JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —
On average, a personal finance counselor costs $100-$300 an hour. But for Department of Defense ID card holders at Joint Base San Antonio, a personal financial counselors is, you guessed it … free.
The Military and Family Readiness Center on each JBSA installation houses well-educated and experienced finance counselors that provide countless services to ensure financial literacy for service members, their families and civilian employees.
I sat down with two 802nd Force Support Squadron lead financial counselors at the JBSA-Randolph’s M&FRC, Sarah Henson, community readiness consultant, Financial Readiness Program manager and an accredited financial counselor, and Don Lenmark, an accredited personal financial counselor.
What is your background in the financial realm?
Henson: When I left the military, my family's finances were less than ideal. It took time for us to pay off debt and build savings, but being financially free was worth every sacrifice. Through that process, I found a love of personal finance. I decided I wanted to give back to our military community, and use what I learned for myself to help others.
Funny enough, my degree is in psychology, which is unbelievably helpful. Money management and personal finance is 20 percent head knowledge and 80 percent behavior; it ultimately boils down to behavior modification. So, that background has been very helpful.
Lenmark: I was working as an employment case manager downtown for a nonprofit organization, helping veterans find jobs. During that time I met the former financial counselor that was here, and I thought ‘wow, what a cool job.’ I loved helping veterans, and thought I’d be better at the finance part. So, I studied hard, took the National AFC Exam and became an accredited financial counselor.
I obtained a degree in education while on active duty, and it comes in handy with this career, because I am continuously teaching military members about their personal finances.
What would you say is your favorite part of this job?
Henson: It means a lot to me, and we get so excited, when we hear success stories from our clients. We love seeing people make progress, or coming to conclusions, and making positive changes. We see that daily, and it’s just awesome.
Lenmark: I would say that I mostly enjoy being a resource people can go to. When service members enroll in college class, they automatically know to go to the Education Center for help. When they need legal advice, they know to go to the legal office; but not a lot of people know where to go to when they have financial troubles. So I like being able to tell people about what personal financial resources we offer here at the M&FRC and how we can assist them throughout their careers.
What kind of work do you do as a financial counselor?
Henson: I think absolutely our number one job is to figure out what our customers want and help them get it. We can be cheerleaders for them, or accountability partners.
Everyone’s personal finance goals are different, so with each customer, we work to first figure out what their goals are, and then we figure out a way to help them reach them. Sometimes money issues are just symptoms of a greater problem, so that can be a challenge, but we work though it together.
What we try to emphasize is that our only desire is to help our clients be their best. We hope to be the first line of defense to protect our military members from predatory lenders, financial counselors with little educational background or financial advisors who only want the monetary gain from their clients. I think that's something that we offer that they're not going to get off-base.
Of course, though, we can always refer people if their needs are beyond our scope, to people they can trust.
Lenmark: Budgeting is probably the one thing that comes up the most for us; but situations like debt, investing, taxes and financial plans are other things we also help with.
I think our most valuable service is simply being there for somebody to talk to about money, because sometimes it can be a really tough and touchy subject. Also, unlike outside institutions, we aren’t selling financial products or services, so helps to level the playing field so we can focus on develop better financial literacy skills.
We’re good at listening to what needs to be improved upon, and working together to come up with a financial action plan to do so. Then, allowing them to come back as needed to revisit the plan, check on progress and overcome further obstacles.
Do you offer any classes that the JBSA community can take advantage of?
Henson: Yes, we have regularly occurring briefs such as First Term Airmen’s Course, or FTAC, First Duty Station Officer Financial Training and the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP.
In addition, we work together with the other JBSA locations to stagger other classes we offer. Some of the classes open to DOD ID card holders include Car Buying, Thrift Savings Plan, Home-Buying Strategies, How to Save and How to Budget, Debt and Credit Management, Retirement Planning, First Baby Financial Readiness and many more.
We also have our two trusted partners, Broadway Bank and Randolph-Brooks Federal Credit Union, come in to provide courses that might be a little outside of our realm.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to some regarding financial readiness?
Henson: One worry I hear a lot is ‘it's too late’ or ‘I'm too old.’ I want to let people know that’s not true. It’s always a good time to make a positive change in your finances, and it's amazing what people can accomplish in a short amount of time with our help.
For young Airmen, I would tell them to start early. For wealth-building and your retirement, time is your greatest asset, even if the future seems far away.
Lenmark: I want people to know that they are not alone. They are not the only ones that have financial problems. I learned a long time ago never to assume based on rank, age, years of experience or household income, that someone would automatically be financially sound.
There are too many service members who are suffering silently when it comes to their financial situation and that can affect job performance, and increase stress and anxiety. We let clients know that they should feel comfortable coming in and opening up that discussion about their money.
For more information on each JBSA Military and Family Readiness Center, the financial counseling they offer, and upcoming classes, visit https://www.jbsa.mil/Resources/Military-Family-Readiness/.