REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Sgt. Andrew Dykes was living paycheck to paycheck.

Before joining the Army, the AMC Band member was a freelance musician, picking and choosing each month what bills he could pay and deciding who needed their medicine more -- he or his wife.

"Living paycheck to paycheck, having bill collectors call you asking for money, not having money in the bank to cover expenses or be able to be there for family was a big issue," Dykes said. "I had to learn things the hard way."

Across the country, individuals and families are feeling the pain and financial strain of a down economy paired with the consequences of making poor choices with their money. Kathleen Riester and Army Community Service's Financial Readiness Program are here to help.

"It's very difficult times, not only on a national level, but an individual level as well," said Riester, financial readiness program manager and certified financial counselor. "People are finding that the money is not going as far as it used to, and they're having to go back to the drawing board and develop a new budget, a new action plan."

Individual, couple and family financial counseling is available, free of charge, to all active duty, National Guard, Reserve and Department of Defense civilians. All they have to do is make the call to put them on a better path to financial readiness.

"You have to take that first step," Riester said. "Coming in to see me is taking the first step. People tend to ignore it until they start losing sleep over it and it's permeating all areas of their life."

Once the one-hour appointment is made, Riester sends out a financial fitness worksheet to be filled out that includes how much income is coming into the family and how much is going out. Individuals are to bring the worksheet, a recent credit report and Leave and Earning Statement to their first appointment. From there, Riester helps them determine exactly what their money is being spent on, so families can determine what choices they need to either tweak or eliminate altogether.

"The step that most people are skipping is the most basic one -- that is accounting where the money is going each month," she said. "Once they know where that money is going, they can say, 'I don't want to do that behavior anymore.'"

One of the most common behaviors Riester has seen in recent years is people simply spending more money than what is coming into the household.

"They are living beyond their means and it's caught up with them," she said. "They're not paying their balances down but are still continuing to use them."

Riester recommends setting financial goals and objectives -- both short term and long term -- and writing them down to assist individuals in making smarter choices with their money. Having a goal of saving so many dollars a month, or paying off a credit card by the end of the year may be the motivation needed to just saying no to unnecessary purchases.

"It doesn't matter how much people make, it's the choices they are making with their money," Riester said.

Dykes employed the same strategy with his family, setting a monthly budget, determining what things their money was going toward that they didn't need, and prioritizing needs vs. wants. Upon joining the Army, every extra dollar he made went toward a bill.

"I was so intense about it, I just ducked my head down and held my breath and went at it," Dykes said.

From 2007-10, Dykes paid off approximately $20,000 of his family's debt, $80,000 including student loans, and has started to save so that emergencies are now only inconveniences.

"Things that were life emergencies back in the day, like a car broke down or an expensive repair, I would be up the creek without a paddle," Dykes said. "I'd be sweating, chewing the fingernails asking myself, 'What am I going to do?' Now it's not an emergency, it's just annoying."

Riester will speak to the AMC Band in a workshop Oct. 20 about financial readiness, part of her outreach through the financial readiness program. Organizations across the Arsenal are invited to contact Riester to set up a time in the upcoming year for her to visit their organization and conduct a financial readiness class on the topic of their choosing. If a topic is not selected, Riester will start with the basics. Dykes will also share his personal story of both horror and success at the Oct. 20 class.

"I love doing things for myself and being self-reliant," Dykes said. "A lot of people don't actually understand what rich or wealthy means. They think rich is a dollar number, an amount of money that you make in a year. You can make as much money as you want, but if you spend more than you make, you're broke."

For more about the Financial Readiness Program or to schedule an appointment, call 876-5397 or email