Life changed quickly for Ernesto Olmos when he left the U.S. Marine Corps. After being stationed in North Carolina for four years, the corporal and his wife moved to California — and were hit with a drastic increase in housing costs.
“My wife and I had prepared for some of these financial differences in advance, but the hike in rent was substantial. We went from paying $750 for a townhome to seeing one-bedroom apartments for about $1,500 in Santa Clarita,” he says.
Olmos’ mother suggested the couple apply for a four-bedroom house with Homes 4 Families. The Citi-supported organization provides affordable housing to low-income, honorably discharged veterans. Their application for a new home in Santa Clarita Valley was accepted in 2016.
In addition to providing housing assistance, the Homes 4 Families’ initiative offers a free financial education program called Clearpoint Reconnect, operated by Money Management International. The program includes online courses, workshops and counseling for military families transitioning to civilian life.
While Olmos’ home was being built, he completed a financial planning exercise to reduce credit card debt, took educational courses to increase his long-term financial security and learned to manage his new home as an investment. “I have never been one to think about retirement, but the but the worksheets made me realize that we need to plan for the future,” Olmos says.
For veterans early in the transition stage, counseling programs like Clearpoint Reconnect can offer a particularly helpful field guide for understanding unfamiliar financial processes.
“Having that financial education stays with them long-term,” says Ruth Christopherson, Senior Vice President of Citi Salutes and Citi Community Development, which has supported the Clearpoint Reconnect program since 2012. “Things can change, but understanding their financial plan prepares vets for bumps down the road. If one’s car breaks down or if a vet loses a job, this counseling program can keep them out of debt, and they have the education to keep moving forward.”
The program includes phone, online and in-person sessions on subjects like understanding credit and debt, and avoiding bankruptcy. Clearpoint Reconnect also offers student loan and home mortgage consulting.
“Many veterans find it challenging to adapt to the world of civilian finances, and it might take two or three years to sort things out,” says Kate Horrell, a military finance coach. “Most people don’t understand the many ways their finances will change when they leave the military. Certain benefits will no longer be free, and your entire paycheck will be subject to taxes.”
Jeffrey Lodick, a former Army master sergeant and current host of the “On the Other Side” podcast, is no stranger to the challenges of decoding a civilian paycheck. After retiring in September 2017, Lodick’s shift to the private sector included a salary learning curve. “I couldn’t tell you what my salary was in the military,” he says. “I knew what I got paid on the first and the fifteenth of each month, not what was going to the GI Bill and my taxes.”
As someone who hadn’t scrutinized his military paycheck for 20 years, navigating private sector tax paperwork took effort. “As silly as it sounds, I didn’t know how to fill out a W-4,” Lodick says. In addition to a new salary, Lodick entered a different tax bracket, which created another set of unknowns. “I never had any assets to deal with. It’s going to be a learning process.”
Lodick’s situation is not unique. “Military retirees are stupendously unprepared for changes in their tax situation,” says Horrell. When they return to civilian life, vets are often unaware that they need adjust their taxes to account for military retirement and avoid under-withholding.
“You could end up owing more than $10,000 because of under-withholding two different sources of income,” says Horrell. “Any income changes need to be reflected in a W-4. This doesn’t seem to be immediately apparent to everyone.”
The upside? Veterans and tech communities are responding to the challenges with a growing set of tools to ease the transition. In addition to Clearpoint Reconnect, whose services are free to all military personnel, Military.com, TheMilitaryWallet.com, and LaceyLangford.com are excellent resources that focus on military money issues.
This article is paid for and produced in partnership with Citi. Through Citi Salutes, Citi collaborates with veterans’ service organizations and leading veterans’ champions to support and empower veterans, service members and their families. This is the second installment in a series focusing on solutions for veterans and military families in the areas of housing, financial resilience, military transition and employment.