Most Americans Think They Know More about Money Than They Do

While the majority of Americans believe they are financially literate, tasks like interest rate and inflation calculations are beyond many of us. Here are three ways to bridge the financial literacy gap for a better financial future.

(Image credit: Mike Rosiana (Mike Rosiana (Photographer) - [None])

Have you ever met someone who doesn’t want to start a CrossFit class until they get in shape, and found yourself wondering, isn’t the point of the class to help you get in shape?

That mentality is not uncommon — even for our personal finances. Americans lack savings, are increasingly in debt and face a looming retirement crisis. Yet many are reluctant to seek advice or increase their financial know-how. In fact, a Standard & Poor's survey (opens in new tab) ranked the U.S. No. 14 globally in terms of its citizens' financial literacy and rated just 57% of U.S. adults financially literate.

The Financial Literacy Gap: Real — and Growing

Financial literacy — defined as the knowledge and understanding of areas related to personal finance, money and investing — is critical for navigating financial decisions … and navigating life. But FINRA’s Investor Education Foundation discovered a clear decline in financial literacy over the past nine years in its State of U.S. Financial Capability study (opens in new tab). In 2009, 42% of respondents were able to answer four or more questions correctly in a five-question survey on fundamental concepts of economics and personal finance. By 2018 this dropped 8 percentage points to 34%. More alarming, less than one-third (opens in new tab) of adults understand three basic financial literacy topics by age 40, although many important financial decisions are made decades earlier.

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Total U.S. household debt increased to $13.86 trillion (opens in new tab) this summer, according to the New York Fed, with $1.48 trillion belonging to student loans. About one-third of adults (opens in new tab) under age 30 have student loan debt. If they lack financial literacy, their decisions now could have negative consequences in the long term.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans believe they are financially literate, according to FINRA’s study. Nearly three-quarters (71%) have a high self-assessment of their financial knowledge. But the majority (59%) cannot complete two simple interest rate and inflation calculations and 38% could not calculate the compound interest of debt.

Americans are worried. As revealed in our fifth annual Advisor Authority (opens in new tab) study of roughly 1,600 RIAs, fee-based advisers and individual investors, top financial concerns of investors include cost of health care (33%), taxes (31%), protecting assets (27%) and saving enough for retirement (23%). Without financial literacy, how can they be ready for the future?

My Advice: Take These 3 Steps to Increase Your Own Financial Literacy

Today, money moves fast, through peer-to peer payments, online apps, credit cards and other types of borrowing. Without the right financial skills, this can lead to high debt, mortgage defaults or financial insolvency. Make good financial decisions to support your short-term and long-term financial goals, by closing the financial literacy gap. Three steps include:

Step No. 1: Educate yourself

In the U.S., even as more schools, colleges, workplaces, not-for-profits and government agencies offer financial education, only one-third of states require students to take a personal finance course in high school, according to the Council of Economic Education (opens in new tab). Because it is not a focus in our schools, many Americans are left to figure it out on their own.

Seize every available opportunity to learn about smart budgeting, saving and investing habits, and different products and solutions that can fit into your financial plan. Online adult courses can be found on the National Endowment for Financial Education website (opens in new tab).

Step No. 2: Don’t be afraid to talk about money

Forty-four percent of Americans (opens in new tab) would rather talk about death, religion or politics than discuss money with a loved one. This is often driven by fear, embarrassment or the belief that money is a taboo conversation topic. There are emotions tied to money, but don’t let emotions control your financial decisions.

Families that discuss finances lay the foundation for smart choices. Students who speak to their parents about money at least once or twice a month have better financial literacy scores (opens in new tab) than those who do not.

Step No. 3: Seek out experts

Find an expert close to you, whether a trusted friend or family member. Better yet, find an unbiased adviser who commits to your best interest. They are in a unique position to help you learn more.

An InvestmentNews survey (opens in new tab) found that 78% of advisers strongly agree that financial literacy is an issue in America and 89.7% have encountered financial literacy issues among their clients.

Financial Literacy Helps Solve Retirement Income Challenge

Why is increasing financial literacy so important right now? Preparing for and living in retirement has never been more challenging as pensions disappear, concerns over Social Security increase and more Americans are undersaved at the same time they are living longer. The retirement income challenge is real — and growing.

The financial literacy gap (opens in new tab) is a top reason why debt is more prevalent later in life, according to the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center. Older Americans are increasingly burdened and distressed by financial obligations caused by earlier, uninformed decisions — and it impacts their life in retirement.

Because retirement planning falls on your shoulders, financial literacy is key. Understand the options available at different stages in your financial lifecycle — from accumulation, to generating retirement income, to leaving a financial legacy for loved ones.

Learn more about strategies to maximize tax-deferred accumulation during your peak earning years, including:

  • Employer-sponsored plans, such as your 401(k)s and 403(b)s.
  • Long-term savings vehicles, such as IRAs and Roth IRAs.
  • Low-cost investment-only variable annuities.

Learn how to optimize income during your retirement years, including:

  • The best time to start taking Social Security.
  • Developing a tax-smart plan for retirement income.
  • Finding solutions for generating retirement income that you can’t outlive, such as single premium immediate annuities (SPIAs), deferred income annuities (DIAs) and variable annuities with living benefits.

Just as exercise is key for your health, financial literacy is key for stability and building wealth. Start with these three steps now for a better financial future.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Craig Hawley
Head of Nationwide's Annuity Distribution, Nationwide

Craig Hawley is a seasoned executive with more than 20 years in the financial services industry. As Head of Nationwide's Annuity Distribution, Mr. Hawley has helped build the company into a recognized innovator of financial products and services for RIAs, fee-based advisers and the clients they serve. Previously, Mr. Hawley served more than a decade as General Counsel and Secretary at Jefferson National. Mr. Hawley holds a J.D. and B.S. in Business Management from The University of Louisville.