Giving Soldiers Critical Skills to Last a Lifetime

An interview with Brendan Duebner, founder of Life Skills for Soldiers



Giving Soldiers Life Skills

An interview with Brendan Duebner, CEO and founder of Life Skills for Soldiers

Many current and former military personnel are familiar with the concept of “train the trainer.” Brendan Duebner, founder and CEO of Life Skills for Soldiers, has become a thought leader using the concept. Duebner has built an effective new nonprofit that leverages the unique advantages that unit culture an loyalty brings when it comes to financial literacy. And that all starts with “training the trainer” in basic financial literacy. He shared how he came to found Life Skills for Soldiers, and what he hopes to accomplish.

Adrian Bonenberger: Tell me about span of control.

Brendan Duebner: The military is very much built around its hierarchy. It’s like a nesting doll: the three or four-person team that it's part of the two- or three-team squad, and the three- or four-squad platoon, which is part of the three- or four- or five-platoon company, etc, etc. There are obvious and time-tested reasons why it’s done that way. One of my favorite authors is Sebastian Junger. And he talks about how, you know, we were evolved to be like a platoon in combat. He cites some of the research you can find about how most people can keep, maximum, 100 relationships at a time, which is about the size of a company.

Our whole thing is using a Train the Trainer model for personal finance and financial readiness training. And that’s all about economy of force, and span of control. We think that's the best way to do it, because then you're leveraging leaders that are already in a formation. Using people who already have relationships with the service members; leaders who see service members every day, who care about them, who can help them come up with a personalized plan and then oversee its implementation into their daily life. So span of control Train, The trainer is something that's integral to our model.

Adrian Bonenberger: Life Skills for Soldiers is doing amazing work; where did you get the idea?

Brendan Duebner: In 2017, my platoon had just come back from a heavy combat deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. I joined the unit after their redeployment and was what, 21, 22 at the time? I had just finished up college, and I was a little intimidated to say the least. I wasn’t sure what value I could provide to a battle-proven combat unit. But over the weeks, I quickly saw that our issues weren't the traditional problems that I expected. It wasn't the equipment, it wasn't funding, it wasn't any of that stuff. It was mostly personnel issues. And when you dug into those issues, 95% of the time it had something to do with money, some kind of personal finance issue. This was an opportunity for me to help out the team and prove my worth, because since I was a kid I was asking for stocks for Christmas, like, I'd always been inclined to do this kind of stuff, for whatever reason. I’ve been financially literate for a long time.

So I very quickly recognized the problem. The next step was getting with my platoon sergeant. I asked: “Are you seeing this? What can we do?” He said “Yes, sir. Yeah, this is a problem, this has always been a problem, I'll probably always be a problem.” I saw an opportunity do something about it, I didn’t want to just concede to the inevitable.

First we tried to use the resources that the Army provided through the soldier Support Center. That didn’t work; they're really not built for platoon level training, they're built for battalion level, let's get everybody into the chapel, or the post theater or whatever, we're gonna go through a PowerPoint, and we're going to check a box. There was nothing for what we were looking to do, smaller, more targeted. I thought: “Heck, I could do this.” I took the knowledge I already, did some research, and created a few classes on basic financial literacy. Every month, I’d say: “hey, we're gonna do a broadening class, pick a topic, how to make a budget, how to buy a car, or how to use the TSP.” They'd pick the topic, I would go make the overarching class. Then they would get with their section chief, their NCO and actually go through their credit card statements, go through their TSP account, whatever it was the class was about.

It was a phenomenal experience. Not only did it give me, Lieutenant Duebner, an opportunity to prove myself and build leadership capital, but it also gave my NCOs that same opportunity. It built a ton of trust within the platoon and demonstrated that we cared about the service members far more than just their PT score, their weapons score, whatever it was. It demonstrated that we cared about them as a human being. It resulted in huge increases in platoon camaraderie and about a 75% decrease in disciplinary issues, which was unexpected. It was wildly successful.

There was this one private, we’ll call him private Luke, who was classic. 19 years old when I met him, from Nowhere, U.S.A., strong kid, smart kid, ton of disciplinary issues. He’d been kicked out of two or three platoons before he got to mine. Right before we did a budgeting class, and in the budget class, we found out that he was broke. But the reason why was that he was spending hundreds of dollars a month on the barracks vending machines. Just a very easy thing to fix, because he wasn’t even thinking about going, grabbing some snacks, going back to his room every day. Once we identified that problem, it was straightforward to help him find the solution. And after we implemented that solution he was so grateful. We probably saved him hundreds, thousands of dollars, maybe, not huge numbers. But you would think we made in the richest man on earth. We never had a disciplinary problem with him again and in fact, he ended up being one of my best soldiers.

This experience was the background for when I was pulled up to brigade for a deployment. After that deployment, I’d set on transitioning to the reserves and going to business school. I was on post deployment leave, thinking through my time in the military. And those basic finance classes really stood out to me as an inflection point for me as a leader, and something that produced real good. Originally I took the classes I’d made, the small digital library of them that I had accumulated, and put them online for troops to download. So they wouldn’t have to recreate the wheel. Then we got some attention, we got some money, and we got software to track how people were interacting with the products. We could iterate on it. I recruited a board, and institutionalized the learning, and now we are where we are today.

Adrian Bonenberger: What do you think of the military’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP)? Is it effective or is there room for improvement?

Brendan Duebner: I think they’re very well intentioned. But they have a problem in that they have huge throughput. How many people separate from the military each year — tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe, I don't know. But that's a lot of people to train. You get a lot of variety and quality also, if you bring in instructors that have to be in person, and that that means they have to live around military installations, which are distributed all over the world. That's a tough problem set.

Life Skills for Soldiers comes at things a little differently; we seek to establish habits before the service member leaves the military, and we use the physical infrastructure that's already there, we use the leaders who are there and who have the relationships and credibility.

Sometimes we'll get pushback about leaders not being qualified, like they're not financial advisors. True. No argument there. And we're not trying to make them financial advisors, frankly. But we're also not going after complicated topics or problems. We’re going through how to make a budget, how to set up a TSP account. Very basic things that, if done correctly, especially early in a career, will have profound effects on financial health. Ideally our program helps reduce the stress of expectations on TAP, where it’s much harder to help at that point.

Adrian Bonenberger: You wrote and published a white paper that was full of interesting insights about the financial health of troops. What jumped out to you when you were researching for it? And then where you got it published?

Brendan Duebner: I'm no writer. The white paper was a learning experience. I had a small window, between finishing my first year at business school, and before starting my internship. I took those two weeks, to sit down, do research, and write it. I found data that almost entirely supported what I had anecdotally seen and heard in the military: that personal finance is a huge problem for service members. Personal finance highly correlates to a lot of other problems that sometimes we don't think about as personal finance problems.

I also would not have guessed that the real wage of servicemembers has gone up significantly compared to the average US citizen, which shows that their pay has increased on a relative basis. And so servicemembers should not be lagging the civilian sector in pay, I personally believe they should be exceeding it, because not only has pay gone up on a relative basis, but you have so many safeguards compared to civilians. You have life insurance. If you're enlisted, junior enlisted, not married, you have a place to stay. If you are married, or an officer, you get tax advantaged subsidies for housing, for subsistence, for uniforms, for all these things. And you have the most steady source of income on this planet, you're getting however much every two weeks come hell or high water. And most importantly, the thing that we really don't tap into but could be a huge benefit is you have an incredible support system. You have an entire chain of command, you have your peer group, that camaraderie in the military, there's a reason why everybody talks about it because it is profoundly different than basically anywhere else in society. And that can be a huge asset because so much about personal finance is habits. It's just habits plus a little bit of discipline. What institution can I think of that places a huge emphasis on habits and discipline? The military.

Adrian Bonenberger: What else would you like to see Life Skills for Soldiers accomplish beyond basic personal finance?

Brendan Duebner: There's a reason why it's called Life Skills for soldiers and not money skills for soldiers. Personal finances is the lowest hanging fruit, the problem that if solved, has the biggest positive impact. There are a ton of other things on could address, such as nutrition and fitness. And why limit it to the veteran population. Why not engage different communities adjacent to veterans, such ast law enforcement, and Blue Collar industries? The personal finance aspect is, to my mind, just the beginning.

Soldiers learning life skills through an innovative new model that uses a “train the trainer” approach. Photo via Life Skills for Soldiers.

Adrian Bonenberger: Last question. You’re running some pilot programs. What can you say about the results from them, so far?

Brendan Duebner: In March of this year, we started several pilot programs. Originally, we had courses online, and learning management software. Folks in the military could sign up and went through the class; if they passed, they got access, and then boom, they could teach people. Pilots were the next step, and we've done three to date. Two were with special forces, an one was with an infantry battalion from the 101st. The pilots consisted of us working with the unit's Commander. We ran them over three months, although the time scale can vary. They teach three classes over the time: budgeting, TSP and investing.

The commander splits the group up between a treatment group and a control group, and they do a pre survey before they take any of the classes. Then they do a post survey. We take that data, we package it, and we send it to our third party researcher, the leading expert in this field. For all three of the pilots, the data came back showing statistically significant improvements in every category with orders of magnitude between 10, and 20%. And huge projected changes in in individual net worth. We're actually just finishing up our fourth and fifth pilots right now.

There's very little research on which to evaluate “Train the Trainer,” versus any other model, especially for personal finance. To my knowledge, there's only one other organization that does it at all, called “Next gen personal finance.” They train high school teachers to teach personal finance. And they've had a lot of success. But there's not a lot of data behind it. Our three pilots make us one of, if not the leading researchers in the field, and we have many more to come. But I think one of the things sometimes we get is, you know, like how do we know this works? Based off the three pilots we have so far, all of them definitively say “this definitely works.”

Adrian Bonenberger: You know what the real test will be, right?

Brendan Duebner: What’s that?

Adrian Bonenberger: If you can do a train the trainer model in the Marine Corps. Teach them anything, that’ll be a real first. They already know everything.

Brendan Duebner: Ha. Right.

Adrian Bonenberger: Thanks for your time!


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