It’s seemingly in the headlines every other day — Americans not saving enough for retirement, college or even a rainy day.

Are Americans really bad at saving, or do they not really understand money?

A biennial study conducted by the Council for Economic Education that examines how the nation is educating young people on finance found the number of states that require high school students to take a course in economics has dropped to 20 — two fewer states than in 2014. There also has been no change in the number of states requiring standardized testing of economic concepts since 2014.

“Simply put, it is a lack of emphasis on financial education in the primary and secondary schools,” said Robert Johnson, president and CEO of The American College of Financial Services. Johnson said according to the council’s study, only 17 states require students to take a personal finance course as a high school requirement.

“This lack of financial literacy is a major factor in the burgeoning student loan debt crisis.” he added. “And, the lack of financial literacy contributed to the financial crisis of 2008-09, as many Americans didn't understand how variable rate mortgage debt worked.”

Johnson said the lack of financial literacy works across generations in this country. In 2014 The American College surveyed over 1,000 Americans between 60 and 75 years old with at least $100,000 in household assets, and just 20% could pass a basic quiz on how to make their nest eggs last through retirements, Johnson said.

“Simply put, we need to require basic financial education in secondary schools,” Johnson said. “Too many graduates don't know the basics of finance. Requiring basic financial education would lead to better financial decisions and a higher quality of life.”

Nina Heck, director of counseling and client services at the nonprofit Guidewell Financial Solutions, said the problem is that education of any type is not mandated nationally, making it a state-by-state issue. With several different school districts and many budgets squeezed tight, financial education can vary extensively, she said.

“Financial education begins at home,” Heck said. “However, many parents have not learned basic money management skills themselves, so they are not able to pass along these lessons to their children.”


Heck said parents also may not know how to effectively address money topics with children. She said if the U.S. wants financially literate children, the first thing that needs to be done is to help parents develop essential financial skills and provide them with age-appropriate strategies they can use to teach their children.

Crystal Rau, a certified financial planner at Syntal Capital Partners, has first-hand experience with children and finance, being involved with Junior Achievement and its financial education programs. She said the first thing you have to do is start young.

“In my experience, I have found that it is best to start personal financial education by the 2nd grade-level at the very minimum,” she said. “I've gone in to talk about financial topics to high school aged kids who really have no interest at that point.

“In my opinion, financial education needs to be part of the curriculum from a very early age such as seven or eight,” Rau said. “By beginning to introduce basic topics such as budgeting, paychecks and taxes, parents won't have to be so worried about sending their graduates off to college without a strong understanding of financial concepts.”

Heck said the two things that would be useful for all children to learn is how to make an informed choices and how to set up and stick to a financial budget.

“Beyond that, more emphasis needs to be placed on showing students how to employ practical money management skills – how to balance a checkbook, the do’s and don’ts of using credit, how to begin saving for retirement,” she said. “Students need to participate in firsthand lessons that allow them to practice these skills. Hearing or seeing is great, but doing is better.”

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