10 Ways Military Spouses Can Be Investors

It's the "job" you can do from any duty station!

Whether you’re reading articles or blogs written by military spouses, talking to fellow wives, fielding questions from newcomers in a duty-station-specific Facebook group, or eavesdropping on conversations at the exchange/commissary/coffee shop/gym/hair salon/insert other on-base hangout here (don’t lie - we all do it), it’s easy to identify one of the largest military spouse concerns: employment. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Sure, certain supportive programs exist, such as the MyCAA Scholarship (which I am currently taking advantage of), the DOD’s Military Spouse Preference program, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Joining Forces Initiative, but sometimes they just don't cut it. To earn a living, many spouses turn to one of the thousands of multi-level-marketing (MLM) businesses available. You know which ones I’m talking about - their advertisements for at-home parties pepper your Facebook groups and newsfeed. And while these MLM programs provide some spouses the independence and mobility they’re looking for, they simply don’t appeal to others.

So, to my fellow military spouses who are searching for “more”, I offer you this alternative job title:

INVESTOR.  

Yes, you read that correctly. I said “investor”. While many of you may picture a white-haired man with glasses counting stacks of gold bars when you hear the word “investor”, that simply isn’t an accurate portrayal, at least not anymore. Today, investing is becoming increasingly accessible, so much so that it’s changing the face of what society considers an investor to be. What does an investor look like today? Look in the mirror.

I know that many of you may not identify yourself as an investor, but riddle me this. Do you and/or your spouse contribute to a retirement account through your employer? TSP ring a bell? Do you have an IRA (Individual Retirement Account)? What about a college fund for your children? Mutual fund or stock brokerage account? One of the many new-fangled investing apps? No? Well, what about this: Do you own a home? Newsflash! You’re an investor!

According to Investopedia, the technical definition of an investor is “any person who commits capital with the expectation of financial returns”. That’s a pretty good definition, technically speaking, however I would suggest these revisions: “An investor is someone who seeks out opportunities and commits resources strategically to generate positive returns.” Those resources could be money, but could also be time and energy. And the returns could be monetary, but could also come in the form of happiness, fulfillment, and pride (all "positive" things!).

I think one of the biggest hang-ups people have when it comes to investing is that it’s seen as greedy, or only for financial gain. And while money is definitely at the heart of investing, I prefer to think of its potential rewards as much more than monetary. Being an investor is about using the resources you already have to bring more quality to your life, be it in the form of financial freedom, more time to spend with loved ones, amazing adventures around the world, you name it. It doesn’t necessarily mean trading stocks behind a computer screen all day.

So, here are 10 WAYS that military spouses (or anyone, really) can put on their investor hat to bring "positive" returns to their lives, no matter their location:

1. Manage your and/or your spouse’s retirement account

Whether it’s a TSP, 401(k), 403(b), or 457, chances are that you have at least one of these. And while a “set it and forget it” approach may sound appealing, taking a more active role in your retirement account can be beneficial. This requires learning how these types of plans work, figuring out whether or not you’re contributing enough, and understanding the different investment options available to you.

2. Open and manage an IRA

Are you already contributing to one of the employer-sponsored plans above? Great! But you don’t have to stop there. Opening an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) may be a good idea for the following reasons:

  • Since TSPs and 401(k)s have maximum annual limits, an IRA can allow you to invest even more money for your financial future.
  • An IRA can give you substantially more investment options than what are typically found in a TSP/401(k).
  • A Roth IRA can allow you to invest money under Roth tax treatment if that’s not an option in your employer’s plan.
  • A Spousal IRA can give stay at home wives and mothers financial security heading into the future. Just because you’re not working doesn’t mean you won’t need money to live off of later in life. Your working spouse can contribute to this account on your behalf.

3. Start and manage your child’s college fund

There are a number of education savings plans available, including 529 plans, Coverdell ESAs, UTMA/UGMAs, and trust accounts. As with retirement plans, a “set it and forget it” strategy may not always be best. In 2008, many students who were in college or close to going to college lost a substantial portion of their college funds when the market dropped. Spouses can manage this risk by checking their accounts to make sure their investment choices align with their risk tolerance and timeline.

4. Invest your emergency fund

I’m sure you’ve heard that you should have at least 3 to 6 months worth of expenses socked away in case of a financial emergency. But that doesn’t mean you have to keep that money in a savings account. There are many low risk, low return investment vehicles like money market funds and Treasury bills (T-bills) that can help your emergency fund grow while keeping it safe.

5. Keep your eye out for lower interest rates and refinancing opportunities

Sometimes being a good investor isn’t about putting more money to work, but rather about lowering the costs of money you’ve already deployed. Depending on the current interest rate environment, high value loans like mortgages, auto loans, and student loans could be refinanced. When you refinance, you pay off the old loan balance with a new loan at a lower interest rate. This could potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars in financing costs depending on your loan. You may also be able to lower interest paid on credit card balances by calling your credit card company to request a lower rate.

6. Invest in real estate

Use sites like Zillow and Trulia to keep track of current home values in your area and in the duty stations you may be sent to next. Because families are constantly moving in and out of these areas, demand for housing, whether owned or rented, is high. That can make owning a property near a military base a good investment opportunity.

Already own a home? Consider renting it when PCSing to another city. If the numbers work out in your favor, you may be able to generate positive rental income from your property. Or, if your home’s value has appreciated enough since you bought it, consider selling. Military homeowners who sell due to unforeseen circumstances like PCS orders may be able to take advantage of preferential tax treatment that excludes some of the profits made from the sale. This exclusion could also apply to a house you renovate and flip, so long as it’s your primary residence. 

7. Look for foreign exchange opportunities if stationed overseas

I’ll admit, this one’s a bit more technical, but if you understand how foreign exchange rates work, you may be able to take advantage of price movements.

For example, late last year, when $1 US was equal to 120 Japanese Yen, my husband and I considered opening a bank account and converting some of our savings into Japanese Yen. Why? Long story short, the Yen is known as a safe haven currency and tends to strengthen against the US Dollar when investors are worried about the economy. That’s exactly what the Yen has done this year. Now $1 US is only worth 103 Yen. Put another way, the Yen has appreciated roughly 16% versus the dollar this year. Had we converted some of our savings to Yen, we could have made 16% on money we just had lying around.

8. Open a brokerage account to invest in index funds and ETFs, or even individual stocks

Already mastered your retirement account or child’s college fund? Consider opening an online brokerage account to invest more directly in the stock market. By keeping your ear to the ground, watching financial TV channels like CNBC, and reading up on individual stocks, you may find some stocks that are worthy of investment today and that could make you money over time.

9. Start your own business

Do you have knowledge or a skill set that could translate into an online business? Creating a website and selling goods or services online has never been easier. There are endless resources available to help you along the way. For incredible, entertaining guidance, I highly recommend my girl Marie Forleo and her online course, B-School. She offers a small number of military scholarships each year. You never know, you may win one (I did!).

10. Invest in yourself

Last, but definitely not least, invest in yourself. Speaking from experience, we military spouses often get caught up in what our service member needs and forget to take care of ourselves. But continuing to develop personally and professionally is critical to enjoying all that life in the service has to offer.

Depending on your duty station, there may be skills classes or travel opportunities coordinated through MWR. If you’re overseas, make an effort to learn the language and immerse yourself in your host country’s culture. And remember that, no matter where you’re stationed, there are countless scholarship opportunities available to fund further education, help you acquire a new skill, or obtain a mobile certification.

* * * * *

Far too often, we restrict our definition of “work” to a standard 9-5 or some sort of sales job, when in reality, contributing to your family can be as simple as putting the money you’ve already earned to “work” for you. Learning about investing can be incredibly rewarding, and I can show you how.

For anyone interested, I invite you to check out the wealth of free resources on my website or contact me for more information!