Photo Caption: Financial counselors at Army Community Service can help people establish money-related goals.
February 20, 2014
By Andrea Stone (Fort Carson)
It's almost March and, for some, the New Year's resolutions are a distant memory, but for money-related goals, there's still hope. The financial counselors at Army Community Service are ready to help.
"(People) come up with things they say they're going to do at the beginning of the year. The key to all that is a budget," said Mary Braxton, Financial Readiness Program manager, Fort Carson ACS. "The main tool to a successful financial resolution is the budget."
One of the first steps when the financial counselors at ACS meet with someone is to establish what the goals are.
"What's your plan? Are you trying to save money? Trying to get out of debt? What is it you want to do? Once we do that, setting a realistic and attainable goal -- that's No. 1," said Dale McKitrick, Fort Carson ACS financial adviser/instructor. "If you're $20,000 in debt as a specialist with only $200 extra a month, telling yourself, 'I'm going to be debt-free by the end of the year,' that's not realistic or attainable."
After goals are established, the next step is to create a budget. An important, but often overlooked, part of that budget is planning for entertainment.
"I have plenty of Soldiers come in and want to get out of debt. We're doing their budgets, and they have nothing down for their spouses," he said. "You went on dates before you got married, why isn't it important now? … Your marriage is going to last longer than this debt is."
In addition, there should be room in the budget for "fun" money or allowances.
"Just like you're committed to paying those creditors, you should be committed to paying yourself because you work hard every day for your money," Braxton said. "Set aside money in the budget that is for (you) … and doesn't have to be accounted for."
Once a budget has been established, the key is learning to live on it. When a Family overspends month after month, McKittrick recommends tracking spending.
"When you actually realize that you spent $7 on a latte this morning, and you did it five days this week … that 'latte factor' adds up quick," he said.
There need to be rewards built in, as well.
"Most New Year's resolutions that people quit on, it's because they're not rewarding themselves," McKitrick said. "Put your budget on your fridge and say, 'Once we do this for three months, we're going to (a nice dinner),' and reward yourself for it. That reward is what keeps you going."
When mistakes happen and the budget gets blown, people need to get back "on the wagon" again, he said.
"Don't kick yourself for it. Just start again next month."
For those who feel overwhelmed by the amount of debt they have, there is hope. Financial counselors at ACS can negotiate with creditors to pay down debt and can advise clients on the best way to deal with those bills.
"Pay it. Settle it. Ignore it. There's repercussions to each," McKitrick said.
An important factor in staying out of debt and preventing current debt from growing larger is the emergency fund. The recommendation for Soldiers and their Families is to have a fund of $1,000. For civilians, the recommendation is to have three to six months of income.
"In the Army, $1,000 will cover most emergencies … and if it doesn't, you've got Army Emergency Relief," McKitrick said. "Civilians can be fired. Civilians can walk in tomorrow and not have a job, so they need a different emergency fund."
After a budget is working, emergency savings have been funded, and debt is being paid off, the next step is to consider investing for the future, whether it?'s retirement, college funds or something else.
"We can go over any kind of investment you want to talk about, and the nice thing is, I get paid the same whether I see you or not, so I'm not trying to sell you a product," he said. "There's no profit in this. So all our advice is in the best interest of the client, not the debtor, not the credit reporting agency."
Counselors can also assist clients in learning about the home-buying process and different types of mortgages, car loans and car insurance, life insurance and other financially-related topics. The counseling is confidential and free of charge for Department of Defense identification card holders, including active-duty Soldiers and their Families, retirees and their families and DOD civilians.
Appointments can be made by calling ACS.
"We're not telling you what to do with your money. We're helping you make that plan and set your goals. It's your money," McKitrick said.
"It's all on you," Braxton said. "You've got to want to do it. We can talk, talk, talk, give you the tools, but if it's not in your mind and in your heart to do it, it won't happen."