Veterans' Financial 'Boot Camp' Prepares for Financial Security

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Bills.com helps service members lay footing for solid financial future after the military.

Every year, thousands of American servicemen and servicewomen retire or separate from the military, and Bills.com (http://www.bills.com) reminds them to plan before leaving the military to put themselves and their families on the right financial footing.

"If they plan well, they will be on their way to a financially secure future where they will reap the rewards of their dedication to our country," said Ethan Ewing, president of Bills.com. "But sadly, many face financial hardship because of a lack of knowledge or preparation."

Before starting a new civilian life, Ewing suggests troops use their military discipline to put themselves through a planning "boot camp" to guide their financial futures.

1. Take advantage of pre-separation counseling. Those leaving the military must waive or accept "pre-separation counseling" -- advice on everything from financial planning to resume writing. Adding more to your "to do" list might sound like a hassle, but these services can make you a smarter consumer as you settle back into civilian life.

2. Understand credit ratings. Everyone can review his or her credit report for free once a year. Visit the Web sites of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), or http://www.annualcreditreport.com, to request the report. Higher credit scores are better. Low credit scores usually result in higher interest rates or denied credit, and a low score can affect employment, housing and security ranking. If the report includes items that are inaccurate, request the report be corrected.

3. Build a credit score. Build credit history by carefully using credit. Those with no credit history -- or poor credit -- can use a prepaid card, gas card or store card to get started. Charge a few small expenses that are within your budget. Pay every bill on time every month, and always pay in full to avoid interest charges.

4. Live within your means. Regardless of income during your time in military service, it can be tempting to "splurge" on luxuries when re-entering civilian life. But resist the urge to take out loans or run up credit card bills for fancy furniture, electronic toys or sports equipment. Find smaller, affordable indulgences that help you feel at home without running into debt.

5. Network. Contact family, friends and former co-workers to catch up and to let them know you are looking for a job. Focus on skills that can transfer to other industries. Take advantage of online networks such as LinkedIn to locate former classmates and colleagues for job-hunting purposes. It is becoming more common for employers to search for job applicants online to learn about their character, so do not post risqué or questionable comments, photos, or information online, including on MySpace, Facebook or other forums.

6. Avoid identity theft and scams. Beware unscrupulous people who could go through garbage, steal account numbers online or trick you into giving personal information. Record financial information and account numbers in a secure place. Shred all documents that contain personal information. Never give out personal information in e-mails or in a phone call you did not initiate. For online purchasing transactions, only buy and sell items through verified sources. Be especially cautious of accepting cashier's checks and personal checks, and be sure a check has cleared before spending the cash.

7. Pay yourself first. Build savings to prepare for emergencies without going into debt. Save, work odd jobs or sell unneeded items; even $500 or $1,000 makes a difference. Set up direct deposit to send part of every paycheck directly into a separate savings account, and aim to save enough to cover three to six months' worth of expenses in the event of an emergency. Once this rainy day fund is funded, continue sending part of every paycheck into long-term savings for education or a future home purchase.

8. Do not jump into home ownership. It is a home buyer's market, but credit is under more scrutiny than ever, and home ownership can be costly. In addition to the down payment and mortgage principal payment, homeowners must pay insurance, taxes and maintenance (for home as well as yard and garden) costs. Those who are at all worried about affording a home within their current budget -- or unsure if they will stay in the location at least a few years -- will best rent until they are more confident about their situation.

9. Take action. For service members who do find themselves in financial difficulties, Bills.com offers Operation Debt Storm (https://www.bills.com/debt-storm/), a program to help resolve debt and get personal finances in order. Launched in April, Operation Debt Storm provides personal finance tips, tools, calculators, a personal finance consultation, and a the 16-page guide, "Debt Freedom: Budgeting & Financial Tools for Today's Consumer" - all at no charge - as well as a 10 percent discount on debt resolution services.

"Building financial fitness is like building physical strength or a solid career -- it takes time and dedication," Ewing added. "By starting with clear goals and plans, you will be ahead of the game when it comes to succeeding in civilian life."

Based in San Mateo, Calif., Bills.com (http://www.bills.com) is a free one-stop portal where consumers can educate themselves about complex personal finance issues and comparison shop for products and services including credit cards, debt relief assistance, insurance, mortgages and other loans. As the online portal to Freedom Financial Network, LLC, the company has served more than 40,000 customers nationwide since 2002 while managing more than $1 billion in consumer debt. Its RSS feed is available at http://www.bills.com/news_releases/.

In 2008, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked Bills.com as the No. 3 fastest-growing U.S. company on its Hot 100 list. Bills.com also was named a finalist as "most innovative company" in the American Business Awards in 2008. Company co-founders and co-CEOs Andrew Housser and Brad Stroh were named to the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal's "40 Under 40" list in 2008, and as Northern California finalists in Ernst & Young's 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

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Aimee Bennett
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