Editors' pick: Originally published Dec. 15.
A new study hit the streets this week, and it shows on a state-by-state basis, Americans still don't have much of a clue when it comes to financial literacy.
How bad is it? Put it this way--if a young family member brought this report card home, he or she would be grounded on the spot, and with good reason.
According to the 2016 National Report Card on Adult Financial Literacy, released this week by Champlain College's Center for Financial Literacy, the average adults in America earned just a "C" grade on money knowledge matters. Additionally, more than three-quarters of adults live in states with poor grades, and no U.S. state earned an "A" grade, the report notes.
"Are we financially illiterate? Was our lack of financial acumen a cause of the Great Recession of 2008 and does it continue to undermine our nation's economic health? Unfortunately, the answer is yes to all of these questions," the study states.
Champlain College researchers say the public school system is the place to start to improve Americans' money I.Q., and there's certainly merit in that idea.
But maybe a parallel path, or even a better path, is to take advantage of the army of money management professionals--309,000 strong--and have them take a lead role in educating Americans on basic personal financial issues.
After all, financial advisors are on the front lines and often see Americans face to face--and that's exactly why money management professionals should step up and step in on the financial literacy front, industry experts say.
Yet given the attitudes prevalent among so many Americans, that's not going to be easy.
"When taxpayers come in with form 1099-R, showing me that they raided their 401(k) and IRAs because they failed to save and have an emergency fund, I ask them how they intend to eat later in life," says Abbie Eisenkraft, CEO of Choice Tax Solutions in Melville, N.Y.
"That's why we advisors must be the voice of reason," she adds. "Our clients have no funds for retirement contributions or an emergency fund, but they have every iPhone, iPad, toy, and gadget that's out there. Sometimes they appreciate my chiding; others are uncomfortable, but it's a conversation that has to take place."
It may take tough love, or even the perennial velvet glove, but some advisors know first-hand the dangers of an uninformed financial consumer, and agree they need to take a stronger role in promoting financial literacy.
"More financial advisors should give back to the community," says Leah Villalobos, president of Great Lakes Divorce Financial Solutions, in Cleveland.
Villalobos is already doing her fair share of educating the public. "Each year, I visit a local high school to talk to the students about investing, how to get started and the importance of financial planning," she says. "I also do presentations for the local PTA on saving for college, for seniors regarding estate planning and for women on investing basics through the public libraries. I enjoy having the opportunity to share my knowledge and education to further financial literacy in the community and I think, as financial advisors, we have a responsibility to do so."
In taking a larger role in boosting nationwide financial literacy, experts advise money management professionals to talk to the public, and not down to them.
"First, we need to forgive people for not having skills that are so unnatural to them," says Nance L. Schick, founder of The Law Studio of Nance L. Schick, in New York. "Few of us get a much more education on finances beyond how to create a budget and balance a checkbook. We're a bit naive, a little idealistic, and a lot afraid of admitting how little we know."
Consequently, Schick states, Americas don't want to be spoken to like children. "We should respect knowledge gaps and not make people feel stupid for having them," she adds. "Talk to people in plain language, and give them the time we need to ask questions."
Erica Sandberg, consumer finance expert at CreditCards.com, in San Francisco, agrees, adding that even using the phrase "financially illiterate" should be a non-starter for financial services professionals. "It makes me cringe each time I read or hear this phrase," says Sandberg. "I've been in the consumer finance business since 1996 and very few I would consider financially illiterate - and they certainly wouldn't refer to themselves as such."
Sandberg admits there are "great gaps" in economic education. "Oh, sure," she says. "That's especially so when it comes to the cost of borrowing and how credit reports and scoring work. But more problems erupt from emotional responses. It's easy to rely on credit cards. It's easy to get into debt. It's hard to work hard, and it's unpleasant to face reality."
For those reasons, Sandberg says anyone who works with people on their money and credit issues ought to start with what they do understand, and not what they don't. That could be a good jumping-off point for advisors willing to pitch in on financially educating the public, as long as they keep the conversation positive.
"After that, financial advisors can build on those facts, adding more, inspired information," Sandberg says. "But I swear, if someone called me financially illiterate, I'd punch him in the nose."