RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
In a nation where the saving rate is minus-0.5 percent and total credit card debt approaches 13 figures, it's prudent to seek and heed sound financial advice.
Fortunately for Airmen and their families, retirees and Department of Defense civilians, the Air Force is proactive when it comes to offering guidance in financial matters.
"They say the Air Force is a microcosm of society, but it's probably more advanced than society as a whole," said Steve Mayfield, certified financial counselor at the Airman and Family Readiness Flight. "Our Air Force folks have more educational opportunities, and they take advantage of those."
Mr. Mayfield, a retired Air Force master sergeant, offers one-on-one financial counseling sessions and conducts classes and workshops at the A&FRF.
"My job is to educate and assist folks at Randolph," he said. "I provide counseling and educational programs that run the gamut. I do things as basic as checkbook management or as advanced as discussing investments."
Mr. Mayfield noted that he doesn't set up investment portfolios, as that should be left to a professional in that area.
"But I will discuss their range of options and talk about mutual funds, Roth IRAs and real estate investments in generalities," he said. "I can also help them select a certified financial planner so they can make an informed decision."
Mr. Mayfield said most people prefer individual counseling, especially on topics such as budgeting and checkbook balancing.
"Most people won't share that kind of information in a class setting," he said. "You have to build up rapport and trust."
One way the Air Force is helping servicemembers better handle their finances in a more private setting is through a computerized spending plan. This individualized program lets Airmen see how their money is spent, he said.
Mr. Mayfield served on a task force that revamped the computer plan that is being used throughout the Air Force.
"We do a budget and send it to them," he said. "It makes it more tangible and gives them an opportunity to have tools to enhance their financial management skills."
Mr. Mayfield said spending plans can be useful to anyone - from young Airmen new to the military who "must really monitor where their money is going" to those with more rank and more resources "but who go out and get an abundance of credit."
"Before they know it, it's out of control," he said. "A spending plan lets them see what they're spending."
Mr. Mayfield said the detailed personal financial profile is an eye-opener for people, but it shows them how they can curb their spending and save money for emergencies and for retirement.
"Our money goes to those miscellaneous things that become ritualistic to us," he said, using purchases like coffee and cigarettes as examples. "Those things add up."
In addition, many people fall prey to easy credit, Mr. Mayfield said.
"We live in an instant gratification society," he said. "So we use credit cards. But payback on a $500 purchase can take four years when making minimum required payments. That doesn't make sense. I try to get people to see that."
Mr. Mayfield gave other examples of how money can disappear - expensive TV packages, having two or more telephones and ATM fees.
"That's all money for folks to save," he said.
Mr. Mayfield said people should pay themselves first.
"Saving is really the key to all financial management issues," he said. "I don't advocate living a Spartan life, but you should start preparing for the future."
Mr. Mayfield said people need to "rekindle" the mindset of the early post-World War II years, when the saving rate was 24 percent.
"We could get used to it, too, with ritualistic saving," he said.
One of his tips is to save half of every pay raise. "Save it before you see it," he said.
Mr. Mayfield said education, "the preventive arm of financial management," accounts for much of his work.
"A great deal of my work is with people who have financial troubles," he said. "It impacts duty performance and security clearances." Mr. Mayfield called financial planning a "readiness issue."
"You are a security risk if you have those financial difficulties," he said.
Another one of Mr. Mayfield's duties is serving as an Air Force Aid Society officer.
"We help with emergencies - situations that are out of the norm," he said, referring to funeral expenses, medical and dental care, emergency travel and unexpected vehicle repairs. "We'll help people through those emergency situations, but we're also looking for long-term solutions. I show people the benefit of saving."
Mr. Mayfield is also studying to be an identity theft monitor.
"Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in America," he said. "I've seen my share of cases."
He said some are cases of mistaken identity; others are a result of credit cards being stolen. He has also seen instances where someone has committed identity theft because they had access to a family member's information.
"I tell people to safeguard their information," he said. "They should also use their credit cards sparingly."
In addition to his one-on-one sessions, Mr. Mayfield conducts mandatory workshops for first duty station officers and refresher courses for senior airmen and below as well as financial management classes.
The counselor said it's satisfying to help people out of bad financial situations.
"When people come in and perhaps don't have a lot of knowledge or feel that their situation is hopeless, I can show them the light at the end of the tunnel - and it's not the train," Mr. Mayfield said. "I get inner joy from showing them the way."