WASHINGTON — As service members prepare for any and all possible military operations, the Defense Department is reaching out to ensure that there are no contingencies back home to distract them from the mission, namely their personal finances.
Barbara Thompson, director of DOD’s Office of Family Policy/Children and Youth, is leading the information campaign with a different theme each month — starting with retirement savings — to help service members and their Families stay in top financial shape.
“It’s a way for us to really look at some basic principles of financial readiness so our service members and their Families have financial goals and the tools to meet those goals,” Thompson said Friday during an American Forces Press Service and Pentagon Channel interview.
“When people are worried about their financial situations or worried about their Families at home, they’re not focused on their mission, so that impacts readiness,” she said, adding that some have lost their security clearances due to financial problems.
The first start toward financial readiness is to have some savings, not carry too much debt, and save for retirement, Thompson said. How much each person or family can do toward each of those goals will vary, she said.
Military Families should contact a personal financial manager, who are available at every installation’s Family and community center and are free of charge to service members, Thompson said. The financial managers, known as PFMs, are trained to create personal budgets and help with debt reduction and savings. Banks and credit unions on base also are required to provide financial education, she said.
To get more specific savings and investment advice, Thompson said, service members may want to hire a private financial planner off base who can advise on their various options for retirement planning.
There are many websites with valuable financial help, Thompson pointed out, including www.tsp.gov, which urges Thrift Savings Plan contributors to start saving early and be consistent.
The site also shows the potential for “compound earnings,” or how to grow your money, with various calculators for entering your own finances.
Militaryonesource.com also has many articles and weblinks to help with financial management and offers free financial counseling. Military Onesource also has the Joint Family Support Assistance Program that gives free financial guidance for geographically isolated military families.
Thompson also recommended www.Saveandinvest.Org, an educational resource provided by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, that includes a “Military Center” tab, along with the motto, “You Can’t Protect Your Family Without Protecting Your Finances.”
The site includes tutorials on various retirement plans, along with the warning that Social Security payments alone won’t be enough. The site even includes a financial game, “Moneytopia: The Big Dream” in which players choose a “big dream” retirement and must save for that while balancing their earnings and expenses. Those who seep into the red and “run out of money and stuff” lose the big dream.
For those who prefer to listen to a podcast, Thompson recommends the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s Money Smart Podcast Network at http://www.fdic.gov/moneysmart for basic financial information.
Thompson’s current focus for educating service members about financial readiness is retirement savings, which she acknowledged often is not foremost on the minds of young adults who may instead be focused on establishing credit, reducing debt and building an emergency savings account.
“It’s very difficult for someone who is young to think so far ahead and think that they need to be saving,” Thompson said. But, she added, retirements have become increasingly uncertain and it’s easier to build savings by starting early and contributing consistently.
“As we look at the financial landscape of the world today — not just in the United States, but in Europe and China — it’s really important that we’re all using our own personal responsibility and putting away money,” she said. “Everyone looks forward to enjoying their retirement, but you have to have money to do that.”
Thompson encourages all service members, whether or not they plan to retire with the military, to contribute to the federal Thrift Savings Plan. “Start early and if it means starting small, that’s better than nothing at all,” she said.
While people in their 20s and 30s sometimes think they can wait to save for retirement when they may be making more money later, Thompson discourages that. “At every stage of your life, you’re going to have additional expenses,” she said. “You may make more money at 40, but you may also be purchasing a home or saving for college.”
It’s important for couples to talk about the “sticky subject” of money, Thompson said, and if that conversation is too difficult — if one person is blaming the other for spending too much, for example — military Family life counselors can help them communicate.
Also, she said, it’s important to teach children about saving money, and at a young age. She suggests creating three money jars for each child: one to spend on things they want right away, one for savings, and one for charity.
“It’s important to teach children … that they can wait and save and work toward [buying something],” she said. “It’s an important lesson that it’s not about instant gratification.”
And, she added, “It’s important for children to realize they are able to contribute to society.”