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Petty Officer 1st Class Tonya Jones, stationed at RAF Molesworth, England, is battling her way out of a deep debt with no plans to return.
Petty Officer 1st Class Tonya Jones, stationed at RAF Molesworth, England, is battling her way out of a deep debt with no plans to return. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF ALCONBURY, England — Petty Officer 1st Class Tonya Jones had so many credit cards, she can’t remember the exact number.

“Oh, I had a lot,” she said. “I want to say 12 or 13, something like that.”

Not surprisingly, she also had a lot of debt.

The special security officer at the Joint Analysis Center on RAF Molesworth, England, was paying a few dollars each month for each credit card — the minimum payment — chipping away, perhaps, at the interest, but not even denting the premium.

A pair of jeans here. Some jewelry there. A gym membership despite the presence of a free gym on base and she had to have her nails done regularly.

Jones found herself in a $23,000 hole.

Jones is in no way distinct, says Pat Miller, a financial adviser for the Family Support Center at RAF Alconbury. It’s not uncommon for young military members to pile up mountains of credit card debt.

“It’s real difficult to have a pocketful of credit cards and not satisfy every want that you have,” Miller said.

From age 18 to 32, she said, is a time when people are acquiring things — a houseful of furniture, a car, a stereo, a TV.

“They are trying to accumulate things on a limited income,” Miller said. “So they turn to credit.”

Claire Rogers, who helps troops with money woes for the Family Support Center at RAF Mildenhall, said young people have a hard time seeing beyond the immediate purchase. The credit card allows them to take home a digital video player or a stereo or a fistful of CDs without the transfer of cash.

But, Rogers said, they don’t do the math to see the real cost of their indulgence when they make a minimal payment each month.

“This $500 stereo system ends up costing them $2,000 because they pay $10 a month, $10 a month, $10 a month,” she said.

Mischell Navarro, community readiness analyst for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said it is part of the culture for young military members.

“[They] are such a ‘give me’ generation,” she said. “‘I see it. I want it. I want to buy it.’”

Credit cards make it easy, especially for young people enjoying their first taste of independence and a regular paycheck.

“More times than not, there are multiple credit cards,” said Navarro.

National statistics reveal that young troops aren’t the only ones fighting the credit monster.

The average credit card debt for a household in the United States was $9,205 for 2003, up from $2,966 in 1990, according to CardWeb.com, a Maryland-based online publisher of information pertaining to all types of payment cards.

And the major credit cards — Visa, MasterCard, Discover — are not the only problems, Navarro said. Many troops go for the private cards offered by retailers, such as J.C. Penney, Circuit City or other department stores, Navarro said.

“They get a jewelry store account. Or they get a furniture store account,” said Navarro.

Some of those retailers charge exorbitant interest rates, sometimes more than 20 percent, compared to the 7 percent or 8 percent charged by the major card companies, deepening the hole.

But the result can be more than just overdue notices or a game of juggling payments: A person’s military career can be affected, even causing him or her to leave the service.

“They’re not aware of that,” said Rogers.

Jones was in danger of losing a special security clearance she needs to work at the JAC, which is European Command’s intelligence analysis center. It was examined during her annual review.

Fortunately for Jones, she was well on the way to digging herself out of debt by that time. If not, she said, “they could have revoked my clearance.”

Plus, the debt could have prevented her selection for her next assignment as recruit division commander at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago, a plum assignment that required a check of her financial status.

She will move there in December.

Jones did, however, what few people in her situation have the guts to do: She asked for help.

Miller said that was a big first step.

“It’s a real hard thing to admit that you’ve lost control of your money,” Miller said.

Many are referred to the financial management office by their first sergeants.

Rogers said, “They don’t come in on their own. They’re embarrassed or they don’t care.”

She recalled one airman who was referred to her, but saw the whole thing as a waste of his time.

“[He] came in, he was giggling,” she said. “When he left, he wasn’t giggling anymore.”

Mike Woods, Army Community Services director at Hohenfels, Germany, who also teaches a course on financial management, said troops have a choice: They can exercise some financial discipline or they can continue to burden themselves and their families with debt.

“The only thing worse than being young and in debt is being old and in debt,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Some decide to step up and admit their problem while taking a class in financial management that is required for lower ranks.

Navarro said some are discovered at the First Term Airman Center, where they are taught such skills as checkbook management.

She said the worst thing they can do is visit one of the loan companies that offer quick and easy cash, but with a high interest rate. She remembered a single parent — a two-striper — who sought help there and regretted it.

“She only borrowed $200,” Navarro remembered. “But she could not pay that off.”

The first thing the financial advisers do is chart the person’s debt-to-income ratio, the amount of debt a person has compared to his income. For Jones, that figure was 27 percent.

“Anything over 20 percent is dangerous,” said Miller.

For Jones, just seeing her financial situation laid out on paper was an eye-opener.

“Seeing all your finances in black and white … you see where it’s going,” she said.

Jones is atypical in some ways. She is 30 and a 12-year veteran, not a young enlistee. Her debt was accrued while she was stationed in Virginia and had roommates. She was supporting a sister, as well.

But, she said, there was a lot of unnecessary spending. When she met Miller, her debt was a major problem.

“She came in and we laid it all out,” said Miller. “We started with a budget. How much do you need to live on each month.”

Jones’ credit card debt was turned over to Consumer Credit Counseling Services. She sends that organization one payment per month and it takes care of her credit card payments.

“I will be completely out of debt through that program in another year,” she said.

But it is not easy. Jones has had to sacrifice.

“I had to make some serious changes,” she said. “I pretty much don’t travel, don’t go out.”

For her, a video rental is a big splurge. She has to resist the invitations of her friends who invite her to join them in a night out.

“That’s kind of hard. I was isolated. I don’t do anything on weekends,” she said. “That’s the price you pay when you get yourself in a situation like this.”

Needless to say, she doesn’t have a credit card to her name and promises to never have another one. She does her own fingernails now.

The climb from the deep hole she dug with reckless spending is slow.

“You don’t get in debt overnight,” Woods said. “We’re not going to get you out of debt overnight.”

Jones will agree.

“You don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. You don’t,” she said. “It’s very gradual.”

Miller likened it to a diet. The progress of a diet is slow and incremental; so is the climb out of debt.

Jones has no doubt now about the future. She will never again, she said, be in debt.

“It’s been a sacrifice,” she said, “but in the end, it will be well worth it.”

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