Advisers: Break free of debt, then invest wisely
Here’s a dilemma: Sgt. Jones has filled up his mattress with money and he’s having trouble figuring out what to do with all his hard-earned cash.
Unfortunately, “that ‘problem’ really doesn’t exist,” said Jolly Miller, financial readiness program manager for the U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza.
She said she wishes it did, but far too many servicemembers don’t manage their money well and wind up in debt. So financial advisers on base spend the majority of their time counseling those in need of help, instead of helping those looking to grow wealthier.
Tom Snyder, a personal financial counselor at Aviano Air Base, said servicemembers are losing hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of dollars annually by failing to pay off credit cards and loans.
“Debit cards are almost as bad as credit cards, if you don’t keep track of your money,” he said. “Especially if there are two people and they each have a card. If you overdraw, you’ll be paying fees, and those fees add up.”
Of course, not all servicemembers are clueless when it comes to money. A brief survey of soldiers at Caserma Ederle last week found they are using a variety of ways to save money.
Sgt. Brandon Thomas, assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, said he has an online savings account that’s netting him about 5 percent interest. His bills are paid automatically out of the account, and his paycheck is automatically deposited into it.
“The benefit of online banking, with our ops tempo, is that when you deploy, you don’t have to worry about taking care of things,” he said. “If you have the benefit of direct deposit, you’re silly not to be using online banking.”
Master Sgt. Howard Loken, from the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) staff, said he banks online with USAA.
“They’re very secure,” he said. “It’s pretty good. They refund all of my ATM charges as well.”
Spc. Chris Swanson, who works at the base health clinic, said he has a local account on base that he uses to pay off bills. He said it’s convenient and — even though it provides less interest than he could get online — he feels it’s more secure than an online option might be.
As for saving money, he uses a private broker that he says helps him earn a double-digit return — higher than any rate he’s seen from any government-affiliated program. “Until they can promise me that, I like what I’m getting,” he said.
What would experts like Miller and Snyder recommend?
“I would go into the Thrift Savings Plan right away, or if they’re deployed, the Savings Deposit Program,” Miller said. The TSP offers servicemembers and most Department of Defense civilians an array of investment opportunities with varying returns and risks. The SDP gives servicemembers a 10 percent return on up to $10,000 they can put in after they’re deployed for a month.
Snyder said he’d add Roth Individual Retirement Accounts to the list.
“Especially for the younger people. That’s really going to pay off in the end.”
He said he might advise using online savings accounts to establish emergency accounts or funds for specific projects or occasions, such as Christmas.
In any case, the advisers say that saving money is better than spending it — a lesson that Thomas said he learned the hard way.
“When I came back from Iraq (in 2003), I had a bunch of cash and I spent it all in about a six-month period,” he said. “I don’t ever want that to happen again. I’m married and have two kids. I can’t afford to do that.”