When Army Spc. Oliver Bugariski was transferred to Germany, he embarked on a yearlong personal financial challenge: get a grip on expenses and put more money away in his retirement accounts.
But he also wanted to take advantage of the opportunities to travel while abroad, which would require more spending.
By making some lifestyle changes and prioritizing his retirement funds, Bugariski managed to add more than $11,000 to his savings and investments in the last year, while visiting 20 countries — all on an E-4 base pay of about $2,100 a month.
His strategy has been to take the savings from his paycheck on the front end — before he sees the money, and before he can spend it on something else. The savings math:
- 10 percent of his base pay goes directly to his Thrift Savings Plan.
- $458 from his first paycheck of the month goes to his Roth Individual Retirement Account.
- $200 from his mid-month check goes to his savings account.
That leaves $200 to $300 a month for necessities such as groceries, cellphone bill, uniforms and Wi-Fi, he said. The rest, between $500 and $600 a month, goes to travel.
Army Spc. Oliver Bugariski built his savings while seeing Europe, all thanks to some basic budgeting.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Spc. Oliver Bugariski
It's a regimented approach, but not a painful one, Bugariski said.
"I really enjoyed myself the whole year; it made me aware of how I can do things better," he said. "I'm satisfied and happy. … If I can do it, I think most people should be able to do it. Even contributing just 10 percent in the Thrift Savings Plan would do a lot."
Bugariski is 31 and single, and lives in the barracks. He realizes that setup makes it easier for him to save, but he said he's setting himself up for future financial success as his situation changes.
"If I do end up having kids down the road, even if I stop putting money into retirement, I'll still be able to retire comfortably, and put money into education funds for the kids," he said.
He's also able to handle unexpected expenses (such as buying tires or paying for repairs for his 10-year-old car), or paying for travel back to the U.S. if the need arises.
"Knowing what you can do for yourself, and that you're capable of doing it, is a huge sense of relief, not just peace of mind," he said.
STARTING TO SAVE EARLY
Even if he stops saving in six years, Bugariski said, his nest egg will grow to about $1.4 million by the time he reaches age 60. That's according to advice he received when he recently visited the personal financial management office at Vilseck, where he is stationed, for a review of his finances.
With that extra $11,000 he's saved in the last year and the growth on his investments, he now has about $90,000 in savings and investments, which includes more than $50,000 he accumulated in a 401(k) account from a previous employer before he enlisted.
Bugariski said he was in the habit of saving before he joined the military, even if it was $5 a month. Between the time he graduated from high school and joined the military, he had about $15,000 in an emergency fund and about $9,000 in his Roth IRA, he said.
But when he made the permanent change-of-station move to Germany, he said, he changed his way of thinking about saving.
"I started taking my savings from the front end," before he even sees it in his paycheck, he said.
He also took steps to control his spending:
- Cut back on booze. "I realized that I really don’t need alcohol to have fun and enjoy myself. It not only improved my savings, it kept my head clear and it freed up more money for travel." That’s not to say he didn’t imbibe at one beer tasting in Bruges, Belgium, and one Scotch tasting in Scotland.
- Go public (transit). When buses or trains weren't available, Bugariski walked. "Believe me, I so wanted to get into a cab that night it was pouring down freezing rain at the end of January, but I stuck to walking the three-mile-hike to the barracks. The experience raised my awareness level." Now, he often gives rides to roaming soldiers.
- Eat smart. Bugariski eats at the base dining facility for most of his meals, rather than getting food delivered. When he travels, he eats out in moderation, generally for dinner, with street food for lunch. Typically he chooses lodging that includes breakfast included. He also shops for sandwich makings.
- Game over. Instead of computer games, he went to the gym, hiked and went running. Along with saving money, he improved his physical fitness score.
- Dress savvy. Bugariski stays away from the more expensive clothing brands and shops for plain, necessary clothing items. He’s learned that wearing the more expensive clothing attracted the wrong kind of attention: Wearing expensive clothes while shopping or dining might make you a target for an up-sell, he said, while more basic clothing might put you in line for more budget-friendly fare.
- Do it yourself. He learned how to do oil changes on his car after realizing it would cost him $240 or so on the civilian economy in Germany. He went to the auto skill center on base, rented a spot with the proper equipment, and learned how to change his oil with the help of employees there.
- Avoid expensive hotels. "I realized that staying at mountain lodges, hostels and youth centers are all that I really need because of my active lifestyle plus it expands my social circle with people from around the world."
- Gift guidance. Holiday presents such as Scottish wool, Maltese blown glass and Belgian chocolate offered exotic charm to folks back home ... but weren't very expensive on the local market.
Bugariski said he was careful not to skimp on some things important to him — keeping up his uniforms, for instance, or keeping his PT gear current.
On the way, he found out many of his young fellow service members have asked him about finances after seeing his example, he said. Those conversations made him eager to outline his financial plans.
"If this only helps one more person, sharing my experience is worthwhile," he said.
Senior reporter Karen Jowers writes about military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.