NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Some people have the luxury of stable jobs. They can count on a steady income. But Jeff Briere knew he needed a fallback plan.
Briere began life in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His dad was a shift supervisor at Monsanto, while Mom stayed home to take care of Briere and his sister.
A 4.0 grade-point-average and leadership qualities (captain of the football and track teams, president of the Honors Society) won Briere a spot at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
He graduated in 1989. The Air Force assigned Briere to fly tankers, which refuel other jets in mid-air. "I wasn't overly thrilled initially, but I grew to love it," he says. At 23 years old, he was flying all over the world.
The military breaks down compensation into several components: basic pay; housing and allowances; and flight pay.
"I was advised that you can't count on flight pay," says Briere, "since if you ever lost your pilot qualification for medical or other reasons, you lose it."
During his early post-grad years, he says, other officers "always seemed to be talking about investing." He grew determined to live off the other components and invest the flight pay.
By 1994, he had met and married Anna Wiars and the two were living at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. Briere was a captain and aircraft commander (and was getting his master's degree in aeronautical science) and Anna taught special needs children at the local school.
Briere transferred to the Air Force Academy to teach flying and the couple moved back to Colorado Springs. Their first home and son Jeffrey both arrived in June 1997.
The future looked rosy, but shortly afterward, the Air Force shut down the program after a flight instructor and student died in the program's third fatal crash in recent years.
That precipitated a life-changing decision. "I was nearing the end of my flying commitment to the Air Force and I wanted a more stable family life," says Briere. "The airlines were hiring in record numbers."
With little recent flying time on his resumé, though, it was hard to land an airline job.
"A squadron mate had recently joined the Nebraska Air National Guard and invited me to take a look," says Briere. Joining the Guard would accomplish three objectives: completing his remaining Air Force commitment; getting some recent flying hours, which would make him more attractive to the airlines; and obtaining reliable part-time work.
The Guard was "a good insurance policy" says Briere.
Then, United Airlines hired him in March 2001. "I felt like I won the lottery," he says, but he had to put in a hard, unglamorous probationary year "I was paid about $30 an hour, but only for the hours actually flying, 70 to 75 a month," says Briere.
The family cut back. "If we couldn't eat it, we didn't buy it."
On his second year with United, Briere's pay went up to more than $100 an hour. Then, daughter Ashley was born on August 1, 2001. The Brieres contracted to buy a 4,000 square foot house on three acres in an exclusive neighborhood. Their closing date was September 15.
September 11 hit the family hard. They backed out of the house deal. "I went on active duty orders," says Briere, "and lost my United income."
That was just a prelude. "People stopped flying," says Briere. The airlines didn't need pilots. Lay-offs ensued. United furloughed him in January 2003.
But the Guard -- Briere's flight insurance -- had a couple of full-time positions open up and he was hired for one in August of 2003. He moved the family to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Briere earned about $120,000 in 2004, including incentive and hostile fire pay. The family automatically deposits more than $1,240 every month into a Thrift Savings Plan. Another $400 a month goes into CGM Focus fund.
The rest of the Briere's portfolio is extremely diverse; they own tech stocks, such as Celsion, Sun Microsystems, and Vitesse Semiconductor, as well as shares of Southwest Airlines and Lucent. Index funds have performed well for the couple.
For retirement, the Brieres have three different accounts include an IRA and a Roth. All told, the Brieres have about $200,000 in savings and investments. They have no debt, other than a mortgage.
Military personnel save by shopping at the commissary and base exchange. The government provides health and dental care, and it subsidizes educational costs. Briere also uses base hobby shops to work on his car, make picture frames, and build furniture.
The Brieres also attend hockey games at the base, go ice-skating there, swim in the pool. "It's like a free health club," says Briere. They rarely eat out (Anna's a great cook) or go to movies, but they do take great family vacations to places like DisneyWorld, Seaworld, and Myrtle Beach.
Guard colleagues also pitch in and help each other with home projects, which saves thousands of dollars. One guardsman is a trained electrician, who wired Briere's basement.
Another guardsman pulled out a malfunctioning air conditioner and installed a new one. Briere returns the favors by doing woodworking for squadron-mates.