According to Mechel Glass, United States Army Veteran, financial counselor and author of The Veteran’s Money Book, “The first piece of advice for service members, if they know they are leaving service, is to get a plan and seek advice on that plan.” But often, members of the military are unaware of the resources available to them—or unsure how to take advantage—and they may return home from service to an entirely changed economic climate.
Here, Glass talks misconceptions surrounding the finances of service members, under-utilized programs and essential money moves for veterans.
Smarty Cents: What would you identify as the most significant financial dilemma facing military personnel returning home from service?
Mechel Glass: The most significant financial dilemma facing military personnel would be the inability to find employment quickly, while dealing with medical issues such as PTSD, MST, etc. Dealing with medical issues, being released from active duty and coping with the changes of civilian life can be difficult for service members.
SC: In what ways would a veteran’s financial action plan vary from the average citizen’s?
MG: The veteran’s financial action plan would include a number of veteran programs that are not available for civilian citizens. This includes career transition programs, vocational rehabilitation programs, disability compensation, medical compensation, home loan guarantees or refinance options for service members and education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
SC: In your opinion, what is the most common misconception about the finances of military personnel and veterans?
MG: A very common misconception is that service members and veterans have a lot of money and do not have to worry with paying bills because everything is provided for them such as food, clothing and shelter. The reality is that service members do not make a significant amount of money and in some cases have family members that they are supporting. Financially supporting multiple households due to PCS [Permanent Change of Station] every three years makes it difficult to sell previous homes and can leave service members and veterans with a large financial obligation that is difficult to take control of.
SC: How has the financial climate changed for veterans since your service in the Army?
MG: In the 1990s, it was common for military personnel to purchase homes while in service. In the early 90s it was easy to purchase a home and place it on the market and make a profit when PCS occurred. However, as we’ve seen during the recent recession, many of our veterans purchase homes and are under water with the value of their home. [They] are unable to sell, which leaves them with multiple homes in different states. They also have trouble finding tenants if the home is in a neighborhood that has lost value. This leaves them in a situation where they are unable to pay for multiple homes and have hardships, such as foreclosure, which will have a significant impact in credit standing and security clearances.
SC: What is your essential advice for members of the military preparing to return to an economy that has changed significantly since their enlistment?
MG: The first piece of advice for service members, if they know they are leaving service, is to get a plan and seek advice on that plan. Many assume that going back home is their only plan, but sometimes family members may be experiencing financial difficulty, making it challenging for them to move in once they have returned home from service. It is also key to save as much money as possible to develop a cushion until employment is found.
[They should] immediately seek the service of the VA to understand what benefits are available and estimate if those benefits will be enough to sustain a monthly budget. There are also Veteran Service Organizations that can help expedite this process with the VA. Start the process early, because it will take some time to run its course. There are also hotlines available for service members who are experiencing emotional issues or anxiety, so be diligent and persistent in finding help.
If education is an option, service members should research all options and calculate educational expenses and benefits and get pricing on housing options, monthly utility costs and transportation. If possible, consider having a friend as a roommate to help cut costs and living expenses. If service members want to attend school, it is also a good idea to research the desired field of study. This will ensure that the career path chosen is a degree or certification that is needed in the current environment.
Having a backup plan is essential to any plan, and having multiple career options and skill sets will ensure that there is always something to fall back on.
SC: What would you say are the most valuable resources for financial help available to military personnel and veterans? Are these resources under-utilized?
MG: Yes, the Thrift Savings Plan, or TSP, is very much under-utilized. The TSP is the military equivalent to the civilian 401k plan. Also, vocational rehabilitation is under-utilized; this education and training program is for service members who have a disability. The program helps them find a skill set—and offers a monthly stipend and training that is paid for by the VA. And many veterans are not aware of the national small business training programs that are available for disabled and women veterans.