Two decades ago, Michael Walk got his first taste of financial freedom—and blew it.
The weekend after completing basic training in the U.S. Army, Walk decided to reward himself with a new set of wheels. He headed to a nearby car dealer in Nashville and drove off the lot in a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
But only after financing an $18,000 loan from the dealer at an eye-popping 18% annual percentage rate (APR), which is a lot to take on at the tender age of 18 (and generally above the national average for auto loans).
I was a “wild-eyed country boy” in the big city, says Walk, who grew up without much in small-town Ohio.
His mother had died of cancer a few years earlier, and his father, a mason, was going through a tough time after the loss of his wife. Walk moved in with his older sister when he was in high school and then joined the Army. He spent his first paychecks as quickly as he earned them (quicker, in fact), in part because he “was catching up with everything I didn’t have.”
Soon enough, Walk’s beloved new (used) car, which had already logged some 200,000 miles at the time of purchase, broke down, and Walk had no place to store it. (Parking and maintenance expenses hadn’t occurred to him when he rode off in the car.) He also discovered that his Jeep’s actual value was far less than what he had paid for it.
Thousands and thousands of dollars less.
Luckily, Walk’s girlfriend stored his “cheap Jeep” at her place while he was deployed. She fixed it up and sold it—but at a painful loss ($4,000). Walk’s credit score plunged, but he started to change his ways. He bought only what he needed, saved every penny and took financial education classes for military personnel. When he and his girlfriend married, they created joint bank accounts, “saved like fools” and paid off his debts.
Walking the Walk
Walking the financial responsibility walk wasn’t easy, he says, joking that he “walked a lot” during his days in the financial wilderness. The journey to financial health and wellness is more like a ladder than an escalator, he says, but the payoff at the top is worth it. Today, he has a near-perfect credit score, co-owns a home and cars, is saving for retirement and has enough to occasionally splurge on his twin daughters, now 6.
After 2 decades in the military, Walk joined Navy Federal Credit Union in 2015 and founded an in-house support group for Veterans. He also serves in the U.S. Army Reserves, where he counsels financial wellbeing; he helps reservists identify their goals, create and stick to budgets, and access financial education services.
Some of his mentees have taken big steps toward financial security, including one who started a successful lawn care business. “He texts me every now and then and says he wouldn’t have been able to do this without smart goals and planning,” Walk says. “It’s always nice to see that. He’s my shining star.”
Walk is one of countless Navy Federal team members who help members of the military community achieve financial wellbeing; indeed, the work is central to the mission of the credit union, which offers a wide range of products, tools and services, from certificates and money market savings accounts to budget calculators to expert advice, to support military members’ and families’ financial health and wellness.
These services are in high demand. Despite cooling inflation, more than half of Americans are overwhelmed by their personal financial situation and nearly one-third experience financial stress, according to a recent study .
Nonetheless, Americans are toasting financial health and wellbeing as they ring in the new year. Fully two-thirds of Americans considered making a financial resolution this year—a veritable “resolution revolution,” the study found. And, more Americans want to prioritize long-term over short-term savings goals in 2024 than in 2023.
New enlistees are among those eager to plan and save, according to Anne Marie Ferdinando, a military spouse and mom who conducts outreach for Navy Federal. This fall, she held a virtual financial literacy class with a group of young privates in basic training. To participate in the voluntary course, the “battle buddies” logged on from their cell phones, sacrificing precious digital time to learn about budgeting.
During the class, one of the enlistees asked what to do with income deposited to checking accounts. Ferdinando showed them how to open a Special EasyStartSM Certificate; several did so during class—and began earning high returns at low risk.
Financial literacy is rarely taught at home or school and is taboo in social conversation, but it’s an essential life skill, Ferdinando says. People who “pay themselves first” reap the rewards of compounding interest, more life choices and less stress. “I personally feel this may be one of the most important life skills we can master.”
Over 3 decades in banking, Ferdinando has seen the results firsthand. A few years ago, she counseled a pair of brothers who had grown up in a cramped apartment in a housing project in New York City. With Ferdinando’s help, the brothers, who had recently joined the Army, opened accounts with Navy Federal, packed away every penny and eventually saved enough to buy a family home, the first in their family.
“The American dream came true for this family,” Ferdinando says. “Anyone can build a nest egg. Anyone can achieve higher goals with the right information and the desire to get it done.” In short, anyone—even young enlistees—can enjoy financial health and wellbeing if they put their mind to it, and many are making 2024 their year to do so.
This content is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.