Six years ago, before Spc. Rachel Lee joined the Army, she swiped credit cards to survive.
Waiting tables in Virginia and caring for three children, Lee lived off cash in her pocket and charged the rest — food, diapers, clothes and hospital visits. Joining the Army was a step toward stability, but her debts followed her.
Now a medic at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Lee was confronted about her unpaid accounts. She went to U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern’s Army Community Service program on Pulaski Barracks where she met Denise Fesel, a financial readiness expert.
“I was completely upside-down the first time I walked into her office. I was in tears,” Lee said. “I didn’t know what to do or where to begin. I was almost $70,000 in debt. I was like, ‘I’m never going to get this paid off.’”
Fesel helped Lee, first by getting organized. To pay her bills, Lee had to understand what she owed. From Fesel, Lee learned how to understand her credit report, dispute errors and set up payment plans. Then, Lee had to make a budget and stick to it.
The annual Military Saves campaign, which runs during the third week of February, encourages service members to improve their financial situation. Often, people want to save but never start, Fesel said.
“We ask them to fill out a pledge card and take that first step, making a promise to themselves that they are going to save money,” she said. “Start changing some habits. It’s easy to say, but can be difficult to do.”
ACS regularly offers programs that explain everything from managing bank accounts, building credit and paying debts to managing a Thrift Savings Plan, investments and other retirement accounts. During Military Saves week, ACS offers extra classes, including extreme couponing and tax season seminars.
Setting goals, making a budget and paying debts come first, followed by investing and financial freedom, Fesel said. Writing down income and expenses, then tracking spending are some first steps to take.
“The biggest problem I see is people are overextended, they have too many credit cards, too many loans and they can’t manage anymore,” she said. “People want to get out of debt. Stopping the cycle of using a credit card, that’s one of the first steps.”
Lee’s first month was the hardest, she said. But then she began receiving letters congratulating her for settling her account.
“I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to start paying another account,” Lee said. “It’s an amazing feeling to know that you’re paying off bills.”
Lee has since learned more about financial readiness, including how to save and use grocery coupons. She hopes to be debt free later this year.
“It is a huge relief,” Lee said. “I’m not losing sleep over it anymore.”