A 2010 Brookings Institution survey found that half of American adults flunk such financial literacy questions as this: If the interest rate on your savings account were 1 percent per year, and inflation were 2 percent, would you be able to buy more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account after a year? (The answer is less.)
Other surveys show that women, African Americans, Hispanics, and the less educated are consistently less likely to be financially literate. Twenty-five percent of Americans have no savings, and 40 percent have no money set aside for retirement. An American earning the average annual income, $43,000, has an average of only $3,800 in the bank and $35,000 in retirement funds. More problematic, average household debt is $117,000, and total college debt has surpassed consumer debt for the first time, reaching $1 trillion.
We clearly need to improve personal financial decision-making. The problem is that most financial literacy programs offer too little, too late. Today's students rely on a patchwork of electives at best. And adults turn to on-the-job workshops, financial industry advisers, and get-out-of-debt gurus.
Americans are making major financial decisions long before they seek or receive financial education. Take going to college: The decision, which may require taking out large loans, is made by teenagers, perhaps with some guidance from parents and loan officers. Or consider retirement: Planning and saving for it should begin in one's early twenties, but it usually starts much later.
Financial literacy programs also tend to be isolated efforts. They fail to engage with other disciplines or consider research by behavioral economists on how people make financial decisions.
The U.S. government's newest clearinghouse for economic education, MyMoney.gov, offers excellent resources. But few know it exists, and good luck deciding how it all goes together.
If we're serious about improving financial knowledge and behavior, we have to move beyond this catch-as-catch-can approach.
Other countries and cultures are addressing the challenge more systematically. Australia has just launched an ambitious K-12 interdisciplinary curriculum that integrates financial math, history, economics, and behavioral science with competence testing. Canada is testing its own national curriculum.
We also must develop cultural values that undergird financial literacy and encourage financial competence. Thrift is one of these. Researchers are gleaning new examples from immigrants who have made thrift the key to surviving and thriving in America. Thrift is also the focus of the newest issue of Pennsylvania Legacies, a magazine published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Thrift should be part of the debate about the future of the American middle class. To that end, as part of this year's Thrift Week celebration in Philadelphia, Andrew Hill of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve will present important new research on teaching financial literacy in area high schools. Hill will gather with educators at the Historical Society on Saturday to address the challenges of personal financial education. At a luncheon open to the public, they will explore how research on financial education illuminates the understanding of thrift as a cultural movement and value.
The hometown of Ben Franklin is an ideal place to test the kite of financial education in the thunderstorm of financial decision-making. We owe our children a lesson on thrift and the wisdom it takes to thrive.