Welcome to today’s 10 Questions with Kate Horrell. For those of you who don’t know her, Kate is a personal finance writer for the Paycheck Chronicles at Military.com, and she’s a personal finance consultant. She’s previously worked for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and volunteered at the Army War College. She’s also a supportive spouse for her Navy husband, Steve, as he wraps up his 30-year Navy career. Let’s check in with Kate to see her perspective on their military transition.
1. What’s your military background? Career, family, etc.
I’ve been around some sort of military my whole life. My dad got his draft papers on the day I was born! A few years later, in a military that wasn’t quite yet prepared for single parents, he sent me to live with my grandparents. My grandfather had retired from the Marine Corps a few years earlier, but there was no doubt that this was still a Marine household.
I started dating my husband shortly before he entered active duty, and we married two years later. That was a long time ago…
2. What is it that you want to do after you leave active duty?
We don’t have a set plan, so we’re preparing for a variety of options. We have 5 years and 5 days to complete our long-term goals: continuing to fully-fund TSP, both IRAs and my SEP IRA; building my business, and stocking a transition savings account to help us through the process. We’re still debating the relative merits of trying to pay off our mortgage, but it is looking like we’d rather have cash assets over lower debt. The idea is that my husband will have the luxury of waiting and finding the right opportunity instead of frantically searching for the first job that will put money in the bank.
It has been important to me that I am mostly at home while we still have kids in school, and so I’ve passed on a lot of amazing opportunities over the years. Our youngest will graduate from high school the month the Navy will ask my husband to retire, giving me more latitude to explore full-time employment in a job that expects me to come to an office regularly, or expand my current business without worrying about car pools and sports practices.
3. What is it about your service experience do you think has best prepared you for your transition?
Military life has taught me to be flexible and given me the confidence that we can handle crazy challenges. I’ve also crammed my brain full of information about pay and benefits issues. I am pretty sure that we know exactly what retirement pay will look like, how it will impact our taxes, and how much retiree health care is going to cost. Of course, there will probably be some surprises!
4. Think of the most challenging part of your life to this point. What is it that you’ve done that helped you through it?
When we moved last summer, we decided to buy and renovate a house to fit our family’s needs. There have been a ton of problems and, of course, it has taken twice as long and cost twice as much as planned. We have been living with my mother for 11 months. She is a saint, but it is still really hard. Also, I had no idea that managing a house renovation was basically a full-time job! Adding it to my regular job, our special needs child’s appointment schedule, full-time taxi service for the other three, and I am behind on everything.When I am at the end of my patience, which is pretty often, I try to remember that these are all good problems to have. It is important to us that we have a home that is comfortable for our four children, all their friends, aging parents and grandparents (including the now 94 year old Marine listed above), and lots of houseguests, and we’re blessed to be able to build a house that can do all that for us. I’m lucky that three of my girls have busy lives that include activities of value. Mostly importantly, military health care coverage means that we can pursue whatever treatments will help my daughter without worrying about costs or coverage.
5. On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you in your financial situation as you transition?
I’m about a 7. The above referenced house renovation, by purely financial standards, probably shouldn’t have happened. We made the decision based upon the logic that money is earned and saved in order to do things that are important to you, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be fine in the end, but the process has stretched our finances further than we’ve been stretched in a long time. It’s not comfortable. On the other hand, 30 years of service results in a respectable retirement paycheck, we’ve contributed diligently to all available tax-advantaged retirement accounts, and we own two profitable rental properties. More importantly, we are healthy and employable.I do worry about the cost of college. While it has never been our intent to fully fund our kid’s education, I will probably end up contributing more than planned if they are in a situation where loans are the last resort. The unpredictability of the financial aid process makes it really hard for parents and students to plan. We’re unlikely to qualify for need-based aid, so we’re focusing on merit-based assistance, and competition is stiff.
6. What’s your biggest fear about your transition?
I worry that my husband will feel like he needs to take a crummy job just for the paycheck. My number one goal in planning is to make sure we never end up in a situation where he feels that way.
7. What would you like to see “out there” that doesn’t exist, but if it did, it would solve a big problem for you, and other people like you?
Great question. I would like a crystal ball (or facts-based calculator, either way) that could accurately predict the total net costs of a college education, and then compare it realistically to the job and earnings opportunities for graduates. I firmly believe that not everyone needs to go to college, and we try to emphasize the importance of thinking critically about the price-to-value relationship of higher education. Unfortunately, most 18 year-olds don’t have a clearly defined vision of their future, so it is hard to make good choices. Throw in a society that emphasizes college education even for jobs that don’t require it, and the pressure to go to college is high even if you have no idea if it makes sense for your life.
8. What person has helped you through your military career and/or transition the most?
The grandmother with whom I grew up was a Marine wife during World War II and the Korean War. She was pretty matter-of-fact about the challenges that they faced, but they made an impression on me. Military pay was not a lot, and the financial systems weren’t so sophisticated. She spoke of her cousin, a Navy wife, selling their furniture to buy food when there were pay issues. They moved a lot – my dad went to 13 schools in 12 years – and they didn’t receive nearly as many moving-related allowances as we receive now. Heck, as newlyweds, they shared a one-bedroom apartment with another newlywed couple!In addition, their social support systems were very different. The military community itself was closer, but the only way to talk to your friends and family was via letters, and communication with the deployed service member was extremely limited.Remembering the challenges of prior generations of military helps me maintain perspective on the challenges I’m facing. I’m also lucky to have a supportive family and friends who will let me vent and remind me that I can handle anything!
9. Do you want to be contacted by people who think you might be able to help them? If so, how do people get in touch with you?
I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. If you’d like to share your story or to be featured in an upcoming article, please feel free to send me an email or contact me via the Military in Transition Facebook Group!