Every May, National Military Appreciation Month (NMAM) provides an occasion to celebrate the men and women who defend our nation. But that is by no means enough. NMAM must also be a reminder of the significant challenges that face these heroes and the obligation we’ve incurred to solve them.
This year, as we take comfort in the fact that far fewer military personnel face combat peril, we have sobering evidence that many more of our military families are hard-pressed to make ends meet. Their spending is being affected; so too are their savings.
In fact, recent data indicates the financial challenges facing military families are not only significant, but increasing. In 2014, Pioneer Services, in conjunction with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and Harris Polling, conducted a survey to assess the financial concerns and habits of military families. In late April 2015, Pioneer – a division of MidCountry Bank solely dedicated to making traditional loans to military clients – did a condensed follow-up survey, which garnered an indicative sample of 831 responses.
The results show that financial stress may be increasing rather than getting better. Consider:
- In 2014, only 1 out of 10 families said they were totally unprepared for a financial emergency. Surprisingly, in 2015 nearly half surveyed consider themselves totally unprepared.
- In 2014, around 55% felt they were not adequately prepared for an emergency (a better situation than “totally unprepared” but still disquieting), while 44% were putting less money into savings. In 2015, the numbers jumped as 90% now feel inadequately or only somewhat prepared. Meanwhile, 66% of the 2015 respondents are saving the same amounts or less than in 2014.
To be sure, these numbers underscore the stress that military families must be feeling. They’re saving less even as they clearly want to be saving more against future exigencies. Also consider:
- Over 40% of service members are spending less than last year at this time. Some of these respondents may be exercising more caution in light of ongoing budget cuts. Others may be spending less simply because they already have no choice. They just don’t have it to spend.
- Nearly 40% are putting less money into long-term savings (versus, say, liquid savings bank accounts) than they were in 2014. Yet 80% worry about not having enough for retirement, which suggests that, if they are not saving long-term, it’s not by choice.
- Not surprisingly, ongoing anxieties over military budget cuts are having an effect. In 2014, 65% of the respondents reduced their personal spending specifically due to these concerns. That percentage jumped to just over 70% in 2015, although this year respondents were actually a little less concerned about losing their military careers altogether.
But the best news uncovered by the 2015 survey pertains to credit card debt as nearly 80% of the military families surveyed report the same (38%) or even less (39.66%) credit card debt than in 2014. These numbers confirm that our military personnel as a whole are resolutely focused on paying what they owe. No surprise.
Data from the 2014 survey helps complete the customer profile: More than 1 in 2 service members (55%) said they have a budget and closely track what they spend, which is a significantly higher percentage than for the national population. More than 8 in 10 service members paid all their bills on time and had no debts in collection, again significantly more than the national population.
For lenders like Pioneer Services, those numbers speak volumes. Yes, financial institutions ought to passionately honor America’s service people on general principle for their dedication and service. But helping these families is also sound business practice simply because they’re the best risks imaginable. If they’re in trouble – and the evidence suggests that they are – it behooves us as both businessmen and patriots to explore every possible solution.
Certainly, for example, there can never be too much financial counseling available to them from both private and public sector resources. In the 2014 survey, 80% of the respondents, while rating themselves as financially literate, said they would still welcome input from professionals on their everyday financial questions. Banks can also help: are there innovative savings strategies that can be offered to service members who now find it so difficult to save? Let’s find out.
At the very least, we must generate greater public awareness that there is indeed mounting concern among service members.
Bottom line: the very people who protect America’s long-term security may now have serious doubts about their own.
Allen Usry retired as a Chief Master Sergeant in 2012, the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Air Force, after a 30 year military career. Chief Usry served in several senior leader positions including Command Senior Enlisted Leader (CSEL) for NORAD and USNORTHCOM. He is a consultant and contributor to Pioneer Services/MidCountry Bank’s award winning financial education program.