By CHARMAINE NG
Coming home from war is no easy feat. In addition to having to adjust to a new routine, the possibilities of post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness loom heavy in the veteran community. Add financial difficulties to the list, and it's easy to become overwhelmed.
If you're feeling confused about your finances right now, start with these steps and you'll be on the path to financial stability.
1. Don't fall into debt.
Looking for a steady job can become discouraging, as you may find that your specialties don't apply outside of your tour of duty. If you decide to further your education or receive vocational training to avoid unemployment, paying off student loan debt can be intimidating. Don't drown in your debt; the Post-9/11 GI Bill may cover your tuition and fees. For example, if you've served at least 36 months after September 10, 2011, 100% of your educational fees will be paid for you for up to three years. Alternatively, check out Leave No Veteran Behind, which is a non-profit organization that offers retroactive scholarships for veterans who aren't covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
For essential financial needs, consider contacting USA Cares. Their Emergency Assistance program offers grants for utility bills, car payments and even food.
2. Run a credit check-up.
Since your credit can affect whether you're approved for loans and how much you pay in interest, take some time to ensure that your information is as accurate as possible. As soon as you can, review your Credit Karma account, check your full credit report and dispute any inaccuracies that may have been added while you were deployed.
It's also smart to check for signs of identity theft and take action against fraud. If you find accounts you don't recognize on your report, investigate further and look for mysterious transactions on your billing statements. Enroll in Credit Karma's free credit monitoring service to receive emails when important changes to your report occur, so you can stay proactive against future identity theft. Credit Karma's credit monitoring service can notify you after a new account is opened in your name and reported to your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports. Veterans often become victims of identity theft because they have to provide government identification - which can be chock-full of sensitive information - to prove that they qualify for military discounts.
3. Start developing a credit history.
It may have been years since you opened or maintained a credit card. Even if you had a credit card in your name before you deployed, it's possible that your lender may have stopped reporting it to the bureaus because you weren't using it. So if you want to fully settle down again by buying a car or home, you'll need to start building credit first. Open a secured credit card, or ask someone if you can be added to their card as an authorized user - there are many ways you can build your credit from scratch.
4. Brush up on your financial knowledge.
According to research produced by the American Journal of Public Health, with support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, military members often mismanage their money. The 2013 study found that one-third of over 1,000 surveyed veterans went over their credit limit, wrote a bounced check or had been contacted by a collections agency.
Fortunately, there are tons of free educational materials out there that are geared towards veterans. ClearPoint Reconnect hosts a portal of classes, personalized action plans, self-assessments and forums. Military Saves has an incredible amount of tips and links to outside resources. While they do focus on saving since it's their namesake, learning how to save is integral to building your financial foundation. If you're seeking more of a personal touch, VeteransPlus offers a unique program where you can talk directly with financial counselors that also served in the military over the phone.
For general credit resources, Credit Karma always has you covered, with articles on everything from credit scores to loans.
Admitting you need to work on your finances is crucial to your success.
No one expects you to jump right back into society and know what you're doing. It's okay to play catch-up. Let other organizations - like the ones sprinkled throughout this article - support you in your transition to civilian life. Some of the financial issues you run into may not even be veteran-specific. Try asking family members, friends or the Credit Karma community for insight into how they manage their money.
With time and practice, you can foster healthy financial habits and rebuild your credit health. You're home. Begin your journey to financial soundness.
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