MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, we've all heard about how veterans leave the military with lifelong lessons about discipline, camaraderie and staying cool under fire, but our next guest says his military service also helped him with his finances.
Steve Repak is a veteran who is now a certified financial planner. He says he's applied what he learned in the Army to apply discipline to his finances. He's written a book to share what he learned. It's called "Dollars and Uncommon Sense: Basic Training for Your Money," and he's with us now.
Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
STEVE REPAK: Thank you very much for having me on.
MARTIN: So let's start with some background and you talk about this in the book, that you grew up with very little money. You write that you grew up in a trailer park. Tell us just a little bit more about what your financial situation was when you were growing up.
REPAK: I like to tell people exactly where I came from because, you know, most people that are writing books and talking about finances - you know, you just kind of look at them like, OK, these people have no idea what I'm feeling, what I've been through. And so I try to set the stage and talk about, you know, my background.
You know, I was raised in a little town called Lyons, Georgia and raised in, you know, a trailer park, and you know, my mom and dad didn't have a lot of money, but you know, we always - you know, we never went hungry. You know, we had shelter. You know, I had clothes. You know, kids made fun of the clothes that I wore, but you know, I had all the basic needs, but I come from a very, very humble background.
MARTIN: And you write that you entered the military and then you left with $32,000 in credit card debt. When you left the military you were offered a job in finance and you said to yourself, you know what - you didn't really feel right giving advice with your own finances in disorder, which sounds very, you know, honorable. But can we just ask, you know, how did you wind up accumulating $32,000 in credit card debt?
REPAK: What's funny is that nowadays when you say, well, $32,000 of credit card debt - that doesn't sound that much, but this was like 12 years ago...
MARTIN: Oh, it kind of does.
REPAK: ...when I left the military.
MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold up. It kind of does. Yes. That's a luxury car. That's, you know, a down payment on a really nice house. I mean, that sounds kind of like a lot to me, thanks so much...
REPAK: I didn't have $32,000 worth of debt overnight. It took me 12 years to accumulate that. My debt was caused by stupid decisions and...
MARTIN: Cool guy stuff. Buying cool guy stuff.
MARTIN: You can tell me.
REPAK: Cool, cool guy stuff with - yeah. I was really cool with $32,000 worth of debt.
MARTIN: But despite that, you did leave the military. You did get a job. What was it that kind of gave you that cold slap in the face where you said to yourself, you know, I've really got to stop this?
REPAK: For me to be able to feel good about myself and believe in the advice that I was giving to others, I needed to sit there and walk the walk and that's what the big wake-up call was - was, you know, I wanted to sit there and change my finances, and then I think the big wake-up call was just looking at people that had money because we all have these things that we look at. You know, we think, well, gosh, you know, they're a doctor or attorney, so they must have all this money, and the people that I work with, they were just regular people like schoolteachers and people in the military and people that worked at WalMart and they were able to accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And I always thought to myself, I said, how do they do this? I mean, what is this? There has to be some secret, because there's just no way that some - you know, a schoolteacher that's only making $30,000 a year is able to accumulate a half a million dollars for retirement. I was saying, well, there's this - there has to be some trick or shortcut, and I talk about these common traits.
I mean if you took these wealth builders and put them side-by-side, it didn't matter what their skin color was. It didn't matter what their religion was. It didn't matter what their politics were, and they all thought the same and, you know, they all spent less money than what they made. They all had little or no debt. They all saved. They all - you know, they didn't allow their emotions to influence their financial decisions. They had long term plans for their money and they all started saving early.
MARTIN: So let's talk about some of that. What you say is that what you need to do is apply mental and emotional retraining. So how do you get that started? You know, when you think about the military, you think that you kind of - you've got to get broken down before you can get built back up. Does the same thing apply here?
REPAK: When I was in the military - I talk about a funny story that - I had to pull fire guard and when I pulled fire guard, this was a building that was made out of concrete, so I'm like thinking, why do these people have me pulling fire guard for a building that can never burn down? Well, the truth was that they were emotionally retraining the way that I need to think, and all I said was let's take those same traits and those same disciplines and just transform it into money. And if you can change the way that you think, that's the first thing that you have to do to be able to change your financial situation.
MARTIN: Give us some more practical guidance. What's the first thing you should do?
REPAK: You have to assess the situations. Like in the military, you have to figure out, you know, where you are, where you want to go and how you're going to get there. And for you to sit there and figure out where you want to go, you got to - you have to assess your current situation, and it's no harder than figuring out what your income is and what your expenses are. That's step number one.
So most people know what they make. They just have no idea what they're spending. In the book it talks about you need to track your expenses for the next 30 days, so that's your first - you know, your first assessment is, OK, what is my income and what is my bills?
MARTIN: So just write it all down?
REPAK: Write it down and you say, Steve, that just sounds so simple. Why doesn't everybody do that? And what happens is that, yeah, it's that simple. All you have to do is do it and if you'll do it, things will sit there and start changing.
MARTIN: Well, like what? Again, applying it to your military training?
REPAK: Something that I had to admit to myself, that it didn't matter how much money that I made. That had no relevance on what I'd have in savings. For example, when I was a private E2, I would think that as soon as I got my next promotion I would make more money and that more money - that's going to fix all of my financial problems. Or I would think that - well, my tax refund check that's coming in - that's going to fix all of my problems. Or my reenlistment bonus where they're going to give me extra money to stay in for a few more years - that's going to fix all of my problems.
And that's the first thing that you have to realize, that more money does not equal more money. More income will not fix your situation. People that spend more money than what they make - it's not - it has nothing to do with what they make. It's what they're spending. It's acknowledging that I have a spending problem. It's almost like a person that's an alcoholic. They have to admit they have a problem. They have a drinking problem. I have to quit - you know, I have to quit drinking.
With your money, it's the same thing - is that you have a spending problem and just admit it. I have a spending problem.
MARTIN: One of the things that you talked about is that sometimes in the military you hear about drill sergeants taking extreme steps to teach somebody a lesson. One of the bits of advice that you offer is to freeze your credit cards in a bowl full of water. Why would you - why would you do that?
REPAK: Isn't that crazy? That's crazy. It's crazy. It's like you pull out...
MARTIN: Where'd you get that idea and why would you do that?
REPAK: It's doing something radical. It's - if you say, Steve, what is the first step to get out of debt? Well, quit dang charging. That's how you get out of debt. So you sit there and you pull out a Tupperware bowl, you take your credit card, you put it in that Tupperware bowl, you fill it up with water, you stick it in the freezer and if you're tempted to use those credit cards, you're going to have to wait a while till they thaw out. If I remove myself from the temptation, then I'll find - it's almost like if I said I want to lose some weight and, you know, I'm not going to sit there and have some brownies sitting there on my counter. I don't want to have any brownies in the house. I want to get away from them.
MARTIN: We're talking with Steve Repak. He is talking about how he applied lessons learned in the military to his new life as a financial planner. He's written a book about what he's learned and what he wants to pass on. It's called "Dollars and Uncommon Sense: Basic Training for Your Money."
The other thing you do is you give different savings accounts or different accounts in your family budget different names, like you have the life happens account, you know, which some people would say is an emergency budget. And then you have the I quit account, which is to give yourself some options in the case that you need to make a life change or invest in your future. Why do you rename them that way?
REPAK: It's something to stand out. You have to do something, you know, different. I like naming things because, like I said, it gives you accountability. If you said, Steve, you know, I want to start saving for a car, then what you're going to do is you're going to open a car account. I give the analogy, is that when I was eating supper with my mom and dad and I had a bowlful of spaghetti, I had to sit there and finish up all my food. You know, if I left food in my plate, Mom and Dad would holler at me, you'd better clean that plate off.
And that's the same thing that we do with our money, is that we keep all of our money in one account and for some reason we just think that we have to spend all that money in the account. So I want to get your money out of the checking account because you're going to spend all of that, so you're going to put a little bit into your life happens account, some into your car account, some into your Christmas account.
And by doing silly things like that and making it harder for you to have access to your money, it just gives you a higher probability for success.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, is there one thing - as we are speaking now, it's heading into holiday season which, for a lot of people, is a big spending season. This is the time of year when people from many different religions and backgrounds are buying gifts. They feel a lot of pressure to buy gifts. They want to buy gifts. They want to celebrate. They want to go out and have parties. They want to buy a new outfit to go to the party, that kind of thing.
Is there one thing you wish people would keep in mind as we head into this holiday season?
REPAK: Make a plan. For example, say December spending I'm going to limit to $500 and you put $500 in that account and you will not spend more than that, so that $500 or $100 or $50 or whatever you decide - just open up an account and call that your season spending account and you're only allowed to spend what's in that account. If you'll do that, when it comes January 1, you won't be stressing about - gosh, look at all these credit cards I got to sit there and make payments on now.
MARTIN: Steve Repak is an Army veteran and certified financial planner. His new book is called "Dollars and Uncommon Sense: Basic Training for Your Money." It is financial lessons that he learned, in part from his stint in the military, that he wants to share with others, and he was kind enough to join us from WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Steve Repak, thank you for joining us.
REPAK: Thank you very much for having me on. It was an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.