ANDREWS AFB, Md. – Servicemembers have been lulled into a false sense of financial security by marketing campaigns that encourage them to overspend.
It’s a real David vs. Goliath battle that Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Sarah Shirley is all too familiar with.
“We’re this little guy with a slingshot up against this big giant and we’re saying, ‘save money, don’t take out that other loan, buy a used car.’”
This is just some of the advice offered by the Military Saves campaign, which helps military members change their spending habits to achieve financial independence.
The campaign, which launched throughout the Department of Defense in 2007, is a financial readiness campaign designed to persuade and encourage servicemembers and their families to reduce their personal debt and save money.
Fostering and encouraging military members to save money comes about in several ways, said Shirley, the campaign director, who is currently stationed here at the Air National Guard Readiness Center.
Positive peer pressure is one method of influence the campaign uses, she said. This is reinforced by units pledging to become a Military Saves unit, whose members work with each other to promote positive financial habits.
“Many of us just need support from other folks,” Shirley said. “So, if your unit becomes a Military Saves unit, you intentionally throughout the year support each other and encourage each other with saving money and getting out of debt.”
But the campaign also takes other steps as well, such as holding Saver Drives, which encourage military members to donate a portion of their paycheck each month to a savings account or toward paying down existing debt.
Shirley said she saw many of the effects of debt at her first duty station. “I was assigned to a tech training base,” she said. “(I did) lots and lots of pastoral care and counseling. A lot of people were away from home for the first time, homesick and (some had) family problems and things like that.
“I came to notice very early on that whether I was dealing with an E-2 or an O-5, there was one common theme in the counseling cases, which was a lot of people had significant financial problems.”
As a result, Shirley began to offer workshops in the chapel that focused on money management, but poor financial habits were something she would continue to see.
“In 2003, I moved to Eglin Air Force Base and guess what? Same deal, except more,” she said. “(More than) 90 percent of the people I saw for pastoral care and counseling had a significant financial management problem.”
While Shirley continued to offer workshops in the chapel, she said she realized something more was needed. “We had this fabulous program at the chapel and people were changing their minds (about saving money), but they would go from the chapel program to their offices or shops or to the flight line and they’d be encouraged to overspend instead of being encouraged to build wealth through savings and debt reduction.”
The idea for the Military Saves campaign came from a pamphlet she read in a realtor’s office.
“I picked up a brochure for the America Saves campaign,” she said. “This is a social marketing campaign to persuade Americans to get out of debt and save money, and ultimately raise our personal savings rate and reduce our personal debt load in this country.
“I ran back to my office. I was so excited, because this was the social change we needed to support the troops.”
Though the America Saves campaign wasn’t specifically geared toward servicemembers, it did offer many resources for those in uniform.
After contacting the program managers, as well as working through her chain of command, Shirley worked to establish a military-specific campaign toward debt reduction.
“Through a task force that was a cooperative among the Department of Defense, all the military services, defense credit unions, military banks and the nonprofit campaign sponsor – the Consumer Federation – we determined that what we needed was a purple campaign and we formed Military Saves,” she said.
And as she worked to establish a way for others to work toward saving, it caused her to re-examine her own monetary habits.
“I started looking at myself and I realized, wow, I’ve been kind of reckless about money and sort of living paycheck to paycheck all these 40 years and maybe I needed to do something about my financial situation as well,” she said.
For Shirley, the cause of the high debt load that many, both servicemembers and civilians, carry can be attributed to one thing – marketing.
“Marketing works or companies wouldn’t have huge advertising budgets,” she said. “Debt, consumer debt, and consumption beyond our means have been marketed to Americans for decades now and it’s worked. We have an incredible level of comfort with debt, with credit card debt, with car loans.”
The campaign has won a few battles. “Some (servicemembers) have bought rental houses, some have eliminated credit card debt,” Shirley said. “Others have gotten rid of their car they were making payments on and gotten a car they aren’t making payments on, and others have simply started with the basics by putting 10 percent of their check each month into savings vehicles. It’s pretty exciting.”
And that translates to better unit readiness and cohesion as well, especially when it comes to deployments.
“I see it as a readiness boost when people are happy to be deployed, because they’ve got their finances in order and they can take advantage of the Savings Deposit Program (see note below), they can put more money into (the Thrift Savings Program) so then, they have a real bonus.”
Financial readiness and sound choices are just two of the goals of the campaign.
“(This) is a way to organize lots of voices, at lots of different levels, from four-star generals to E-1s that will all get on board and arm their slingshots with this positive savings message,” she said. “And you remember, David won. So we can win this too.”