Let’s make one thing clear — the question here isn’t whether or not troops need financial literacy. I think we can all agree that everyone and their mom could use additional money savvy, and that includes me.
The question is whether or not they need financial literacy classes. Everyone uses the word “training” when that talk about teaching financial literacy. But we all know that in the military “training” means “classes.” It means a bunch of service members sitting in uncomfortable chairs listening to someone talk about something. It rarely means listening to someone inspiring.
And to that I say — no.
No to more classes. No to another boring PowerPoint presentation. No to more things troops won’t pay attention to anyway. No to paying new contractors to run things troops will ignore with the same gusto they ignored the last class on we-don’t-know-what (because they couldn’t tell us — because they weren’t paying attention) that they were forced to attend.
Why? Because studies show that taking financial literacy classes simply doesn’t help. They are a huge waste of time — and not just because military members are already forced-class saturated.
This study found that High School financial literacy classes have little to no impact (and let’s remember that many of our troops are that much older than High Schoolers). This one found that soldiers who took such classes are actually less likely to have a formal spending plan than those who did not. This Wall Street Journal blog post suggests that, perhaps, a financial literacy class gives people with very little financial knowledge just enough empowerment to take foolish risks but not enough know-how to save them for themselves.
So, no, despite a recommendation from a Congressional commission that service members be given financial literacy training, and despite initial approval from Congress that the military spend $400 million over four years providing that training, classes are a bad idea.
Here’s what is a good idea: required one-on-one financial counseling, training that actually gets paid attention to because it’s personal and attentive. Give the service member the option of bringing her spouse, sit them down at a desk, and teach them to understand (without the help of PowerPoint, pleeeease) their finances and financial options. Help them make a budget. Help them stick to a budget. Inspire them to save for retirement. Help them understand the risks and rewards of credit. Give them ideas for goals. Give them the tools to reach them.
That kind of training is, in fact, available on most bases right now. But you have to hunt it down, you have to ask for it.
Requiring it is an excellent idea.
Yet I suspect that won’t happen.
Why? Because the Congressionally approved measure, which still must be given the final go-ahead by lawmakers and then signed by the President before it goes into effect, doesn’t mandate one-on-one help. It mandates “financial literacy training.”
And what do you want to bet that the requirement results in a room full of guys snoozing while an uninspiring person clicks through a PowerPoint?