In the seven years that I have worked as a financial counselor, I have counseled over 1,000 people. Daniel and Lisa, a veteran and his wife, were one of my greatest success stories. They are in their 40s and have two children, ages 4 and 14. I have never met them in person, proof that we can have a successful counseling relationship with clients without ever meeting face to face.
The family lived in rural Kentucky, where they had been for three years. Prior to this,they lived in Virginia for over 20 years. They relocated to Kentucky after meeting a cousin of Lisa’s on Facebook and thinking they would all be one big happy, extended family. This did not pan out. They were absolutely miserable after a falling out with the cousins and not making new friends in the area.
Daniel and Lisa were referred to me about a year ago by a a case manager with the Kentucky Department of Veterans’ Affairs. She had successfully assisted Daniel in raising his disability rating to 100 percent with non-employability, up from 50 percent. This rating nearly doubled the family income from $2,500 to approximately $4,600 per month.
The family was miserable. They lived n a remote location, had a mountain of debt, and a negative cash flow. They felt like they were persona non grata in the small bubble in which they lived.
In an effort to supplement their meager $2,500 income, Daniel and Lisa acquired over $50,000 of unsecured debt comprised of a myriad of credit cards and personal loans.
Daniel and Lisa smoked at least two packs of cigarettes per day, spending about $500 monthly on cigarettes. The whole family drank Coke and sweet tea, spending ran additional $200 per month funding these habits.
The Navy Exchange collected an unpaid credit card debt by garnishing $250 per month from Daniel’s disability check.
The couple had been saving for a vacation to Disneyland for years. They remarked that they had not taken a vacation in 20 years and going to Disneyland in Florida was their dream, and they had just spent about $5,000 for their upcoming vacation. They were adamant that they were going to take this vacation at any cost.
Lisa had not graduated from high school and wanted to get her GED and then attend college. She planned on using the Veterans’ Administration (VA) Chapter 35 benefit to attend a state school, a benefit for spouses of veterans who have a 100 percent disability rating and who also have been deemed non-employable. Because they were living in a remote location, she was unable to attend a bricks and mortar college.
We all try our best not to tell our clients what to do, but there are times when I do ask rhetorical questions that sound as though I am telling my clients what to do. This was one of those times.
I asked if they had ever considered quitting smoking. They said that they hadn’t, but they would talk about it and consider it, admitting to me that they had never thought about quitting for financial reasons as opposed to health reasons. I told them I didn’t care about their health, only their financial health, to which they both laughed.
They also admitted that they went shopping as a form of entertainment because they felt that they could not engage in their community at all and had no money for meaningful recreation.
They then told me that it was their dream to move to Florida.
Since all of their debt was unsecured, their only income was disability and social security disability. They had two very old cars, and their credit score was very low as a result of their inability to pay their debts, and they simply had no ability of ever paying them off, so they seemed like a great candidate for a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. They could not afford the attorney’s fees and filing fee to file a bankruptcy and they made too much to qualify for legal aid.
I always believe that clients deserve to hear my honest opinion, and they had sought my professional advice. I asked them what they thought about canceling their Disney vacation and using the money to move to Florida.
This didn’t go over so well at first, but after much soul searching over the next two months, and a little spending tracking, they decided to cancel their vacation and move to Florida. A friend from Virginia helped them get an apartment, notwithstanding their poor credit files.
They filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy last fall and began with a clean slate. The garnishment stopped. They both quit smoking and the whole family gave up Coke and sweet tea and now drink water. The whole family has also taken off much needed weight. They feel better. Daniel’s and Lisa’s credit scores are both around 650 less than six months after their discharge, far better than before they filed their bankruptcy.
They bought a new vehicle with a high rate of interest, but it costs less than cigarettes and Coke. They both repeatedly tell me that instead of having cigarettes and soda, they have a safe, new vehicle to drive for less than the cost of the cigarettes. Lisa is attempting to attend college, having finished her GED in Florida. They bought season passes to Disney, used them a few times, realized how expensive and hot it was, and then stopped going entirely.
It has been nearly a year since I have worked with them. They use Spending Tracker to track all of their spending, they stick to a budget, and they have no desire to ever return to smoking. Lisa just remarked to me that her health problems have dissipated and she will begin taking college courses in August using a state of Florida tuition benefit for spouses of disabled veterans and will receive approximately $1,000 per month using Chapter 35, the VA Dependents’ Educational Assistance Program.
Our work is so gratifying and I have never been more proud. Although I provided very significant financial education and counseling, I believe that I taught them to fish.
Jennifer Lear is an attorney and an Accredited Financial Counselor living in Madison, AL. She has been a military spouse for nearly 25 years and has worked for government contractors since 2011 serving military and veteran populations. She is an active member of AFCPE, having served on the Standard Task Force since 2014, and is currently the chair. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.