It’s time for New Year’s resolutions, and what better one could Americans choose than to become financially literate in the coming year.
Want to get out of that credit card debt you rang up over the holidays? How about paying off your mortgage? Setting up an IRA for retirement?
It’s not surprising that Americans fail to do simple things that will ensure their financial future. Part of the reason they don’t act is a lack of confidence.
It’s easy to understand why: Folks are not learning this at home. Parents are nearly as uncomfortable talking to their kids about money as they are sex.
Only one in five adults say they participated in personal finance education in K-12 schools, colleges or the workplace. That’s really unfortunate.
We know that financial literacy leads to better personal finance behavior. There are a variety of studies that indicate that individuals with higher levels of financial literacy make better personal finance decisions.
Those who are financially illiterate are less likely to have a checking account, rainy day emergency fund or retirement plan, or to own stocks. They are also more likely to use payday loans, pay only the minimum amount owed on their credit cards, have high-cost mortgages, and have higher debt and credit delinquency levels.
As a society, we need more training programs that increase the number of financially literate citizens who are able to make better and wiser financial decisions in their own lives. Such programs are not just good for the individual but also helpful to society.
The 2008 financial crisis clearly shows that poor financial decisions by individuals had negative consequences on our country.
Employee pension plans are disappearing and being replaced by defined contribution retirement programs, which impose greater responsibilities on young adults to save and invest, and ultimately spend retirement savings wisely. If they fail to do this, they could become a significant economic burden on our society.
So I offer this resolution anyone can follow in 2018:
- Go to the library or online and get a book on personal finance and read it. There also are dozens of articles online about how handling credit, saving for retirement and creating a household budget. Some employers offer financial wellness programs. Go to your community college and ask if they have personal finance courses.
- Find out what your credit score is, then learn what a credit score means. Briefly, it means that when you borrow for a car, home or virtually any large ticket item, you will pay interest based on your score — the lower your score, the higher the interest. Here is a good place to start.
- Once you’ve educated yourself, sit down with your kids and teach them about personal finance. Help them learn that starting to save today is the smartest move they could make financially. Find out how much emphasis their schools put on personal finance education. In my opinion, high school is the optimum time for in-depth study, and my center’s recent report card on how each state performs in teaching this subject shows slow improvement but too many schools still ignore the topic completely.
- In the coming year, don’t buy a house, car or other big-ticket items you cannot afford. And resist using your home like an ATM, taking out home-equity loans to get cash. If your mortgage is under water, meaning your debt is more than your home’s value, start making extra payments, even if it’s just a few dollars a month to get above water again.
- Start a rainy day savings account at your bank, even if you only put $10 a week into it. And never touch it — until the rainy day. Experts say you should have at least three months expenses saved.
- Treat those credit cards like time bombs. Know that if you don’t pay the balance every month, interest on your debt will explode. It could take years to pay off those Christmas gifts you couldn’t afford.
- Fully fund your 401 (k) plan or start an IRA if your employer doesn’t offer one. These accounts can ensure you’ll have more than just that Social Security check in retirement, and if your employer matches your retirement contributions each month, it’s the best investment you can make.
Despite the fact that American education in general has not yet accepted the fact that personal finance is a subject as important as math or reading, we can educate ourselves in 2018, and that education can lead to a payoff that is potentially greater than any resolution you’ll ever make.
John Pelletier is director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College.