Discussing financial independence with the troops









This post is long overdue, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it kept getting pushed down the priority stack. I’ve answered reader questions for most of the last six months, but this is a reader report about financial independence.

Deserat is not your typical reader: she’s a major contributor to “The Military Guide“. She wrote most of the chapter on the Reserves, contributed to the book’s section on “multiple streams of income”, and reviewed way too many drafts of the other chapters. In her military career she’s a Reserve officer at the top of her game who’s mentoring the next generation of officers & enlisted. In her civilian career she enjoys decades of engineering success in the med tech industry, even running her own consulting firm. She’s the first to point out the synergy behind her two careers: techniques she learned in the military worked in the civilian corporate environment, and the executive skills she’s learned during her tech career paid off very nicely in the military.

Today she’s financially independent, retired from her civilian career, and wrapping up her military career. She spent the last few years roaming Europe in between drill weekends and contracts. I suspect she’s also fending off multiple consulting offers while she and her spouse enjoy their new home and their travels.

A few months ago during one of her Reserve weekends, she wanted to give a presentation on achieving financial independence. The military is focused on teaching financial responsibility (stay out of debt, use credit responsibly, don’t be a security risk) but it’s not the military’s mission to teach financial skills like building your net worth. When it’s time for the transition seminars (both separating from the service and retiring from it) the emphasis is on starting a bridge career, not on when you’d stop working. Deserat wanted to show her troops how to budget, save, invest, and then decide what you’d like to do with your life.

The cover of the pocket guide, available from Impact Publications

At Impact Publications

The tool for her presentation was the pocket guide version of “The Military Guide”. It’s 4″x5″, 64 pages, and available only from Impact Publications (not on Amazon or in bookstores). It has most of the content of the full-sized paperback minus the chapter checklists, the personal stories, and the detailed appendices. Its main advantage is its price: one copy is $2.95 but 25 copies are only a little over $2/copy and 50 copies are $1.77/copy. 100 copies… well, call the publisher to get an even bigger discount.

Impact Publications specializes in pocket guides, with over a dozen of their book titles also available in pocket guide versions. They’re popular with military family service centers, veteran’s programs, and job fairs. The publisher tells me that most of the orders come from individual military commands and state VA offices that are spending their resource budgets— the display racks of pamphlets & guides that you see in their lobbies. One state veteran’s administration even bought 125,000 copies of a transition pocket guide.

We’ve been surprised and gratified at how many servicemembers are also buying the pocket guide out of command funds (or even out of their own pockets) for their training programs. Deserat led one of the more recent and larger seminars but I’ve had reports from a half-dozen others who are happy to share the knowledge with their battle buddies and wingmen. I’ve even had a query from a high-school teacher who’d like to hand them out to their military-curious students.

Deserat wrote to me a few months ago:

“I will be giving a presentation on financial independence and early retirement to a group of young officers and others when I do my next two weeks of duty. I was wondering how I could get some of the pocket guides to give away.”

We took care of her order and they came in the mail a few days later.

“I ordered 25 of the pocket guides and will be doing my presentation to unsuspecting lieutenants (and other ranks) sometime next week– now to just prepare for it. Any advice you have on the presentation (1.5 hours) would be appreciated. I’m going to hone in on the benefits about the military, living below your means, developing streams of income, investing (but not necessarily telling them how or where to), and understanding the thing about time being really your best asset.”

I’ve given a few of these seminars at military bases and public libraries, so I sent her a handout of bullet points with extra space for taking notes. A couple of weeks later:

“Well, I did the class on financial independence (I was on active duty so it was in uniform). There were even a couple of civilians there. I gave them the attached handout and the pocket guide as I talked. I started out saying I was financially independent, I had paid cash for my car and house: their eyeballs bulged at that. Turns out most of them were already interested or had started many of the necessary habits. One young captain asked me about his real estate (two rental properties) and if his savings rate should be based on gross or net income… hey, if you can get 25-50% of either, you’re doing fine!”

“They even asked me where they should invest their money. The main stickler for these troops is they live in a high-cost area and real estate is expensive. It would be very difficult for them to drive their housing costs below 35% of their expenses without a subsequent increase in transportation costs and time lost. I kept driving it home: time is all you have and you need to spend your time doing what you value… the whole purpose of financial independence is to be able to spend your time doing what you value.”

“The other thing that resonated was the statistics on how many would actually retire. I said look around: only 2-3 of you would actually last 20 years, so the ideas talked about for financial independence are even more important due to the benefits of the military pension. I also talked to them about different situations in civilian positions… my experiences with different 403(b) plans and pension plans. Lastly, I talked about the different references in the handout attached and the people who were behind those references. All in all, they seemed interested, eager and liked my approach for presenting the information.”

“Side story: someone walked in late and sat down just as I was giving some general advice on what types of investments to purchase… my point was to minimize expenses and that the Thrift Savings Plan had one of the lowest expense ratios with Vanguard right behind them. At that point I asked the audience if any of them were financial managers. They guy who came in late raised his hand and then proceeded to tell me he had come to the session to see if I would talk “crap” about investing. I just looked at him coolly and said, well, my intention wasn’t really to give out investment advice but that I could share my experiences. I’m glad I asked the question about financial managers because I was then going to say that they needed to stay away from actively managed funds as much as possible– I didn’t know if anyone there sold actively managed funds as a financial manager. He then walked out of the class with me and made the comment that everything I had said was spot on and that he met lots of people who didn’t take advantage of TSP. I just smiled. I then thought that earlier in my career he might have intimidated me, but today I knew where I was and that it was unique… and although he was a financial manager I don’t think he was financially independent.”

“Another story: I had a captive audience in a different impromptu session… three second lieutenants – we talked about savings and where to save and how they should start now. One of them wanted to know if he should put his money in the Roth TSP or the regular TSP– I explained the different types of taxes and then told him to make it a 50/50 split to hedge the bets. They were all saving something; two in TSP and the other had a family corporation… I think he was going to be fine based on what he said. Two of them were USAFA grads and the other ROTC… sharp officers. I sent them the handout.”

“Last story: I then had a meeting (to discuss other issues) with the senior leadership of my Reserve duty area and gave each of them a copy of the pocket guide. They both said they weren’t financially independent and never would be… one was a full-bird colonel on active duty (I’m shocked at how much O-6s make), the other was a retired active duty O-6 who is now a senior civil servant… in the SES case, I think he works because he likes what he does and is frankly very good at it. In the case of the active-duty officer, I sense a general lackadaisical approach to personal finance.”

“I’m still counting the days until I retire from the Reserves!”

Deserat’s probably going to be doing this training at least annually until she retires– a great way to practice what we’re preaching!

The other readers have very similar stories about their sessions.  (I’m also afraid that it’s all too common to see senior officers who have chosen to remain blissfully ignorant about personal finance.)  If you’re in a command financial billet then it’s probably easier to get the funds to buy the pocket guides, but a couple of servicemembers have even spent their own money on the project. From a cynical perspective, if the expense helps even one of your people stay out of financial trouble then it makes your job that much easier.

If you decide to do this type of seminar at your command, feel free to use Deserat’s talk as a guide for developing your own curriculum. Contact me or send me an e-mail if you’d like a copy of my bullet handout. If one of your local commands can’t order the pocket guide for you, then ask me or Impact Publications for a bulk discount!

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Related articles:
Financial myths of retirement (part 1 of 2)
Tailor your investments to your military pay and your pension
Asset allocation considerations for a military pension (part 3 of 3)
So where should I invest my money now?!?
Should you start a civil service bridge career after the military?


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About the Author Doug Nordman

I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers and veterans.

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