TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Think about how great life would be if you were debt free,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Kemuel Bellows, 349th Air Mobility Wing chaplain. “What kind of choices would you make if your home was paid off? If your children’s college was paid for and your bills are paid, what would your future or your retirement look like? What would you do?”
These questions were posed to Airmen and their family members who attended the Financial Peace Military course at Travis Air Force Base, California, January 24 to March 21. The course, free to active-duty military members, consists of nine lessons covering 18 hours of material including lessons on budgeting, saving, reducing debt and planning for retirement.
Bellows served as a facilitator for one class, while Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Gregory Jans, 60th Air Mobility Wing senior Protestant chaplain, facilitated another. The duo shared a variety of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace techniques with Airmen ranging in rank from airman basic to colonel.
“The average Airman enters the Air Force with $26,000 in debt, and in our classes, 29 families had a combined debt of more than $908,000,” said Jans.
By the end of the nine-week course, those families reduced their total debt by $83,951 and increased their savings by more than $47,000.
During the class, Bellows and Jans used the Financial Peace curriculum and guided discussion to teach a variety of financial management concepts such as the nuts and bolts of budgeting.
“It’s important to track every penny,” said Jans. “We encourage couples to both support and agree on a budget. One of the biggest issues in relationships is squabbles about money. So if we can help people manage that better, get them on the same page where they’re reducing debt, enhancing savings and building a better foundation, they’ll be much better off.”
Helping families improve their financial situation also enhances readiness, said Jans.
“Better fiscally prepared Airmen make better Airmen at work and better Airmen for deployment because their families have a plan that can be acted upon,” he said.
Senior Airman Ruben Ruiz, an aerial porter with the 921st Contingency Response Squadron, attended the course with his wife, Savannah. Applying skills they learned in the class, they’ve paid off three credit cards and the only debt they have today is a car payment.
“Going to financial peace helped us structure our money,” said Ruben. “Now every dollar has somewhere to go. Before that we just paid our bills and often found ourselves left with about $800, which we spent. A few days later, we would realize we had to pay other things and didn’t have the money to do that. That led to us relying on our credit cards and continuing to go backwards.”
“Financial peace taught us how to reserve our money, plan on how to spend it and hold one another accountable,” he said. “That was tremendously helpful for me because my parents never really taught me how to properly manage my finances and make it grow. After the course, our relationship has also improved because we argue less. Whenever I get paid, we talk about it, come up with the plan and stick with it.”
Changing how she viewed money was a critical step, said Savannah.
“The mental aspect of it was the biggest thing for me,” she said. “If you don’t change your mindset on how you look at money, you wouldn’t make any progress. For me, growing up, I always thought I could borrow money because I saw my mother do that. I would think, ‘I deserve this because I worked hard.’ The class taught me that if you can’t pay for it with your own money, you don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve it simply because you can swipe a credit card and get it. That changed things drastically for us.”
Ruben and Savannah met in October 2011 during their sophomore year of high school and married about a year after graduation. On December 21, 2014, they welcomed their first child, Uriah, into the world. In November 2015, they moved to Travis and their second child, Julian, was born on March 30, 2016.
A family of four living on what was an airman first class’s salary at the time wasn’t easy.
“We didn’t have much after the bills were paid,” said Savannah. “We maxed out all three of our credit cards and at one point, accumulated nearly $16,000 in debt.”
Savannah took short-term jobs working nights and weekends at Six Flags in Vallejo, California, or at a Subway restaurant to help out. During the day, she took care of her children and earned some additional funds through babysitting, which she put toward paying off the family’s credit cards.
One financial management tip Savannah said she learned during the class that has helped her and her family is the envelope system.
“I separate everything I can pay for in cash into separate envelopes,” she said. “I have an envelope for food, groceries, gifts, dining out, entertainment, family outings; all of that.”
It’s such a great feeling paying for things in cash, she added.
“When you pay for something with a credit card, you’re happy you got something, but you’re likely thinking, ‘I’m going to be paying on this thing for awhile.’ The feeling of paying for something in cash after budgeting for it is such a great feeling.”
Getting people to understand the impact of purchasing things with credit is a major focal point of the course, said Jans.
“So many people live their lives as if living on credit is something they’ll always have,” he said. “It’s so easy for them to buy a car with credit or buy pizza on Friday night with a credit card. But credit cards and credit accounts accrue interest and interest compounds. If someone used credit to buy pizza every Friday night and they don’t pay off their balance at the end of the month, that makes for some very expensive pizza.”
Bellows admits that he, at one time, was one of those people.
“I was using credit cards as if it was my own cash and it’s not,” he said. “Someone else was loaning me that money with interest and I wasn’t thinking of it in that way. The financial peace course helped clarify something for me: if you don’t have any money, you don’t have any money.”
During the course, as people paid off credit cards, they would bring those cards to the next session and participate in a card cutting ceremony. Nearly a dozen cards were sliced up by the end of the course with one family chopping up five.
Looking back, Jans and Bellows are happy they were a part of so much success.
“I get so excited when people realize they don’t have to live life burdened by debt,” said Jans. “Being financially free brings so much peace.”
“It’s great to be part of anyone’s success,” said Bellows. “You can measure money, so it’s great to be able to quantify things and realize the impact we helped make. Helping someone who was burdened by debt to now being debt-free is an incredible feeling. I know how it feels to have that weight lifted off your shoulders. There’s few things better than seeing amount due on a bill and seeing nothing but zeros because it’s paid in full.”
Contact your local chaplain's office to see if this class is offered on your installation.