Addressing America’s Financial Literacy Crisis Begins at Home

Budgeting, investing, saving, paying bills on time … all of these skills are essential to master. To help your own kids on their path to financial success, start with these three steps.

A dad and his little girl look at his phone under a blanket.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We’ve known for some time that many Americans struggle with understanding finances. Unfortunately, it’s a problem that appears to be worsening in our country. I was startled to learn that only 34% of Americans can answer at least four of five basic financial literacy questions on topics such as mortgages, interest rates, inflation and risk according to FINRA.

Despite some noble efforts at the federal, state and local levels, a portion of the population remains financially illiterate – meaning they lack the ability to understand and effectively use various financial skills, including personal financial management, budgeting and investing. Without these skills, Americans struggle with everyday tasks, like paying bills on time, as well as larger goals, like planning for retirement or buying a home.

We’re going to have to come together as a country to address this challenge. However, as individuals and parents, an easy place to start is with our own children. Here are three thoughts on how you can help the next generation bridge the financial literacy gap:

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Step 1: Talk to Your Kids About Money

Education starts at home, and it’s never too early to have conversations about money with your children.

Only 28% of parents are currently talking to their kids about money, according to a study by the Boeing Employees Credit Union. This is often based on fear, embarrassment or the belief that money is a taboo conversation topic, which we must overcome as a society.

Your children will benefit from learning about the financial decisions that benefitted you as well as missteps you may have made along the way. Helping them understand your spending habits, how you manage the family budget and think about debt will make them feel more comfortable asking questions. It also helps them begin to build a road map for when the time comes to manage their own finances.

Step 2: Create an At-Home Project

A great way to enhance financial literacy is through hands-on experience. Setting up a learning project at home is a great way to get your children thinking about financial responsibility.

One way to do this is by challenging them to set a monthly budget for their spending money and helping them open a savings account where they can put a small portion of their money away. This can provide a fundamental view on smart money practices. The more your children learn to save, the better they will understand how rewarding it can be to watch their money grow. And putting their savings to use for a big-ticket item they never thought they could afford on their own can serve as a tangible reward for them to work toward.

Financial literacy has been a passion of mine for a long time, and I have tried to teach these concepts to my own children. Starting small with general saving and budgeting habits can lead to financial responsibility, stability, mobility and financial well-being.

Step 3: Prioritize Formal Education

The good news is that formal financial literacy education has already started to gain traction, albeit to a limited degree. The Council for Economic Education found that the number of states that require high school students to take a personal finance course increased by 24% from 2018 to 2020. Additionally, just in October, Ohio became the largest to require a financial literacy test for high schoolers.

The federal government is also getting involved. The Program to Inspire Growth and Guarantee Youth Budgeting Advice and Necessary Knowledge (PIGGY BANK) Act, is a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate recently that would create a savings pilot program for high school students to promote financial literacy through practical and experimental learning. This program would boost overall financial literacy and create an opportunity for students to learn how to build stability for long-term financial success.

These programs are critical because there is a direct correlation between them and a strong understanding of the financial skills young Americans need to make good decisions about their money. For instance, young adults who had state-mandated personal finance courses in high school are less likely to make critical financial errors, such as borrowing from payday loan companies, which charge high interest rates, than those who weren’t required to take such courses, according to FINRA.

You can start now by talking to your kids about money and creating an at-home project. Consider enrolling your child in a local financial literacy program or encourage your child’s school to implement one. And don’t forget to connect with your representatives in Washington, D.C., to let them know you support pending legislation like the PIGGY BANK Act. We owe it to our kids and future generations to step up and drive greater financial literacy so they can achieve financial security and live richer lives.




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.