Patsy Piggott, Financial Readiness Program Manager, has seen a lot of business and has helped a lot of service members out of financial crisis.
“Business is just too good, unfortunately,” said Piggott. “I’d prefer for it not to be, because it means a lot of people are in debt or struggling financially. But it is good in a way because it shows that a lot of people know there is a place to get help.”
The irony that her success is based, in some extent, on other people’s failures is not lost on Piggott. The failure to manage debt or balance a budget, keeps Piggott busy daily.
Four days a week, Piggott’s schedule has her conducting a variety of financial briefings to units, groups and individuals.
Class topics include money management skills, credit card debt and purchasing a home. From her office in the Army Community Service building, she engages in one-on-one and group sessions. Mondays are dedicated to these meetings, as well as follow-ups with clients.
“The sessions can be more or less intensive depending on the amount of money owed to creditors,” said Piggott. “I look at what they owe and what they earn, and other considerations before we work out a budget.”
Prior to the session, Piggott will get information from clients to facilitate the process.
“By the time I meet the client, I’ve already made contact with some of the creditors to see what we can arrange as far as reestablishing payment, or sometimes it means we extend their payments dates out with the intentions of paying off a determined amount within a certain time frame.”
Piggott offers options such as part-time employment, consumer credit counseling, loan consolidation and bankruptcy. She advises a client on each option and explains the difference between the choices.
Using resources outside of the installation, Piggott has made contacts with legal offices and credit counselors who have proved to have Soldiers’ best interests in mind.
“They give Soldiers all the avenues of what could happen - the good and the bad,” said Piggott. “They don’t press Soldiers to make any immediate decision, and they always give Soldiers all options available to them.”
The confidentiality Piggott offers clients ensures that their financial information doesn’t reflect poorly on them among peers and command. She said that mutual trust allows her to better help the Soldiers.
“Sometimes people are afraid that if the command knows, they will be looked at differently, and they’re afraid that command will focus on their financial situation in conversation,” said Piggott. “There’s also a fear of being discharged from service or receiving counseling statements.”
Dealing with Debt
“It’s nothing new for people to run up a large debt,” said Piggott. “It becomes a serious problem for us when they get to where they can’t hide it or manage it.”
When debt becomes a distraction, it is hard for a Soldier to do the business of the Army, Piggott said. When her clients realize this, they tend to put more effort in and stay on the right course.
“When you talk about reducing debt, you have to get down to the bare necessities,” said Piggott. “It’s won’t be a long-term thing, if you cut things out now. We can cut out from budget things like lunches and movies. Sometimes you just won’t be able to rent a video for a month. With families, we factor in things to do that are free or low cost and will get them out of the house. We look at cable, Internet and cell phones, to streamline expenses.”
Piggott found that many Soldiers in debt worsen their situation with payday loans.
“I have had clients who will borrow one payday loan to pay off another payday loan,” she said.
In an effort to understand the situation, Piggott did her homework on payday loans establishments and other means of borrowing. One day, Piggott visited three different lending establishments and was approved for three loans.
She also used the Internet that day and was approved for every loan she applied for with just a bank number and a statement of acceptance.
“A couple of days later, I applied for an auto loan, and I immediately got a response with a list of places willing to loan me money,” said Piggott. “I even got a phone call congratulating me for my $26,000 auto loan. I was thinking to myself, ‘It can’t be that easy,’ but it is.”
It’s even easier for service members, said Piggott, but the hard part is paying off the loans. That’s when quick fixes are needed and there is no shortage of quick cash establishments around any military installation.
“A Soldier borrows their two weeks of pay with the intention of repaying it back at the end of the pay period,” said Piggott. “I’ve called one of these places and said, ‘Do you really think this person who needs the $550 to pay for bills and all these other things is really going to have the $550 to give you back at the end of two weeks?’ I was told, ‘We don’t do credit checks, so that’s not my problem.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you don’t do credit checks and it isn’t you’re problem, but you’re gouging our Soldiers.’”
A senior noncommissioned officer on post volunteered to share his personal experience with debt. The Public Affairs Office has withheld the Soldier’s name from public record.
“I guess I just never spent my money wisely,” said the NCO. “Once it starts, and you begin using check cashing places, you try to pay off those loans, but end up getting deeper and deeper into debt.”
After falling behind on monthly bills, payday loans seemed a good way to catch up. But the Soldier soon found that additional loans were needed to pay the other loans, starting a vicious cycle of debt. With 20 years in the Army, the Soldier has been in financial crisis so long, it is hard to recollect how it started.
The NCO believes that once a Soldier resolves to live paycheck to paycheck, chances of financial security are all but eliminated.
“It doesn’t allow a person to save any money,” said the NCO. “It’s harder to catch up on the bills, and once you fall behind, you start doing things like Internet loans, and it goes on from there.”
It was a difficult decision to seek help, but few alternatives were left.
“My being a senior NCO, I felt I needed to fix this myself, and I made it my last option to come to this office. I went to all the banks, the credit unions trying to get, not a loan, but some help. I knew I could no longer secure a loan from them.”
The NCO has been working with Piggott over the past few weeks, and believes there are lessons to be learned from the experience.
“The one piece of advice I would give others from my experience is that if it is all possible, save whatever money you can. Have a savings plan, even if it’s $25 a month from your check. Put something in the bank that earns interest that you can have to fall back on in case of emergencies.”
Piggott said the Soldier’s story is an extreme one, and that she has helped many clients before they reached such a critical stage.
“It’s one of those things where we want to live above our means,” said Piggott. “I won’t sugar coat the situation, nor do I feel the need to do so. If you got a problem, I am here to help you. But in order for me to help, we have to be honest about the situation.”
More than 1,100 active-duty Soldiers benefited last year from the Financial Readiness program, receiving some sort of financial training due to debt-related issues. That figure has already been surpassed this year by more than 150 Soldiers.
For more details about the ACS Financial Readiness Program or to schedule an appointment, call (804) 734-7952 or 734-6388. For online help, Piggott recommends the Web site: www.militaryonesource.com.