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 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 California task force report noted that Oceanside, Calif., home to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, has more payday lenders than any other ZIP code in the state.
To combat the problem, the Defense Department 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.
California State Assemblyman Ted Lieu, a Democrat 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.”
An Army private makes about $21,650 in annual pay, not including sizable enlistment or combat bonuses and on-base housing.
National Guard Sgt. Jerry Pera, an Auburn, Calif., native who will ship 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.”
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