The U.S. has a literacy problem, and it's a direct threat to the financial health of millions of Americans.
That's no hyperbole - it's the primary takeaway from a new study from Boston-based American Consumer Credit Counseling, which shows the U.S. ranks 14th on the global list of financially literate countries (behind countries like the Czech Republic and Singapore.)
Only 57% of Americans received a passing grade compared to more than 70% in Denmark and Sweden, the survey states.
The ACCC study is no outlier. A separate study from The American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pa. reports that only 20% of retirement-age Americans can pass a basic quiz on how to make their nest eggs last throughout retirement.
"In fact, a large majority of people age 60 to 75 with at least $100,000 in assets lack the knowledge they need for a financially secure retirement in areas such as life expectancy, Social Security, long-term care needs, investment risk and more," the report adds.
"No one liked getting F's back in school, but retirement income literacy is a test Americans simply cannot afford to fail," explains David A. Littell, RICP''s retirement income program director at The New York Life Center for Retirement Income at The American College. "Workers are increasingly on their own when it comes to making financial decisions and a dwindling few have access guaranteed income from pension plans. Now is the time to raise retirement income awareness and give Americans the strategies and knowledge they need to address this challenge."
Financial experts say the reason for the lack of basic financial skills is obvious - and it's an issue that starts at a young age for Americans.
"It's really a math problem," says Daniel Feiman, managing director at Build It Backwards, a Los Angeles-based business consulting firm. "So many people have math phobias, even bragging that they would rather go to the dentist than do long division."
Mom and Dad probably don't want to hear it, but bad parenting is also a big part of the problem.
"One component of the problem is the approach parents take to teaching their children about money," says Danielle R. Seurkamp, a financial planner in Cincinnati.
Seurkamp's master's thesis was on the topic of raising financially successful children, and what he learned from his research is that a key component of raising kids who are financial literate is to talk about money with them on a regular basis.
"Whether parents are hiding their financial struggles or their affluence, they often refrain from discussions that could be excellent teaching opportunities for their children," he explains. "While sheltering kids from the reality of family finances may be motivated by love, it can be a disservice to them. Something as simple as explaining your thought process behind why you did or did not buy them the toy they wanted can be a meaningful lesson in your values around money."
Studies show that children who have more frequent conversations about money demonstrate more positive money behavior and are more likely to report feeling knowledgeable about money, Seurkamp adds.
U.S. public schools have to shoulder some of the blame, too, other financial experts say.
"We are lax in financial literacy, because the schools don't focus on teaching kids real world, financial-related lessons," says Carol Berger, a financial planner with Berger Wealth Management in Peachtree City, Ga. "Instead of teaching high school kids geometry and trigonometry, why not require classes that teach a kid about stocks, mutual funds, net worth, balance sheets, income and expenses? Maybe some schools focus on this more now than in the past, but I know they didn't when I was in school. I had no clue what a mutual fund was until I entered college."
When even a smart, successful financial planner admits she didn't know what a mutual fund was until college, the U.S. really does have a serious financial literacy problem.
While there's plenty of blame to go around, there are few signs Americans are smartening up, money-wise - and that's to their long-term financial detriment.