Financial Literacy Falling Among Military Families

Study shows general population scored higher on financial literacy test than military households

A report released in February found that financial literacy is falling among middle-class military families. Respondents earned an average grade of only 69, the first failing score since the testing program began in 2012.

“These folks have been deployed continuously for 12 years in the longest period of at war our country’s ever experienced,” Scott Spiker, CEO of First Command Financial Services, told ThinkAdvisor in February. “There is a toll on their families and themselves, and they are trying to make ends meet any way possible. They’ve been really busy, and who’s got time for that when much more life-threatening circumstances are around them?”

The report, commissioned by First Command Financial Services Inc. and the First Command Educational Foundation, surveyed commissioned officers and senior noncommissioned officers with annual incomes over $50,000.

Less than half of respondents were able to answer seven out of nine literacy questions correctly, according to the report.

Civilian test takers fared better, with an average score of 71 and a greater proportion of respondents who were able to answer seven questions correctly.  

Spiker noted that the survey doesn’t tell us why literacy is falling; just that it is. He offered some explanations for the drop, especially in light of civilian respondents’ better scores.

One is that sequestration has made military benefits more difficult to understand, Spiker said. “Their benefits, their compensation, are in motion. The support services on bases are in motion. I’m not sure the resources are there to provide the financial literacy that they need.”

He noted that civilian and military respondents received the same questions on the test, which did not focus on specific military benefits. “If you’ve got 52 more variables to think about personally, then you may do less well on the very few overarching variables that we apply to a general population,” he said.

While members of the military are struggling to keep up with changes in their own benefits, Spiker also suggested that in general, it’s harder to be smart about money when the economy is doing well. “People dig in and say, ‘OK, this is a first-order problem’ when there’s news about dismay in the economy.”

Military families could be facing more change, Spiker said, pointing to a report released at the end of January by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. The commission, which is made up of retired senior military officers and retired congressman, is pushing in the report for a military retirement system that resembles a defined contribution plan, as opposed to the defined benefit style retirement plan available to people who serve in the military for at least 20 years.

“Those of us in financial services can draw lots of very close metaphors to what’s happened in the broader population over time,” Spiker said.

Currently, servicemembers who leave the Armed Forces before they complete 20 years of service are not eligible to claim retirement benefits, unless they contributed to the Thrift Savings Plan, the defined contribution plan for all federal employees.

“What’s interesting in the commission’s report is that as they move from a very simple, risk-on-the-government defined benefit plan that’s been around forever to a very complicated defined contribution plan with lots of different points of moving money, the commission itself came out and said only 12% of servicemember respondents indicated they received financial information from their command or installation,” Spiker said. “They’re noting, ‘We’re making the world a lot more complex, and only 12% of these guys have had any kind of group financial literacy in front of them.’”

---Read more on ThinkAdvisor.

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