(Not) Keeping Up with the Joneses

CAMP PENDLETON —Despite receiving steady income, approximately 58 percent of U.S. military members stated they found it difficult to cover their monthly expenses and pay bills, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Foundation’s Military Service Member Money Survey 2010.
This shocking statistic does much to detract from the myth that everyone in the military is rich or at least well off, said Gerald Williams, MBA, a financial management consultant with Marine and Family Programs, Marine Corps Community Services here.
“People tend to think since service members are guaranteed a check on the first and the fifteenth, they don’t have any financial problems,” Williams said. “What they don’t realize is that our military is a direct representation of America. A lot of the time, everyone is working hard to keep up with the Joneses, but the truth of the matter is, the Joneses are broke.” 
For Marines and sailors wanting to defy the status quo, there are various resources available for all, from the youngest private to the most seasoned sergeant major, to gain insight and useful information concerning their finances.
“We offer several classes to help service members better understand, review and handle their finances,” said Beth Middleton, BA, also a financial counselor with MCCS.
“In addition to our Basic Money Management Course, which usually has more than 40 in attendance, we also provide prelude to investing, credit management, debt counseling, home/car buying and Thrift Savings Plan classes.”
One of the topics reiterated in each class is the importance of knowing where your money is going, Williams said.
“We have Marines coming in who are returning from deployments with more money than they’ve ever had in their lives, and they don’t know how to handle it,” Williams said. “That’s when you see privates rolling around in Jaguars, but they’re living paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
 Marines, especially junior enlisted, must remain vigilant when it comes to keeping a firm hold on their finances. There are countless scams, from overpriced cars and trucks to college level examination program box sets, targeted specifically toward the military’s younger members.
Falling for one of these scams can have a lasting effect on credit scores, financial stability and even clearance access within the military, said Middleton.
“Last year, more than 53 percent of security clearances were denied by the Department of Navy Central Adjudication Facility because of financial problems, and even when Marines leave the service, potential employers may check their credit score,” said Middleton. “One bad financial decision can ruin your career, and it’s hard to recover. Marines must educate themselves and be vigilant when it comes to who they’re giving money to.”
Despite this sobering status, not everyone is ignorant of their financial standing or paying the price for hurtful past financial decisions, said Williams.
“We recently met a sergeant who had saved more than $100,000 during her four year contract, and a 19-year-old private with a 790 credit score,” said Williams. “When you know better, you do better, and that’s what our classes aim to do. Our job is to educate the military community on how to evaluate their needs versus their wants and make smart financial choices.”
In addition to classes offered by the personal finance section, staff noncommissioned officers from all units are encouraged to undergo training to become command financial specialists and give financial advice to those under their charge.
“There is currently a personal finance Marine Corps order being written that would require every Marine to take our money management course, “ said Williams. “Until it is passed, however, we are relying on the leaders to assist their Marines in their financial decisions and keep them informed about the resources available to them.”
Getting back on the right financial track may be a daunting feat, but it is possible with the right information, education and attitude, said Middleton. 
“Get motivated about learning about your finances, getting them to where they need to be and moving forward while the opportunity is there,” said Middleton. “In the end, you want a firm financial foundation as one of the many benefits of your service.”

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