Imagine you’re stressed about your finances. Maybe you feel like you’re drowning in credit card debt. Or you’re trying to stretch a paycheck further and further each month, and it seems like it’s two steps forward, one step back. Or there was a billing snafu and now a debt collector is calling, threatening to ruin your credit.
It would be no surprise if that stress spilled over to your job, making you feel on on edge, anxious. You may not be sleeping well. But now imagine that in your case, your money troubles could cost you your job. Or worse, distraction could put you and your co-workers in danger.
For some members of our Armed Forces, this is exactly what they face when their finances aren’t in good shape.
This past spring I had the honor of traveling to Air Force bases around the country for the inaugural tour of a unique financial education program. The non-commercial program was brought to an initial six bases by the the nonprofit Heroes at Home program and USAA. My employer, Credit.com, donated my time and travel expenses so that I could bring credit education to airmen and their families at bases in Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana, and North and South Dakota.
The program was designed by Ellie Kay, who was also the principal speaker. The wife of a career fighter pilot and mother of seven (including three sons currently serving in three branches of the military), she learned firsthand the challenges of raising a family while traveling for the military. (We previously featured Ellie’s story of getting out of debt as a military family.) Ingrid Bruns, advice generation director of military life at USAA and the spouse of a career airman, spoke about strategies for saving for the future.
Like many Americans, I come from a “military legacy” that Kay talks about in her presentation. My husband and uncle served in the Air Force and my father in the Navy. But I had little direct exposure to military life myself and sometimes during the tour I felt like I was in another country, relying on my fellow speakers to translate the unfamiliar acronyms I heard: PCS, BAH, BX, TDY, PRP and many others.
When it comes to financial challenges, several themes emerged in our conversations with airmen, financial counselors in the Airmen and Family Readiness Centers (AFRC) and leadership. Here are a few of the common money worries I saw when visiting these bases.
1. Doing More With Less
At each base, we were briefed by leadership and discussed the “ops tempo” of the base. “Operations tempo (refers to) the operation that a military base has to accomplish and the rate at which is has to be accomplished, versus the manning that is available,” explains Kay. “Now more than ever our American military is being asked to do more with less. That translates to longer hours, increased and more frequent deployments and increased pressure to do more,” she said.
On one base, for example, we spoke with airmen who were working 14-hour shifts, multiple days in a row. “That is not unusual,” says Kay.
There are many ways this can impact a military member. It could mean they simply don’t have enough time to take care of basic financial chores and accidentally miss payments on credit cards or other essential bills, for example. “If a problem comes up with a bill, the military member doesn’t always have time to straighten out that small problem and it becomes a big problem,” says Kay. (That’s why one of the pieces of advice I gave is to set up automatic payments when possible.)
Another way ops tempo can impact finances is the pressure it puts on family members. “If they are often away from their families, they may end up trying to make up for it by splurging on their family,” Kay says. Servicemembers and their families may also find themselves spending more dining out because there is no time or energy to cook.
2. Spouse Employment
At some bases, such as Minot AFB in North Dakota, spouses have little trouble finding jobs that pay well. But at others, such as Whiteman (in Missouri), competition for local jobs was high and pay was generally low. Considering that many families today rely on income from two parents, a gap in employment for a military spouse can easily trigger a cycle of debt from which it can be hard to recover.
“In some bases (overseas) spouses cannot work on the ‘economy,’ which means they have to find a job on base, and there can be a lot of military spouses vying for the same job,” Kay elaborates. “Another problem for military spouses it that they are kind of low on the totem pole when it comes to getting hired on base. A lot of times priority hiring will go to veterans.” In her presentation, Bruns encouraged servicemembers and their families to prepare for fluctuations in spousal income.
Members of the Air Force receive a basic allowance for housing (BAH) if they live off base. But that doesn’t mean their housing is “free.” In fact, on the very first base we visited, we were told that landlords in the area would find out the amount of BAH a servicemember was receiving based on their rank, and charge that amount for rent — even though it’s supposed to also cover the servicemember’s basic utilities. As a result, some would find themselves running short. And if they weren’t careful, credit cards would be used to fill the gaps.
Related to that was the problem that on same bases, the nearest community (including some military housing not on base) is at least a 20-minute commute away, sometimes farther. Longer commutes mean more money spent on gas, greater wear and tear on a vehicle and may mean the family has no choice but to have two cars.
4. Credit Scores & Security Clearances
Many members of the military must get security clearances that include, among other things, a review of their credit and finances. And those in particularly sensitive positions with access to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons may be screened through the Personal Reliability Program. Financial or credit problems can jeopardize either, and in turn jeopardize their ability to continue to serve.
And, of course, members of the military who separate from service need to be prepared for the fact that civilian employers may review their credit reports when they apply for a job.
The Advice We Gave to Our Audience
Some of the strategies we shared in our presentations included:
Put it on autopilot. We talked a lot about making good financial habits automatic, including taking advantage of automatic payments and automatic savings. Auto bill pay is especially helpful when airmen leave one base for another or deploy and need to ensure bills get paid on time.
I explained how to build a good credit score, and how important it is to review your credit reports annually and monitor credit scores for unusual activity. (Credit.com offers two free credit scores, updated monthly.)
Save everywhere. Kay shared how she saved more than $160,000 on her grocery budget during the years she raised her large family, and our emcee, Bethany Grace, shared her favorite money-saving and time-saving apps, including travel apps — important for families who often travel to wait out deployments.
Airmen and their families are supported by counselors in Airmen and Family Readiness Centers on base, who are trained to help review credit reports, create budgets and help airmen find solutions to financial challenges. Our goal was to help educate and motivate them to take those next steps.
“In our pilot program the success factor was amazing.” says Kay. “Where most financial programs held on base will have 15 to 20 people attending, for these we had between 125 and 580 in attendance at each base.” More importantly, she said, “we were able to provide financial education that helped to save secret security clearances in the long run.”
“Our work is helping with military readiness, especially through financial readiness,” says Kay. What I saw during this tour was disciplined servicemembers with a strong desire to learn to be financially successful. With the right tools and resources, I am confident they can be.
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Image courtesy of Gerri Detweiler