Military Service Members Face Financial Anxiety

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Military service members are facing on-going financial concerns with 77% of them saying they are worried, according to a recent survey commissioned by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).

The survey also found that 57% say they are very worried about the potential loss of income and job security resulting from defense cuts and downsizing.

"Men and women in uniform face many challenges and daily sacrifices while serving our country," said Susan Keating, NFCC President and CEO. "Financial concerns shouldn't be one of them. The NFCC is committed to ensuring that members of the military, veterans and their families have access to the financial tools and information they need to live a financially stable life."

The survey also found that for some service members their economic situation has not improved with 28% who are now more worried than they were 12 months ago about how their financial situation will affect their future in the military.

A majority or 55% believe they are ill-prepared to cope with an emergency financially, the survey said.

"NFCC member agencies can assist military personnel through the Sharpen Your Financial Focus program which includes a dedicated military-specific component," she said.

When compared to that of their civilian counterparts, the mobile nature of the military lifestyle creates an extra financial challenge for those that serve, said J.J. Montanaro, a financial planner for USAA, the San Antonio-based financial institution.

Frequent moves can make it difficult for military spouses in the workforce and service members who own a home and receive orders don't necessarily have the luxury of being able to ride out the ups and downs of the real estate market, he said. Deployments and separation are another aspect of the mobile lifestyle that presents financial challenges.

Also See: VA Scandal Sheds Lights on Inadequate Medical Care for American Heroes

In the survey, three out of five service members who have taken a loan in the past 12 months say limited lending options required them to look for alternative, non-traditional lenders to meet their financial needs. In the past 12 months, 49% have taken out a loan used nontraditional sources with 18% who relied on credit cards, 13% who borrowed money from friends and family and 6% who were lacked options and instead used a cash advance or payday lender.

"Unfortunately, the survey findings indicate on-going financial concerns for many military families," said Joe Freeman, CEO of Pioneer Service, a Kansas City. Mo. financial institution for members of the Armed Forces. "We've worked with service members for more than 25 years, so we know they are responsible borrowers who deserve financial options. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that military families have access to the same credit options many civilians take for granted, and to financial education resources that help empower them to make the right decisions."

The survey showed other disturbing trends. During the past 12 months, 28%, of service members compared to 14% of the general population, have applied for a new credit card, the survey revealed. Almost 6 in 10 or 58% of military members carry some credit card debt from month to month compared to the general population where only about 1 in 3 or 34% carry over credit card debt every month. Twice as many have paid less than the minimum required payment in the last 12 months and service members were more than twice as likely to obtain a cash advance from a credit card in the last 12 months.

While their lifestyle may be a bit different from those that don't wear the uniform, the fundamentals of personal finance are the key to help both groups. Building a spending plan, an emergency fund and saving on a consistent basis are critical to a military family's ability to prepare their finances for both the unexpected and the future, said Montanaro.

"Knowing what to do and not to do when it comes to managing cash flow, responsibly using credit and saving and investing is the first step in helping those that face financial challenges," he said. "On the road to financial security you won't know where you stand if you don't know where you're going."

The regular nature of military pay has had the potential to create a false sense of security for a lot of people who believe there is less of a need for an emergency fund, Montanaro.

"A robust emergency fund would cure a lot of the financial ills that exist," he said.

Military members should instead leverage the pay system. One nice aspect of military service is the fairly regular nature of promotions and pay raises.

"With some effort, you can use this as an engine to pay down debt, save and invest," Montanaro said.

All military members need to take advantage of the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) or the government's version of a 401(k) to save adequately for retirement.

"Unfortunately, participation rates have typically been around 40% and in my opinion, that's about 60% below ideal," he said.

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet

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