If you don't think you have a handle on your finances, don't worry: some of the most intelligent people in the nation aren't faring much better.
According to a recent survey from credit reporting company Equifax, one-third of people surveyed give themselves a "C" grade for financial literacy. However, roughly 40% give themselves a "B." It may not help that 41% of all consumers get their financial knowledge from their parents, with just 17% amassing it from high school or college courses. In fact, 90% think a financial course should be required to graduate high school.
However, even the folks most likely to teach high-level finance courses aren't so confident in their financial literacy. Fidelity Investments found that college professors generally give themselves a "B" grade for their financial knowledge -- similar to 40% of average U.S. workers. Why not an "A?" Well, they're pretty solid on financial fundamentals, but 29% aren't sure of the investment mix of their retirement plan. Meanwhile 37% of professors, including 47% of Generation X faculty (born 1965-1980) consider themselves "beginners."
Though 42% of professors consider retirement a top priority -- with their average reported savings a whopping 15% of combined employer-employee contributions -- more than 54% of faculty think they might outlive their retirement savings. Also, 34% have trouble understanding Medicare and health care costs, while 32% have difficulty choosing specific investments.
"It's encouraging that saving for retirement is a top priority for many in higher education, and they recognize they need to improve their level of financial knowledge," said Alexandra Taussig, senior vice president at Fidelity Investments.
If you just did a little dance and chuckled about how those fancy professors are so dumb about money, you should maybe wipe the goofy grin off of your face before looking in the mirror. Yes, professors are concerned about their financial knowledge, but at least they're trying to educate themselves and improve that situation. Non-faculty seldom share those concerns.
In fact, professors generally have a better grip on their finances in general than their off-campus counterparts. Compared to the 64% of U.S. workers who told Fidelity they worry about their financial situation, 44% of professors have the same fear. Meanwhile, while professors' highest priority is saving for retirement, the average worker is paying off debt (38%) and working on daily and monthly household expenses (24%). Those workers are also only saving 13% of their annual salary for retirement, as opposed to the Fidelity recommended level of 15%. Finally while, 87% of professors are confident that they'll have enough money to pay for basic expenses in retirement, only 80% of all workers share that view.
There's a lot more distracting the average worker from their finances as well. According to Equifax, roughly 20% of consumers know more about national politics than their own credit histories. Meanwhile, they also know more about their favorite sports teams (13%), the current television season (7%) or fashion trends (6%) than they do about their finances. What are they doing to solve that problem? Well, 45% read news articles on financial websites, while 28% go to family and friends.
"Financial literacy is a key part of the foundation to establishing responsible credit behavior," says Dann Adams, president of Global Consumer Solutions at Equifax. "Without a basic understanding of credit and your own behaviors, it can become challenging to do some of the basic fundamentals such as save for retirement, establish an emergency savings account, or move beyond living paycheck to paycheck."
It's not that workers are completely ignorant of personal finance; they're just aware of it in bits and pieces. For example, 87% know that paying bills on time is one factor that impacts a credit score, but just 42% know that most types of negative information can stay on a credit report for seven years. While 32% would use savings to cover $1,000 in emergency expenses, 26% would break into the checking account and 23% would put it on a credit card. Meanwhile, 33% incorrectly think checking your credit report impacts your credit score, while 21% think one's driving record changes credit scores.
"One of the survey's results we found encouraging is that many consumers understand the importance of paying bills on time, every time," Adams says. "When it comes to creating knowledge, and establishing the right kinds of credit behaviors, we can't emphasize this point enough."
The good news is that financial ignorance isn't permanent or irreversible. Roughly 60% of those surveyed by Equifax are confident in their short-term financial future, while 54% think they'll do well in the long term. Those long term prospects are far better, with Baby Boomer professors (born 1946-1964) giving themselves a "B+" grade in the Fidelity survey and 71% of workers 60 years of age telling Equifax that they're confident in their financial knowledge."
"As consumers age and financial needs change," Adams says, "the importance of staying educated about personal finance and credit is absolutely critical."
Editors' pick: Originally published April 13.