When planner Sandra Field and a group of advisors from a Southern California FPA chapter tried to volunteer to help troops with their finances at the nearby Marine base at Camp Pendleton, the effort ended in exasperation.
“We were willing to spend hours,” Field recalls, “just talking to them to educate and help, without giving our name or company, without selling anything, without a hidden agenda – and we were not allowed.”
In an experience common to many advisors around the country, Field says she and the other planners were turned away by the military over concerns that they might try to sell soldiers unsuitable investment products.
“There is a terrible lock hold on who can give advice and how you can deliver it,” says Field, a NAPFA member and founder of Asset Planning in Cypress, Calif. “I understand some rules are there to prevent insurance and annuity sales from taking place, but it also restricted us from educating them with basic budgeting. … It was heartbreaking to hear some of the stories.”
Planners like Field expressed acute frustration with the lack of planning help available to soldiers in financial straits, as they commented on a Financial Planning investigation into whether more comprehensive financial planning could help stem the rate of military suicide.
Ric Edelman, founder of Edelman Financial Services, which has planning offices nationwide, wrote: “I hope that this article will press the Pentagon, White House and Congress to get military families the financial advice that they need.” The story led to a new push in Congress to address the issue.
Financial Planning’s investigation focused on the experience of a planner, Jan Chapman of Anapolis, Md., who intervened to assist Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens, who said he was on the verge of killing himself so his family (and two ailing children) could get $500,000 in government life insurance benefits. It also reported that planners who go beyond very limited parameters to try to help soldiers in crisis often run the risk of losing their jobs – the fate that befell Chapman and at least one other planner. Even though military statistics show that financial stressors are among the most common precipitating factors to military suicide, planners under contract with the military are only authorized to provide financial education, mostly in meetings of about 15 minutes in length, according to the Pentagon.
Like Field, many other planners posted accounts on financial-planning.com about their frustrations when they’ve tried to help soldiers or about how financial stress can be severely debilitating, especially amid other disturbing factors or conditions. Below are edited excerpts.
MILITARY’S ‘SUICIDE EPIDEMIC’
“Although stress and post-traumatic stress disorder can certainly contribute to suicide, especially for combat veterans, it's often specific and acute pressures of life – marital troubles, job issues and, above all, terrible financial trouble -- which drive people over the edge. This viewpoint needs to be more widely distributed, since as we're becoming more aware of the suicide epidemic in our veterans and active-duty service members, the focus has been on post-traumatic stress disorder and combat vets. Clearly, the problem is more widespread. Clearly, people in our industry are in a position to help. Clearly, well-meaning rules are inadvertently contributing to the issue.” –Steve F.
AIR FORCE MAJOR-TURNED-CFP
“This is reminiscent of the bad old days … and the complete lack of any financial training for ‘advisors,’ most of whom were former service members whose only training was their marketing materials. Yes, it did get some service members, like me, saving, but at what cost? I agree that investing is not what young service members need. They need fundamental personal financial education on such topics such as personal debt, recognizing lifestyle costs, the concept of savings, household risk, guardianship of children and so forth.
“As a retired Air Force officer and CFP, and one who was made responsible for briefing all incoming personnel on the important matters of personal finance at my final assignment at Andrews Air Force Base in the late ’90s, my sense is that young service members suffer from what all young people suffer from when it comes to personal financial responsibility: youth, short-sighted wants and a live-for-today attitude.
The military is no different than any other employer, except a much higher proportion of its workforce is made up of young people, which amplifies this problem. Making personal finance a mandatory part of post basic-training education makes perfect sense to me.” – U.S. Air Force Maj. Bruce Miller (retired), CFP