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Survey: Military Families Carry More Debt, Have Fewer Assets Than Civilians

Many members of the U.S. armed forces pay a financial price for their service to the country, often carrying higher credit card debt and owning fewer assets than civilians, a new survey shows.

The survey done for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) found that veterans and active duty personnel and their families often face unique circumstances, such as frequent relocation and deployment, which can put a significant strain on their finances.

“This is a serious problem,” said Susan Keating, NFCC president and CEO. “The issue of financial stability for those who serve our country is a real concern.”

The NFCC survey looked at people who took part in the foundation’s Sharpen Your Financial Focus program to deal with debt. They found that when compared to all the participants in the program, the average military family had:

  • 7 percent higher unsecured debt balances, or $400-$500 more than the average.
  • 16 percent fewer tangible asset ($11,000 less).
  • 15 percent higher monthly debt-related expenses ($200 more).

“I think this higher-than-average burden of debt leads to some significant financial constraints on these military households,” said Stephen Roll, an Ohio State University researcher who analyzed the data for the NFCC.

And with the continued reduction in forces, the situation may get worse, as more service members try to find civilian jobs.

“These families are facing a loss of income from unemployment or underemployment, as well as bad credit from high debt or financial mismanagement,” Roll told NBC News.

People strapped for cash often make questionable financial decisions. Previous research done by the NFCC found that 60 percent of the nation’s service members have used alternative, non-traditional lenders, such as payday lenders, to make ends meet. This makes them more vulnerable to fraud or high-interest predatory lending.

Help is available

The average military member who contacts a credit counselor has accumulated about $10,000 in consumer debt. In many cases, they are required to seek help by their commanding officer in order to maintain their security clearance.

Bob Fixott works with military families at the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service office in North Little Rock, Ark. He says the people he sees are “pretty stressed out.”

Families with only one spouse in the military, often have to live on a single income. And frequent relocations make it difficult for the other spouse to find a good-paying job, he says.

Another problem: When someone joins the military at an early age, they may not have the financial skills to manage their money properly.

“Now all of a sudden, they’ve got a bunch of money coming in and they spend it all, because they don’t have a spending plan in place,” Fixott said. “Some of these people have never learned how to make a budget.”

The NFCC’s Susan Keating wants military families to know help is available – often free or low-cost. Programs like Hands on Banking (a joint program of the NFCC and Wells Fargo), for example, offer education and assistance for active duty service members and veterans.

“With counseling and financial education, savings rates go up, credit scores go up, and overall debt goes down,” Keating said.

To find a certified non-profit financial counselor near you visit www.nfccdebtrelief.org/military.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.