income on shelter, 19% on transport and 15% on food3.  Cutting down on these three expense categories will accelerate your path to Financial Independence. 

Transport and Food Costs

Transport and food costs evaporate while on course, exercise or deployment. During these times you’re normally co-located at your specific place of duty, erasing transport costs. Food costs also disappear as you eat at a kitchen on the military base. Expenses are limited to your primary residence back at home. 

Shelter Costs

Shelter costs can be reduced under normal employment conditions, if you are lucky. I rent a house on the base. It’s no luxury home, but it’s close to work and there is a fantastic community that will help me out at a moment’s notice. Further, my commute is minimal, saving on transport costs and time. 

With the high cost of housing in Ontario, my rent is far lower than 4% of the average home value. In this situation renting and investing the difference is the best decision to maximize long-term wealth. Check out this post to evaluate this rent vs. buy decision. 

Benefits

Finally, there are significant savings that arise from benefits such as dental, optometry, physio, and a free gym membership. These savings increase the amount of after-tax salary that can be invested to grow wealth. 

5. Instills Gratitude That Limits Lifestyle Creep

During basic training, I remember being stuck in a field with limited sleep and disgusting food. And at sea with the Navy I had poor sleeping conditions, an inconsistent sleep schedule and long work hours. 

These experiences instill a sense of gratitude for the roof over my head, a nice bed, and a consistent sleep schedule. The basic things can provide for wellbeing. 

You feel a temporary change in happiness when you increase or decrease your lifestyle standard. But after a short time, you’ll revert to a baseline level of happiness.  That’s called hedonic adaptation. Winning the lottery doesn’t make people happier in the long term. And downsizing a house doesn’t make people less happy in the long term.  

Having a baseline of tough times taught me that I don’t need to spend much to maintain well-being. Hedonic adaptation serves as strong motivation to do something hard every single day. Otherwise, you’ll get used to comfort that can be dangerous to your health and wealth.