Adam Stalnaker has devoted the past two years to bridging the financial literacy gap in the military. Adam developed the Plan to Succeed personal finance class, created individual assessments and tools, and consulted active-duty service members and veterans on a better path for their financial future. What has he learned? In short, the military is a tough nut to crack when it comes to financial planning. Adam points out the majority of our military population are not coming from families that are excelling financially. This is no surprise. A number of studies cite roughly 75% of all American families carry significant debt outside of their home mortgage and more than 25% made payments to collection agencies for failing to maintain their debt payment schedules. These statistics suggest that the military would be open to learning how not to repeat their parents’ mistakes, but Adam suggests there are other environmental factors at play.

First, we have a diverse population that enters our workforce at a generally young age. Much like traditional college students leaving home for the first time, active-duty personnel are making money and spending free time with like-minded individuals that enjoy social activities and have the opportunity to make their first large purchase - generally a vehicle. Adam knows this is a recipe for debt or, at best, a feeling that there is little left to invest.

Second, Adam calls the Thrift Savings Plan a game-changer. TSP provides a single, well-defined program to start building healthy financial habits such as paying yourself first. The gap that Adam sees is that few service members are educated to select the right funds for their financial plan. Yes, the military is using the TSP and introducing many to personal financial planning for the first time. Adam reports that the majority of the active-duty personnel he works with have little knowledge of the TSP options available and if their TSP elections meet their financial goals.

Third, Adam brings up the ultimate irony in military personal finance. Unlike military operations where planning begins after the end state or ideal circumstances are defined at the end of a mission; when it comes to financial planning our youthful population has a difficult time looking forward and defining their ideal retirement. For Adam, this is the big investing red flag. Understanding retirement planning is the Why. Adam believes financial planning decisions answer the questions: how much to invest, when to invest, when to make risk decisions, and when and how to diversify are rooted in the end state.

How do we defeat the enemy within? We have found that one question gets our military thinking and acting on investing. We ask the military we serve the following question? Can you look in the mirror and say that you are making more money for yourself than a trained professional would make for you? If the answer is “yes”, great. If the answer is “no”, take action.


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