From the Homefront: Talking finances

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, for 13 years and currently serves as chapter director for Blue Star Families in Miami, Fla.

Holly Petraeus, assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s office of servicemember affairs, with the Coast Guard team Miami Beach.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss.

Holly Petraeus, assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s office of servicemember affairs, with the Coast Guard team Miami Beach. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss.

Written by Shelley Kimball.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

Photo by Bill Keefrey.

On one of those Miami mornings the rest of the country wishes for, a group of Coasties gathered in the breezy sunshine on the waterfront to do what most people might: talk finances.

It wasn’t at all as strange as that sounds. I joined them to listen to Holly Petraeus, the assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s office of servicemember affairs. She recently came down to Coast Guard Station Miami Beach to share the resources the CFPB has developed specifically for service members. But she was also there to listen.

“Because we are a new agency, and one with an office specifically for the military, I think it’s important to get the message out in every way possible that we are there as an important resource for military consumers,” Petraeus said. “For now, I think it’s most effective for me to go in person when possible because I can bring a higher level of visibility when I show up in person, and it also conveys the message that I care about service members and their families, and want to hear their concerns.”

Petraeus, a military spouse of 37 years who has moved countless times, has a unique understanding of military family life. This was her first visit to a Coast Guard station as part of her effort to spread the financial word. So far, she has been to 70 military bases and headquarters all over the United States and Far East.

Her goals in her position with CFPB are threefold: to get financial education to military personnel, to work with federal and state agencies to provide consumer protection to military members, and to monitor consumer complaints (adjudication of about 14,000 complaints from 2011 to 2014 have led to approximately $1 million back in consumers’ pockets).

Financial issues have been at the forefront of military families’ minds in recent years. Financial worries were the number one issue service members and their families reported to the Blue Star Families 2013 Military Lifestyle Survey. The National Military Family Association reported that one out of two Coast Guard families reported financial hardship as the most prominent life event in 2010.

Some of the most common financial hardships the CFPB has identified fall into three areas: mortgages, debt collection and credit reporting. There are sections for each of those issues on their website, among many other financial setbacks service members might face. Additionally, there is a section called AskCFPB, where there are answers to more than 1,000 common consumer questions, some of those specific to military life.

The section of the CFPB devoted to military affairs tackles the unique risks members of the military face. One of the issues Petraeus said she has been seeing lately is for-profit universities’ focus on recruiting military members in order to take advantage of GI Bill benefits. She said she recommends doing financial homework when it comes to paying for education. One of the new tools in this effort, she said, is the Department of Veterans Affairs new GI Bill Comparison Tool.

“College education is probably one of biggest purchases you make, second only to a house, but people are doing it without shopping around,” Petraeus said.

Moving forward, what may be on the financial horizon?

“It’s always hard to predict the future, but I think loan servicing issues are going to be a continuing problem,” Petraeus said. “Also, the financial world is changing every day, with new methods of payment popping up that may not have the legal protections of more established systems like credit cards and bank accounts. It will be a challenge for financial regulators like us to write new rules quickly enough to protect consumers who may use new systems of payment. If you’re thinking of using a new payment system, do your homework and weigh the risks and benefits first. Look for information at AskCFPB, or contact us at military@cfb.gov.”

No matter where she visits, no matter the branch of service, Petraeus says her priority is to listen to service members describe any financial hardships or difficulties they have encountered to see what kinds of services CFPB can provide.

At the end of her talk with the Coasties at Station Miami Beach, she stepped out from behind the podium and got ready to listen. She called forward anyone who wanted to tell her about their financial experiences. She had a line of service members waiting to speak with her, and she stayed to hear each story.

Listening to personal stories is an ongoing effort, and the CFPB has developed an online complaint system for anyone who has had problems with a financial product or service. The CFPB will then look into the product or service and try to get resolution. All of the information gleaned during these interactions makes it easier for the CFPB to provide assistance to service members, Petraeus said.

“It’s important to file a complaint because even if you ultimately don’t get the resolution you want, you might be able to help someone else who has a similar issue,” Petraeus said.

And if a particular experience doesn’t seem to warrant a complaint, but it was a difficult financial experience nonetheless, there is another section of a website to Tell Your Story. That information can then be used to ensure that the CFPB understands the kinds of financial difficulties service members face.

“It is important we hear from you if you have problems,” Petraeus said.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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