Veterans deal with financial learning curve

By Leslie Mann

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Published: Monday, June 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The younger veterans usually need a “financial action plan,” with attainable goals and advice from pros.

Todd Headington, Getty Images/iStockphoto

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When he retired from the Marine Corps in May and became a manager for a defense contractor, Col. Mark Desens knew he was entering new territory in many ways.

In corporate America, everything from resumes to management styles is different, he said. Personal finances, especially, require some homework.

“I’m really fortunate to have a pension, the (military retirees’) Tricare health insurance and to land a job through the wife of a fellow officer,” said Desens, 51. “But I still have a lot to sort through.”

Desens is debating: Should I get a dental insurance policy? Will my salary make up for the allowances (such as housing) I received while in the service? How should I shelter my savings from taxes? Should I enroll in my employer’s 401(k)? Should I get an individual retirement account too? Do I need long-term-care insurance?

The learning curve is even greater for younger veterans, said Mechel Lashawn Glass, who co-wrote “The Veteran’s Money Book” after shifting from a 17-year-old enlistee to a 22-year-old veteran to a 43-year-old professional financial counselor.

Though being in the service gave her maturity and confidence, Glass said, she was a “financial illiterate in debt” when she left.

“In the service, you’re isolated,” said Glass, a resident of Fayetteville, Ga. “Especially if you live on a base, the government provides your housing, phone, utilities, vehicle, clothes, health care, insurance, even your gym. It gives you a steady paycheck. You come home, and you have to do all this yourself. You have to learn the financial basics that your nonveteran friends learned while you were gone.”

When Glass moved home to her mother’s house, she reacted by crawling into a shell.

“I was just existing, not looking forward,” she said. “My wake-up call was when my mom told me I had six weeks to find my own place. That forced me to learn the difference between ‘wants’ and ‘needs,’ make a budget and plan.”

Especially if they have been overseas, some veterans return to a financial reality check, Glass added.

“I talk to vets who don’t even realize how bad the economy is,” she said. “In addition to not having personal finance skills, they’re not prepared to compete for a job in today’s competitive market.”

Desens is ahead of younger veterans because he already owns a home and car. He knows his financial goals — to retire and afford future health care expenses for himself and his wife.

The younger veterans, Glass said, usually need a “financial action plan,” with attainable goals and advice from pros.

“A financial adviser can explain, for example, why you need to establish credit,” Glass said. “It’s not just about getting loans for a home or car, but also because nowadays, employers check your credit too.”

Don’t let pride get in the way, warned retired Lt. Col. John Phillips, 58, co-author of “Boots to Loafers: Finding Your New True North.”

“Be proud of your service, but put it behind you,” Phillips said. “You’re a civilian now, and there’s a huge support system out there to help you.”

After retiring from the Army 15 years ago, Phillips landed a job as a finance director for Coca-Cola.

Many veterans need help looking ahead, Glass said. “In the service, the message is — when you get a break, you go to the bar, cut loose and have fun,” she said. “So you just live for today. Now, you have to think about supporting your family and being able to retire.”

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