"You can never go wrong buying real estate," according to investment counselors of yore.

Times, however, have changed.

"That might have been a good idea several years ago," said Cindy Miller, the branch chief at the Fort Knox's Army Community Service Financial Readiness program. "But with this market, it's no longer such a great idea. You take a huge risk when you invest in a home, knowing that you won't be staying in the area."

ACS has been working with financial readiness issues for some time, but fortunately, its newest Financial Readiness counselor comes with some pretty handy qualifications.

Meet Dwan Payne. She works at ACS counseling Soldiers and Family members about wise money choices, whether it's buying a home, purchasing a car, or just trying to improve credit card situations. With 16 years of experience as a credit counselor, Payne is more than qualified to help Soldiers.

But Payne has taken many classes and tests, most with Housing and Urban Development, and has been certified as a housing counselor as well as a loss mitigation counselor. It's safe to say she knows her way around the mortgage industry.

According to Payne, the first step to take when considering a big purchase is to talk with one of the Financial Readiness counselors at ACS and look at a spending plan-known as a budget in the old days.

"Whether you want to buy a home, a car, or even furniture, you really should determine in advance if you can afford the purchase," Payne said.

If the Soldier's credit situation reveals he isn't ready for a home purchase yet, there are things he can do to improve his situation. Payne said together they can set goals and a timeline for when the Family should be able to purchase a home.

On the other hand, if a Family has already purchased a home and realizes they are in over their heads, looking at spending habits and making a plan could help a Family save its home, Payne explained.

"Sometimes (Soldiers) don't want to hear what I have to say," Payne said. "Sometimes the only way to save your home is to make changes in your lifestyle. But if you're serious about saving that house and your credit, it may be the only choice."

Before buying a home, Payne said, there are many other considerations beside the finances.

Military Families are often unaware of the extensive costs involved with home ownership, such as maintenance, repairs, taxes, and insurance. But other issues like schools and churches should be researched, as well as crime statistics for the neighborhood you're interested in.

"Most people get in trouble because they don't do their homework," Payne said.

Should you believe that you're ready to make a home purchase, Payne still recommended a visit to ACS.

"You should get your credit report first and see what's there," Payne explained. "You really don't want a creditor to see negative information-especially if it's something you could have remedied in advance, such as false data or someone else's information on your credit report by mistake."

"We would love to see all Soldiers come in and do a budget plan," added Miller, who is a credit counselor, too. "We don't tell anybody what they have to do-we simply point out ways to use money more wisely, and help them look at choices they'll need to make."

Miller said that if she sees Soldiers who spend $300 a month on cigarettes, she doesn't try to tell them to quit smoking. She just asks if they buy cigarettes by the pack or by the carton, since it's cheaper to buy by the

carton. She tries to show Soldiers choices they can make to stretch their dollars.

Unfortunately, the present $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers has some Soldiers in a rush to find a home - any home - to buy, and anytime people make purchases under pressure, they're not usually wise purchases.

"Many Soldiers feel they're throwing away their (basic allowance for housing) if they don't buy a home, somehow invest that monthly allowance into something they'll have later or perhaps re-sell for a profit," Miller said. "However, it's just as easy to lose $8,000 on a home in the current market."

Buying a home just isn't for everyone, she said.

The regular Financial Readiness classes conducted by ACS are open to the public and can even be brought to the units, if commanders so desire. Finances often present problems for Soldiers, and in addition to classes, ACS offers one-on-one counseling for Soldiers, if needed. Those appointments-unlike the classes-make take anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the needs of the Soldier.

"If we could just see Soldiers before they make big purchases, we would all feel better," Miller said. "They would have more tools to make wise choices and we would feel better for helping them. Credit counseling doesn't just help with your financial life, it affects many other areas of your life-even your marriage-because the number one cause of divorce is conflict over monetary problems."

Even these days of multiple deployments, in which Soldiers receive extra pay for hazardous duty, doesn't help some Soldiers with their bank accounts.

"Many of those Soldiers return from a deployment even deeper in debt," Miller said. "Communication with the spouse often leaves a lot to be desired and they both may be spending too much during their separation."

While some Soldiers may be at fault, in other cases unscrupulous creditors target Soldiers, Miller said.

"Don't be fooled because a business has a military-sounding name. Creditors know exactly how much each pay grade earns and they know how garnishment works, so they have little fear of losing their money," she said. "They may sell a Soldier a car, or furniture -whatever - knowing very well that the Soldier cannot afford it. As soon as the Soldier falls behind on his payments, the creditor presents the signed contract to the Soldier's commander, and in no time at all, a garnishment is slapped on the Soldier's pay."

"We can help if they don't wait so long," Payne said. "Don't wait until you've been served with papers to talk with us."

"And even if you have been served, come in anyway," Miller added. "One source of help is the (Army Emergency Relief) program. What's the worst that could happen-they say 'no'' At least you tried, and that's an interest-free loan because AER is a nonprofit organization."

Over and over again, both counselors emphasized the need to plan for major purchases and get help managing finances.

"There are so many things to consider: the purchase, the creditor, the type of loan, the finance rate - so many things," Payne said.

"If you're not sure about a purchase, bring the contract in and we'll be happy to look at it for you. If somebody tells you 'you can't take this contract out of here,' or take it to a lawyer first,-that's not a good sign," Miller said.

"The number one reason clients come to see me is when they're already in trouble," Payne added. "I'd really like to turn that around."

For a counseling appointment, contact Miller or Payne at ACS, 624-5989.