What veterans need to know as coronavirus pandemic continues

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By Michelle Fox, CNBC

Military veterans, like many Americans, are struggling to find work as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on.

While vets' June unemployment rate is lower than the overall number, at 8.6% compared to 11.1% for the general population, it is still at more than double the number reported in March, the Military Times said.

The Labor Department survey was also conducted mid-month, before m anystates paused or rolled back their openings due to a resurgence in cases.

Yet vets may also have other issues to contend with, like a disability they incurred during active duty or trying to find a way to fit their military skills into a civilian job.

"One of the major issues facing veterans today is a sense of uncertainty that they may have not experienced before," said Tara Falcone, a certified financial planner and founder of the financial education company ReisUP. She is also married to a U.S. naval officer.

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During active duty, life is regimented. Service members are told what to wear and when to show up for work. Their moves are coordinated.

Now, they are navigating the pandemic, like all other Americans, trying to make decisions about things like money, work, retirement and buying a home.

Many of those issues were recently addressed in a June virtual town hall for America's veterans, which was a partnership between Comcast Military and Veteran Affairs, CNBC + Acorns Invest in You and DAV (Disabled American Veterans). Hosted by CNBC correspondent Contessa Brewer, the forum gave an opportunity for veterans to pose questions to financial and military experts.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways.

Employment or entrepreneurship opportunities

Tony Hobson, a 55-year-old Army veteran, just earned his degree from the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Now, like many other recent college graduates, he's looking for a job, as well as possible entrepreneurship opportunities.

According to Phyllis Winchester Newhouse, an entrepreneur and fellow Army veteran, there are jobs if you know where to look.

"If you can look at a market and an industry that has been disrupted right now, that is where you want to focus and where you want to look at getting additional training, if you don't have the training already," said Newhouse, founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm Xtreme Solutions in Atlanta and founder of the nonprofit ShoulderUp, which connects and supports women entrepreneurs.

"There are going to be a lot of job opportunities in these disruptive industries."

For example, Newhouse recently hired a military vet at her firm.

The same goes for entrepreneurship. Newhouse suggests looking for ways to partner up with someone who is already in business and may be looking for partners with military skill sets.

Now, like many other recent college graduates, he's looking for a job, as well as possible entrepreneurship opportunities.

According to Phyllis Winchester Newhouse, an entrepreneur and fellow Army veteran, there are jobs if you know where to look.

"If you can look at a market and an industry that has been disrupted right now, that is where you want to focus and where you want to look at getting additional training, if you don't have the training already," said Newhouse, founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm Xtreme Solutions in Atlanta and founder of the nonprofit ShoulderUp, which connects and supports women entrepreneurs.

"There are going to be a lot of job opportunities in these disruptive industries."

For example, Newhouse recently hired a military vet at her firm.

The same goes for entrepreneurship. Newhouse suggests looking for ways to partner up with someone who is already in business and may be looking for partners with military skill sets.

In fact, there are a lot of desirable skills military members learn during active duty, Falcone told CNBC.

That includes logistics, public affairs, teamwork and communication, to name a few.

Falcone's biggest piece of advice is to be open to any and all opportunities.

"As long as you are smart and hardworking and self-starting, you can really take a lot of the skills and experiences you had in the military and transition them to a variety of roles," she said.

Concentrate on today

When things feel overwhelming or uncertain, it's best to try to take things one day at a time.

It's something retired Army Col. Gregory Gadson learned in 2007, when he was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He lost both legs above the knees and normal use of his right arm and hand.

"Even in my lowest moments, when I didn't see what tomorrow could look like, I really couldn't quit," said Gadson, who is founder and managing director of government services company Patriot Strategies in Alexandria, Virginia.

"Not quitting, that gave me the courage to continue moving forward."

He takes those lessons to heart even today, and it's something he tells other veterans trying to navigate the coronavirus crisis.

Instead of focusing on the future, he concentrates on being the best he can be today.

"Sometimes we can be looking over the horizon and not see what is in front of us and miss opportunities that are right there."

The right time to buy a home

Mortgage rates are at record lows, home prices are up and, in May, buyers rushed back into the market.

Marine Corps veteran Derek Goodwin asked what that means for potential buyers who might be looking to purchase a home in 24 months to 30 months' time.

Falcone said it is really an individual question rather than a general one.

Instead of asking if it's a good time to buy in general, ask instead whether it's a good time for you to buy, she said.

To determine that, Falcone focuses on three things:

  • Are you currently in a healthy financial position?
  • Do you expect to continue to be in a position to be receiving income?
  • What is your timeline to stay in the home? If it is only a couple of years, are you comfortable taking a possible loss or becoming a landlord?

She also warns about the use of online mortgage calculators. Many don't take into account items such as taxes, maintenance, homeowner insurance and homeowners association fees, she said.

"They make it seem as though you can afford more home than you can."

Also, if using a Veterans Administration loan, think about whether or not to offer a down payment. While VA loans allow the buyer to forgo one, if you put down at least 5% you can reduce the VA funding fee that is wrapped into your mortgage.

For example, if you are not taking out a first-time loan, the fee is 3.6%. However, if you put down 5%, the fee will drop to 1.6%, Falcone said.

Having money for retirement

For Leisa Todero, a 52-year-old Air Force veteran and single mom, her son's education is paramount. Unfortunately, it took a big bite out of her retirement savings.

"I wanted to ensure that my son got a college education in our country, no matter where it was going to take him," Todero told CNBC. She retired from the military in 2007 and now lives in Brevard County, Florida.

Fortunately, her son, Francesco, was able to attend a local two-year college at no cost.

He then went to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), a competitive Savannah, Georgia-based private school, that used up all of his college fund and the majority of the retirement savings she had independent from the military.

Todero is now getting by on her military retirement and disability pay, which she said pays the essential bills. However, she is worried about the future.

"I don't want to be a burden to my son," said Todero, who served time in Kuwait in 2005 and took part in missions into Iraq.

She also wants to enjoy her retirement and take some vacations.

Falcone advised looking for expenses to cut in order to start putting money away. For instance, cutting down on a monthly car payment by downgrading to a less expensive model often can free up some cash.

First, start an emergency fund and then start setting money aside, no matter how small, into a retirement account.

"Retirement might not look the way you thought it would but it is still possible to retire at some point in the future," Falcone said.

"The most important thing you can do is start," she added. "Just do something.

"Take action, no matter how small, today."

Disclosure: Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is a financial wellness and education initiative from CNBC and Acorns, the micro-investing app. NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.