By: Michelle Singletary
September 12, 2010
As we continue to assign blame for the nation's economic mess, perhaps it would do us well to look in the mirror.
Then ask yourself whether you helped push this country into the recession.
This exercise isn't intended to have you flog yourself for not understanding the difference between a need or a want, or for splurging when you should have been saving, or for going too deeply into debt on your home or for investing in things you didn't understand.
No, there really is no use in beating yourself up. Instead, use this experience to accept personal responsibility. Once you have, you might ask, what next?
Learn to do better.
The federal government hopes to help by creating a national financial literacy campaign. At any other time, such an action could be seen as just more busywork for our public officials. But this is a serious matter. What people don't know about personal finance is costing them and the government a lot of money.
The Treasury Department has been accepting public comment on a number of initiatives aimed at increasing people's knowledge of personal finance. For instance, you have until Sunday to comment on a proposed set of five core financial concepts. So what do you think people should know about earning, spending, saving, borrowing and risk-taking?
The comment requests are part of a larger mission of the Financial Literacy and Education Commission, which is chaired by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and made up of the heads of almost two dozen federal agencies. It was established under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 and was charged with coming up with a national financial education Web site, which it has at Mymoney.gov.
The commission created a toll-free hotline (1-888-MYMONEY), which you can use to order a packet of information with various financial tips. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EDT), you get a live person to take your order. However, you can't get answers to specific questions or concerns.
The commission is also working on pulling together a baseline of information that will be disseminated by government, nonprofit and private organizations involved with personal-finance education. Treasury wants to know your thoughts on its draft plan, which you can find at www.treasury.gov/financialeducation. The comment window for the national strategy closes Sept. 19.
"This is about making sure we are leveraging all of our resources in the most effective way possible to help families make more-informed financial decisions," Assistant Secretary Michael Barr said in an interview.
Barr said the government is putting a new spin on the old three-legged stool concept, which in the past described the common sources of retirement income - savings, a pension and Social Security. To borrow the language, the legs of the stool that Barr described were things needed to protect consumers in the wake of the recent financial crisis.
"People need basic protections so they are not taken advantage of," Barr said. "There needs to be improvement in access so people can get connected to financial services, and there needs to be improvement in financial education so people can empower themselves."
Without personal responsibility, the stool can't stand.
We can't blame the big banks for everything that has gone wrong with the economy, although they had a huge role in it. We can't put all the blame on President Obama or the previous administration. We can't even blame everything on a Congress that for years resisted checks and balances that could have prevented such a severe recession.
Some of the blame also belongs to individuals who overspent, or saved too little or borrowed too much.
I teach financial literacy to church groups, community groups, highly educated professionals, low-income workers, prison inmates, seniors and young adults. It's amazing how much people don't know.
Written comments on the five core competency concepts and the national financial literacy strategy can be sent by e-mail to email@example.com or by mail to the Department of the Treasury, Office of Financial Education and Financial Access, 1500 Pennsylvania Ave. NW., Washington, D.C. 20220.
"With no agreed-upon core set of standards for what Americans should know about personal finance, financial education is hit or miss across the country," said Kevin R. Keller, chief executive of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that grants the certified financial planner certification.
I hope you take the time to review what the commission is working on and, as a result, improve your financial knowledge. If people don't learn from their mistakes, they will repeat them when the economy picks up.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org