WASHINGTON -- Years ago, Holly Petraeus and her husband, then a young Army officer, went shopping for a new desk.
Looking for a bargain, they honed in on a gray, metal desk at a rent-to-own store, where the monthly payments were set low to attract customers and to distract from an inflated bottom-line cost.
"We spent, I'm sure, far more by the time we finished renting the thing than we would have spent just going out and buying a desk," Petraeus said. "It was really ugly too -- enormous and hard to move," she added with a laugh. "I had to think, 'Why did we do that'"
The couple experienced a few other financial setbacks over the years. Along the way, Petraeus said, she not only picked up some financial savvy, but also acquired a resolve to prevent other military families from having to learn their lessons the hard way.
Today, Petraeus is set to put her hard-won knowledge to good use as head of the Office of Servicemember Affairs, a subset of the government's new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Her husband, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, has moved up to become the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"It's an amazing community and amazing people who serve this country, both those in uniform and their spouses and children. I only want the best for them," she said. "It bothers me to see them get their pockets picked, so anything I can do to prevent that, I feel, is well worth doing."
Petraeus explained the two main responsibilities she?ll take on in her new role. First, she'll work to educate military members and their families around the world about financial issues and scams. She'll also serve as a military advocate within the bureau, ensuring its various branches -- such as enforcement, banking and nonbanking supervision teams -- are mindful of military families and their unique challenges and needs.
The bureau isn't slated to stand up until this summer, but Petraeus already is taking action on servicemembers' behalf. She recently addressed allegations that some employers aren?t meeting their responsibilities under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The law protects servicemembers by postponing or suspending legal action involving some civil matters, such as foreclosures, when entering the military or on active duty.
Petraeus sent a letter to the CEOs of the 25 largest banks, urging them to examine their practices in this area.
"I hope they will look at their own banks and ensure they're complying with the act and have the mechanisms in place to educate their staff so they won't make errors," she said, noting that the letter prompted the House Veterans Affairs Committee to call her to testify about the issue.
Petraeus also launched a series of visits to military installations to collect information from service providers, military members and their families on the financial issues they're facing.
For her first visit, Petraeus and Elizabeth Warren, assistant to the president and special adviser to the secretary of the treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, traveled to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in January to conduct a series of roundtables. The first roundtable included financial counselors, legal assistance lawyers, mental health professionals, chaplains and base leaders, and the second included about 50 servicemembers and their spouses.
She asked both audiences the same questions. "What are the issues, and what are your suggestions to solve them?" Many of the responses centered on financial education, Petraeus said. Though financial classes are offered in basic training, she added, that may not be the best time to impart important information, particularly since the audience is a group of tired young troops who probably are much more concerned about the next formation than their savings plan.
"I'm not saying you shouldn't do it [in basic training], but it shouldn't be the only piece of financial education," she said. Petraeus said both roundtables indicated education should be offered in noncommissioned officer courses, both basic and advanced, and that it should be quarterly and mandatory.
Her office will work closely with the Defense Department to deliver quality financial education to military members and their families in the months ahead, Petraeus said.
Spouses also spoke up about their issues, she added, particularly regarding the financial challenges that arise with frequent moves. Some spouses expressed concerns about a dip in income when moving. Even those with government jobs and better odds of obtaining employment at the next duty station experience a drop in income during moves, she noted.
"I told them I can certainly relate," Petraeus said. "I've moved 23 times in 36 years."
Petraeus can relate on many fronts. She's not only a long-standing military wife, but her son, brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the military. She's also the former director of Better Business Bureau Military Line, a partnership between the BBB and the Defense Department's Financial Readiness Campaign, which provides consumer education and advocacy for servicemembers and their families.
But however much knowledge she's gained from experience, Petraeus said, she likes to learn about the issues other families face. This information, she added, will help her to shape her new office and its priorities.
Petraeus said she plans to travel to other military installations in the months ahead. Meanwhile, she has set her sights on several issues -- including debt and Internet scams -- that tend to plague military families.
A recent survey showed military members have more debt than their civilian counterparts, Petraeus said, and this issue is compounded by the fact that they often take out loans with unfavorable terms.
"They don't comparison shop," Petraeus said. "Part of the bureau's push is to make sure you're able to comparison shop, to make sure terms for mortgages, for example, are clear."
Another concern is the proliferation of unregulated loans on the Internet, including "outright scams," she said. One popular scam she noted, is an advanced-fee loan. The lender asks for money up front, usually with the excuse that the person's credit is poor. Once the money is wired, the requestor never hears back.
"You've just wired a gift of a couple of thousand dollars to a scammer," she said.
Petraeus said mortgage issues also have taken center stage in recent years. Many military families are "upside-down" on their homes, meaning they owe more on their home than what it's worth. While the common advice is to "wait it out," she added, military families often can't do that when they're given orders to move.
"There are not a lot of good options out there," she acknowledged. "That is something I?d definitely like to work on."
While most people find finances to be an inconvenient stressor, for servicemembers, they can prove to be a dangerous distraction, Petraeus noted. She recalled meeting an Army staff sergeant at Lackland who talked about Soldiers in his squad whose finances were "going down the tubes at home" during their recent deployment. The sergeant said he still had to go out on combat missions with those Soldiers knowing their minds were preoccupied with financial issues back home.
"That can be a dangerous situation," Petraeus said. "Someone who is worried about dire financial problems doesn't have 100 percent of their attention on their military job."
Financial issues also can affect careers, she said, noting that finances are the No. 1 cause of lost security clearances.
Petraeus said she's seen firsthand the havoc financial issues can inflict on troops and their families. In the first year of the Iraq war, when her husband was commander of the 101st Airborne Division, she saw many people struggling with financial issues, she said.
"We even had Soldiers that had to be brought home from the war because of catastrophic financial problems," she said. "Some was due to identity theft, but others through mismanagement -- by a spouse, sometimes."
Petraeus encouraged servicemembers to ask for help at the earliest sign of trouble. Aid societies, for example, can provide short-term, interest-free loans that often can stop people from going down that "slippery slope" of high-interest loans and devastating financial loss.
"Your unit would much rather help you with a small problem than have you wait until it's a huge problem," she said.
Petraeus said she's excited to be part of an agency with the power to institute change. "If they see that someone has dreamed up some new product to rip off consumers, they can write a rule to correct and enforce laws," she said.
While she plans to take on a plethora of issues, Petraeus said, she'll be satisfied if she can accomplish one particular goal.
"If I can say that the military is an educated population who can recognize the red flags of a bad deal, then I'll really feel I've been able to make something happen," she said.
Enforcement is important, she added, but no agency in the world is big enough to squash all of the schemes popping up each day, particularly on the Internet.
"So the answer has to be educating the consumer not to fall for this stuff," she said.