Sunday, October 31, 2010

ABC NEWS - Q&A From Military Members & Families

Here's a "Hero Shot" of hubby Bob and his F-4 Phantom, that he flew up until last year when a jet incident caused him to break his back. Thankfully, he is fully functional, but his injuries will not allow him to fly an ejection seat aircraft. The good news: he's gainfully employed flying "regular" airplanes and also the Global Hawk UAV (think the high tech airplane on Transformers).

We had a lot of questions when he had that accident and I speak with a lot of military members and their families who have questions about their lives and finances as well. Some of these fine people were on ABC News with me recently for a Q&A. Here's the recap for you to share with others you know who are in our armed forces. The questions that made it on ABC NEWS won a free copy of their choice of my books! But here are the answers to many more questions.

Q. Is SGLI enough insurance for families or do you need an additional supplemental insurance? From Melody O’Sullivan

ELLIE: SGLI is relatively cheap, term group life insurance that is offered to members of the military on active duty, in the ready reservists, members of the National Guard, members of the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Public Health Service, cadets and midshipmen of the four service academies, and members of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The insurance is also offered to spouses as well.
Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage is available in $50,000 increments up to the maximum of $400,000 for members of the military. The price for this insurance is very cheap, so it’s certainly a good value. But is it enough? If you are a young family with only one or two children, then it could be enough. But if you are a more senior servicemember with a lot of family members depending on you, then you might want to buy some term supplemental insurance. Remember that once you leave the military, SGLI is no longer available to you. So if you know you are going to separate in the next couple of years, then it would be a good idea to get a modest supplemental life insurance policy in place.

Q. As a “Key Spouse” how do we encourage other spouses to take advantage of all the benefits the military has to offer? From Starr Vuchetich

ELLIE: Thank you, Starr, for your volunteer work with other spouses, you are to be commended as should ALL our Key Spouses! There’s an old saying that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Your job, as a key spouse, is a difficult one. You know the benefit of taking advantage of the services and perks available to military families, but others have to decide for themselves. The best thing you can do is to lead those spouses by example and express the benefits you are personally receiving from taking advantage of, such as free childcare for volunteering, free financial counseling, free oil changes (or whatever program your base offers), as well as the many benefits listed at sites such as or

Q. How did you arrange childcare during deployments with very little money and how did you maintain sanity with so many small children on a tight budget?
From Jana Baez

ELLIE: I do remember what an incredible challenge it was when all my kids were so young and my husband was gone for weeks (or months) on end. But the first thing I did was plug into all the “free babysitting” I could get. Go to the Family Support Center and see if they offer free childcare for those who volunteer. I also got on site childcare provided when I attended Army Family Team Building classes, so sometimes you can get a break and learn something, too. Don’t forget the community outside of the base gates, either. There are a number of churches, community centers and MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) groups that try to support military families during deployments by offering free “Mother’s Day Out” programs or onsite classes where childcare is provided. Last, but not least, form a babysitting co-op, where you get tickets for every child you babysit for every hour. You can “redeem” your tickets with other co-op members and it serves as a way to escape for a while as well as a playgroup when you are watching other children.

Q. How does one begin a business without acquiring debt?
From Chana Montgomery

ELLIE: In the case of a military family, you need to start a business that is completely portable and can move with you. It’s important to select a homebased business that requires little initial investment and will still yield an income to keep you in the black. Do your research and talk to a mentor at where you can get free business counseling in your desired field. If you follow your passion, you’ll be far more likely to succeed. Just email and ask for the “Homemade Business” file, we’ll send it to you for free as it contains all the information you need to be successful in your endeavor.

Q. When you have extra income flowing in, is it better to work on paying off debts or continue paying normal payments and stash the money into savings?
From Emily Haffner

ELLIE: The answer is “both” if you pay even $5 to $10 more on your credit card minimums, you’ll improve your FICO score and begin to pay down that debt. But you also need a safety net in savings just in case your car breaks down and your husband is downrange and not home to fix it. The optimum savings goal is to have 12 months worth of living expenses. But even if you just save up to 3 months (and keep adding to it little by little) you’ll be better prepared for rainy days.

Q. I have three children and I wanted to know if I should apply the new 9-11 GI Bill to the first child (not knowing how long it will be around) or should I split it up among the children.
Stephanie Berg

ELLIE: Because the Post 911 GI bill is relatively new, and because we don't know how Congress will vote to continue this practice, it may be best to take the money while you can. It's still important to have your child go to the most affordable school possible, get scholarships and other means of payment. But go ahead and use as much of that GI Bill money as you can to pay what you can on your oldest child's college. In the meantime, the money you would have put toward his/her college (from your own 529 plan or other savings vehicle) put into another college fund for your other two children.

By funding more on the other two children's accounts, your money will continue to grow as the market continues to rebound. But in the meantime, you will also be able to take advantage of the current bill. Do not give your first child his/her saved "college money." Instead, put whatever you have saved toward the other two. You can tell your oldest that his/her college money is coming in the form of the POST 9ll GI bill. Because you don't want the youngest two to be stuck with student loan debt that the oldest child did not have to accrue.

Q. With limited funds, what should be the priorities for the best use of financial planning? Should I invest in the TSP (Thrift Savings Plan), IRA, life insurance or mutual funds? Major Anthony Smith

ELLIE: Once you’ve paid off your credit cards and funded a 12 month savings account, then you are ready to take your investments to the next level. It will depend on your family size, retirement needs and current income. I do not recommend life insurance as a good investment tool, even though agents may point you toward that route since the commissions are significant. Better to max out your TSP benefit since those funds will still be available to you if you do not make the military your career for a twenty year retirement requirement. It’s also a good idea to get a ROTH IRA or regular IRA. Go to your Airman and Family Readiness center and ask for an appointment with a financial counselor. It’s free advice and the expert there can look at your entire financial picture to help you come up with the best method of investing. Or try the military friendly company, USAA, they help to fund a lot of military events and can offer good advice on mutual funds.

Q. Being that you moved many times during your military career and have many children, how did you present it to the children when you had to PCS (Permanent Change of Station)? From Kristie Fromer

ELLIE: This is the hard part of military life, Kristie, and thank you for your willingness to go through this. One of the advantages of having so many kids is that they were sure to have built in playmates wherever they went! When we told our kids they would have to leave their friends, we allowed them the freedom to grieve and be sad over leaving. But we were also positive about where we were going. We printed out materials about the new base and all the places we could visit and where we would go camping along the way. By focusing on the positive, while allowing them the freedom to express their feelings, we had healthy, adjusted kids and a well bonded family.

Q. If your auto is less than two years old, is it a good time to refinance? We retire in 2011 and will be buying a house wherever my husband starts his second career. Is this wise to do before buying a house? From Lisa McClain

ELLIE: Refinancing a car will cause a hit to your FICO score, but it can be a good idea in order to get you a lower interest rate. I offer two words of caution: 1) refi at least six months before you get a home loan in order to give your credit time to recover and 2) refi with payments that will end at the same time your original loan would have ended (otherwise, you're just paying interest over a longer period of time.) For example, if you have 3 years left on your car loan. Then refi the loan for 3 years (instead of 4 or 5).

Thank you for your service, military members and your families. Remember three things:
  • America loves you
  • We support you
  • And together we'll be all right!

Ellie Kay
America's Military Family Expert (TM)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On ABC NEWS - Heroes at Home Corner - Military Financial Issues

I'm going to fly in one of those jets one of these days! My work with military money matters makes me concerned with recent bad news for military members and their families.

I was on ABC News this week talking about this survey. And here's the short version of what we discussed:

The Investor Education Foundation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority developed a military survey in consultation with the Treasury Department and the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy. Their findings were alarming in that there is a significant increase in consumer debt among military members with more than one in four reporting a credit card debt load of more than $10,000.

Q. Ellie, you work extensively with military members in addressing their financial concerns, how bad is the problem?

A. The information that came out of this new survey is pretty sobering. The study focused on the financial capability of military personnel and found that while some in the armed forces are handling their finances fine, an alarming percentage aren’t doing so well. Debt is only one of the concerns that came out of the report, but it made it to the top of the list because the average military member has more consumer debt than the average American civilian.

Q. Why is debt more of an issue for service members than for civilians?

A. There are a number of reasons that account for this higher debt burden. For one thing, the survey found that military personnel and spouses are generally heavier users of credit cards than are civilians. And we all know that the more you use them, the more likely you are to be more heavily indebted to credit card issuers. In online polling of 700 current members of the U.S. armed services and 100 spouses of current members, more than one in four respondents reported having more than $10,000 in credit card debt. Ten percent of respondents said they were carrying $20,000 or more in such debt. The percentage of those who made minimum credit card payments, took out cash advances and paid fees was highest among families of enlisted personnel and junior noncommissioned officers.

Q. I can certainly appreciate the concern over this increased debt load, but what are some of the reasons that military families have more debt besides the fact that they use their cards more? After all, they do get a regular paycheck, military housing and health care.

Even though active duty troops can count on a regular paycheck from Uncle Sam, many military families face the same pressures affecting other Americans during this downturn: Spouses are having difficulty finding work, and mounting debts and foreclosures are forcing them out of rental homes. For those who are stationed overseas those factors are multiplied even more because in some countries spouses are not allowed to work on the economy. Also, when your loved one is deployed in harm’s way, there’s a greater tendency to overspend on comfort items for yourself and your children, for childcare and for eating out because you’re too tired or too depressed to cook. So military families are feeling the effects of our economy…and doubly hard in some cases.

Q. Most Americans I’ve talked to are concerned about their own finances in a post recession economy, but there seems to be a greater concern when military members have money problems. What are the long term implications regarding a lack of financial stability among service members?

A. Yes, you’re right, all of us are concerned about our money and how the economy is going, but our individual money problems usually don’t impact national security. But when you have those serving in the armed forces bogged down with the same issues, it is elevated to that disturbing level of impacting national security. It’s important that military personnel not be weighed down with money issues. Their financial stability is directly linked to their military readiness, according to studies by the Defense Department and the Government Accountability Office. Service members with severe financial problems can lose their security clearances, and bad money management also can result in sanctions, impair career advancement or lead to a discharge.

Q. We’ve talked about consumer debt, but what are some of the other problems that tend to plague military families that may not necessarily impact civilian families?

A. More than one-third of the military respondents said they had trouble keeping up with monthly expenses and bills. Many service members have gotten payday or auto title loans and these kinds of loans deteriorate their assets. Members of the military use payday loans three times as often as civilians, a separate Defense Department study found. With a payday loan, you borrow against a future paycheck. On an annualized basis, I’ve seen the interest rate on such loans range from 400 percent to more than 1,000 percent. Although there are many similarities in how they handle their money compared with the civilian population, military families have unique issues such as frequent deployments. Being in the military may be a secure job, but for many the paycheck is small. It’s not hard to end up with ‘more month than money,’ especially if you are young and have little experience of managing finances. And the military does have special challenges with frequent moves that always end up costing money.

Q. What is the Department of Defense doing in light of the recent financial crisis among military members?

A. The DOD has had financial counselors as part of each branch’s family support centers, but one or two people servicing the population of an entire base isn’t enough. Consequently, they have also created a financial readiness campaign because of the number of military personnel in debt and because so many were losing their security clearances. The Investor Education Foundation is also helping, conducting financial education forums here and abroad and awarding fellowships to military spouses to help them become accredited financial counselors so that they can help their peers. A soldier who is worried about finances is not a soldier who can focus 100 percent on his or her job. I think that when we put our national security in the hands of our fighting forces, then it’s in all our interests that they be able to do their jobs without being sidetracked by financial problems.

Lest you be discouraged by this recent survey--there is hope! Next blog, I'll answer questions from our men and women in the military (and their families), so stay tuned.

And to all those who serve in our armed forces, we thank you!

Ellie Kay

America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Healthy, Wealthy and Wise!

With our son well into football season, I'm thinking about his health a lot more and the cost of health insurance as well.

According to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, if you or your child broke a leg, you would incur costs in excess of $15,000. It’s no wonder that in my experience with mainstream American families, I’ve found that the greatest financial concern they have is how find affordable health insurance.

Be Healthy
The best protection against rising medical costs is still prevention. My friend, Danna Demetre, has a is a fabulous health program for men and women of all ages. Using a support system that incorporates accountability, balanced eating, and exercise plans, this approach to health provides the opportunity to change your life, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally.

A healthy lifestyle can also have other advantages. Many health insurance companies offer a refund on an annual premium if the insured can prove that they have attended a health and fitness center three times a week.

Be Wealthy
There’s no need to pay more than necessary for health insurance. Compare plans and prices by going to a non-intrusive site such as . It’s possible to get a relatively anonymous quote instantly without the intrusion of a salesperson calling your home or office. It’s also a good place to compare plans by remembering that you shouldn’t buy what you don’t need. For example, if you do not need maternity benefits, eliminate them from the plan you choose.

If you can consider a higher deductible, then the money saved on premiums could go into a Health Savings Account (HSA), which is basically a health insurance policy you can bank on. When an HSA-eligible policy is purchased in conjunction with an HSA account, then the Health Savings Account is funded with pre-tax dollars, and taxable income is reduced at the same time. The money in this account is used, tax-free, to fund healthcare related costs including prescriptions, insurance deductibles and over the counter medications. The money that is not used in this account is rolled over from year to year and can serve as a retirement plan.
You do not have to insure all family members on the same policy. If there’s an employee benefit in a group plan, it doesn’t mean all family members have to be covered on the same plan. An average family can save as much as $2500 a year by pulling family members out of pricey group plans and purchasing individual health insurance. The exception to this would be if the family member has a pre-existing condition (such as asthma, a heart condition, high cholesterol, etc) that might be temporarily or permanently excluded in an individual plan. In that case, it would be better to pay the higher premium in order to keep the comprehensive coverage consistent.

Be Wise
Know the difference between health insurance and discount health or medical “cards.” According to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, many companies are selling so-called discount health cards to consumers seeking affordable healthcare. Usually for a monthly fee, the cards claim to save subscribers money by offering discounts on physician visits, hospital stays, prescription drugs, dental work, eye care and other treatment. The CAIF says that, “Discount health cards are spreading rapidly. Many may offer valuable, money-saving benefits for people without health insurance. But these cards can also be confusing, because they are not insurance. You still must pay the medical bills yourself. These cards simply offer lower prices on services that accept these discounts.” If you have a question about a policy or a card before you buy, go to to make sure you’re being wise in your choices.

Finally, for the 45.8 million uninsured Americans, who may feel they cannot afford health insurance, go to the non-profit arm of a previous site found at to see what services and benefits are available for your particular situation and in your state and community.

Of course, I think it's friends and family that truly make you wealthy and those who are happier generally have better health. So kiss your kids and take your girlfriend to lunch and enjoy!

Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Considering Debt Consolidation? BEWARE!

You could be in debt 3 to 5 years LONGER if you go to the wrong debt consolidation company. On ABC NEWS, I answered the following questions from viewers, so it's wise to review these before you choose a firm!

Q. I’m at the point where I have $20,000 in consumer debt and I know I need to do something about it. I’ve been looking around for a company that will help me, but I want to know what red flags I should look for so that I can find one that is legitimate.

Drowning in Debt in Durango
ELLIE: Well there are quite a few red flags to look for. Stay away from them if they:
• Guarantee they can remove unsecured debt,
• Promise debts can be paid off at pennies on the dollar,
• Require substantial monthly service fees,
• Demand a percentage of your savings as payment,
• Advise you to stop making payments to your creditors,
• Say that creditors never sue consumers for non payment
• Promise that their system won’t hurt your credit record.

Q. We went to a debt relief company for an initial meeting and we’re not sure if we should go with them. They don’t charge an upfront fee, instead they charge a percentage of the amount they will save us. But we’re still going to have to pay. Is this good?

Samantha and Tommy from Riverside, CA via facebook

Ellie: In the past, it wasn’t necessarily good, because there wasn’t a regulation about what they claim they’ll save you and many companies inflated their estimates to get even more money from consumers than if they charged an up front fee. It was still a fee, but it was wrapped up in prettier paper so that the consumer thought they were better off. But there’s good news, under the new FTC rule, if the company bases its fees on a percentage of the amount it estimates you’ll save, it must also provide both the percentage and the estimated dollar amount that represents in writing.

Q. We are talking to a debt consolidation company and it’s all so confusing. We want to save money on our overall credit card bills, which cost us about $800 a month. But the company is telling us to make payments and save up—how much are we suppose to save?

Alton and Sharon from Oxford, NY via online contact form

ELLIE: Before the FTC rule, you didn’t really have a way of knowing but now you do. These companies usually ask you to make payments to a dedicated account. When a certain amount has been saved, they’ll go to your creditors and offer to pay off a percentage of the debt. You should ask the company: “How much will I need to save?” The new rule requires debt settlement firms to provide a reasonable estimate of the amount you’ll need to save before they’ll make an offer.

Q: When my brother and his wife set up a debt consolidation, they had him set up a fund that he made payments to. It turns out that the place that held the money was also in partnership with the debt company and he wasn’t allowed access to the money. Is this the way it is suppose to be done?
Audrey submitted via Online Contact Form

Ellie: No, it’s not suppose to be that way and under the new FTC rules this kind of holding or savings account will have closer regulation. The FTC now requires that the customer have full access to the funds, they must be held at a financial institution not associated with the debt consolidation firm and the customer would have the right to withdraw the money at any time.

Q. I was thinking of calling my creditors myself but my friends say I should let the debt consolidation company call them. Who is right?

Moriah Stephens from Allentown, PA

Ellie: In this case, I think you are the one on the right track. You should try to call your creditors yourself before hiring a debt settlement firm. You can sometimes develop your own workout plan because it is in the creditor’s best interest to help consumers pay off their bill.

Q. Where can I find a legitimate non-profit debt consolidation company?

Mike from Mechanicsville, VA via Ellie Kay’s blog

Ellie: The National Consumer Credit Counseling service is a non-profit organization that has thousands of partners across the county. Go to to find an office near you.
Ellie Kay
America's Family Financial Expert (R)