FORT CARSON, Colo. — Lt. Col. Kevin Landers has seen a pattern of financial problems among soldiers in the Army.
"Soldiers always get into financial trouble," he says. "They don't know how to manage money. When they get into trouble with money they might not be able to be deployed or have trouble focusing — and we need to be able to focus."
One in four military families report having more than $10,000 in debt, according to VeteransPlus, a nonprofit group that offers financial counseling to people in the military. Twenty-one percent of service members took out payday or auto title loans in the last five years. Only half of military personnel have emergency funds.
Landers, who until recently was based at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, Colo., and is now at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., says the Army tries to help soldiers understand about financial responsibility, but he really appreciates the private institutions such as banks and credit unions that help soldiers get their money act together with education and special savings programs.
Jim Laffoon, the president of Security Service Federal Credit Union, talked about his institution's partnership with a social marketing campaign called Military Saves — concentrating on teaching soldiers at military bases such Fort Carson.
"We have an opportunity to go in and do some really intense financial education for these young troops as part of their orientation," he says.
Military Saves is a program to, as its website militarysaves.org says, "persuade, motivate and encourage military families to save money every month, and to convince leaders and organizations to be aggressive in promoting automatic savings."
Military Saves is a part of America Saves, a nationwide campaign for all Americans, and has been part of the Department of Defense's Financial Readiness Campaign since 2003.
"The most important thing we tell the soldiers is to establish some kind of savings path," Laffoon says. "We tell them to take some portion of their income and set it aside. Do it early. Do it often. Do it for the rest of your life."
At the heart of Military Saves is the "Military Saves pledge," which states the goals of the program: "I will help myself by saving money, reducing debt, and building wealth over time. I will help my family and my country by encouraging other Americans to build wealth, not debt. "
"The mission of Military Saves is all about educating our service people about the importance of saving and how to make it a lifestyle," Laffoon says.
The problem the program addresses is a challenge for the military. Laffoon says his credit union, SSFCU, helps by providing orientations and briefings for soldiers — and special programs to encourage savings. Last year, SSFCU had 417 Military Saves enrollments at its Fort Carson Service Center. For 2013, SSFCU created a Savings Challenge to complement the Military Saves program where, if the soldier commits to transfer $50 into savings for six months, the credit union deposits a $25 bonus into the account.
SSFCU is just one of 62 different financial institutions (more than 305 branch locations) and 24 nonprofit organizations participating in Military Saves.
Rob McAlpin, a master sergeant at Fort Carson, says he just got started in the Military Saves program when he financed a vehicle with SSFCU. He has his finances set up for deposits to be made directly to a special account separate from his checking account.
"That way I'm less likely to use it," he says. "It helps me budget and leave the savings alone."
McAlpin says private institutions and the Military Saves program align with the military's goals for soldiers.
"A lot of soldiers come back and buy a new car and spend all the money they saved during their deployment," he says. "The military doesn't want them to have nothing. They want them to have that savings goal. Starting early is the key. The Army is trying to help them, and the credit union complements that goal to plan for a better future."
Military Saves pledges have grown from 7,347 in 2007 to 26,394 in 2012.
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