The stress of dealing with financial problems is a huge concern in the military and one of the reasons it is so involved in promoting “Military Saves.”
Military Saves is an annual program that encourages all service members, their families, and civilian employees to “Take the Military Saves Pledge” – a commitment to help yourself and your family save, reduce debt and build wealth over time.
Military Saves has been a partner with the Department of Defense’s Financial Readiness Campaign since 2003. Allied with organizations, agencies and installations around the globe, the awareness campaign promotes subtle but effective methods almost anyone with a steady paycheck can employ to become financially secure.
Military Saves is part of “America Saves Week,” a program that promotes good savings behavior and asks individuals to take a look at their financial status. Both programs are managed by the Consumer Federation of America.
As is traditional, military installations everywhere will host financial planning events, fairs, seminars, classes and even one-on-one counseling during Military Saves Week, featuring local experts from financial institutions.
The effort’s vision statement — Start Small. Think Big. — stands as a baby-steps invitation for military folk to get their financial quarters fit for inspection, which is good for the troops, and even better for the military. (Insert preferred battle cry here.)
“The financial readiness of Soldiers and their families is a priority for the Army because it has a direct effect on mission readiness,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, Commanding General, U.S. Army Installation Management Command, as he signed a proclamation on behalf of Military Saves Week 2018.
“Soldiers and their families who manage their finances successfully have less stress and worry over bills, and are better equipped to withstand the unique demands of Army life,” Dahl said. “Sound money management also helps them protect themselves against predatory lending and financial fraud.”
Staying ready for the fight
The Pentagon isn’t kidding around, either. Sloppy personal finances can lead to a loss of security clearances, which can blunt opportunities for promotion.
“Soldiers’ top priority is to maintain their deployability,” says Command Sgt. Maj Mike Sutterfield, U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria’s command sergeant major. “Relationships at home damaged by finances, preventable suicide and the loss or denial of a soldier’s clearance take good soldiers out of the fight. We can’t afford that.”
The good news is much about military experience informs not just saving, but overall financial security, on which Military Saves Week capitalizes.
- Have a plan — in this case, a budget: plot every dollar.
- Have a strategy — shrink your spending, boost your income.
- Use smart, proven tactics — avoid big-ticket purchases and borrowing at high interest rates; automate your savings.
- Maximize your strengths; minimize your weaknesses.
- Focus on your goal.
- Stay disciplined — be consistent; be patient.
“Success isn’t a football game or a hockey game,” says Zach Oscol, a past Marine Corps officer, now CEO of Hire Purpose, a New York-based career guidance company offering personalized assistance to service members transitioning to civilian life. “There’s no time limit or that you score a touchdown and you’re done. That’s not the way life works.
“True success comes from discipline, focus, and I think the most important thing is consistency. Are you doing things consistently within a framework with specific objectives and goals in mind? Think about how you can consistently to set yourself up for long-term success.”
Agreeing with Oscol is one thing. Setting up that consistent plan is quite another. That’s the focus of Military Saves Week. And it works: 58% of military savers report saving regularly once they’ve taken the Military Saves Pledge.
Leaning on Military Saves for a quick boost
First, organize and stick with a budget. Run every last dollar to ground. Identify the leaks in your financial plan and plug them. If debt has your monthly situation taking on more water than you can handle, explore opportunities to increase your income. Also consider contacting a nonprofit debt counseling service to help explore your options.
If your budgeting exercise reveals money at the end of your mandatory expenses, you’ve taken the first important step. Now, open a savings account with a reputable financial institution — a bank or credit union. USAA, which caters to past and present military members and their families, leaps to mind. Also, Navy Federal Credit Union. Or look online. As the Fed has raised interest rates, competition for savers has ramped up, with some institutions offering interest rates above 2% with no minimum balances required. (Be alert for banks that don’t offer ATM access, if that’s important to you.)
During Military Saves Week, be on the lookout for institutions that are offering bumped-up returns as an incentive.
Next, make your savings automatic. Arrange to have some portion of your take-home pay direct-deposited into your savings account. Start building that emergency fund.
Also look into funding your retirement account. And paying down debt. These all are, without doubt, challenges. But for someone who has promised to defend the country and its Constitution with his or her life, they shouldn’t prove unmanageable.
Military Saves Week invites you to take one step at a time. Sort of like marching, but with a reward at the end.
Vets Offer Support for Military Saves
If, at first glance, Military Saves Week sounds like one of those episodes of do-gooderism designed only to make the organizers feel better about themselves — Who are they to lecture people living paycheck-to-paycheck about setting money aside? — chances are you’ve never been to a Veterans Stand Down event and, especially, you’ve never sat in on Veterans Court.
Like other counties in the Tampa Bay area, each autumn in Pasco County, Fla., homeless veterans are recruited to attend a three-day fair/campout where area charities, agencies and branches of government attempt to get them back on their feet. One key aspect of the annual event: a one-day Veterans Court, where vets screened by local public defenders and assistant state attorneys get right with the judicial system.
In recent years, as many as 40 Pasco veterans have cleared the screening process to go before the judge. In October 2018, 37 veterans had 60-odd charges settled and a record $82,000-plus in fines, fees and court costs waived, enabling the vast majority to get what they most needed to return to the work force: a driver’s license.
“Employers, especially garage owners, don’t like it if you can’t drive,” said William Yourn, a self-described jack-of-all-trades whose passion is auto mechanics.
He’d lost his license when a routine traffic stop revealed he was driving without insurance. “It was either pay the premium,” Yourn said, “or pay the rent.” Once he’d lost his ability to get to work, he couldn’t afford either; Yourn and his small family wound up bunking with his mother and sister.
Fragile finances a recurring theme
Yourn’s sad tale rang familiar with many of the hopeful veterans who stood before the judge that day. With haphazard personal finances dangling by a thread, all it took was a single encounter with law enforcement to tip them into unemployability and homelessness.
Veterans courts are not only fixtures of Stand Down events across the country, they oftentimes are an extension of ongoing veterans courts in judicial circuits around the country, on the theory folks such as Yourn, whose Army job was analyzing images for locations of suspected IEDs — improvised explosive devices planted by the enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq – earned a bit of grace through their service.
And yet, while veterans courts play an undoubtedly valuable role in local communities, it’s also undoubtedly preferable that active military and veterans avoid fragile personal finances in the first place. An observer couldn’t help wondering whether most of those seeking relief from the court might have avoided months, even years, of legal, professional and personal setbacks if they’d had an emergency fund to fall back on.
You know, the sort of fund that serious sentinels of personal finance wouldn’t dare go without.
So, let’s think anew about Military Saves Week.
Tom Jackson focuses on writing about debt solutions for consumers struggling to make ends meet. His background includes time as a columnist for newspapers in Washington D.C., Tampa and Sacramento, Calif., where he reported and commented on everything from city and state budgets to the marketing of local businesses and how the business of professional sports impacts a city. Along the way, he has racked up state and national awards for writing, editing and design. Tom’s blogging on the 2016 election won a pair of top honors from the Florida Press Club. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife of 40 years, college-age son, and Spencer, a yappy Shetland sheepdog.
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