Category Archives: military families

Military Families

Foreclosure and Active Duty Servicemembers: Options Under the SCRA

This month we’ll present a webinar on the Foreclosure Process, on Tuesday, January 24, at 11 a.m. ET. Join this webinar and find supplemental resources here:

By Carol Church

Although the foreclosure problem in the United States has receded from the crisis levels it reached during the recession, thousands of homes across the county still are foreclosed every year. At times, the many changes and income fluctuations involved in a military lifestyle can endanger service members’ ability to pay their mortgages. Fortunately, the government, loan providers, and the military have worked together to create protections from foreclosure especially intended for those who serve. One such protection is folded into the SCRA, or Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

What is the SCRA?

The SCRA actually protects service members in a variety of situations. Its purpose is to help those on active duty who may have a hard time meeting financial or legal obligations due to absence or changes in income. In addition to protecting against foreclosure, the SCRA also can lock in low interest rates, delay court judgments, and allow service members a penalty-free exit from loans and contracts, such as a lease or cell phone plan. Service members’ dependents may also be eligible for protections under the SCRA.

What are the Options if a Service Member is Behind on House Payments?

The options in this situation may be affected by the service member’s location. In general, however, this part of the SCRA may be able to delay foreclosure proceedings while members are on active duty and immediately afterwards. Some protections apply whether the service member took out the loan before or after going on active duty. (Note: the SCRA also applies to those who are absent from active duty due to injury or leave.) However, the protections for these two categories are somewhat different, with more offered for those who took out the loan pre-service.

Obtained from

If the service member bought the home before starting active duty

Under the terms of the SCRA, if a service member acquired the mortgage before beginning active duty, the home cannot be foreclosed or seized during active duty or one year after duty completes. The exceptions are if a court issues an order for the foreclosure (a judicial foreclosure) or the lender obtains a waiver from the service member permitting the foreclosure. It’s important to know that as of Jan 1, 2018, the one-year period is scheduled to be reduced to 90 days. However, Congress might alter this, so stay tuned.

Also, be aware that a lender can still ask to foreclose if the bank can prove that the service member’s financial status or ability to come to a court date has not been negatively affected by active duty (for instance, in the case of a reservist whose pay has not been affected by service).

If the service member bought the home after starting active duty

This situation is a little more complicated, but service members are often still protected against a default judgment (one ordered because of failure to appear or take action) being ordered against them, and can contest one if it is entered. The exact protection will depend on the state of residence and whether it has judicial (in court) or nonjudicial (out of court) foreclosures.

Be Aware

SCRA protections are not automatic and must be requested. To be protected, the service member must demonstrate that service had a “material effect” on their ability to pay or attend proceedings. Usually, protection must be requested during active duty or soon afterwards.

To use the protections of the SCRA, members first need to contact the nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program office. To find this office, visit this link.

If a service member is having difficulty paying his or her mortgage, there are many options, such as loan modification (changing the terms of the loan), forbearance (short-term suspension of mortgage payments), refinancing, or a repayment plan. Look for a future post on these options soon.


Info on the SCRA from HUD

Official SCRA website

Homeowners’ Protection Under SCRA

NOLO: Foreclosure and the Military

SCRA Questions and Answers

Freddie Mac: Military Relief Options for Service Members


What’s Ailing Us: Things to consider when a loved one has a chronic illness

By: Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Woman thinking
pixabay[ thoughtful woman by Unsplash, February 2016, CCO]
Connie is sitting in the lobby of her doctor’s office waiting for the door to open and her name to be called. In reality, she is waiting for so much more than that. Connie is waiting for her husband to come back from the longest deployment they have ever experienced as a family. She is waiting for her 2- year old son to start using more words so that his tantrums will decrease. She is waiting for the phone call from her realtor that their house has finally sold so that they can prepare for their next move. She is waiting to find out why her body doesn’t seem to function like it did last year.
This has been the hardest year of Connie’s life. In addition to all of the daily stressors of being a full-time working mother with a husband who has been deployed for most of the year, Connie has been experiencing a multitude of unexplainable symptoms. She has been referred to countless specialists who all seem to be just as mystified as she is about the decline in her health. Because she lives in a rural town, she has had to travel to be seen by most of the specialists only to be poked, prodded, and sent home with no answers again.
Connie can’t sleep. Her hair is falling out. She is in pain more often than not. It appears as though none of her doctors have communicated with each other, as she has to repeat her story at each new visit. Her sick leave is running low at work and her desk is piled high with endless tasks that need to be completed. As she sits in the lobby today, Connie thinks about her children and her job and her husband and her friends. She closes her eyes tightly and uses her last ounce of hope on the thought that this may be the time she finally gets an answer.
The diagnosis process for Connie is familiar to many people with chronic illness. Oftentimes, it is neither a simple nor quick process. Here are some things to consider when you have a family member or friend with a chronic illness:
They may not look sick: If you don’t remember anything else from this list, remember this. Many chronic illnesses are invisible; meaning you are unable to see them from the outside. This does not make the illness any less significant or serious.
Don’t ask them how they are doing unless you really want to know: This applies to everyone you ask, but especially those suffering from chronic illness. While you are certainly trying to sound considerate and supportive, this question can actually have the opposite effect if you really don’t want to know the answer. Many times, the person you ask is trying their very best to make you comfortable with their answer by saying that they are fine. The truth is, though, they are probably not “fine”.
Don’t offer unsolicited advice: Telling a person with a chronic illness that they should try the latest and greatest remedy for their condition can be insulting. It can also be frustrating. What if they have already tried that remedy and it didn’t work? What if they just can’t muster up the energy to try anything else at the moment? What if they don’t want solutions, but just a place to vent or find support? So, unless someone asks you directly for advice, try to keep it to yourself.
Offer support: While you may not be able to help “cure” your loved one, you can certainly be supportive. Ask them what you can do to help support them. Offer to go with them to an appointment, pick their children up from school on an especially hard day, etc.
Remember that they are a person first: Before any illness comes the person. When your loved one is suffering from a chronic illness, remember this! They may not want to talk about their diagnosis or their symptoms. Perhaps they just want to tell you about something funny they saw on tv or an interesting meeting they had at work. Always keep the person and the illness separate.
Be empathetic: No, you can’t put yourself in their shoes. It’s impossible to do that. Even if you had the exact same illness, your experience would be different. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be empathetic to their situation. Don’t compare their illness to someone else’, don’t tell them you know how they feel. Do validate what they are feeling and do encourage them to talk to you.
Next time you decide to reach out to someone with a chronic illness, try to consider these things. If you would like more information on ways to empower families in their journey surrounding chronic illness, join us on January 19th and January 26th here.

This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the Social Media and Programming Coordination Specialist for the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families.  Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development concentration on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.

25 Personal Finance Improvement Strategies

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension,

The first month of the new year is a great time to help service members develop New Year’s resolutions; a.k.a., financial action plans. Take the time to review their progress toward future financial goals and make recommendations to enhance their overall financial security. Below are 25 personal finance improvement strategies to discuss with military families:

  1. Set Specific Financial Goals– Determine what you want, when you want it, and how much it costs (e.g., $14,000 for a car in 2020). Once the goal is specific, divide the time frame into the dollar cost to determine the required savings.
  2. Calculate Your Retirement Savings Need- Use a tool such as that includes factors such as age, life expectancy, sources of retirement income, and the value of existing savings (e.g., IRAs).
  3. Increase Retirement Savings– Save at least the amount of employer match and more, if possible, up to the IRS limit. Matched savings is “free money.” Savings of 1% more of pay can grow to thousands of additional dollars later.
  4. Live Below Your Means- Spend less than you earn and use the difference to reduce debt and/or save and invest for emergencies and future goals. Track expenses to see where money goes and adjust spending to free up cash.
  5. Build Liquid Cash Reserves- Calculate a liquidity ratio, a measure of the adequacy of emergency savings, by dividing liquid assets (from a net worth statement) by monthly household expenses. The ratio should be 3:1 or better.
  6. Pay Yourself First- Treat savings and investments with the same priority given to a mortgage, rent, or car loan payment. Save and invest automatically through an employer retirement savings plan and other automated deposits.
  7. Invest for Long Term Growth- Put history on your side. Past investment performance data show a higher return in stocks, or growth mutual funds that invest in stock, than for any other asset class (e.g., bonds) over the long term.
  8. Harness the Power of Compound Interest- Calculate the number of years to double a sum of money by dividing 72 by the rate of return (example: 72 ÷ 6% = 12 years). The longer and more frequently money compounds, the better.
  9. Keep It Simple– Consider a “total stock market” mutual fund that tracks U.S. companies and a “total international” fund that provides exposure to companies overseas and the TSP lifecycle (L) fund for “low maintenance” investing.
  10. Develop an Asset Allocation Strategy– Split money among asset classes. An example is 50% stocks, 30% bonds, and 20% cash assets. Keep the portfolio close to its target allocation and rebalance when target weightings shift.
  11. Keep Good Financial Records- Prepare a file folder for each stock or mutual fund owned. Save annual summary statements that list deposits and investment earnings to help calculate your capital gain or loss when shares are sold.
  12. Review Your Insurance- Contact an insurance agent to make sure you are adequately covering “big ticket” risks, such as liability, disability, health care expenses, loss of a breadwinner’s income, and destruction of your home.
  13. Revise Your Tax Withholding- Consider revising your W-4 form to increase take-home pay and minimize potential tax refund delays resulting from identity theft. Use the extra income to save and/or reduce debt.
  14. Maximize Tax Breaks – Consider strategies such as deposits to tax-deferred retirement savings plans, tax-free municipal bonds, tax credits and deductions, and long-term capital gains taxes on investments held more than a year.
  15. “Bunch” Itemized Tax Deductions– Shift payment of tax deductible items (e.g., charitable donations) from one calendar year to the next to be able to itemize every other year if you are close to the standard deduction limit amount.
  16. Calculate Your Net Worth– See where you stand financially at year’s end with a net worth statement. Subtract the amount that you owe (debts) from the value of everything you own (assets). The difference is your net worth.
  17. Take the Wealth Test- Use the formula from The Millionaire Next Door with two key factors: age and gross income. Multiply these numbers together and divide by 10. The result is what your net worth should at least be equal to.
  18. Shop Smart- Question your motives before spending money. Ask yourself “Do I really need this?” When you purchase a product or service, follow the “Rule of 3” and get price quotes from at least three stores or professionals.
  19. Borrow Smart- “Shop” at least three lenders before applying for credit. Compare the annual percentage rate (APR), various fees (e.g., late fee), and other features (e.g., rewards programs) and repay the amount owed quickly.
  20. Check Your Credit– Review your credit report annually from the central site that allows consumers to request free credit reports from the major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion):
  21. Get Educated About Money- Take time to learn about personal finance. Suggested learning methods are briefings, webinars, financial books or magazines, CNBC, and financial Twitter chats and websites.
  22. Plan Your Estate– Prepare key documents including a will, living will, and power of attorney. Remember that everyone has an estate plan: either one they prepare themselves or one established by their state of residence.
  23. Develop Financial Resilience – Build financial resilience with adequate savings, low household debt, marketable employment skills, and a social support system. Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” when bad things happen.
  24. Take Care of Your Physical Health- Practice good health habits (e.g., diet, physical activity) to decrease the frequency of having to spend money on doctor visits, prescription drugs, and other health care expenses.
  25. Think Positive- Believe in the saying “if it is to be, it’s up to me.” Positive people generally experience greater success than “naysayers” because they see a connection between what they do today and what happens in the future.

Financial Planning Metrics

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension,

Happy New Year! During January, many military families, like all Americans, make resolutions to improve their personal finances and other aspects of their lives (e.g., health habits). They may be especially interested in tools and techniques that help them assess their financial strengths and weaknesses.

Happy New Year by amorimbiotec is licensed Public Domain CC0 via
Happy New Year by amorimbiotec is licensed Public Domain CC0 via

The word “metric” is used a lot in both the health and financial fields. According to an online dictionary, “metric” can be defined as “a system of measurement that facilitates the quantification of some particular characteristic.” Many people are interested in measuring their progress or status and tools with which to do it. Whether it is financial literacy, or school test scores, or health and lifestyle habits, people want ways to determine how they “measure up.”

Following are some commonly used financial planning metrics:

Consumer Debt-To-Income Ratio- Monthly consumer debt expenses (excluding a mortgage) should not exceed 15% of take-home pay. This includes payments for credit cards, car loans, and student loans. A debt-to-income ratio of 20% or more is considered a “danger zone” and a red flag for financial distress.

Credit Score- The higher the number, the better. FICO credit scores range from 300 to 850 with those in the 760+ range considered the best evidence of creditworthiness. People with high credit scores generally pay lower interest rates to borrow money than others.

Emergency Fund– Financial experts generally recommend having access to enough cash to cover household expenses for at least three to six months. This money can be a combination of liquid assets (e.g., money market fund) and lines of credit (e.g., home equity line).

Expense Ratios- An expense ratio is the percentage of mutual fund assets deducted for management and operating expenses. The lower the expense ratio percentage, the less investors pay; for example 0.20 (1/5 of 1%) versus 1.5%. High expense ratios are a drag on investment returns and should generally be avoided.

Inflation Rate– Some people use the annual inflation rate (measured by the Consumer Price Index or CPI) as a benchmark and try to have their investments outpace it by a certain percentage.

Investment Returns on Specific Securities– Investment performance is generally tracked against market indices. Indices are portfolios of stocks or bonds that are tracked to monitor investment performance. Some common indices used to measure personal investment performance against include the Standard and Poor’s 500 (tracks 500 large U.S. company stocks), Wilshire 5,000 (tracks all U.S. stocks), and MSCI EAFE index (tracks the performance of stocks issued by overseas companies).

Net Worth- Net worth is calculated by subtracting household debts from household assets. A benchmark for net worth, described in the book The Millionaire Next Door, is calculated by multiplying your age by your pre-tax (gross) income, excluding inheritances, and dividing by ten. This number, or higher, is what your net worth should be. For example, if you are age 35 with a $40,000 gross income, 35 x 40 = $1.4 million, divided by 10 = $140,000 for an adequate net worth.

Retirement Savings– A general guideline is to save $300,000 for every $1,000 of monthly income needed to supplement a pension and/or Social Security needed in retirement. For example, $2,000 of supplemental monthly living expenses would require about a $600,000 nest egg. This calculation is based upon the frequently cited “4% Rule” for retirement asset withdrawals. Four percent of $300,000 is $12,000 per year or $1,000 per month. Studies have found that portfolios of 50% stock and 50% fixed-income and cash assets will generally last 30 years with a 4% withdrawal rate.

U.S. Household Financial Data– Statistics from federal government databases, such as the Survey of Consumer Finances and Bureau of the Census data, provide useful financial benchmarks. Average household expense figures, asset holdings, and net worth can all be used for comparison purposes.

Collaborative Webinar| Chronic Illness: Empowering Families in the Journey- Part 1 & Part 2

Family Sunset
pixabay[sunsets family by plantsbasedrhn, February 20, 2005, CCO]
Part 1– January 19, 2017
Part 2- January 26, 2017

Part 1- 11:00 am-12:30 pm Eastern
Part 2- 11:00am-12:00pm Eastern

Part 1-
Part 2-
This two-part will be presented by the MFLN Family Development, Family Transitions, Military Caregiving, and Nutrition and Wellness teams.  Our guest speaker will be Dr. Tai Mendenhall, LMFT. Dr. Mendenhall is a Medical Family Therapist and Associate Professor in the Couple and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota (UMN). During Part 1 of the webinar, Dr. Mendenhall will be discussing stressors associated with chronic illness and its impact on health and wellness of individuals and families. He will then explore ways in which families influence the health and wellbeing of each other and then offer effective strategies for interdisciplinary collaboration amongst service providers. Part will assist participants in exploring the ways in which providers can help military families harness resources, utilize resilience, and provide support to promote effective management of chronic illness. This will be an interactive session allowing participants to engage in case study discussions that identify and assess the family development, transitions, caregiving, and nutrition/wellness perspectives of chronic illness. Join us on January 19 and January 26 at 11:00 am Eastern!

Continuing Education Credits will be issued to Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists in the state of Georgia, and RDNs. If you would like more information on future programming from Military Families Learning Network in 2017, please visit our professional development website or connect with us via social media for announcements: (Facebook & Twitter)

Personal Finance Self-Assessment Tools

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension,

One of the most powerful ways to motivate people (including yourself!) to improve money management practices is to complete a personalized analysis of financial strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, there are many free and easy-to-use online tools that provide financial self-assessments. Below is a description of online quizzes that provide useful information about what people are doing right and/or suggested action steps for improvement.

The first six online quizzes were developed by Rutgers Cooperative Extension. In addition to providing users with personalized self-assessments about their personal finances, they also collect data for ongoing research about the financial practices of U.S. consumers.

Financial Fitness Quiz– Consisting of 20 questions, the quiz prompts people to assess their frequency of performance of recommended financial practices. Quiz items include questions about emergency savings, retirement savings, financial goal-setting, financial record-keeping, budgeting, debt ratios, and comparison shopping.

Identity Theft Risk Assessment Quiz– Also consisting of 20 questions, the quiz prompts people to assess their frequency of performance of recommended risk-reduction practices. Quiz items include questions about checking credit reports, shredding documents with sensitive data, and securing incoming and outgoing mail.

Investment Risk Tolerance Quiz– A well-tested research instrument that was published in an academic journal, this 13-question quiz prompts people to answer a series of questions about their propensity to take risks and their investment practices. Quiz items include a number of hypothetical scenarios with alternative choices.

Personal Health and Finance Quiz– Consisting of 10 questions about health practices and 10 about financial practices, this 20-question quiz prompts people to simultaneously assess both aspects of their lives. Quiz items include questions about food consumption, physical activity, saving and investing, budgeting, and debt ratios.

Personal Resiliency Resources Assessment Quiz– Consisting of 20 questions, this quiz prompts people to assess available resources that can help them cope with financially stressful situations. Quiz items include three categories of resiliency resources: financial (e.g., emergency funds and insurance), social/community, and personal.

Wise Credit Management Quiz- Consisting of 20 questions, this quiz prompts people to assess their frequency of performance of recommended credit and debt management practices. Quiz items include questions about debt ratios, credit report and credit score reviews, debt repayment practices, and avoidance of high-cost predatory loans.

The following three online quizzes provide additional self-assessments about financial management practices:

Financial Capability Scale– This eight-question quiz was developed by the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Quiz items include questions about budgeting, confidence in achieving financial goals, emergency funds, automatic savings, household cash flow, and financial goal-setting.

Financial Health Quiz (How Healthy Are Your Finances?)- This quiz from CNN Money prompts users for information about key areas of personal finance and provides feedback and a letter grade. The seven topic areas are retirement savings, housing payment, debt, emergency savings, diversification, company stock, and life insurance.

Personal Finance Wellness Scale™- This eight-question quiz was developed by the Personal Finance Employee Education Fund (PFEEF). Potential users must submit an online request to use it. Quiz items include questions about respondents’ financial stress level, emergency fund adequacy, and perceptions about living “paycheck to paycheck.”

Resolving to make a Resolution: 5 things to consider when making your New Years Resolution


By: Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Resolution picture
pixabay[Resolution by annca, November 2015, CCO]
Have you ever wondered why you can’t seem to stick to your New Year’s resolutions? Do you find yourself wondering why this happens each and every year? You have great intentions and you seem to take off with great force and then your momentum comes to a screeching halt around that third or fourth week in January. Don’t worry; you are not alone. Here is a list of things to consider when making your resolution.

  1. Does my resolution have to start on January 1st? So, it’s the beginning of a new year and it seems appropriate to make a fresh start. But, is it really necessary to start of the very first day of the year? Most of us are cleaning up messes from the holidays, attempting to get the kiddos back in something that resembles routine, stewing over that confrontational moment with the mother-in-law, and traveling to get back home. Some of us still may even have more gatherings planned that we were unable to make happen during the actual holidays. With all of these stressors and more, it seems like attempting to make a big change has potential for failure pretty quickly.
  2. Are the requirements to attain my resolution really feasible? When you make a resolution, think long and hard about how easily you can do this. If your resolution is to become a body builder over the next year, you will want to think about more than just your ability to go to the gym. Do you have the time to commit to all of the training required? Do you have all of the equipment necessary? And, if you don’t have all of the equipment, do you have the money to buy it? Do you know what type of diet you will need to maintain? And, if you don’t, do you know someone who can help you? Can you afford to pay them to help you? So, before you commit yourself to a resolution, think it through in terms of feasibility, accessibility, and possibility!
  3. Is this a resolution that I can really maintain long-term? Tying into the whole idea of thinking long and hard about your resolution choice, add this in as well. Is this something that you can maintain? Are you making such a drastic change in your life that it may not be easy to keep the same momentum at all times? Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) tell us that in first-order change, there are changes that are made but the structure of the system does not change. But, in second order change, the changes that occur are a direct result of a change in the system. So, ask yourself if the changes you have made are simple changes in behavior (first-order change) or complex changes in structure (second-order change) before you decide whether or not this resolution can and will continue past the 3rd week in January.
  4. What will happen if I don’t meet my resolution? This is an important question to ask yourself when making a resolution. Will you be disappointed and beat yourself up? Will you blame others for not making it happen? Will this add extra tension and stress to your life? Take some time to really think about this question before you make your resolution.
  5. Is it really necessary to even have a resolution? Yes, I asked it. I’m sorry if anyone thinks that this is blasphemous to even suggest it. But, can you skip the resolution this year? Or, if you are really against this idea, you can always make a resolution to not have a resolution this year! Something to think about, right?

During these last few weeks of December when you are thinking about your potential resolutions for the upcoming year, consider these five questions. And, most importantly, keep in mind that this is YOUR resolution. You are the expert on yourself which means that you get to choose your resolution and whether you have one or not.


[1] Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. & Fisch, R. (1974) Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. New York, NY: W.W Norton & Company, Inc. 

This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the Social Media and Programming Coordination Specialist for the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families.  Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development concentration on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Effective Strategies to Help Families Communicate Sensitive Information

Submitted by Alicia Cassels, MA
MFLN Caregiving Team-Learning and Engagement Consultant

Families with special health care needs must navigate an ever-changing and complex healthcare landscape as they work to initiate services, connect with providers and deal with sometimes significant waiting periods to access specialty care.  Regardless of skill, existing family responsibilities, or work-related demands, caregivers must often expend a great deal of time and energy in securing and maintaining necessary care for loved ones.

Social workers and other helping professionals are often uniquely poised to serve as effective resources in helping connect families with services they need.  Due to a number of factors, caregivers may be reluctant to seek the support of these helping professionals until their family is struggling or in crisis.  When they do reach out for support, caregivers may not fully communicate their needs due to fear that sharing issues like mental health concerns, marital stress, or substance abuse may carry negative consequences.

For helping professionals, the first meeting with families often sets the stage in building trust and reducing barriers to communication around sensitive topics.  Taking time to incorporate effective trust-building strategies into initial and subsequent meetings is critically important in fostering effective communication.  In the webinar session, Empowering Caregivers and Families, military helping professionals share effective practices for reducing barriers to communication of family needs.  Explore two strategies below.

  1. Communicate respect – The demonstration of mutual respect is critical to building trust with families. It is important to incorporate verbal and non-verbal strategies for communicating respect during initial and subsequent encounters.  Two examples of non-verbal strategies for communicating respect include the use of private meeting space and taking care to begin scheduled meetings with families on time.
  1. Listen without judgment to the family story- During an initial meeting, it is helpful to take the time to learn about family needs and experiences. Taking time to listen without judgment lets families know that you want to understand their experiences and priorities.

To learn more about how to help families communicate sensitive information, view Empowering Caregivers and Families at


Check out some of Military Caregiving’s recent blog posts:

 This MFLN-Military Caregiving concentration blog post was published on December 23, 2016.

Twitter Chats: A Tool for Outreach and Professional Development

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension,

Are you using Twitter personally and/or professionally to send or receive information? If so, you are not alone. As of March 2016, 310 million people were active users, 83% on mobile phones. Twitter is a micro-blogging site where users post short messages of up to 140 characters called tweets. A key component of tweets is the hashtag (#) symbol, which enables people to search a topic (e.g., credit) or share an experience (e.g., a professional conference).screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-10-07-19-am

Similar to a face-to-face focus group, Twitter chats provide a synchronous environment for participants to answer a structured series of questions and respond to both the chat facilitator and each other using their Twitter user names (a.k.a.,”handles”). Chat participants gather at a specified time (e.g., Tuesdays at 3 pm ET) to “discuss” certain topics, questions, or issues. The Twitter chat hashtag connects the tweets for everyone to follow the “conversation.”

The formatting convention used for Twitter chats is Q1 for Question 1 and A1 for participant responses. There are more than 300 Twitter chats on a wide variety of topics. There is no cost to run a chat except for a sponsor’s time for preparation, marketing, and evaluation and the (optional) cost of incentives (e.g., gift cards) to attract participants.

Want to host a Twitter chat for your clients or students? Include the following steps: select a topic, set a date and time, designate a unique Twitter hashtag, welcome participants and moderate the chat conversation, evaluate the impact and outreach of a Twitter chat using online survey links and/or applications such as and, write impact reports, and archive Twitter chats for future viewing using applications such as Storify to convert a stream of tweets into a story.

It is a good idea to have some pre-typed answers to each question in case initial participant responses are slow. Chats generally last one hour and have 8 to 10 questions. Some chat sponsors offer prizes, such as gift cards, as an incentive for people to participate. Three platforms can be used to monitor the flow of tweets in real time: Twubs (, Tweetchat (, or ( 

Perhaps you’d rather have others handle all the logistics and simply be a Twitter chat participant. Below is a list of popular personal finance Twitter chats that run on a weekly schedule:


  • #creditchat is sponsored by credit reporting firm Experian (see @Experian_US and at 12 pm PST every Wednesday (focus on credit and general money management)


  • #wbchat is run by Wise Bread (see @wisebread and at 12 pm PST every Thursday with prizes drawn at random for those who register (focus on living well on a limited budget) 


  • #cashchat is run by Tarra Jackson (a.k.a., Ms. Madam Money) (see @msMadamMoney and at 12 pm ET every Friday (focus on cash flow management, credit, and debt)
  • #mcchat is run by Money Crashers (see @Money Crashers and at 1pm PST every Friday (focus on managing money and savings)

Looking for even more Twitter chats? Organizations that organize or participate in personal finance Twitter chats on an occasional basis include the Cooperative Extension System, America Saves, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education (AFCPE).

Just Do a Few Key Things Right

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension,

Photo by Endemoniada. CC BY 2.0
Photo by Endemoniada. CC BY 2.0

Personal finance does not have to be complicated. Rather, most people can manage their finances quite well by doing just a few key things right. Below are ten suggestions to consider as New Year’s resolutions to improve your personal finances during 2017:

  1. Spend Less Than You Earn– Live below your means. The only way to “find” money to save and invest is to have money left over after expenses. Shop around for bargains (e.g., online promo codes, price matching, and consignment and thrift shops) and ask yourself whether you really need something before you buy it.
  1. Save at Least 10 Percent of Your Income- Put money into savings automatically via payroll deduction or electronic fund transfers. Many people who have money taken out of their paycheck, for retirement, or their checking account, to invest in mutual funds, say they never miss the money and are a lot more financially secure. If 10% savings is not possible now, save whatever you can and gradually ramp up your savings level over time.
  1. Invest for the Long Term- Don’t trade too much; market timing is very difficult. If you don’t have the time or energy to research individual stocks, keep things simple and invest through no-load mutual funds, index funds, or exchange-traded funds. Never invest with cold-callers and be very skeptical of investments that sound like “guaranteed” winners. Stick with reputable companies and experienced and well-vetted investment advisors.
  1. Don’t Run Up Your Credit Cards– Going deep into debt for clothes, travel, or restaurant meals will not impress your friends. Instead, impress them with your kindness and sense of humor. Monthly payments on all consumer debts combined (excluding a mortgage) should not exceed 15% -20% of monthly take-home pay.
  1. Set Goals- What are you saving for? A nice house? Retirement? College for your children? Keep your eye on your goals and it will be easier to make sacrifices (read: spend less) to reach them. Use this worksheet as a goal-planning tool. Calculate the savings required to reach your goals by dividing the time to save into the dollar cost.
  1. Purchase Insurance Wisely– Examples of generally unnecessary insurance include extended warranties on appliances and low deductibles on property insurance. Rather, cover big financial risks including adequate liability insurance and disability insurance to protect your family if you are ill and can’t bring home a paycheck.
  1. Be Patient– Similar to the progression to large prizes on the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, it usually takes people a long time to build wealth. The average age of millionaires is 60, meaning that they’ve been investing for about three or four decades. Using the Rule of 72, if an investor earns an 8% average return on a diversified investment portfolio, their money will double in nine years (72 divided by 8).
  1. Dollar-Cost Average Investment Deposits– This means investing a regular sum (e.g., $100) at a regular time interval (e.g., monthly), preferably through automatic deposits such as payroll deductions for the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Dollar-cost averaging avoids bad market timing and takes the emotion out of investing because regularly scheduled investment deposits take place automatically regardless of market conditions.
  1. Limit “Shocks” to Finances– Financial shocks include frequent job changes, moving, home purchases, health care expenses, and divorce. Conversely, stability aids in wealth accumulation. Try to control what you can (e.g., good health habits). Unfortunately, military families often move frequently and this lifestyle needs to be factored into decisions such as renting vs. buying a home and a military spouse’s career path.
  1. Congratulate Yourself for Making Progress– If you hear that you need, say, $500,000 or $1 million to retire in comfort, you might feel too depressed to try to save anything. Instead, celebrate milestones such as paying off your credit cards or saving $1,000. You have a lot to be proud of as long as you’re headed in the right direction.