Conventional = Ordinary = Mediocrity
When I did my military to civilian transition I became an adviser at a financial planning firm, I had gone through all the standard trainings and licensing. I wasn’t a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), but it’s not that hard to learn the standard retirement planning philosophy and basically follow the rules, regulations and compliance of how everybody is "supposed" to save their money if they’re doing all the correct things from a fixed income perspective. I didn’t know any better, and I served my clients in that capacity. I’m not saying that what I was telling them was wrong. It’s just an antiquated methodology, given the current times. We sure weren't focusing on military to civilian transition enough.
My wake-up call came when working with a young woman that I always considered my best client and one of my good friends. She was a former Air Force officer, really nice, a super-jolly-go-lucky type of personality who was working over in Germany as a Project Manager for one of the DOD contractors overseas. Those jobs tend to suck the life out of people. I had many friends that were just miserable with the hours they were putting in and the stress that was on them. Government contracting is high stress, because if you lose the contract, the company doesn’t get any money. People are constantly getting laid off. It’s hard to find good workers to come overseas on a whim.
But she was obviously very productive and didn’t really have much risk of getting laid off. She and many others like her justified doing this work because, guess what? Government contracting pays pretty well. In fact, they’re making the equivalent of 150,000 dollars a year, and the majority of it was tax-free due to the overseas foreign income exclusion tax. Of course, you’re getting extra housing allowances. As a single, 38-year-old former Air Force officer, she was living a high upper-middle-class lifestyle. She was frugal; she wasn’t cheap by any means, she just didn’t need her money.
She lived in a small place and saved quite a bit of money on housing. She liked to go on weekend trips and really enjoy life. Any moment she could get away from work, she would travel. Her Facebook photos showed it. It was amazing to watch her. Eventually, she started to fall in love with going down to Africa to work with nonprofits and charitable organizations in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Sacrificing Real Dreams For Salary & Retirement
Now, one thing I haven’t talked about yet was the fact that because of this high income and frugal lifestyle, she had managed to save $750,000 — the majority of it in retirement accounts — by the time she was 38! That is not something you see very often in the military and veteran community.
I have seen Senior officers, Colonels and Generals, coming out of the army broke and in debt, not having saved any money, and scared to death of what comes next. They are scared about life after their military to civilian transition. So from her perspective, I’m sure she thought she had a stable lifestyle. But every time we’d get together, she was always confused about how we did the retirement planning. She didn’t want to take risk in the markets.
So we had her invest in low risk vehicles, vehicles that offer absolute guarantees, in case the stock market crashed; vehicles that had no cost involved in them, and then some that had other costs. Either way, it was a completely unique and diversified portfolio because she was a very unique person and had unique opportunities around her. Now, I was never in a position as a financial adviser to give any life advice. I was just supposed to manage the money. Again, I was doing it based on the old school methodologies, and what it came down to is I recommended what my mentors told me I should sell her.
Then she got very passionate about these trips to Africa. She started to get more engaged with how her accounts were doing. Two things were happening. The first was that she would start to quiz me and question how we were investing the money. I would remind her that she didn’t need to take risk and I would re-explain what the fees were for. There was probably someone talking in her ear because his TSP was going up higher, which had nothing to do with her.
But what are you going to do when you’re sitting in a cubicle and someone’s buying Apple stocks and getting returns, but not understanding the bigger picture? Second, she asked, "What if I used $20,000 and went down to Africa and traveled the world for a year, quit my job. Could I do that?" She was so nervous about the idea of quitting her job and using her money. This is about the time when I started to have problems with financial planning for military the way I was taught. So I said, "Yes! Take the money, use $50,000 you have enough. You don’t spend it. Use your money. Go enjoy the life you want.”
And then she fired me!
The "Retirement Planning" is a Trap - Wake Up Call
She sent emails to my mentor about me being in over my head. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t in over my head — everybody else was doing financial planning for military to civilian transition wrong. She had literally created the opportunity to do whatever she wanted, but somehow she had it in her mind based on all the poor information that society gives us that she couldn’t do it. That’s when I knew that if I was going to be a financial advisor, advising people on their budgets and portfolios was a waste of time.
Anybody can Google how to do that. Instead I decided that if I’m going to be a “fiduciary” and make sure I’m doing things in the clients’ best interests, her best interest was to use her damn money and go enjoy life and do the things that filled her up.
But unfortunately, I didn’t know how to translate that conversation, so that set me off. I needed to fix this. I decided that if I was going to do what’s in the “client’s best interest,” I was going to teach them how to use their money to create wealth and abundance and opportunity, because there’s no better time than now. Unfortunately, my old friend is probably still working in that job, making big money and miserable. I hope she knows that she inspired me to help tremendous amounts of veterans change their lives and use their military to civilian transition opportunity. I hope one day she joins me.
My Military to Civilian Transition Takeaway
Veterans have been taught to manage their money, but they are afraid of actually using it, which is why I recommend that you ask yourself when you do your military to civilian transition: Who’s in charge of your life? Is your money a tool that propels you forward into a life of abundance and purpose, or has your money taken on a life of its own and convinced you that its existence as money is more important than anything you might want to do with it?