Uncertain Policies Create Uncertain Finances for spouses

Consider what it means for military personnel and their families

MAMMonthHeaderOn April 18, the U.S. government announced it will send 217 more troops to Iraq as part of a train-and-advise effort to help fight ISIS. While that hardly seems a massive infusion of boots on the ground, on that same day Defense Secretary Ashton Carter arrived in Baghdad to meet with top Iraqi officials to discuss sending additional troops to help retake Mosul. A few days later, President Obama went to Saudi Arabia to further discuss long-range military support for Iraq.

Even assuming minimal deployments ahead, such incremental moves begin to create uncertainty and stress for military families. For those families, it’s not just stress of separation and the concern that goes along with serving in a hazardous duty area, it’s also the stress of changing how their day to day lives are managed and lived, all while trying to keep things “normal” for children and other loved ones. And that includes financial planning.

Such is the uncertain context in which, as part of National Military Appreciation Month (NMAM), we celebrate Military Spouse Appreciation Day on May 6. In recent years, Pioneer Services, a Division of MidCountry Bank that’s provided financial services to military families for nearly 30 years, has commemorated NMAM with research reports on the economic well-being of military families. For 2016, we took a somewhat different route by partnering with Military Spouse Magazine in order to focus on how active-duty spouses, specifically, perceive their economic circumstances.

While our nearly 400 respondents represent a demographically varied sample, we do learn much by comparing the perceptions of these spouses with the results of previous surveys. This year, to be sure, possible Pentagon budget cuts no longer loom quite so ominously; predictably, therefore, our data reveals a somewhat less anxious mood.  However, with potential reductions in housing allowances, changing G.I. Bill benefits, and pay increases that don’t mirror those of civilian counterparts, etc., military families are still dealing with financial insecurity.

At the same time, the 2016 results leave no doubt that there’s still much that we must do to help provide these families with the economic assurances they deserve. Consider: 

  • Almost 70% of responding spouses say they are “somewhat concerned,” “quite concerned,” or “very concerned” about what would happen if they had a financial emergency. Last year, by contrast, 90% of all respondents felt inadequately or only somewhat prepared. On the one hand, a 20% overall improvement is by no means insignificant or unwelcome. On the other hand, 70% is in itself a disturbing result as it still shows chronic levels of anxiety affecting well over half our survey population.    
  • 20% said they were totally unprepared for an emergency, another big improvement over last year when nearly half our respondents considered themselves totally unprepared. Again, though, this single-year improvement has to be qualified: the 2016 results, while so much better than 2015, is twice as large as in 2014. We’re still playing catch-up.
  • 75% in 2016 are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about long-term savings. Last year’s number was in that same ballpark at 80%. Both results suggest that military families would like to save but cannot. There is some good news: 72.3% say they’re either saving as much or more than last year.
  • More than 73% of responding spouses are “somewhat concerned,” “quite concerned,” or “very concerned” about finding a job. This concern speaks directly to our original point about the uncertainties that dominate the lives of military families. Half of the spouses surveyed do not work. Of those, 65% cite “frequent relocation” – Permanent Change of Station (PCS) – as the reason.

If spouses have trouble holding permanent jobs because of PCSs in peacetime, the possibility of re-deployment in wartime only exacerbates the problem, especially for parents worried about childcare once one parent is overseas. "I haven't discovered a position that would offer enough flexibility or a work-from-home option that would also pay well enough to cover childcare costs and make it worth the time sacrifice,” one active-duty spouse said in her response.

If jobs are question marks, career development could seem a pipe dream for families periodically re-deployed stateside or abroad. "Even in the nursing field, I find it hard to find and keep a job long enough to advance,” another spouse told us. “When we relocate, it's very challenging finding new opportunities because I don't have enough time to grow." 

For these families, there can never be too much practical guidance in navigating the multiple essential chores that frequent relocations necessitate – or too much professional counseling to help chart job and career paths. (To that end, lenders like Pioneer Services provide resources, such as our “Pre-Deployment Checklist” that are specifically designed for military families facing periodic disruption.)

Of course, the burdens of relocation go beyond the practicalities of money management. When our survey also looked into the emotional issues that impact military families, we found that mental/emotional stress was the primary cause of strained relationships among nearly one-third of respondents. Other spouses attribute the stress to deployments (26.3%) and financial pressures (24%).

Of course, the three are often inextricably related as relocations lead to financial pressures; the emotional pressures caused by both can, in turn, become more than the military family unit can bear. That’s why Military Spouse Appreciation Day ought to be about a lot more than just “appreciation.” It should be a reminder of how much more can be done to find jobs for spouses wherever they’re deployed; to ensure ready childcare; to innovate new savings plan options; to provide the very best in financial education.

These goals are not overly ambitious. To the contrary, solutions are immediately attainable, given just a little more effort by both our private and public sectors. There can be no turf war between government and business; the ball is in both courts.

At only a few times in our history has our nation’s safety depended so much on the men and women of the American military. The more secure their families feel, the more secure the rest of us will be

Alan-Usry

About the author: Allen Usry

Air Force Chief Master Sergeant (ret) W. Allen Usry began his military career in the Marine Corps in 1982, and then went on to serve in the Oklahoma Air National Guard and United States Air Force. During his nearly 30 year career he service in a variety of positions including Command Chief Master Sergeant for First Air Force (CONR/AFNORTH) and as Command Senior Enlisted Leader (CSEL) for NORAD and United States Northern Command. Allen retired from active duty on 1 Jan 2012, and currently serves as a consultant for Pioneer Services, sharing his wealth of knowledge to military personnel around the nation.

Contact: Allen Usry

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