One of Capt. Buddy Winn's jobs in Iraq as a National Guard chaplain is to counsel soldiers concerning everything from family to money matters so they can concentrate on their job: the war.

Civilian studies have shown that financial stress causes lost productivity and distraction in the workplace. So he made it a goal to lead money seminars for the Minnesota National Guard assault helicopter battalion deployed for 16 months to Iraq.

"Soldiers having money problems are distracted and less effective," Winn said on the phone during a raging desert dust storm last week. "Getting soldiers excited about money, getting them in tune with their spouses about money, means they have [fewer] things to distract them, and their morale is up."

Winn chose bestselling author and radio host Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University (FPU) to educate the troops. "I like that Mr. Ramsey tells people upfront that it's not going to be easy, and it's going to take discipline," Winn said. Ramsey incorporates Christian beliefs into his teachings. After making and losing millions in real estate before his 30th birthday, Ramsey made it his business to spread the gospel of debt-free living to the Average Joe.

According to, FPU teaches 3,000 U.S. military members each year with its video course, and claims that the average soldier pays off $5,300 in consumer debt and puts $2,700 into savings during the 91-day course.

The materials aren't cheap. Class leaders pay $299, servicemen and women pay $93 to join. But it's a small price to pay, Winn said. Over the course of seven weeks, Winn led 30 soldiers through twice-weekly lessons about "the stuff my parents never taught me," from debt to home ownership to investing. Participants who tracked their finances eliminated debt and invested funds to the tune of about $150,000.

Winn, who earlier in life was $15,000 in the hole, managed to save a few thousand dollars in USAA mutual funds and will save several thousand more in his lifetime now that he'll never again finance a car. Paying cash for a car "was one of those slap-yourself-in-the-forehead moments," he said.

Cheryl Thacker of Luverne, Minn., took the course with her husband, Sgt. Jeff Thacker. They'd long wanted to tackle debt from a job loss and medical crises. FPU gave them a common language with which to discuss money and a plan to pay off debt.

In some ways, Cheryl thinks the distance was a good thing. "We would e-mail each other answers to questions and take time to process it before 'discussing,'" she said. Having money talks also helped Jeff understand it's gallons of milk and gasoline -- not shopping sprees -- that are responsible for their lower bank balance. "The guys in Iraq do not realize how the cost of everything has gone up," she said.

Capt. Matthew Lassegard, 38, of Inver Grove Heights, wants to help his wife manage the family finances when he returns. He said the real test for FPU participants will be resisting the temptation to spend money on big-ticket toys at home. In Iraq, where soldiers have few expenses and little space to store purchases, many soldiers can't help but save their incomes.

Winn's unit is scheduled to return home at the end of July. After spending some much-needed time with family, the 37-year-old pastor at Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park plans to speak with commanders about offering Financial Peace University to soldiers before deployment.

Sgt. Nicquie Twedt, 21, of North St. Paul wishes she had taken the class sooner. "The first few months that we were in Iraq, I discovered the power of," she wrote in an e-mail. "If I had taken this class earlier, I would have been a lot more conscious of where my money was going." Even so, she has a substantial cash cushion and only owes on the house she recently bought. "It's never too late."

Kara McGuire writes about money. • 612-673-7293