Back to School: The Pursuit of Financial Literacy

Do you feel more financially literate?

It’s a valid question—we’re at the end of Financial Literacy Month, designated as such by the government. So has it worked? Have Washington and the all the state capitals involved moved us to make things better?

Let’s start with the designation itself. Everything about the government is byzantine, of course, and even something as innocuous as encouraging people to become more money-savvy is no exception. Turns out this initiative was actually by a non-profit group back in 200, and the U.S. Senate signed on to a youth-oriented version in 2003, although by that time at least eight states already had their own version. A few years later, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling took up the cause.

In 2006, the Financial Literacy and Education Commission, backed by a lengthy roll call of government agencies and departments, delivered a comprehensive study titled Taking Ownership of the Future: The National Strategy for Financial Literacy. Supported by reams of data and credible subject matter experts, the report lays out a broad series of initiatives and goals that are designed specifically to help individuals enhance their management of financial issues.

The report also serves a perfect snapshot in time, not because it’s obsolete now—in fact, the advice may be even more valid in today’s difficult market—but because it captures the apparent widening gulf between the real and the aspirational. The resources, the desires, and the motives are all there to do things better than we should. And yet. . .

One good example is how much money we put away without spending. The report bemoans the steep decline in this area, pointing out that 35 years earlier, in the mid-’70s, 9.4% of disposable income was set aside for personal savings (some estimates have it even higher.) By 2004, the figure had plummeted to 1.3% (some estimates have it even lower.) Then Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Alan Greenspan is quoted as saying that while domestic savings will be critically important, actual performance in this area would be dictated by largely by the “behavior of the members of the baby-boom cohort during their retirement years.”

Of course, the year 2006 could be seen as increasingly distant from the dot-com crash at the turn of the century and closer to the financial meltdown that began, at least publicly, in 2008. But where are we now?

Savings got closer to 6% during that period (dubbed the “new frugality”) but went back down to 3.5% late last year. That’s much lower than most retirement groups recommend. In fact, those who get started late in life—say, the age of 45—at the savings game need to put away a good 18% of annual income to assure a comfortable retirement after turning 70.

Can we do this? The current Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, had an interesting take on this before taking the job: As an economist at Princeton University, he theorized that the problem isn’t Americans saving too little, it’s foreigners saving too much. In particular, excess savings by Chinese individuals caused them to lend money to the U.S. at low rates, which effectively financed American consumption and caused a mountain of debt.

Of course, there’s much more to financial literacy than just personal savings—we need a better handle on everything from home mortgages and health insurance to tax rates and student loans. The irony is that all these issues are playing out on a national stage right now, courtesy of the presidential election.

In sum, the information and resources exist for us to learn more and do better. It’s in our own best interest to make the effort. Otherwise, every month—including those dedicated to helping us become more financially literate—will be like the one that came before.

Written by Staff