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The Case for Financial Education

Key Points
  • Recent financial literacy studies uncover a tremendous need for more financial knowledge.

  • While not all financial literacy programs are created equal, many show positive results.

  • Formal programs are important, but we can all play a part in strengthening financial education opportunities at home, at work, and in our communities.

Dear Readers,

You probably know that I'm a champion of financial literacy. And as I look at some of the recent research from FINRA, it only reinforces my commitment. According to their findings, fewer than 50 percent of Americans have tried to figure out how much they need for retirement, have an emergency fund or are saving for their kids' education. And according to economist Olivia S. Mitchell, a professor at The Wharton School, and  Annamaria Lusardi, director of the Global Financial Literacy Center at the George Washington School of Business, only 34 percent of participants in a financial knowledge study they conducted could correctly answer three simple questions about interest, inflation and investment risk. 

To me, the need for financial education for all ages is strikingly clear. And the lack of it is directly affecting people's ability to save and invest. Yet there are a lot of naysayers out there—even among experts in the financial literacy field—who question the effectiveness of a financial education. 

Certain studies have noted that taking a financial literacy course doesn't necessarily change behaviors, that exposing kids to financial concepts early on doesn't mean they'll remember them when they need them later in life. Okay, I can understand that. But then taking one Spanish course doesn't make you fluent. A year of piano lessons doesn't mean you can play well. Anything important or complex has to be learned over time—and practiced. So I'm still a believer. And in the face of contrarian commentary, I'm ready to once again get on my financial literacy soapbox.

Why it's so important

We live in an increasingly complex financial world where individuals must be responsible for their own retirement savings and investing, where opportunities to borrow large amounts are increasing, and where access to investing has become easier at the same time that investing products have become more complex. How do we learn to deal with these important financial decisions?

A 2015 study by Dr. Lusardi, Pierre-Carl Michaud and Olivia S. Mitchell, Optimal Financial Knowledge and Wealth Inequality, underscores why financial education is so important. Their research shows that people with greater financial literacy are more likely to participate in the stock market, get better returns on their portfolios, are better able to manage debt, and are more likely to plan for retirement. In fact, the authors estimate that 30 to 40 percent of retirement wealth inequality is accounted for by one's financial knowledge.

How it can change lives

Few people argue with the tremendous need for financial education. But to those who doubt the effectiveness of financial education programs, I'd like to point to a couple that show just how life-changing financial education can be: 

  • A recent study of more than 1,600 teens that completed the Money Matters: Make It Count program created by Schwab and the Boys and Girls Club of America (BCGA) showed an 82 percent improvement in saving, a 33 percent improvement in budgeting, and a 46 percent improvement in managing credit and debt. 
  • Key findings from the Finances 50+ program co-founded by Schwab and the AARP Foundation showed that participants had a 25 percent increase in financial confidence. Results included an overall improvement in savings and debt management, with 33 percent fewer participants spending more than their income, and 47 percent of participants reducing debt.

Another interesting educational program at Dartmouth College that provided new hires a step-by-step guide plus informational videos about enrolling in the College's retirement plan saw an immediate increase in plan participation. 

Of course not every program is going to have dramatic results. But my point is that when the information is provided in a relevant way, a certain percentage of people will learn and take steps to improve their financial lives. To me, that's worth the effort.

What you can do

Financial education is most effective when you have some skin in the game. So since we all deal with money, I encourage everyone to help create financial education opportunities in their own lives and to take advantage of the ones that already exist. 

As a parent, give your kids financial responsibilities early on. Whether it's through an allowance or a part-time job, make sure they have some money of their own to manage and are accountable for certain spending and saving decisions. Also reach out to your kids' schools to see how you can get financial literacy classes added to the curriculum. 

As a teacher, even if it's not part of your formal curriculum (only 17 states require a class in personal finance to graduate), incorporate financial ideas into your lessons as a way to bring math to life. Young kids often have a natural interest in learning to save and spend so the numbers fit in naturally. You can talk to middle schoolers about wants versus needs, and demonstrate the power of compound interest. Similarly, discussions about credit cards and the basics of investing will pique a high school student’s interest—and provide valuable tools for success in real life. 

As an employer, explore ways to bring financial education into the workplace, especially around retirement saving decisions. As an employee, go to your HR department and make sure you know what your retirement plan options are. Don't be intimidated by what you don't understand; ask questions.

As an individual, look to your community. Many banks and other financial institutions have financial education programs. And don't hesitate to be your own advocate. There are a number of online tools and calculators that can help you. Before you make a financial decision or enter into a contract like a mortgage, do your research. Get the facts. Again, ask questions—lots of them. 

Formal financial education programs are important, but I believe financial education can also be organic and we can all be part of the process. Whether with your family, your employer or your community, if you help plant the seeds of financial education awareness, you'll reap the benefits. And, ultimately, so will everyone else.

Have a personal finance question? Email us at askcarrie@schwab.com. Carrie cannot respond to questions directly, but your topic may be considered for a future article. For Schwab account questions and general inquiries contact Schwab.

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Important Disclosures

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The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. 

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