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Financial Literacy

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently conducted a study, presenting a financial literacy test to fifteen-year-olds around the world, and has now published the group’s findings. The sample included 29,000 teens from eighteen countries (or, in the case of Belgium and China, two communities, Flemish and Shanghai). The test is designed to determine financial literacy and capability, with questions pertaining to income, taxes, borrowing, and money management.

Results show that only ten percent of the students taking the test can handle complex financial tasks. The results go much deeper, and show, like other studies before, that socioeconomic status of a community correlates strongly to financial literacy. While news outlets will certainly play up the international competitiveness — “Chinese teens are more financially capable than American teens,” for example — some of these differences disappear when taking socioeconomic opportunity into account.

In the case of China, the only city included in the survey was Shanghai, while the sample from the United States should be representative of the entire country. Even within the United States, financial literacy is biased towards economic opportunity, more than performance in other areas. The test results indicate that the strength of the correlation between socioeconomic status and financial literacy was stronger than the correlation to mathematics performance. That means that the performance gap between the wealthy and poor is wide, and the community-reinforced setbacks are harder to overcome in financial literacy than they would be in other subject areas.

Comparing the United States with the other countries studied, fifteen-year-olds in the United States are less likely to hold a bank account than the average. That is what is illustrated by the chart above.

In general, performance in math is correlated to performance in financial literacy, but that may be due to the types of questions asked in the test. Money is math, as the questions illustrate. But the design of a test can subtly benefit some cultures over others.

The skills addressed in the test, reading an invoice, basic investment knowledge and chart comprehension, reading a paystub, and a high-level evaluation of a loan offer, are all important skills from our perspective — a middle-class head of household with a job. And designing a test around these competencies shows that these are the financial skills we value.

It’s not clear whether the five financial literacy questions available online constitute the entire test given to the fifteen-year-olds in the study, but I would think it’s hard to draw conclusions from these data alone. Perhaps they measure something like “suitability for living a financially middle-class life,” which I think is something we tend to mistake for “financial literacy.”

At fifteen years of age, I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to deduce the correct answers to the questions in this test, but I didn’t have a bank account. I didn’t even have a joint bank account with my parents yet. I think I was sixteen when that day came. And when that day came, that’s when I was introduced to bank accounts.

Had I been required to take a class in elementary school about balancing a checkbook, I expect that information would not have helped me much. Anything I needed to know about the difference between gross pay and net pay would become clear with my first paycheck from Radio Shack, the first company clever enough to hire me. Unfortunately, or perhaps just differentially, many teenagers throughout the United States and the world will never see a paystub. Even among those who do work for a living, there is a vast cash-only economic society.

Who is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?

Here’s the organization’s mission statement:

The mission of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

The forerunner of the organization was founded in 1948 to run the Marshall Plan, using United States resources to help Europe rebuild its countries after World War Two. In the 1960s, the organization expanded in size and scope.

The OECD is funded by its member countries, with the United States leading the way by providing financial support for 21.2 percent of the organization’s budget. There doesn’t seem to be much corporate or capitalist interests, but the organization does have partnerships with the Business and Industry Advisory Committee and the Trade Union Advisory Committee. Unlike most financial literacy proponents and advocates, this mission does not seem to be spearheaded by the financial industry, who has their own goals in mind.

Is financial literacy education the answer?

The organization reviewed the data collected from the financial literacy study (which was only one part of the test) and is offering several recommendations or observations. All revolve around the recommendation that all countries provide better access to financial education to its students. According to the OECD, access to education is how countries will overcome gaps due to socioeconomic deficiencies.

Countries seek to improve financial literacy skills among students through various approaches. Some incorporate specific financial literacy content into the curriculum, either by identifying how it fits within existing subjects within the curriculum or – less frequently – by creating a stand-alone subject; others focus on helping students to develop a deeper understanding of mathematics concepts. As dedicated financial literacy approaches are relatively new (where they exist), the PISA 2012 financial literacy assessment cannot provide conclusive evidence on which of these strategies, or what combination of them, yields superior outcomes in financial literacy. The next PISA survey of financial literacy, scheduled for 2015, should provide further insights for policy.

Yet, the report does admit that incorporating financial education into school curricula is still inconclusive (although there have been studies showing that financial literacy courses are actually detrimental to long-term financial capability). Perhaps more research is needed.

Also, the organization does recognize that dealing with financial issues involves more than just cognitive processes; it’s important to be able to manage emotional and psychological factors. Students who are more inclined towards perseverance, problem solving, and having parents involved with education are perhaps more likely to succeed financially over the long-term, according to the report’s recommendations. Once again, these traits are going to naturally be more common within communities or households that are distinctly middle-class; see any article I’ve written over the past few years that deals with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, survival mode, the urgency matrix, or realities of poverty to understand why.

Are there any other options?

For a few years, I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do after inevitably moving on from Consumerism Commentary. Regulars readers are mostly aware that I sold this website a few years ago, although I’ve continued to manage it and serve as the editor and chief (and for the most part, only) writer. There is no pre-determined amount of time for which I’m obligated to stay, but I enjoy the audience here, and I’ve seen how difficult it is to start a new website from scratch and have fans continue to the new site.

In the last year, I’ve done some initial research into starting a non-profit organization with a mission similar to what financial literacy advocates are going for — and similar to the mission of Consumerism Commentary. (Readers should be aware of the mission, and I try to keep that mission in mind when I write, choose guests to appear on the podcast, and otherwise make day-to-day editorial decisions.) I have some interesting ideas, based on lots of reading about financial education and community-based projects that have been proven to change lives for the better, about how an organization could meet goals related to the mission more successfully than financial education (or at least more successfully that financial education alone).

At the same time, the prospect of spending the rest of my life fundraising (begging for money) and being the public face of an organization and missing (I prefer not to be the center of attention) are not ways of living my life that I would look forward to. So this plan is on hold, at least in the form of a non-profit organization under my leadership.

The least I can do is discuss some of these ideas more, and maybe that is the first step towards building something (else) with the potential of changing lives for the better.

Read more about OECD’s findings.


While it doesn’t hurt to discuss investing with children at an earlier age, they can get real, hands-on experience with investing as a teenager. Like many other kids in the 1980s, I played the Stock Market Game in elementary school, and learned nothing about investing, but I learned that adults checked the newspaper every day and would fret over IBM being down an eighth. It wasn’t a great introduction to long-term investing; in fact, it was no introduction.

One private high school thinks it’s doing the right thing by giving its teenage students $100,000 to play the Stock Market Game using real money from other people, preparation for a life in a potentially lucrative career in money management, and if your annual earnings are in the mid-six figures, saving for the future is technically easy, even while living a flagrant lifestyle. That’s not a great way for middle-class or socio-economically-challenged teenagers to learn about managing their own money.

You don’t learn much about managing money if the money you’re managing isn’t scarce. There’s no scarcity when a private school raises $100,000 for you to play with.

And that’s why parents are often so keen on having their children begin working to earn money on their own. This is an important piece of experience to gain at a formative age, though I still believe that education is the most important goal for a teenager, and work should only be pursued to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with education. (Unfortunately, the realities of poverty reduce the importance of education in favor of earning money for the household, but otherwise, the priority of education over occupation as a teenager should hold true.) There are breaks from school that provide excellent opportunities for different types of work, and if any certain teenager shows no inclination towards extracurricular school activities, a job after school is a good alternative.

On my first day on the job at my first job during high school, I learned what others might consider an obvious lesson. After being hired, I was to start my first day at Radio Shack in central New Jersey with an orientation with a regional supervisor. I showed up in jeans in a tee-shirt and the manager sent me home. I should have known that there was some kind of expectation to wear something nicer, like slacks and a button-down shirt, but for some reason I didn’t make the connection. So I came back the next day with a better understanding of expectations for my appearance.

Today, I work from home in comfortable clothing, so after twenty years, I ended up getting my way. But the point is that working as a teenager can provide experiences and knowledge that help later in life when it comes to assimilation into a career culture.

One of those lessons is what to do with money you earn from that first job. I saved some of it, but I didn’t do what I should have done — invested a portion that wouldn’t be touched for years. I did save some that ended up helping me pay for college, but it was a small amount; I probably would have been better investing it for the longer term.

For hands-on experience dealing with money, parents can help their teenagers set up a variety of financial accounts. The variety is good. If someone has $2,000 to invest, it would be worthwhile to spread it around to various types of investments or savings vehicles.

1. A Roth IRA. Every teenager with a job should start a Roth IRA. You invest in a Roth IRA with after-tax income, and because it’s likely your marginal tax rate will never be as low as it is as a teenager earning income from a part-time job, a Roth IRA is a perfect vehicle for investing. the minimum investment to open a Roth IRA at Vanguard is $1,000 and at Fidelity is $2,500, so until income reaches that point, a high-yield savings account is a good choice.

Sometimes, you can get around the minimum by committing to a monthly automatic transfer from a savings or checking account, so this second choice might come in handy.

2. Savings and checking accounts. Some online banks offer higher interest rates than traditional brick-and-mortar banks, but with the money a teenager is earning from a part-time job, the purpose may not be growth but be learning the basic financial skills of using a savings and checking account. Getting an account in the teenager’s name is possible, but most likely, this would be an account co-signed by a parent.

3. An index mutual fund. Once the teenager has saved enough money to open a Roth IRA with a minimum investment, the teenager has to choose the investment. A Roth IRA isn’t an investment in itself, it’s an account for holding investments. An index mutual fund is a great first choice — and a portfolio comprised completely of index mutual funds is a good idea for adults, too. Index mutual funds are low-cost and do not attempt to beat the market — an expensive endeavor that has never been shown to work over moderate lengths of time.

In a recent article on CNN Money, a financial expert recommended a specific fund, Vanguard Star, to teenage investors. It’s fund that combines bonds and stocks — two investment types that teenagers should learn about to understand their purposes and differences. I tend to want to go with the Vanguard Total Stock Market index fund all the way, particularly if this is an investment that will remain untouched for many years — and that’s the purpose of teaching a teenager about investing.

4. Investing in a business. If the teenager has anything left over after the above goals, and after any spending needs that he or she might have, one interesting approach would be to give the teenager an opportunity to invest directly in a business. Unfortunately, this process creates an opportunity to take advantage of the young and impressionable.

Over the years, I’ve heard many cases where parents borrow money from their children to start a business destined to fail. You wouldn’t think that teenagers would have a hard time saying no to their parents, given the rebellious nature of adolescence. But when a parent appears to be in need, even the most angsty teens, if they’re in a position to help, want to trust their parents and reduce their struggling.

Asking a teenager to invest in a business is a dangerous proposal. It’s true that failure can teach a lesson as strong or even stronger than success, but the cost from a relationship perspective can be too high. So in order to give teenagers the experience of investing directly in a business, it might be a good idea to provide that teenager an opportunity to invest in their own business. The taste of entrepreneurship doesn’t isn’t good for every teenager, but they might only find out if running a business suits them if given the opportunity.

The plan with this option is to take some of the money earned from that part-time job during school or over school breaks and use a portion of the funds to set up some kind of business that aligns with the teenager’s passions and interests. If the teenager is interested in mowing neighbors’ lawns for money, have him invest in his own equipment. If she wants to house-sit, she should consider doing more than just offering services to friends and family. Invest in advertising and perhaps form a local organization that can dispatch anyone from a team of sitters.

What kinds of investments should teenagers make with the money they earn from jobs while in school?

Photo: Flickr/tefra


Need more evidence that the financially disadvantaged are in a worse position to succeed in education and work than those without financial concerns? A new report published in the journal Science shows how financial constraints, particularly poverty, impede cognitive functioning.

I find one of the experiments interesting not only because of the results, but because the methodology involved visiting my local shopping mall. In fact, I may have even been asked to participate in the experiment on a recent shopping trip, but I generally ignore people with clipboards at malls asking me questions. This mall is a great location to find experiment subjects; the center is in the process of a renovation, bringing in “higher class” shops (because the businesses can pay higher rent, naturally).

Yet, the mall’s proximity to low-income communities provides one of the only locations in the area where you can find people of all social statuses going about their business. In other words, to complete this experiment and find a good mix of participants, the researcher from Princeton University had to get off campus and out of town.

The researchers’ hypothesis was that being poor prevents people from concentrating on the tasks and goals they need in order to get out of poverty. The concept sounds like it would be true. After all, we are aware that financial problems cause stress, and stress prevents success, but that’s not good enough for scientists — in order to determine what is true, you need to test hypotheses and measure the results. The results were surprising in the magnitude of the effect financial concerns have on cognitive ability.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that pressing financial concerns had an immediate impact on the ability of low-income individuals to perform on common cognitive and logic tests. On average, a person preoccupied with money problems exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep.

The results show that it’s not necessarily the fact of poverty that causes cognitive distress. It’s the concern about poverty. Low-income individuals who had no concern for their financial well-being were just as competent as they might be if they were not in poverty. In a sense, ignorance is bliss, and I’ve found this to be true in my own life. It’s much easier emotionally to avoid problems, like I avoided taking care of my accumulating speeding violations and like I avoided thinking about my increasing debt load in the years following college. I was protecting my sanity and my emotional functioning my pretending there were no problems and things would work themselves out.

It turns out I was most likely protecting my cognitive functioning, as well, although the idea that “things can work themselves out” might indicate my cognitive abilities were not at their highest levels.

My first assumption was that there’s a third-party variable standing in between concern for financial stability and cognitive functioning: stress. There seems to be something else at play, according to the experiments by Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton University.

The mental tax that poverty can put on the brain is distinct from stress, Shafir explained. Stress is a person’s response to various outside pressures that — according to studies of arousal and performance — can actually enhance a person’s functioning, he said. In the Science study, Shafir and his colleagues instead describe an immediate rather than chronic preoccupation with limited resources that can be a detriment to unrelated yet still important tasks.

“Stress itself doesn’t predict that people can’t perform well — they may do better up to a point,” Shafir said. “A person in poverty might be at the high part of the performance curve when it comes to a specific task and, in fact, we show that they do well on the problem at hand. But they don’t have leftover bandwidth to devote to other tasks. The poor are often highly effective at focusing on and dealing with pressing problems. It’s the other tasks where they perform poorly.”

And it’s been clear to me over the last several years writing about personal finance, change, and other topics of personal development that the lack of financial resources specifically — that is, not stress — created restraints on what people can focus on. You can’t plan for the retirement if your primary concern is getting through the day. You can’t achieve financial independence if you are stuck when trying to satisfy the lowest level of needs, like shelter and food.

The fallout of neglecting other areas of life may loom larger for a person just scraping by, Shafir said. Late fees tacked on to a forgotten rent payment, a job lost because of poor time-management —- these make a tight money situation worse. And as people get poorer, they tend to make difficult and often costly decisions that further perpetuate their hardship, Shafir said.

In a nutshell, this is why financial literacy doesn’t work. We as a society, or the middle-class or upper-middle-class segment of American society, seems to think that if only we could provide education about money management to the neediest communities, and if only they would take our advice and make better decisions, we would no longer have a problem with poverty.

Education, especially education pertaining to an idea like financial independence, is useless to someone who is dealing with day-to-day financial difficulties. There’s no cognitive capacity to consider the idea of saving even just one percent of income when every cent goes towards food for the children and there isn’t enough left for rent, so month after month you have to find a new place to live.

The larger topic of study for researchers is the scarcity of cognitive resources; that is, the human brain has a limited ability to process issues. Financial problems provide a convenient topic for use in experiments dealing with cognitive limitations.

“When you’re poor you can’t say, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m not going to be poor anymore.’ Or, ‘Forget it, I just won’t give my kids dinner, or pay rent this month.’ Poverty imposes a much stronger load that’s not optional and in very many cases is long lasting,” Shafir said. “It’s not a choice you’re making -— you’re just reduced to few options.

You can read more about the study or read the research directly in the journal Science.

Photo: Flickr


Last week, I criticized the McDonald’s corporation for producing a website and a toolkit, aimed at their employees, designed to help those employees tackle the financial obstacles they are most likely to face. My first point was that financial literacy education hasn’t been proven to help the most needy, and in some studies, has been shown to be detrimental. My second point was that as far as financial literacy education goes, McDonald’s and the organizations that helped the company design the program don’t seem to understand some of the difficulties their audience faces.

I’ve also commented on the prevalence of financial literacy programs funded by the banking industry. In the example from McDonald’s, VISA was involved with the project to support its pay card — a debit card and account replacing paychecks and direct deposit. It might come as a surprise that I worked with a bank earlier this year to design and produce materials for a financial education series.

PNC is a regional bank, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with branches prominent on the east coast of the United States. PNC Bank offers retail banking services: the usual checking, savings, money market accounts, consumer loans, and mortgages, all products offered by typical retail banks. Like many retail banks, PNC also offers asset management and business banking.

The bank, like the rest of the financial industry, benefits when more customers take advantage of their services. There may be some exceptions: banks only want enough depositors to satisfy regulatory requirements because they’d rather borrow from the government than from customers, and providing service to some customers can cost the banks money, for example. For the most part, the wider the pool of potential customers, the better. To widen that pool, banks want more customers to understand what they can offer, and one way to do that is through educational endeavors.

Banks can develop financial literacy resources and fill two needs. They can use education to increase their customer base and they can look like “good guys” doing it.

This project with PNC Bank, a financial education series in which I am participating, targets a different demographic than the McDonald’s attempt. In this particular instance, the reach of the McDonald’s campaign is much broader, and thanks to some ridiculous line items in the budget, has received wide media attention. PNC’s project, the PNC Achievement Sessions, will not receive such wide notoriety. It does, however, address some of the core problems faced by those who might already be customers of PNC or potential customers.

The target is definitely within a middle class demographic. The audience seems to be those already comfortable with the idea of working with the traditional financial industry and those who already know they need to do more to achieve their financial goals. This is not basic financial literacy, a concept that all too often fails in schools. The effort approaches consumer education with tools and resources helpful for handling more than just the basics of money.

Getting involved with the PNC Achievement Sessions

At the beginning of the year, I started working with PNC and their agency to develop the material for a new interactive website to fulfill their goal of consumer education. The project’s mission is for the audience “to have the knowledge and confidence to manage [their] money.”

The website would eventually become the PNC Achievement Sessions. Among the material developed were video scripts, and a few months ago, I spent two days in New York City with a production company taping the videos. Also involved in the project were Anna Newell Jones from And Then She Saved, David Ning from MoneyNing and Galia Gichon from Down to Earth Finance. Between the on-camera “talent,” the production company, and the agency for PNC, it was an incredibly professional team, and it was an enjoyable experience for me.

My contributions resulted in two videos and accompanying material. I handled two of the most complex topics in the series: getting the mortgage you want and credit score myths and facts. I can’t bear to watch myself, but reviews from family and friends have been very good. I’m still waiting for the Rotten Tomatoes review. Luckily, if you aren’t pleased with my work, PNC is taking suggestions for additions to the team for future sessions.

All six videos are presented alongside quizzes, static information, a challenge which can be shared through social media, and links to other resources, particularly those provided by the on-camera financial experts, all excellent writers.

Here is the full list of sessions available on PNC’s website today:

The videos are also available on YouTube, but the have the best effect when viewed within the context of the PNC Achievement Sessions website.

I’ve written so much about how the typical approaches to financial literacy fail. Does it make sense for me to participate in this type of consumer education? Yes.

Consumers are not being force-fed. When banks offer programs to elementary and secondary schools, they’re taking time away from the core curriculum. The students don’t want to be there. Banks are outsiders in the educational environment, and students will not be engaged in the material enough for any lessons to stick.

Efforts like the PNC Achievement Sessions are much different than financial literacy programs. Consumer education speaks to adults, and in particular, adults who seek the information out. They want to learn and feel invested in the information and the potential for improved financial situations.

The demographic is appropriate. When a family is concerned the most with fulfilling the lowest level of needs within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, like food, water, and shelter, education becomes a much lower priority, if a priority at all. This is a tough audience to teach, because all lessons generate a response like, “That’s great, but right now I’m just trying to feed my family.” With kids working jobs to help the household just get by, there’s little time for anything that’s not a job, and that includes gaining practice with new skills that could lead to a better job sometime in the future.

On the other hand, consumer financial education like the PNC Achievement Sessions targets an audience that is ready and willing to move forward with their financial skills. They are eager to prioritize their future, because their present is relatively secure. An emergency fund, for example, is a pie-in-the-sky wish for a family barely living paycheck to paycheck, but for a household that is able or just about able to save money every month, the emergency fund seems like an achievable reality, as does investing for the future, buying a house, and eventually retiring.

All that being said, PNC is still a bank, and thus any material endeavor that costs the bank money, other than back-office operations, should do something to increase revenue for the company. Shareholders wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s no mistaking that PNC, through creating the Achievement Sessions, would like the project to have several results other than the stated mission. First, the bank would like for its current customers to take better advantage of the services the bank provides. Second, PNC hopes the Achievement Sessions will bring new customers to the bank. Third, the company wants to increase awareness among the public of the PNC brand, and for it to be a positive recognition: education is a much better reason to be newsworthy than a scandal.

I do not personally have an account at PNC Bank, though there is a branch located in my local supermarket. I always encourage bank shoppers to look at fees and customer service. PNC does offer a free checking account that could be worth a look, so if you’re in the market for free checking from a branch and are located with a PNC branch within a convenient proximity, take a look.

Check out the PNC Achievement Sessions. I’d love to hear your feedback. I’m including one of the videos in this article, but I suggest viewing the bank’s website, watching more videos, taking the quizzes, and participating in the challenges. If you’re so inclined, offer suggestions to the bank for topics and experts to be featured in future sessions. If you have any feedback for me, please feel free to share it here.

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