4 Things You Must Know About Money & the Military

Money might not seem like a priority when it comes to the military, but it plays a much bigger role than you might think.

A lot goes into managing your military career. Whether it’s meeting physical fitness standards or testing to make rank, you’re responsible for keeping everything on track. One area that’s necessary for a successful military career but doesn’t receive as much attention are your finances. When your finances are running smoothly, they don’t play a part in your military career, but when they’re not, then it is a problem for your job.

Knowing these four things about money and the military can keep your military career on track and help you avoid future financial problems.

1. Security Clearances & Your Finances

Many service members are required to have a security clearance for their job in the military. The Department of Defense uses a set of guidelines to determine a person’s eligibility for clearance. One of the 13 guidelines covers finances. It’s Guideline F, and it says, “An individual who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds. Unexplained affluence is often linked to proceeds from financially profitable criminal acts.”

The guideline is saying when you’re in debt, you may be tempted to compromise information or technology you have access to in exchange for money. Guideline F doesn’t just apply to an initial application for clearance. It also applies to individuals being reinvestigated. This is where people serving can run into problems with their military career.

Reinvestigation can be at 5, 10 or 15 years after your initial clearance is obtained depending on if it’s top secret, secret or confidential. Losing your clearance can mean losing your job or being separated from the military if your job requires a security clearance. The F guideline says “a history of not meeting financial obligations” may be a disqualifying factor in obtaining a security clearance. If you’re in the habit of not paying your bills and have debt in collections you may be putting your military career in jeopardy. It’s important to pay your bills on time to keep your credit report and therefore your security clearance in good standing.

2. Government Travel Credit Card (GTCC)

In the course of your military service, you may be required to use a GTCC during a temporary duty for official expenses you incur for travel. The credit card is provided through the Government Travel Charge Card Program and has detailed regulations on its use. (To qualify you must have a qualifying credit score of at least 660. You can check two of your credit scores for free with Credit.com.) Making a poor choice with this credit card can lead to serious problems in your military career.

Service members are required to sign a Statement of Understanding to ensure they know all directions from the DOD for the use of the credit card. One direction that gets military members in the most trouble is the requirement to file a travel voucher within five business days after completing their trip. By not submitting a travel voucher on time, your reimbursement will be late, and you will not have the funds you need to make the payment on your GTCC. If there are any unauthorized charges, they’ll be the cardholder’s responsibility, which will increase the amount of money you personally owe. It may be a credit card you can only use for official expenses, but it’s still in your name. The repercussions of a late payment start with notification to your leadership that you have not paid your bill. Once nonpayment hits 61 days, the card will be suspended. Not paying your GTCC can affect your personal credit or worse could cause you to be separated from the military. Use your GTCC for official expenses and pay the bill on time to avoid the GTCC affecting your credit or military career negatively.

3. The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP)

The TSP is similar to an employer 401K but for military personnel and government employees. It’s available to help them save money for retirement at a relatively low cost. One common mistake that can become a financial problem is if a person signed up for the TSP before Sept. 5, 2015, the money they contributed to the TSP was automatically invested into the Government Securities Investment Fund (G Fund), unless they selected otherwise. Many people never go back into their TSP account and change their investments.

The problem with that is, over a person’s 20-year military career the G Fund is at risk to earn less than inflation.To have a TSP account balance with low or no return comes as a shock to many nearing retirement. To avoid this mistake, review your TSP investment allocation to ensure you have investments selected that align with your risk tolerance.

4. The Savings Deposit Program (SDP)

Being in the military has its financial perks, and one of them is the SDP. This program allows members of the armed forces serving in a combat zone to save up to $10,000 on each deployment. The SDP earns up to 10% annually. It’s not a requirement to use, but it’s a great resource to help service members get ahead on their savings and improve their finances.

Once you’re in the combat zone 30 days, you can start the SDP with your finance office via cash, check or direct deposit. The limit you can deposit at one time is equivalent to the amount you earn in basic pay. For example, if you make $1,000 per month in basic pay, that is the max you can deposit at on time. If you earn $7,000 basic pay in a month, you can write a check to begin your SDP with $7,000 and then set up allotments each month to continuing saving until you return or reach $10,000. Building a surplus in savings prepares you for financial problems that may pop up in the future.

Image: Catherine Lane

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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6 Questions to Ask Before You Use Jewelry Store Financing

This Valentine’s Day, U.S. consumers were projected to spend a collective $182 billion on fancy dinners, cards, flowers, and other gifts for their loved ones, according to the National Retail Federation. Jewelry retailers can expect to receive a sizable chunk of that spending. One in five Americans said they’d give jewelry as a gift to their significant other this Valentine’s Day, totaling an expected $4.3 billion spent nationwide.

If you can’t afford to pay for a large jewelry purchase out of pocket, most jewelry retailers are more than happy to let you finance it with a store credit card. But beware: Diamonds might be “a girl’s best friend,” but a jewelry store retailer isn’t always looking out for your best interest. As you would with financing any large purchase, you should thoroughly evaluate your decision before you sign on.

Here are 6 questions to ask before you finance through a jewelry store.

What happens if I can’t pay off my balance before the promotional period ends?

Low-interest or 0% financing promotions for jewelers typically last from 6 to 18 months. You may be tempted to wait to make payments until some time goes by. But if you don’t start making payments right away, you may find yourself with a balance even after the promotional period ends. And that can spell trouble for your finances. Some financing offers include “deferred interest” clauses, which means if you even owe $1 after the 0% period ends, they will charge you interest from the beginning.

Take online fine jewelry seller Blue Nile, for example. Right now, the company has a promotion for 0% financing for 6 or 12 months, depending on how much you spend. Deep in the company’s terms, a deferred interest clause is buried, warning shoppers that “interest will be charged to your account from the purchase date if the purchase balance is not paid in full” by the end of the period or if you make a late payment.

 

Other jewelers may offer a low promotional rate for a certain period but will raise the annual percentage rate (APR) if you aren’t able to pay the balance in full by then. For example, the Zales credit card starts off with a low 9.99% APR if you make a minimum purchase of $1,500 and pay it off within 36 months. But if you can’t pay it off by then, they will triple your rate, making it 29.40%.

Can I afford my monthly payments?

Do the math to find out what your monthly payments will be and how long you’ll need to pay back the loan. If it looks like it’s going to be a struggle to pay the loan back before your promotional period ends, you’re probably borrowing more than you can really afford and you’re asking for trouble — especially if there’s a deferred interest clause.

If you really want to do it to finance the purchase, make sure it’s something that you can pay off within the promotional period. To save money, try comparing prices at several different retailers, opting for a more modest precious gem instead of a diamond or using a grandparent’s ring instead.

What’s in the fine print?

Some jewelers may require a down payment in order to qualify for a 0% financing offer. For example, Kay Jewelers charges a 20% minimum down payment for their 12-month 0% interest financing plan. Zales offers 6 months of financing interest free if you open up a credit card for a minimum purchase of $150, but that period extends to 18 months for purchases of $3,000 or more.

You don’t want to be surprised by any fees either. Some retailers will charge a transaction fee simply for processing your payment. Zales doesn’t charge a transaction fee for people taking advantage of 6-month or 36-month financing, but it tacks on a $9.95 transaction fee for their 12-month and 18-month interest-free tiers.

Look closely for any maintenance fees like annual fees charged for each year you have the card open, or penalty fees for late or returned payments.

Are there any warranties or insurance policies?

You’re making a large purchase that you can’t afford out of pocket, so you’ll want to protect yourself in case the jewelry is lost or damaged. Many retailers, like Jared or Kay Jewelers, offer lifetime diamond and gem warranties that cover cleaning and repair, although you may have to meet certain requirements to maintain a warranty.

To maintain a Zales Lifetime Diamond Commitment or Jared’s Lifetime Diamond & Color Gemstone Guarantee, for example, you need to take the piece to a store for cleaning and inspection every six months. You’ll need to bring your inspection history with you when you go, and the warranty doesn’t cover making any repairs. You could void your warranty if you don’t keep up or if you don’t make the suggested repairs.

Some plans offer additional protection plans to cover theft. Zales offers a lifetime jewelry protection plan with theft replacement for the first two years. To use it, you’ll need to bring in a police report and proof of purchase, but the warranty is void if a family member steals your jewelry.

You could forgo the jeweler’s insurance for your own, however, and tack the piece onto your home or renter’s insurance plan as a ‘jewelry rider’ for a few dollars more each month.

What’s the return policy?

Not to be a killjoy, but what if you break up with your significant other before you get a chance to give them the gift? What if they don’t like it or — even crazier — the salesperson was just really good and after the purchase you decide you don’t like the jewelry you picked out? You’ll need to make a return, and you’ll want to make sure you get your money back.

Ask about the company’s return policy related to in-store financing. You’ll want to know what the period is to make a return or exchange, as they may differ, and when you’ll see the charge removed from your account. Keep in mind, many jewelers won’t let you return specially made or engraved jewelry; however, some, like Blue Nile, make an exception for rings.

If you’re returning an online purchase, ask about any extra fees you may need to pay, such as shipping or insurance for the jewelry.

Do I get any perks?

If you frequent a particular jeweler, you may be interested in what perks you’ll get from opening a store credit card. For example, Zales cardholders benefit from exclusive coupons, reminders for jewelry inspection and cleaning, and an automatic $50 off birthday purchases $200 and higher.

Sometimes, these perks may not be worth the hassle of signing up for a high-interest credit card or financing deal. Compare the dollar value of the perks to the amount you’ll pay in interest and fees down the road.

Alternatives to Jewelry Store Financing

Friends and family

Reach out to your network of close friends and family to see if you can get a more flexible, interest-free loan. To demonstrate responsibility, you may want to create a contract with payment terms and set a date for when you’ll pay the loan back in full. Warning: Only do this if you’re certain you can pay off the loan quickly to avoid harming your relationship with the lender.

Credit cards

Jewelry store cards generally charge high interest rates, so you might find a more competitive offer with a traditional bank or major credit card issuer.

If you can qualify for a credit card with a longer promotional 0% interest offer, or one with a lower interest rate after the promotional period ends, you may be better off putting the jewelry purchase on it. Depending on the card you choose, you might even be able to earn points or cash back rewards for your purchase.

A bonus tip: If you decide to open a store card but aren’t 100% sure you’ll be able to pay off the balance before the promotional period ends, you could make payments until the period is over, then transfer the remaining balance over to a balance transfer card to avoid paying interest.

Personal loan

If you don’t want to open up a credit card, a personal loan can be an alternative way to finance the purchase, although you won’t benefit from an interest-free promotional period.

Rates on personal loans range from as low as 4% with good credit to as high as 36%. On the other hand, with personal loans you’ll have a fixed interest rate and a fixed repayment term, so you’ll know exactly how much you’ll pay each month and when you’ll pay off the purchase.

You can apply for a personal loan through your bank, or leverage technology and try peer-to-peer lending through sites like Upstart, Lending Club, or SoFi.

The Final Word

Financing a large jewelry purchase may be convenient, but it may not be your most cost-efficient option, especially if you’re not sure you’ll be able to pay off the card before the 0% interest promotional period runs out.

If you’re planning to pop the question soon, remember: the engagement ring and all of the traditions surrounding it are a relatively new construct of modern-day romance. You don’t have to prove your love and commitment to your spouse with a huge, expensive ring.

 

 

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4 Things I Learned from Watching the Financial Struggles of My Parents

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Nearly every year of my childhood my family would take one large trip followed by several shorter trips, venturing from London to the Caribbean and plenty of places in between. Other purchases were limited – we always drank water in restaurants and dessert was almost always skipped, despite incessant pleas from my sister and I – but my parents always carved out room in our budget for travel.

But by the time I entered college, our family’s financial situation had taken a turn for the worse – along with millions of other families throughout the country. Business had dried up for my dad, a debacle with an awful homeowner’s association drug the value of our home through the mud, and my sister was entering her third year at a pricey private school.

This was when I was forced to take note of how quickly a seemingly solid financial situation could change. I could no longer be shielded from the struggle – I was entering into adulthood without the financial backing of my parents I had, in many ways, come to expect.

My situation wasn’t unique. I was just one of the many who witnessed their parents’ financial situation crumble. But I have since come to appreciate the immense value in these tough lessons and I would guess that others have experienced a similar awakening.

Lesson #1: There is no replacement for financial independence.

It would have been awesome to have a financial safety net during my lean college years, but that would have been putting off the inevitable – learning the harsh reality of how much things and the life I wanted to live would actually cost.

Having my parents explain the reality of their situation and being faced with the task of shifting my thinking about money from my childhood perception to one entirely rooted in the adult world was extremely valuable. This forced me to think about how I would make things happen for myself instead of expecting my parents to bridge the gaps.

Dropping expectation and learning financial independence out of necessity is painful but offers huge, irreplaceable rewards.

Lesson #2: Unexpected things can – and do – happen to everyone.

My parents were extremely diligent about money management and staying out of debt, so I never expected their financial situation to change. In fact, I never thought I would see them struggle.

Sometimes it’s not about following the rules and staying on top of things. Sometimes unexpected events – a downturn in the economy, an unexpected hospital bill, a massive drop in property values – can make your seemingly stable financial foundation crumble. Sometimes there isn’t anywhere to place the blame.

Being prepared for unforeseeable events is important – essential even – but that doesn’t mean we will always emerge from unexpected life events unscathed.

Lesson #3: You don’t need stuff. Period.

When my parents moved out of my childhood home and sold a huge portion of their belongings in the process, I was undeniably sad. I associated all of those things with the life we had built together and there was something about this purging that felt depressing to me.

I didn’t shake that feeling for a few years. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that I began to understand how freeing this must have felt to them.

They learned through this financial struggle that all of the things they placed so much importance on didn’t mean anything at all. If anything they simply made having a bigger home a necessity when it shouldn’t have been.

In getting rid of what didn’t matter, they lessened their financial stress and placed greater importance on the things that actually provide value to their lives.

Lesson #4: There is always a solution and a point in which you reach the other side.

There were times when things seemed so rocky, we were all concerned about how things would pan out. The financial turmoil was extremely taxing.

And then things managed to unravel themselves and fall together in a way that no one expected. I would even go so far as to say things are better now than they were before this financial hurricane hit.

This has taught me the very valuable lesson that there is always a solution, whether the problem is a job loss, astronomical debt or bankruptcy. Someone can help and a solution can be found – even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.

What have you learned from experiencing or witnessing financial struggle?

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