By: Hadley Malcom
April 24, 2012
The cost of financial illiteracy; Millennials are just the latest generation to struggle with dollars and cents, yet this enduring national problem isn't getting any better
Paralyzed. That's how Paige Worthy feels when she thinks about budgeting her money.
"I freeze. I have no idea where to even start with this," the 29-year-old says.
Worthy has held at least six jobs since graduating from college in 2005. She lives in Chicago, where she works as a publication director at a non-profit press association -- but she plans to leave that job to do freelance content marketing starting next month. Over the past few years, she has "just scraped together," which she attributes to an unstable income and sporadic spending habits.
"Part of me feels like I'm way too old to be flying by the seat of my pants like that," she says.
Worthy has plenty of company in her generation. Studies show that a majority of young people in the United States have poor financial literacy, a trend that has been consistent over the past decade and shows few signs of improving. This at a time when young adults face a difficult job market and more personal debt, and yet must take greater responsibility for their financial future.
Today's twentysomethings hold an average debt of about $45,000, which includes everything from cars to credit cards to student loans to mortgages, according to a PNC financial independence survey released last month. Unemployment for those 18-29 is 12.4%, well above the national rate of 8.2%; and young people face an increasingly complex global economy that is credit-driven and puts more responsibility on individuals to plan for and manage their retirement accounts.
"If we live in a world where people are in charge of their own financial well-being ... we have to equip people to deal with this individual responsibility," says Annamaria Lusardi, an economics and accountancy professor and director of the financial literacy center at George Washington University.
How bad is the problem? The Treasury Department and Department of Education have teamed the past three years to assess financial literacy in U.S. high schools, and the results haven't been pretty: the average score of almost 76,900 students in 2010 was 70%. Last year's testing of about 84,000 students and this year's of about 80,000 students were both a point lower: 69%.
"We have a long way to go as a country," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview Friday, in assessing the test results from the past three years. "There has been a devastating cost to a lack of attention, urgency and seriousness of taking this on," he said, noting that the housing crisis, low savings rate and poor retirement planning all flow out of the financial literacy issue.
The problem has been a long time coming. A biennial survey by Jumpstart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, conducted from 1997 to 2008 (when many Millennials were in high school) showed high school seniors doing even worse. In 1997, the average score on a 31-question financial literacy exam given as part of the survey was 57.3%. In 2008, the average score was at its lowest ever, 48.3%.
Laura Levine, president of Jumpstart, which plans to reinstate its survey next year after updating the questions, wouldn't say what a passing grade might be, adding that the industry hasn't settled on a standard. Even so, she says, "If someone only knows half (of the answers), that's a pretty good indication that we need to do better."
Few schools up to the job
Though young people in America have for decades struggled with financial literacy, state curricula haven't shifted much to address the gaps. Fewer than half of states make high school students take an economics class, and just 13 require a personal finance class, according to a 2011 survey by the Council for Economic Education. In those 13 states, though, the payoff is clear: Students who had taken such courses were more likely to go on to save money and pay off a credit card bill in full each month, and less likely to be compulsive buyers, max out credit cards and make late payments.
The biennial survey also shows that just 16 states require testing in economics, three fewer than in 2009. This regression is noted in the survey summary, which points out that over the past two years, the trend toward teaching on these subjects has slowed, and is "in some cases moving backwards."
To ensure that rising generations have the tools to be financially successful, financial literacy experts and advocates interviewed by USA TODAY say that education must start in the early years.
"My dream is that people get it in kindergarten and first grade," says Susan Beacham, CEO of financial literacy firm Money Savvy Generation, which provides financial education aimed at elementary school students. "Parents say, 'I have so much time; they're so young.' You don't teach your young child to brush their teeth at age 18."
Surveys show that parents, not teachers, have the greatest influence on a child's financial literacy. Yet Beacham notes that many parents aren't fully equipped to deal with their own finances and are often too distracted with other issues associated with raising a child.
"Today's parents are concerned, busy, overwhelmed, trying to keep kids off drugs and alcohol. They do not wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking, 'Oh my God, I didn't teach them about money,'" she says.
Pam Schmidt, of Chandler, Ariz., says that while she and her husband have set up savings accounts and college funds for their two young children, and invested in bonds for them, she acknowledges feeling "behind" about financially preparing the kids for their future. The 40-year-old says they got "a wake-up call" when their 8-year-old daughter, after receiving money from her grandparents on Valentine's Day and promptly putting it in her savings account, said, "If I want something, you guys just buy it for me."
The parental instinct to provide for your children can actually be detrimental to preparing them to be financially independent. Beacham says it's an "unintended consequence" that leaves adult children unprepared to handle their own finances. "You feel like a good parent if you're taking care of your child," she says. "(But) the reason kids on college campuses don't know anything about money is because they have no skin in the game because their parents are still paying. Their child is going to pay a much higher price for the lack of experience and knowledge they have on graduation day."
'An issue of equality'
But leaving responsibility for financial education solely on parents creates an unequal playing field, Lusardi says. In a paper published in 2009 examining youth financial literacy using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the authors (Lusardi is one) found that "financial knowledge among the young is strongly influenced by family background."
The study, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, tracks and annually surveys about 9,000 people who were between the ages of 12 and 16 at the end of 1996. The paper Lusardi helped write analyzed financial literacy questions added to the longitudinal study conducted in 2007-08 and found that of the 27% of survey respondents considered financially literate, a disproportionate number were white males from college-educated families. Hispanics and those without a high school diploma fared the worst.
Paulo Fernandes, a 22-year-old senior at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., says he had to teach himself how to manage everything from his student loans to his credit card. "I just kind of do what I have to do," he says. He couldn't rely on his two older siblings or mother, none of whom went to college.
"It's an issue of equality," Lusardi says. "Not everybody is given an opportunity (at home) to be financially literate. This is a topic that should be in the schools."
Jenny Gomez says she "would have loved a finance class in high school." Since graduating in 2000, the 29-year-old decided against college to pursue an acting career, and since then has also worked as a waitress, nanny, barista, bartender and even a bouncer. She started her "first real salary position" about a month ago in New York City, working as a marketing coordinator.
"I'm only just now starting to budget myself and thinking about saving," she says, adding that she learned the hard way about some things, such as that closing a credit card account can lower your credit score.
Gomez thought she had great credit considering she never carried a balance on her cards, but when a landlord ran a credit check last month as she was trying to rent an apartment, she found out otherwise. "I closed a bunch of credit cards because I thought you were supposed to pay them off and close them," she says. "I had no idea that this would affect (my score)."
Whether they're learning about managing money, or not, at home or in school, the lack of financial savvy among Millennials could have a trickle-down effect with detrimental consequences for society, experts say.
Young adults with too much credit card debt can be precluded from certain jobs, and poor financial decisions can force some to drop out of school, says Ted Beck, CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education. And if the next generation is unable to "continually acquire skills," he says, the United States is left with an uncompetitive and unattractive workforce that by necessity will lean more on social programs.
Beacham takes it one step further: In order to pay their unwieldy debts, she says, young people will have to seek higher-paying jobs, and the nation won't have "enough social workers, teachers, musicians. That in itself would be a high-class problem."
Beck says today's young adults are "a test-case generation of what's to come. They'll be responsible for their financial lives to a much higher degree than previous generations. We have to figure out how to improve their knowledge base so they don't dig a hole."
John Whiting, a certified financial planner and partner at Moss Adams Wealth Advisors in Santa Rosa, Calif., started teaching his kids the importance of working to earn money, saving and making responsible spending choices when the two were in elementary school. His son Andrew, 23, remembers getting his first job in catering at 15 and having to buy the family car when he got his driver's license.
"I had saved money up, and they told me there was only one car I could get; it was the one they owned, and I had to pay them for it," says Andrew, who graduated from California Polytechnic State University last May. He recently began a job as an account executive for Yelp in San Francisco, with his financial skills in tow: He uses an Excel spreadsheet to track his spending, is looking into getting his first credit card and plans to put about 25% of his pay into savings.
"I'm more wary about my finances than a lot of people, I realize," Andrew says.
Many organizations focused on financial literacy are determined to reverse the national trend. Jumpstart Coalition targets children as early as prekindergarten, and the Council for Economic Education works with students in kindergarten through high school. Others, such as FoolProof, offer free online training for young adults through videos and interactive "modules."
The programs could prove vital to educating the next generations of workers. As Council for Economic Education President Nan Morrison says, "A financially illiterate society is not an option."
Average student loan debt for class of 2010 (The Project on Student Debt)
Average credit card debt for those 20-29 (PNC financial independence survey, March)
Unemployment rate for those 18-29 (BLS data, March)
States that require high school students to take a personal finance class (Survey of the States, 2011)
18- to 34-year-olds not keeping a budget (NFCC financial literacy survey, 2012)