As the Community Readiness Consultant, Lona Berndt has an important responsibility to teach financial education to a special niche of the U.S. population – Airmen and their families at Scott Air Force Base in Ilinois.
The Airman and Family Readiness Center at which she works offers a wide range of services to assist active duty and retired military, their family members and Department of the Air Force civilian employees with their financial affairs. Lona manages the financial readiness program. "We offer information, education, and personal financial counseling to help individuals and families maintain financial readiness and build resiliency," says Lona. There are financial education courses available on a regular basis for all life-cycle stages that cover relevant topics for every stage of life. There are also courses available on demand for spouses, and the program visits schools at least once a year to introduce financial topics at a young age. Lona has personally facilitated different courses to over 10,000 Airmen and their families.
Though Lona counsels all branches of service on the Air Force Base, she primarily teaches financial education to incoming First Term Airmen. According to Lona, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that service members are twice as likely to have debt of $10,000 or more than civilians. "The Air Force stipulates that the Airman and Family Readiness Center provides a four-hour block of financial education to all First Term Airmen upon arriving for their first duty location," she explains. In her 10 years of teaching, she has taught hundreds of Airmen, including 483 in 2014.
"Before we start, I'll ask Airmen why they think the Air Force requires them to receive this type of education," says Lona. She receives a variety of responses, but says that the bottom line is that financial hardships and mismanagement is a mission liability. "If they're too distracted with worrying about finances or how they're going to put food on the table, they aren't considered 'Air Force ready.'" Lona's goal is to arm them with as many tools as possible so they can be effective throughout their military careers and make positive financial decisions, especially in times of deployment.
The 17 personal finance topics Lona must teach in four hours range from how to read a leave and earnings statement to overall debt reduction. Lona also connects them to community resources. "They receive a lot of information in a short amount of time," she explains. For example, she has each Airman pull his or her individual credit reports from the MyFICO Program and look for discrepancies, errors and missing information.
One challenge to teaching First Term Airmen is their age. "Most are millennials are used to engaging content and technology – particularly mobile technology." Lona tries to tailor the course content to their needs as much as possible. For example, she uses videos, games and activities to drive messages home. "It's important to change up the way we present the information so we can keep their attention," she explains. In April, Visa Inc. partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago for the 2015 Financial Literacy Summit to discuss how mobile technology can improve millennials' financial literacy.
Another important aspect of her financial education is teaching Airmen how to be informed consumers. "First Term Airmen are targets for loans, especially for cars," says Lona. "Many of them think that since they're being offered a loan by a lending institution, they can afford it. Then they're confronted with payments and high APR that they can't afford. So we're trying to reach them beforehand so they can make more informed decisions."
Lona is honest and open about her own financial mistakes and the life changes she made to overcome them. "People often ask, 'What is the golden piece of information when it comes to successfully managing your finances?' Every time, I tell them one thing – never spend more money than you make. People may think that's such an elementary concept, but it works every time."
Practical Money Skills would like to commend Lona Berndt for her ongoing efforts and commitment to financial literacy at the Airman and Family Readiness Center on Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.