Ten years after the financial crisis and Great Recession, WalletHub measured the financial literacy of each state.
The average grade? No higher than a B, with most states falling in the D+ to B- range. The reason? Little to no financial education.
“We don’t learn personal finance anywhere in school — some schools have very limited financial education — so for those going through the education system, there is not much they’re learning in terms of practical life skills,” said Tony Steuer, a financial expert and author of “GET READY!: A Step-by-Step Planner for Maintaining Your Financial First Aid Kit.” “Most school systems don’t even touch financial skills.”
According to WalletHub’s data, those who don’t finish high school or complete a bachelor’s degree are even more financially illiterate than those who do.
Financial literacy extends beyond mere understanding of how credit cards and budgets work. Most employees choose a health insurance plan through their employer, and most Americans mortgage their homes and take out loans to buy cars. The problem is, insurance plans, loans and mortgages can be confusing if you don’t have some background in finance.
“Companies spend so much money on their group insurance benefits and yet employees every time when it comes to open enrollment, they have no idea what they’re really doing,” Steuer said. “They really don’t have enough knowledge to make an informed choice.”
Steuer advocates for Americans to read all documents before choosing insurance or signing a loan. Hidden fees and other terms and conditions lurk in the fine print, and not everyone knows what to look for when choosing a financial product.
While educating Americans about their financial health is critical, Steuer thinks the financial services industry — the insurance companies, lenders, hedge and mutual fund managers of the world — doesn’t do enough to make the process transparent and easy-to-understand for consumers.
“These products are not financially easy, they’re complex,” Steuer said. “The financial services industry continues to put out really opaque materials and not simplifying their products and services in a way that people can easily understand. … Financial services companies could dramatically simplify what they do.”
Some financial technology (fintech) companies want to change that. SoFi, for example, consolidates student loan debt under a more manageable interest rate. Lemonade offers renter’s insurance. Kabbage provides small business loans. Although these fintech companies try to simplify financial services and give consumers more options, they also bring a whole new set of problems.
“Their biggest issue is their staff and leadership, 90 percent of them are tech people, and very few have financial knowledge,” Steuer said. “These companies are continuously turning over what their mission statements are and what they’re doing, and I think they don’t understand financial stuff very well.”
One way for Americans to take control of their finances is to simply take responsibility and start reading and researching every financial product they use, Steuer said, because there’s a wealth of books and resources on the internet. Advocacy groups like the National Financial Educators Council and Financial Services Institute provide a variety of resources for free on their websites.
“People need to make a decision that they’re going to start to get informed,” Steuer said. “They need to be dedicated to that and spend as much time searching for a financial product as they do searching for the perfect TV or car. (Most people) might go to Lending Tree and run two or three quotes for a mortgage, but don’t take the same amount of time as searching for a TV, and they can’t tell you the difference between two different mortgages and how that will impact them. I think it’s a matter of sitting down and identifying your goals and priorities.”
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Some financial services companies, like Fidelity Investments, do try to educate Americans on various financial products and financial health. This year, Fidelity’s goal is to reach 100,000 school-age children with financial literacy training. So far, 47,000 children have participated in the training.
“Only 27 percent of young adults know basic financial concepts,” Pam Everhart, Fidelity’s head of community relations, told InsideSources. “When you’re not financially literate, you tend to be more likely to take payday loans, pay only the minimum balance on a credit card, take on high-cost mortgages, have higher debt levels, and sometimes get quite behind on the debt. So that’s really the problem.”
Everhart said Fidelity offers limited financial advice over the phone to Fidelity and non-Fidelity customers, and said hundreds of people call every day.
“It’s a range of questions that come up,” she said. “Like, ‘I’m just trying to save for my kid’s college, can you help me get started?’ Or, ‘I’m trying to save for a home,’ or ‘I’m just starting out with my retirement plan, how much should I be saving?’ More and more the problem is student debt. You may have a young employee who just graduated from college with large student debt who asks, ‘How may I pay down my student loan and save for retirement?’”
Steuer thinks talking to financial services companies is a good place to start learning how to make smart financial decisions, but warned that financial services companies always have their own agenda: to make money off you.
“Schwab is starting a new program where you can get some limited advice for a very inexpensive monthly price, and other firms have started looking into that, but I think it’s the same thing as anything, you have to be careful about who you get the advice from, and what their incentive is for giving that advice,” Steuer said. “It’s like going into an auto dealership.”
Everhart and Steuer also think there’s a role for government to encourage financial literacy, but Steuer worries the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau isn’t doing as much as it used to.
“They were getting tons of complaints, they were issuing penalties against financial services companies, they were doing investigations, they were putting out really good materials about payday loans and student loans, but they’re not doing the enforcement side of it anymore,” he said. “And unfortunately, you need a carrot and a stick in this situation.”
The CFPB, for example, is in the process of overhauling its payday lending rule, which many advocacy groups like Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending argue is bad for consumers since so many are financially illiterate and don’t know how to make smart loan decisions, allowing them to be easily taken advantage of by payday lenders.
“I think this is an area where you do need a little bit more regulation, to keep companies honest in dealing with consumers, because you have some companies realize that it’s in their long term benefit to serve the consumer well, and the companies whose concern is improving the quarterly numbers,” Steuer said.
Meanwhile, financial services companies like Fidelity work toward getting ahead of the problem by educating children while they’re young, and training teachers to educate them about financial literacy as well.
‘There is a large population of people who may not necessarily realize that the tools are available,” Everhart said. “I think educating people around where they need to go and making them aware of the various resources, is a first start.