Focus on Finances

Military families, just like families everywhere, have financial concerns and must budget accordingly.  Many folks are struggling more within the current economy.  Finances can be a major stressor within marriages and families - but they don't have to be.

After the jump you will find more information on finances.

Let's first take a look at financial stress via Military OneSource.  You can login on the site for more detailed articles and links.

Coping with Financial Stress

High energy prices, mortgage foreclosures, an unpredictable stock market, and other factors are causing many Americans to feel financial strain. So it's no wonder that Military OneSource online poll participants report money matters as their leading cause of stress. If your stress level is soaring, read on for ways to reduce your anxiety by taking care of yourself and by coming up with an action plan to see you through the months ahead.

Practical steps you can take Here are some ways you can reduce your stress by taking charge of your finances:

  • Take an objective look at your financial situation. Ask yourself whether you have a major money problem, or if you're worrying about something that won't have a lasting affect on your financial health. For example, are you finding it difficult to repay your debts or pay for necessities like food and medicine? Or, are you just disappointed that you have to put vacation plans on hold? Try to put your worries in perspective. If you're not sure whether your problem is serious, schedule an appointment with a financial professional to assess your situation. Taking a concrete step like this may help reduce your worries.
  • Learn about special financial services, including savings programs, available to you through the military.
  • Talk with a certified financial planner or adviser. Whether you're facing a serious financial problem or not, talking with a professional and getting educated about money will help you feel more confident about your financial plan. Ask family, co-workers, and friends to recommend a trustworthy professional in your area. You can also find a financial planner by visiting the Financial Planning Association Web site at www.fpanet.org. (If possible, interview two or three candidates to find one you're comfortable with, and make sure you choose a professional who is certified with the Certified Financial Planner Board.)Focus on the things you can control. You can't control the economy. But you can make changes that will improve your personal finances, such as spending less, reducing your debt, and increasing your savings.
  • Prioritize your spending. Review your budget and make necessary changes. For example, you may have to make room in your budget for growing gas and grocery prices by spending less on entertainment. Discuss your new priorities with your family members as well. Knowing that you have your basic necessities covered can give you and your family peace of mind.
  • Make sure that your investments reflect the level of risk you can handle emotionally. Some people are more sensitive to risk than others. The important thing is that you know how much risk you can personally tolerate.
  • Avoid making hasty decisions. Consult a financial professional before making any big decisions, such as whether to continue investing in the stock market and how to diversify your investments.

Remember to take care of yourself Some stress can be good, because it can prompt you to make positive changes. However, too much stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health, causing problems like ulcers, under- or over-eating, sleep loss, and increased blood pressure. Fortunately, there are ways to protect your health when you are worried about money. Here are some tips:

  • Practice healthy habits. When you're under a lot of stress, it's more important than ever to take care of yourself. Exercise, eat healthfully, and get plenty of sleep. Remember that you don't have to spend money at the spa or gym to relax. Some people find that exercising outdoors makes all the difference in the world in easing their worries. If financial worries are keeping you awake at night, get out of bed and write down a list of your concerns. Leave yourself a reminder to contact a financial expert about them in the morning. You may sleep easier knowing that you've got a plan of action in place.
  • Talk about your concerns with a trusted friend or family member. Many people are reluctant to discuss financial worries, but talking about them actually helps to relieve anxiety. It may be easier to talk with someone who has been in a similar situation or someone who has helped others with similar problems. Remember that you don't have to reveal detailed information. Instead of talking about how much money you've lost in stocks, you might explain that you're upset because your investments aren't performing as well as you'd hoped.
  • Join a support group. Talking about your financial stress with a group of others in your situation can help. For example, Members of Debtors Anonymous (www.debtorsanonymous.org) help each other feel less alone in their financial stress and help you create a spending plan and action plan for getting out of debt. You can find support groups by searching online, by looking in your local newspaper, or by asking a counselor or therapist.
  • Consider talking with a counselor or a therapist. It's normal to feel worried when thinking about financial concerns. But if feelings of anxiety persist or if you're feeling overwhelmed, seek help from a professional. A counselor or therapist can help you manage your financial stress. Military OneSource can help you find a counselor or therapist in your area and may be able to direct you to other useful resources.

Learning how to save can be difficult, especially if you are under finanicial stress - but you CAN do it.

Get Serious About Saving with the Military SAVES Program

The Military Saves program, sponsored by the Department of Defense with the Consumer Federation of America, gives you the tools to start and stick to a savings plan. This free program will help you:

Reach your goals. Written goals shared with others are more likely to be reached. Get out of debt faster or save more money. People with written plans save twice as much money as people who don't have written plans.Become informed. Membership benefits include a free quarterly electronic newsletter, access to other wealth-building information, and savings and debt reduction tips. Make a difference. You can help establish a financially fit fighting force by building personal wealth through saving.

Find out more and join the program by going to www.militarysaves.com.

10 tips to start saving more now

Building a secure financial future takes time and persistence. And the key to success is to save consistently, through all of life's little ups and downs. 

To get you started, here are 10 ideas that can add up to big bucks over the course of a year:

1.  Brown-bag it.  Spending just $7 on lunch three times per week equals over $1,000 a year!  And let's not forget that a week's supply of home-brewed coffee costs less than one cup from the corner coffee shop. Try brown-bagging and home-brewing for some delectable savings.

2.  Shrink your cell.  Even if you avoid charges for going over your allotted wireless minutes, addictive features like text messaging and web surfing can increase your monthly costs.  Even a dime at a time can add up and drive you to mobile madness.  Keep it in your purse and hear financial freedom ring.

3.  Be a bargain hound.  Sniff out the best deals at the grocery store and the department store. Then stock up. Try the store's private-label products, which can be 25 percent cheaper than name brands.

4.  Seek a climate change.  You probably won't feel the difference if you move the thermostat a few degrees higher in the summer. But, on average, every extra degree cuts your power use and your bill by about 3 percent.  Same goes for the winter bring it down a notch.

5.  Cozy up to car pooling.  Gas prices are higher than ever. So now's the perfect time to start sharing rides with friends. Or try public transportation it's good for you, and the environment.

6.  Double your deductibles.  Raising the deductible on your auto and homeowners insurance policies, such as from $500 to $1,000, results in lower premiums. If you're comfortable paying a little more if you need to file a claim, odds are you'll come out ahead in the end.

7.  Destroy your debt.  High credit card interest charges and other debt secretly sabotage your ability to save. For example, if you have a $5,000 balance on a card with a 10 percent interest rate, paying only the minimum payment will cost you about $2,300 in interest before you're out of debt.  So knocking out debt quickly should be a top priority.

8.  Cut off Uncle Sam.  If you get a big tax refund every year, it means you're giving the government an interest-free loan. IRS records show most of us have $40 too much taken out of our earnings every week.  Adjust your withholdings to pay only what you owe, and put the rest to work for you.   

9.  Buck the bank fees.  Smarter money management habits can pay off in more ways than one. ATM fees, bounced check penalties, and late payment charges are killers. Do your best to avoid them.

10.  Minimize your mortgage.  When interest rates are low, you might consider refinancing. And if you've built 22 percent equity in your home, make sure you're not paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI).

June Walbert is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner with USAA Financial Planning Services, one of the USAA family of companies.  Walbert is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

USAA is a diversified insurance and financial services organization that has served the military community since 1922. USAA Financial Planning ServicesSM refers to financial planning services and financial advice provided by USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, Inc. (known as USAA Financial Insurance Agency in California), a registered investment adviser and insurance agency, and its wholly owned subsidiary.

USAA means United Services Automobile Association and its affiliates.

Having children will change your budget, but putting some advance thought into financial planning can help.

Budgeting For Baby

Denise Dorman has a two-word explanation for why she didn't do much financial planning before the birth of her son, Jack, and it's not "morning sickness." "Hurricane Ivan," she says.

Denise and her husband, Dave, had half of their home destroyed in the hurricane of September 2004, a month before she was due. "So we just sort of winged it," Denise says. "Budgeting? At that point, we didn't."

After a near-miss from another hurricane the following summer, the couple moved from Florida to hurricane-free Illinois. But Denise, a public relations consultant, and her husband, an artist, still struggle with postpartum finances. The biggest shock: day-care costs. "It's much more expensive than we thought it would be," she says.

Most couples can't claim a hurricane as an excuse for not planning. Even if parents try, it's tough to come up with an actual figure for what they'll spend on each new baby. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates raising a child from birth through age 17 costs the typical middle-income, two-child family $197,700 in 2006 dollars, the most recent numbers available.

Diapers and day care are just the beginning. Expectant parents also must budget for life insurance and begin thinking about saving for their child's college tuition - without compromising their retirement savings. Whew, that's a lot to consider!

But take a deep breath. A few smart steps can get your finances in order and let you concentrate on your little one.

Trial run. Long before the due date, take a good look at how your baby will affect everyday living expenses. If you and your mate are unfamiliar with the price of day gowns and diapers, stroll through a baby store or two - and take notes.

Paying for the convenience of disposable diapers instead of cloth may be worth it to you, but expect to spend a total of $1,500 to $2,000 until your child is potty-trained, according to Consumer Reports. The cost of formula, if you use it, adds up quickly, too. "Store-brand formula is almost identical to brand-name but half the cost," says financial planner Sean Sebold.

Next, redo your annual budget to include the new line items. That exercise can help you figure out if you need to cut spending in other areas.

If one parent is thinking of leaving the workplace to care for the baby at home, experiment with living on one income to see how feasible it is. "See what it feels like - the earlier the better," says financial planner Dianne Nolin. Sock the second income into savings for child-related expenses.

Baby-clothes bonanza. It's fun to buy new hoodies and onesies, but the Financial Planning Association recommends investigating hand-me-downs, consignment shops and garage sales. Denise is a regular on eBay, where she finds box loads of gently used, quality children's clothes for a few dollars.

Ask gift-givers for items you really need, Nolin suggests. Otherwise, you're likely to be overwhelmed with newborn outfits that are outgrown in a few weeks.

House notes. Beyond expenses for the crib and any decorating you might want to do in the nursery or other kids' rooms, think twice before buying a new home for your growing family. You may find yourself baby-rich and house-poor like Lisa and Luis Rivero.

The 32-year-old professionals rented an upscale but affordable apartment before buying a home in the suburbs a few weeks after their first child was born. Unexpected repairs and maintenance more than stole the savings on day care that motivated the move. "Now we live paycheck to paycheck," Lisa says, adding that she wishes they had rented for another year.

Hot wheels. Contrary to the misguided thinking of many expectant parents, you don't really need a minivan or sport utility vehicle to parent properly. Lisa regrets trading her paid-for sedan for a luxury SUV just before gas prices soared. "I would return it to the dealer in a heartbeat," she says.

Bye-bye to brand names. Perhaps you can afford that designer diaper bag, but if it's a stretch, one from the discount store might have to do. Your baby won't know the difference between top-of-the-line baby blankets and less expensive, quality ones that feel just as snuggly.

Day-care solutions. Perhaps the most meaningful financial assistance grandparents, other relatives and friends can give is volunteering to baby-sit. "That's very helpful, particularly when the baby's young," says Park Ridge, Ill. financial planner Terry Gaertner. "You have to develop some sort of support system for baby care."

For those without such a system, here's a tip from the Financial Planning Association: If your employer offers a flexible spending account, you may be able to use it to pay for up to $5,000 in child-care expenses a year using money exempt from income taxes.

Look ahead to higher education. Beyond the gift of baby-sitting, grandparents with dollars to share can ease college costs by funding tax-deferred 529 college savings plans, suggests Gaertner.

Under current rules, grandparents could even front-load 529 contributions by putting in up to five years of the maximum annual amount, currently $12,000, without incurring gift taxes (subject to add-back rules if the contributor dies within five years of giving the gift). "So they could, between the two, put in $120,000 in one year without incurring any gift tax," Gaertner explains.

If you start planning for college in the delivery room, you won't be jumping the gun, financial planner Nolin says.

The College Board estimated that the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2007-08 school year was $6,185 for a public college, up 5.9 percent from the previous year, and $23,712 for a private college, up 6.7 percent from the previous year. By the time your baby is a freshman, who knows what tuition, board and books will cost?

Financial aid and part-time jobs may help your child pay for college, but if you want to contribute, experts suggest 529 college savings plans and Coverdell educational savings accounts.

For now, college is far from Denise Dorman's mind. But the good news is that the financial sacrifice, even the day-care cost, is worth it. "My son is thriving," she says.

Baby Steps

These fundamental moves help protect a growing family:

Look at life insurance. For parents, it's essential and much more affordable than you might think. You'll also get better rates when you're young. Talk to your life insurance company about what amount will give your family the best protection, and don't leave your loved ones in the lurch.

Update your will and appoint a guardian. Sean Sebold, an Illinois financial planner, recommends naming a contingent guardian and updating the will in case the primary guardian's status changes. Otherwise, a judge might have to appoint someone you've never met to raise your kids.

Take advantage of tax savings. The Internal Revenue Service allows an exemption for every new dependent and also grants child credits currently worth $1,000 per child younger than age 17. The earned income tax credit can save on taxes for parents whose income qualifies them. Parents who have to work and pay for day care can take advantage of a child-care credit.

Source: USAA Magazine

More financial articles directed at military spouses can be found here.

Don't forget that full replacement value (FRV) can now ease some financial burden during PCS moves.

Moving is a familiar but stressful reality of military life. To improve the quality for those who move and streamline the process for those who support it, the Department of Defense (DoD) developed its new "Families First" program. The linchpin of the initiative is the provision for full replacement value (FRV) coverage for military personal property shipments.

The 2007 National Defense Authorization Act mandated full replacement value coverage by March 2008. In some instances, DoD met this mandate well ahead of schedule. FRV coverage for shipments to and from overseas locations began Oct. 1, 2007. Domestic shipments were covered beginning Nov. 1, and non-temporary storage and local moves were included effective March 1, 2008.

Shipments of household goods are now insured for the greater of $5,000 per shipment or four dollars times the weight of the shipment (in pounds) up to a maximum of $50,000. Servicemembers desiring coverage above these limits may be able to obtain additional coverage through their homeowners or renters policy.

These changes in coverage are accompanied by some significant changes in the claims process. Damage visible at the time of delivery must be reported to the transportation service provider (moving company) on DD Form 1840 at the time of delivery. Damage not noted at delivery must be reported to the moving company on DD Form 1840R within 75 days of shipment delivery. Claims will now be made directly to the company and must be filed on DD Form 1844 within nine months of delivery.

Servicemembers will be informed where to send claims during the pre-move counseling appointment. In the event the company does not provide a local representative and servicemembers must mail claims, it is best to use certified mail with return receipt service as proof that the documents were sent and received in a timely manner.

One important caveat to the claims process involves household goods coming out of non-temporary storage. Because these shipments entered storage under the old depreciated value system, it is important to clarify the date of damage to the items. Damage inflicted prior to removal from non-temporary storage will be adjudicated under the old system at depreciated value.

Damage resulting from the removal and transportation of the shipment to the new duty station, when pickup occurred on or after March 1, 2008, will be covered under the current FRV policy. Damage present at the time the carrier obtains the shipment for delivery will be noted on the warehouse documents at the time of pickup. If no damage is noted, all damage to the shipment is considered the result of transportation to the new duty station.

The mover has the right to inspect damaged property when notified of damage. Claims will be settled by repairing or paying for the repair of damaged items. The company also will pay FRV for items that are missing or destroyed. Servicemembers will no longer be required to obtain repair estimates on broken items; the moving company is responsible for obtaining all repair and replacement estimates.

Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), the agency responsible for oversight of the household goods shipment process, indicates that movers have representatives or agents available to make inspections in all geographic locations, including overseas duty stations.

If the company denies the claim, makes an unreasonable offer or fails to respond within 30 days, the customer may transfer the claim to the Military Claims Office. This office generally is affiliated with the installation legal office, but servicemembers must inquire at their local installations for the exact location.

It is important to note that claims settled through the Military Claims Office will be paid at the depreciated replacement cost level currently in use. If the claim is transferred to the Military Claims Office within nine months of delivery, the office will attempt to collect FRV from the mover. If the Military Claims Office is successful, the customer will receive the FRV amount less any previous payments. Any claims submitted more than nine months after delivery but before the two-year time limit will be paid at the depreciated replacement cost level.

One of the most critical aspects of the "Families First" program is the customer satisfaction survey. Customers will receive a survey for each shipment, and the responses will be used to help ensure that companies with the highest satisfaction ratings receive the greatest number of shipping contracts. So customers should take the time to accurately and honestly complete these surveys and return them in a timely manner.

For more information on the implementation of full replacement value, go to www.sddc.army.mil/Public/Personal%20Property and click "Full Replacement Value Protection." Because implementation of FRV coverage has significantly altered the claims process, make sure you are thoroughly briefed on your rights and responsibilities under this new program.

Deployment can be a good time to get ahead financially.

Use deployments to rethink your approach to family finances

Anne-Marie and David Tosh always had split bill-paying and other financial chores. When her husband was deployed to Iraq in April 2003, Mrs. Tosh took over.

"Anne-Marie handled everything," Capt. Tosh says.

Many deployed servicemembers leave somewhat more confusion in their wakes, says Meredith Leyva, the Norfolk, Va., wife of a Navy officer and founder of CinCHouse.com, an online portal offering ideas for managing finances during deployment and other help for military families. "In my husband's first deployment, he had forgotten to pay a credit card bill," Mrs. Leyva recalls. "It wasn't clear on the statement how much money was owed, but when I called the financial institution it refused to give me any information because it was not a joint account. And that hurt his credit rating."

Servicemembers who are single face different challenges. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Baehr had an eviction scare when rent on his stateside apartment was paid a week late while he was in Kuwait for a year.  "Fortunately, the apartment manager gave me the benefit of the doubt and didn't charge late fees," says the San Jose, Calif., service member, who used his bank's online bill payment and a helpful friend back home to handle most financial issues without problem.

Joseph "J.J." Montanaro, Certified Financial Planner™  practitioner with USAA Financial Planning Services, says there is at least some opportunity as deployment may result in a bit of a financial windfall for servicemembers.  "With the possibility of combat zone tax-free income and a host of allowances (separation pay, hazardous duty, etc.) added to the monthly bottom line, you may be able to use the additional income to pay off pesky credit cards, build your emergency fund, and even start-up or increase your automatic savings into a Roth IRA, Thrift Savings Plan, or College Savings Plan for the kids." 

Smart solutions

  • The first line of financial defense is an emergency savings fund. Experts typically recommend that you work toward having three to six months of living expenses in such a fund. But Mrs. Leyva says if you're facing deployment you should set aside at least $2,000 extra to deal with car repairs, plumbing leaks, and other unexpected bills.
  • Mrs. Leyva also suggests padding the fund for routine chores the deployed family member usually does, from lawn care to household cleaning.
  • If unused cars or trucks are to be stored, investigate savings on insurance that may be available.
  • If you're single, you may be able to put all possessions left behind into storage, eliminating rent and utilities. If that's the case, you should maintain rental insurance to protect your belongings.
  • The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2004 may qualify you to receive a lower interest rate on mortgages and credit card debts and protection from eviction for late rent payments. Plus, you may be able to delay civil legal actions including bankruptcy, foreclosure, and divorce.
  • You can sign a power of attorney to designate a trusted friend or family member to handle your financial transactions. "If you don't have a significant other or family member who can regularly take care of your small issues, make sure you take the time to list your account numbers and customer service phone numbers, and give that information to whomever you are giving power of attorney," Lt. Cmdr. Baehr urges.
  • Finally, look to stateside organizations such as Operation Homefront and services such as Mrs. Leyva's CinCHouse.com for guidance and support.

Making Lemonade out of LemonsThe good news is that deployment can lead to better overall financial management. "When I deployed, Anne-Marie completely took over, and it worked so well we left it that way," Capt. Tosh says.

For Many in Military, Finances are a Battlefield

When Air Force Tech. Sgt. Larry Kight was a young recruit eight years ago, he got his first taste of an enemy he hadn't reckoned with: money.

Just 18 and flush with his first full-time paycheck, Kight said he immediately went shopping for a used car. But he collided with a sobering reality: Dealers right off the base were showing him auto loans with staggering interest rates, as high as 20 percent.

"I knew it wasn't good. To pay off the car in five years, I'd be paying almost double the asking price," Kight recalls.

He walked away, but too often saw many of his fellow soldiers get sucked into bad loans.

"It's the normal pitfalls facing young people today," said Kight. "They don't have enough financial education to know about their credit score or high interest rates or the real amount they're paying on a loan."

Today, the Travis Air Force Base sergeant is an advocate for the U.S. military's recent efforts to better equip its personnel with money-saving skills.

Like many American households, some military families have been squeezed by rapidly rising prices for gas and groceries, as well as plummeting home values that affect mortgages and their ability to borrow.

But they're also more vulnerable to predatory lending. They are three times more likely than civilians to take out so-called payday loans that charge exorbitant interest rates -- as high as 400 percent, according to a 2006 federal Department of Defense report.

These lenders often target military personnel, especially young recruits with their first full-time paycheck. Last year, a state task force report noted that Oceanside, home to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, has more payday lenders than any other ZIP code in California.

To combat the problem, the DOD two years ago launched "Military Saves," a promotional campaign to "persuade, motivate and encourage" military families to be savers. Both Congress and California have passed bills to cap annual percentage rates at 36 percent for these types of loans to military personnel.

It's part of ramped-up measures to ensure that money concerns aren't a distraction for military men and women.

"We equate financial readiness with mission readiness," said Pentagon spokesman Les' Melnyk in Washington, D.C.

"If our personnel are worried about their credit card debt or making the next mortgage payment, it will affect their military readiness with potentially deadly consequences," Melnyk said.

Most new recruits, Melnyk said, don't have good savings habits. "We want to change the spend-first, borrow-to-buy mentality that so many Americans grow up with."

But it's not just young recruits who are vulnerable. "The subprime market caught a lot of military families in a real lurch, just like any family," said John Revell, spokesman for USA Cares, Inc., a Kentucky-based nonprofit that doles out grants to financially strapped military families and helps them avoid foreclosure or eviction.

National Guard reservists, who temporarily give up their civilian jobs when sent to war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, are especially hard hit, he said. "When a husband or wife is deployed, there's less income and less financial help available," said Revell, whose company has given more than $5 million in financial aid to military families since 2003.

But there's more at stake than losing the house.

Under military law, service members can be discharged or even jailed for running up excessive amounts of debt. And chronic debt-to-income imbalances can jeopardize their national security clearance.

According to a 2007 California task force report, the number of U.S. Navy discharges due to debt increased a whopping 903 percent, from 194 in 2000 to 1,999 in 2005.

State Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who has sponsored several bills on military financial protections, saw the effects while serving as an Air Force attorney in California and Guam, where he often counseled young recruits struggling with debt.

"Many enlisted folks are straight out of high school, and there's no financial literacy training," said Lieu. "All of a sudden, they get a paycheck every two weeks. But at the same time, they're underpaid. As a result, they go to payday loan stores to fill the gap and get into deeper and deeper debt."

(A U.S. Army private makes about $21,650 in annual pay, not including sizable enlistment or combat bonuses and free on-base housing.)

National Guard Sgt. Jerry Pera, an Auburn native who ships off to Kosovo in January, said, "Everyone in military service needs to be vigilant on what kind of financial transaction they're getting into." His advice: "Read the fine print."

In addition to the Military Saves program, there are other state and federal efforts:

--Trained financial counselors are available on most major military bases to provide free money-management advice.

--Military families have 24-hour, toll-free access to Military OneSource, which offers certified financial planners and other resources.

--Military personnel are encouraged to participate in thrift savings plans (TSPs), which are automatic payroll-deduction programs that set aside tax-free income for retirement. They are similar to 401(k) plans.

In California, the state Department of Corporations launched TAPS (Troops Against Predatory Scams), an informational program to warn military personnel about financial fraud. In the last year, TAPS handed out 20,000 booklets to military service members and families, and made 77 presentations at military bases and to veterans groups.

Nationally, private organizations have popped up to offer financial assistance to military personnel. USA Cares, for instance, partners with the Homeownership Preservation Foundation to provide financial counseling and help military families avoid foreclosure or eviction.

California ranks fourth on USA Cares help list, behind Georgia, Kentucky and Texas. According to its recent report, it has helped 800 military families in California, saving 19 homes from foreclosure and handing out about $300,000 in grants. Among them: $7,500 in mortgage bills to keep a Southern California family of five in their Murrieta home; $500 in overdue rent for a Point Mugu military member and $1,060 for car repair bills for a Fort Irwin enlistee.

All requests are verified. And in cases where a family is too deep in financial trouble to save the home, for instance, there's no money given.

"We can't help everyone. In some cases, they need to sell the house and face reality," said Revell.

For Kight, a savings mind-set is as basic as socking away a small portion of every paycheck. "I've had guys who put just $10 a week -- $20 a paycheck -- into savings. That's two Burger King meals."

Even that small amount adds up, he says, noting that in 20 years, a $10-a-week investment would yield $10,400. And that's without factoring in compounded interest.

"It's never too late," said Kight. "You can start saving right up until the day you die."

Taking Aim at Debt

Military personnel can be particularly vulnerable to predatory lending, a form of "financial quicksand" with excessive fees, constant rollovers and annual interest rates that can hit 300 percent to 400 percent, according to a 2006 study by the Center for Responsible Lending. Among the findings:

--Predatory lending undermines military readiness and harms morale of troops and their families by trapping them in a cycle of debt.

--Military recruits are especially susceptible because they're younger and less experienced in money management.

--Active-duty military personnel in 2005 were three times more likely than civilians to take out a so-called payday loan.

--Payday lenders often target military bases, clustering offices near the front gates.

--In 2005, the cost of abusive payday lending fees to active-duty military was estimated at more than $80 million a year.

--To reduce that impact, Congress last October capped the annual percentage rate at 36 percent for three types of loans to military members: payday loans, tax-refund anticipation loans and vehicle title loans.

--Bee research

Finding Financial Security

--If returning home from active duty, take advantage of the military's "pre-separation counseling," which offers advice on everything from financial planning to resume writing.

--Understand credit ratings. Anyone can review his or her credit report for free once a year. To request a copy, visit the Web sites of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), or www.annualcredit report.com. Low credit scores usually result in higher interest rates and can affect employment, housing and security ranking.

--Build a better credit score. Those with poor or no credit history can use a gas card or store card to get started. Pay every monthly bill on time and in full to avoid interest charges.

--Live within your means. When starting in the military or re-entering civilian life, it can be tempting to splurge on luxuries. Resist the urge to take out loans or run up credit card bills for fancy cars, furniture or electronic toys.

--Pay yourself first. Set up direct deposit to put part of every paycheck into a separate savings account; aim to set aside three to six months' worth of expenses in case of an emergency. Then work on long-term savings for education or a home purchase.

--Do not jump into homeownership, which can be costly. In addition to a down payment and monthly mortgage, there's insurance, taxes, furnishings and maintenance costs. If you've got budgeting concerns or are unsure if you'll be staying long in the same location, rent.

--Source: www.bills.com

Military Saves

A Dept. of Defense program encouraging military families to reduce debt and save money for long-term financial security.

Troops Against Predatory Scams

A program run by California's Department of Corporations to raise awareness among military personnel about fraudulent investments and predatory lending. Scroll down the home page for the TAPS link.

Military One Source

Provides 24-hour, toll-free assistance on financial matters for active-duty military personnel. (800) 342-9647.

USA Cares Inc.

A Kentucky-based nonprofit that provides financial counseling, grants for short-term assistance and help to military families in fighting eviction or home foreclosure.

Operation Debt Storm

A debt-reduction program by San Mateo-based Bills.com offering personal finance tips, tools, calculators and other services.

Five Ways to Save Money at the Pump

About 10 years ago drivers could take their car to the gas station and "fill 'er up" for less than $20. Today, the price is close to $4 a gallon, and filling up your car could cost you more than $50 - depending on the type of vehicle you drive.

Many Americans are fed up with paying exorbitant prices for fuel and have resorted to using public transportation, car pooling, or teleworking in an effort to save money on gas. But if you can't live without driving your car everyday, Consumer Report's website offers five tips to alleviate your pain at the pump.

Use Websites to Find Cheap FuelEscalating fuel prices prompted the proliferation of websites, such as Gasbuddy.com, that help drivers look for the cheapest gas in their area. You can also check out your on-base gas station to see if they have cheap fuel as well.

Reduce Unnecessary DragAt highway speeds, more than 50 percent of engine power goes to overcoming aerodynamic drag. So don't carry things on top of your vehicle when you don't have to. Installing a large Thule Cascade 1700 car-top carrier on a Camry dropped its gas mileage from 35 mpg to 29 at 65 mph. Even driving with empty racks on the car reduces its fuel economy.

Avoid Idling for Long Periods Consumer reports tested this theory on a Buick Lucerne, with a V8. They let the car sit idle for 10 minutes while warming up, it burned about an eighth of a gallon of gas. A smaller engine would probably burn less, but idling still adds up over time. As a rule, turn off your engine if you expect to sit for more than about 30 seconds. An engine warms up faster as it's driven anyway.

Keep Tires Properly InflatedUnderinflated tires compromise handling and braking, and wear faster. And they run much hotter, which can lead to tire failure. Check the pressure of your vehicle's tires at least once a month with a tire gauge. The owner's manual explains how to do it.

Don't Use Premium Fuel if You Don't Have ToIf your car specifies regular fuel, don't buy premium under the mistaken belief that your engine will run better. The only difference you'll see is about 20 cents more per gallon. Most cars are designed to run just fine on regular gasoline. Even many cars that require premium gasoline will run well on regular. Check your owner's manual to find out if your engine really requires premium or if you can run on other grades.

More financial tips can be found at Military.com.  You can find some great financial Q&A at Ask June.

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