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Financial ed programs for vets often 'miss the basics'

Military man writing
Cade Martin | Getty Images

There are myriad efforts, at banks and nonprofits as well as within the military, to teach current and former service members how to manage their finances and steer clear of financial pitfalls, and new programs are regularly announced in the days leading up to Veterans Day.

Whether any of these programs work is another matter.

"The ones I've seen are actually quite good, and the delivery mechanisms are quite targeted," said Gerri Walsh, senior vice president of investor education at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, known as FINRA.

But Dylan Ross, a New Jersey-based financial planning counselor with the Army Transition Assistance Program who works directly with members of the military, sees it differently.

"Pretty much all of the programs are somewhat fundamentally flawed," he said. "They try and pack everything under the sun into a presentation, and they tend to miss the basics."

Military members also face unique challenges when it comes to managing money—dealing with deployments and multiple moves—and are often targeted by predatory lenders. They are more likely than the general population to get into trouble with costly car loans, overly large house payments and other high-cost debt.

Read MoreBanks need to do better at serving military bases, study says

Financial education courses that target soldiers early on can help.

For example, Walsh points to a study by William Skimmyhorn, deputy director of the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point, which evaluated the effect of the Personal Financial Management Course. The course was rolled out in 2007 and 2008 and given to new soldiers. Skimmyhorn found that while the education program did not affect all financial behaviors, soldiers who took the course significantly increased their retirement saving for at least two years and moderately reduced their balances on credit cards, auto loans and the like.

"Financial education can improve short-term financial outcomes," Skimmyhorn concluded.

But Ross can cite examples of other lessons on more immediate financial decisions that he views as much less helpful. He recalled a home-buying seminar near an active-duty installation. "They were saying you could buy a house around there and if you have to move, go ahead and rent, and rental rates around here are higher than mortgage payments. They ignored all the things like spending money to maintain the home," he said.

Some financial lessons on military bases focus on setting so-called SMART goals, an acronym for goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely, Ross said. "They spend a whole lot of time doing that, and they don't talk about planning for irregular expenses and reserving some of your income for stuff that doesn't happen on a regular basis."

Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies, said he has seen educational programs about payday loans and predatory lending, especially for enlisted service members. "But by and large, it's after someone's already in trouble and it comes to the attention of command. It's trying to get them out of the hole instead of preventing them from getting in the hole in the first place," he said.

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There are efforts underway to improve military financial education. For example, FINRA is on the lookout for military communities that are not receiving financial education on the issues that are important to them, Walsh said. One example is service members who reach senior enlisted status who tend to be older than the junior enlisted soldiers most likely to take out payday loans and the like.

Senior enlisted service members are often married with children and mortgages. "We do see that there is a debt crisis there, people taking on more house than they can afford, higher use of credit cards, people potentially taking on student loan debt for their children," she said, adding that the organization wants to find ways to reach that population with meaningful financial education.

Read MoreMilitary families' hidden risk: finances

Targeting more senior service members could have a trickle effect: They are authorized to invite financial educators onto a military installation, Walsh said. "And if the senior enlisted members say to a young soldier or sailor or Marine, 'You will attend this program and you will listen,' they do."

Financial educators are also starting to pay more attention to measuring programs' rigor, Walsh said. "Not all offerings by financial service companies and banks is meant to be sales oriented, but some of it clearly is," she added.

Read MoreObama administration seeks more protection for military borrowers

A proposal by the Obama administration to expand the reach of the Military Lending Act would further curb the ability of unscrupulous payday lenders and the like to prey on military service members. But if financial education efforts continue to improve, military members may be less susceptible to such lenders in the first place.

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