Military members and their families sacrifice a great deal to keep America safe.
The strain of service can take a devastating toll on finances. Fiscal predators prey on this demographic, and military members are more likely to be financially overleveraged than their civilian counterparts.
A renewed commitment to protecting military families from financial exploitation has been a long time coming. The newest front in this battle has the potential to turn the tide and boost education and resources for service members nationwide.
Federal and military officials recently unveiled the Office of Servicemember Affairs, a new consumer protection agency focused solely on service members and their families. The OSA is part of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent watchdog organization created last year by Congress.
The OSA is working with the Department of Defense to ensure that military members and their families receive consistent and clear financial education and to monitor complains and questions. It's also fostering communication among federal and state agencies to improve consumer protections for military families.
The agency is headed by Holly Petraeus, wife of Gen. David Petraeus, the current commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"We understand that military life can have some extra challenges, such as deployment and frequent moves, and that those challenges can sometimes have powerful financial repercussions," Holly Petraeus wrote in a welcome letter to military families. "Our men and women in uniform should be able to do their jobs without having to worry about falling victim to unfair or deceptive financial practices."
Being financially overwhelmed can make service members and their spouses more vulnerable to unscrupulous companies seeking to take advantage of them.
A recent survey from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation featured some sobering findings:
- Nearly one in three enlisted personnel or junior NCOs had used payday loans, auto-title loans, or other risky borrowing practices in the previous five years.
- About 15% of those surveyed had both a mortgage and a credit card balance of at least $10,000.
- More than half made only the minimum payment on credit cards, and almost a third of respondents reported a late payment in the past year.
- More than a third had difficulties covering monthly expenses and bills
- Only half were saving for predictable life events such as retirement or a child's college education.
These issues are more than just financial problems. Fiscal concerns on the home front can negatively affect service members in the field and even jeopardize mission readiness.
Finances are consistently ranked as one of the top three stressors for service members, ahead of things such as deployments, family, and even war. Nearly three-quarters of Naval security clearance revocations and denials in 2007 were tied directly to fiscal management issues, according to the CFPB.
"Soldiers who are distracted by financial issues at home are not fully focused on fighting the enemy," Army Secretary John McHugh's wrote last spring.
Holly Petraeus and her colleagues continue to meet with military families, using their input to help shape OSA initiatives. Educating service members and teaching them how to make sound financial decisions is a cornerstone of the agency's mission.
It's also an ethos that professionals in the financial world and civilians across the country should take to heart -- not just on Memorial Day, but every day of the year. Military members and their families have dedicated their lives to serving our country.
We can serve them with openness, education, and a commitment to rooting out those who would dishonor their sacrifice for the sake of an easy dollar.
Guest contributor Chris Birk is director of content and communications for Veterans United Home Loans, the nation's leading dedicated VA lender. The Missouri-based company has worked with more than 500,000 military families since its 2003 inception and serviced more than $1 billion in VA loans in the last year alone.
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