Consumer prices are up. Consumer sentiment is down. The stock market is soaring. Gross domestic product is plunging. Tax cuts can stimulate the economy. Tax cuts can worsen the budget deficit.
It’s a lot to process.
Friday is National Financial Awareness Day — a timely opportunity to take a break from worrying about, well, everything, and devote some attention to economic issues and the bread-and-butter business of getting your financial house in order.
It’s also a great excuse to make a pandemic project out of educating kids about the importance of smart money management.
“We live in a world of financial illiteracy,” said David Ravetch, a senior accounting lecturer at UCLA. “We as a society don’t like to talk about money.”
For many people and families, it’s a taboo topic, he told me.
“We are more open to talking about relationship challenges than we are about money,” Ravetch said. “Most people are really afraid of it.”
A recent survey on financial literacy conducted for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that a slim majority of U.S. adults (57%) give themselves top marks for their knowledge of personal finance.
The more interesting finding, though, is that the percentage of Americans who admit they’re not very or not at all confident in their financial awareness is growing.
Thirteen percent of the more than 2,000 survey respondents said they aren’t sure they fully understand their money situation. That compares with 12% last year, 10% in 2018 and 8% in 2017.
This nervousness is more prevalent among younger people, who have come of age amid greater financial and economic uncertainty than their parents or grandparents. The COVID-19 pandemic turning all our lives upside-down hasn’t helped.
“Younger people haven’t had time to build up the savings and assets of older generations,” said Marco Pantoja, who teaches financial literacy at the University of Missouri. “And they’ve just had the rug pulled out from under them.”
For young people facing serious financial hardship — a lost job, an eviction — he advised seeking out a certified financial planner or similar professional who can provide a sense of available resources.
“This can include state programs, social agencies, food banks, things like that,” Pantoja said.
More broadly, the first hurdle to overcome in raising financial awareness is simply getting past the intimidation factor.
“Finance can be complicated,” acknowledged Yaron Levi, an assistant professor of finance and business economics at USC. “You don’t need to be an expert. For most people, understanding the basics is enough.”
Needless to say, there’s an app for that.
If you don’t have a handle on your budget and spending, there are apps that can consolidate your various financial accounts and help track spending patterns, alert you to upcoming bill payments and even help boost your credit score.
Mint is a good one. So are Personal Capital, Clarity Money and Spendee. Much of what they offer is free, with added functionality available in some cases for as little as $15 a year.
Once you get your fiscal ducks in a row, then you can start expanding your knowledge base.
Annamaria Lusardi, academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University, said a key insight is that interest earnings grow, or compound, over time, increasing wealth without lifting you a finger.
“This is amazing,” she told me. “It is what allows us to grow savings over time and one reason why we need to start saving as early as possible, and also why we have to be savvy about debt.”
That raises an important point. Debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Carrying a balance on your credit card isn’t a red flag — many people do it.
The average American has four credit cards and carries a balance of $6,200, according to the credit bureau Experian.
Problems arise when you fail to pay off your plastic in a timely fashion or make only minimum payments. This indicates a lack of control over your finances and exposes you to increasingly higher borrowing costs.
If that’s you, it’s time to step up your money game.
“Start small, like exercising or going to the gym,” Lusardi advised. “Spend 15 minutes a week thinking about your finances, starting with what are your objectives, goals and dreams.”
For parents, you can never start too soon in teaching your kids about being money smart.
Show them the value of saving their allowance for things they want. Talk with them about how they might boost their income by washing the family car or performing other tasks.
I introduced my son to the world of investing by buying him a single share of Walt Disney Co. This allowed us to follow the company together and profit from the movies and theme parks we both enjoyed (this was years before the pandemic, needless to say).
Fred Selinger, a lecturer in finance at UC Berkeley, has been teaching students how to be more financially savvy for years. He shared with me some pointers that could make everyone better money managers.
Some of his tips may seem obvious. For example, “Be frugal; live within your means.” Others may require some rethinking of priorities.
“Every time you get a paycheck, the rule is, ‘I get paid first,'” Selinger said. “You had to earn that money. Don’t just give it all away to everyone else.”
He also advises:
- Creating an emergency fund that can cover up to six months of living expenses or an unexpected bill, such as for a car repair or medical emergency.
- Before borrowing cash, always have a plan for how you’ll repay the money. “That includes credit cards, student loans, car loans and home mortgages.”
- Look into retirement saving plans such as IRAs or 401(k)s. It’s never too early to start setting money aside for your sunset years.
- If possible, try to save 15% of your earned income. “That includes taking advantage of any employer contributions.”
We’re living in, to say the least, difficult times. Stress levels are high. Getting your hands around your finances can be one less thing to worry about.
“Imagine a world where each of us made just one better financial decision a year,” said Yuval Dan Bar-Or, a finance professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“We’d avoid massive losses due to impulsive, speculative investments. We’d sidestep unnecessary fees amounting to billions of dollars. And we’d go through life without having to scale mountains of ill-advised debt.”
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?