A Declaration of Financial Independence for Our Military

Here's another self-evident truth: Our servicemembers and veterans should be financially secure.

No one should be expected to wage war on behalf of the United States while worrying about making their monthly payments back home. Yet deployments and frequent changes of station carry serious financial repercussions, making it harder for military families to manage their finances effectively.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, let's take a moment to reflect on how we can help those who give so much for our collective freedom and ensure they have a bright financial future. Members of our military sacrifice their time, their physical safety and sometimes even their lives to keep us safe. But there's no reason they should also sacrifice their financial security. And yet all too often they do.

In a 2012 survey, the FINRA Investor Education Foundation found that nearly half of military families said they engage in costly behaviors such as paying the minimum balance on a credit card, incurring late fees or using cash advances. While members of the military scored better than the general public on planning ahead, they remained at greater risk for problems such as managing their debt and lagged behind their peers in home ownership.

This isn't just stressful, it's possibly dangerous. Imagine facing enemy fire while worrying whether your spouse and children back home will be able to stay in their apartment through the end of the month -- or trying to overcome a war injury while worrying about paying for your child care expenses. These are concerns our military shouldn't have to face.

That's why this July Fourth we're calling for a Declaration of Financial Independence for our military with these five principles we believe all Americans should strive to make a reality:

The Right to a Financial Education
Every member of the military should be given a basic financial education. That same 2012 survey found that only 15 percent of military respondents could correctly answer five basic questions on managing their finances. Though they did slightly better than a comparable pool of civilian respondents, there is still room for improvement. We train our troops to disassemble a rifle, drive a tank and fly an F-16. We can train them to calculate the interest rate on a savings account.

Freedom from Payday Lending
No member of the military should be forced to rely on unscrupulous payday lenders. A 2014 study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that members of the U.S. military paid about $5 million in fees on payday loans in one year. In some cases, they faced annual percentage rates of more than 300 percent. That's an unheard-of interest rate, especially in today's economic climate. Congress and the Pentagon should continue tightening regulations on payday lenders, particularly those that target military communities.

Access to Quality Health Care
Quality health care doesn't begin or end inside the doctor's office; it includes the entire process of getting help. It includes how you get to the hospital, where you stay when it's far from home, and who watches your kids while you undergo surgery. A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine found that there was a shortage of health care providers for service members returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan to rural areas. That means long drives and even overnight stays for veterans with serious or chronic health problems. We need to work to ensure that veterans can access the health care system, and have a comfortable place to stay while doing so, without adding further financial burdens.

The Right to a Rainy-Day Fund
Service members are trained to come up with contingency plans for military operations. But when it comes to their personal life, many don't have a rainy-day fund that can help them in the event of an unexpected crisis or problem. The 2012 FINRA report found that 54 percent of military respondents said they had money set aside for unforeseen expenses, but that means almost half did not. Moreover, members of the military who were earlier in their career--and thus more financially vulnerable--were more likely to not have a rainy day fund. We should work to educate members of the military on the need for a rainy-day fund and find ways to help them build one.

The Pursuit of Homeownership
No member of the military should have to postpone or fore-go the American dream of owning their own home. A 2013 report from the California Association of Realtors notes that the average age of a first-time homebuyer is 31. Since members of our military often move around a lot early in their career, it may not make sense for them to buy a home earlier than that anyway, but when the time comes they should be offered the same opportunities as their peers who did not join the military. Owning a home is still one of the most tried-and-true ways for American families to build up their personal wealth.

These five simple principles would keep any member of our military on the right path financially for a brighter and more secure future. These responsibilities fall on all of us, as friends, as family, as volunteers and donors to charitable organizations, and finally as voters. After all that they do for us, it's the least we can do for them.

Jane Whitfield is president and CEO of the PenFed Foundation, a national nonprofit organization founded in 2001 that's committed to helping members of our military community secure their financial future. It provides service members, veterans, their families and support networks with the skills and resources they need to improve their lives through programs on financial education, credit-building, home ownership, and short-term assistance. Affiliated with PenFed Credit Union, the foundation has the resources to effectively reach military communities across the nation, build strong partnerships, and engage a dedicated corps of volunteers in its mission. The credit union funds the organization's personnel and most operational costs, demonstrating its strong commitment to the programs the foundation provides. To learn more, visit: www.penfedfoundation.org.