Looking To Get Financially Literate? Don't Expect Business

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you've perused your favorite business website over the past couple days, it's likely you've heard that April is Financial Literacy Month, the 30-day stretch when journalists bombard you with personal finance advice both wise and useless. 

We've been at this literacy thing in earnest since a group of financial education pros at the non-profit JumpStart Coalition in Washington, D.C. began measuring students' financial smarts in 1997. But there's a lot of data to suggest we haven't accomplished much despite 18 years of trying.

In 2008, the last time JumpStart measured high school students' literacy, it had fallen to the lowest level in the ten years since the biennial survey began. Similarly, when the Finra Investor Education Foundation last measured literacy of adults in 2012, the public got more answers wrong than they had three years before.

Those dismal results come against a backdrop of huge marketing expenditures by financial companies that dwarf the dollars that go to financial education. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said in 2013 that for every dollar spent on financial education, $25 is spent on financial marketing. It's hardly a fair fight, but it shows how important it is to target education money to programs that work - and that are designed by educators, not Wall Street.

Earlier this week, I had an insight into the sluggish progress on literacy while I was playing Admongo, an online game offered by the Federal Trade Commission to teach students how to spot the baloney in advertising. I'd found a link to Admongo on the JumpStart site.

The game began with a superhero named Haiz (get it?) roaring onto my screen in a spacecraft and advising me that I was about to get an "ad-ucation." One of my challenges: to figure out what the manipulative message was in a clothing catalog where fashionably dressed kids were surrounded by their friends. 

The correct multiple-choice answer: "If you buy these clothes, you'll be popular."

It would make sense to encourage similar critical thinking skills when it comes to investments, but only a handful of the literacy learning tools out there help the public size up frothy or misleading claims by financial companies.

An Admongo-inspired financial literacy game for students might go something like this: Show the kiddies one of those reassuring ads where the earnest financial advisor patiently counsels his client in her living room while her powerboat bobs at the dock in the sparkling blue sea behind them. Then ask them to describe the manipulative message.

The correct multiple-choice answer: "If you do business with us, you will be protected by your caring advisor and you will become rich."

Once they get the answer right, pass a stack of Finra BrokerCheck reports around the room showing the disciplinary history of the firm that paid for the advertisement. You can teach kids all you want about making money. But if they don't know how to protect it once they've got it, literacy class will all be for naught.

There are lots of organizations that teach financial literacy. Schools in 25 states are required to teach it. Groups like JumpStart provide resources to schools and use social media to promote literacy. And the financial industry offers everything from advice about student loans to essay contests about investing.

One of the biggest spenders among the financial industry players is the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or Sifma, which is Wall Street's main lobbying group. Its not-for-profit Sifma Foundation for Investor Education ran up $2.9 million in expenses in 2012, according to its Form 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

Now I don't deny that the people at Sifma or at its foundation know a lot about finance. Or that they might have a lot to impart that would be valuable for people starving for financial information.

In fact Sifma's Stock Market Game, where grade school students trade imaginary portfolios, has been shown to increase math scores. It's hard to find fault with that, though I once heard one of Sifma's pint-sized Stock Market Game winners tell an audience that it irritated her when her stock-picking team was arguing "because we were just wasting time, and time wasted is virtual money lost."

It isn't exactly the patient, long-term investing attitude endorsed by responsible industry leaders like Vanguard founder John Bogle, but what do you expect when you get a bunch of fifth graders worked up to trounce the competition in a stock-trading game?

Sifma has an extensive program for students, and even sends its Wall Street members to lecture kids in their classrooms. I'm going to guess that few if any of those talks include a primer on how to check a broker's regulatory record.

Even a page on its website designated for customers fails to give advice about due diligence on brokers. In a section called "Our Partnership With You," Sifma lists investor "rights" such as competent advice and reasonable prices. But the importance of checking your broker's record - the first thing an investor should do before even opening an account - gets no mention in the "partnership" document.

You'd be fooling yourself in any event to expect meaningful education from interested parties like Wall Street lobbyists or credit card companies. So who can get the job done?

One operation that's incorporated the critical thinking components of the Admongo game, and more, is FoolProof, an online financial literacy curriculum for middle schools, high schools and individuals.

The whole tone of FoolProof's material is poles apart from the usual literacy offerings. Consider this from its website: "Guess who's teaching our kids or grandkids about money? The foxes. And they're in the henhouse!"

Ralph Nader recently endorsed FoolProof in a column for the Huffington Post. I can see why. Questions covered in one of its teaching modules include "How do you keep from falling for pressure and deceptive sales tactics when you invest?" and "What is the main objective of even the most honest person selling investments?"

Don't waste your time looking for material like that in the programs sponsored by business. From what I can tell, they skipped those chapters.

--Written by Susan Antilla for MainStreet

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