The financial well-being of veterans has improved over the last three years, as veterans have less difficulty covering expenses and bills, are less likely to have a drop in income, and more likely to have emergency funds and retirement savings in addition to employer plans, according to new research.

And veterans’ financial capability is improving at a faster rate than Americans in general, according to the research, conducted by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, based on the foundation’s National Financial Capability Study survey of more than 3,000 veterans and 20,000 non-veterans.

The research compared the well-being of veterans in 2018 compared to the same survey in 2015; and also compared them to the population of non-veterans. Active-duty members aren’t included in the research.

Compared to non-veterans in 2018, veterans overall have 6 percent less financial anxiety; 4 percent higher scores in financial well-being, and a 4 percent higher level of confidence in their financial abilities. In addition, veterans were 12 percent more likely to use financial technology for planning.

There’s been little research on the financial well-being of veterans, the study’s authors noted.

“We’re fortunate in that our study relies on the most comprehensive collection of data chronicling veterans’ financial well-being over time, comparative data with civilians and detailed evidence on key differences within important veteran subgroups,” said study co-author Dr. William Skimmyhorn, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is an assistant professor of economics and finance at the College of William & Mary. While the findings don’t allow conclusions as whether an individual’s military service is the cause of the differences, he noted, they do document how veterans are doing in some important areas.

"We hope our research will draw and maintain public attention to the financial well-being of our nation's veterans, so that we might serve them as they have so ably served us," he said, in an announcement of the results.

While some of the findings mirror national results, some don’t. For example, researchers found that black veterans have somewhat higher financial well-being than white veterans, which runs counter to recent studies that examined race-based differences in financial well-being in the general population. One possible explanation, researchers noted, is that the military serves as a socioeconomic equalizer across race and ethnicity.

“In any event, understanding why black veterans have somewhat higher financial well-being than white veterans might inform our understanding of why black Americans, in general have lower levels of financial well-being than white Americans,” the authors wrote.

The 2018 survey used some new measures, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Financial Well-Being Scale. Black veterans have 3 percent higher scores on that CFPB scale than white veterans, and have a 5 percent higher score regarding their perception of their own financial capabilities. Veterans with “other” race or ethnicity have 3 percent lower scores than whites on the CFPB Financial Well-Being Scale.

The research indicates that some groups of veterans may warrant more attention. Generally those who are female, who are younger, who are married, divorced or separated or have financial dependents fare worse than their veteran peers.

Similar to the general population, female veterans have higher levels of financial stress and anxiety than male veterans. Female veterans had 25 percent higher financial stress and 16 percent higher financial anxiety.

Overall, veterans are improving financially, but there were some areas where veterans are doing worse than in 2015. In 2018, veterans were:

  • 11 percent more likely to report high-cost credit card behaviors such as late fees, over-the-limit fees, using the card for cash advances, or paying only the minimum due.;
  • 11 percent more likely to report having foregone medical treatment. This is potentially troubling, researchers stated. “Gaining a better understanding of what could be driving this increase might help improve both the financial and health outcomes of veterans,”
  • 28 percent less likely to be attending a four-year college or university (among those attending schools). This decline might be driven by concerns about student loan debt, an improving economy, or “simply a change in veteran demand for higher education,” the researchers stated. “In any event, the repercussions of a less educated veteran population could be significant.”

The good news was that researchers found that compared to 2015, veterans in 2018 were:

  • 23 percent less likely to be underwater on their home (among those who owned a home);
  • 15 percent less likely to have difficulty covering bills and expenses;
  • 15 percent less likely to have experienced a drop in income in the previous 12 months;
  • 5 percent more likely to have an emergency fund;
  • 7 percent more likely to have retirement savings outside an employer plan; and
  • 5 percent more likely to have savings in non-retirement accounts

Among those in this survey, more education doesn’t necessarily equate to more financial peace of mind. Compared to veterans with a high school degree, those with some college, a college degree, or more than a college degree had more financial anxiety, ranging from 19 percent higher, to 31 percent higher for those with more than a college degree.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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