Friday, December 19, 2008

Financial Advice for the Public

In previous posts, I have argued in favor of professional financial advice. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that using a financial advisor is the only rational choice. Rather, I want to argue that there need to be alternatives for people who have little financial knowledge and who may currently choose to “do nothing” or to rely on the advice of people who may know as little as they do. But choosing a financial advisor can be a difficult task, so we need to find alternative sources that can provide advice and guidance.

In other fields, such sources exist or have emerged. If you go to the National Cancer Institute’s web site, for example, you get basic information about what cancer is, available treatments, and a link to information about smoking that offers “free help to quit.” I like the smiles of the patients on that web page and the stern yet reassuring looks of the doctors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established the “food pyramid” to give guidelines about healthy eating. These are very general guidelines; nevertheless it is good to know that we should eat vegetables—lots of them. Moreover, some books have become “the bible” on certain topics. I am thinking of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which almost every first-time mother I know read during her pregnancy.

Now, where do people go when they need financial advice? Which web site should they consider? Which book should they read when they want to start saving or investing or managing their debt? Believe me, there is a lot of information out there. The problem is that there is too much, and—in my view—a lot of confusion about what source to use. What is worse is that many people would like to dispense financial advice, irrespective of their qualifications.

There is an institution that is well-equipped to provide financial education and improve financial literacy. This institution meets three important requirements: (1) It possesses high qualifications, meaning a knowledge of economics and finance; (2) It is independent of the financial industry and any lobbies; (3) It cares about the well-being of consumers. As you may have guessed already, this institution is the central bank. Central banks in all countries, and the U.S. Federal Reserve in particular, have armies of bright Ph.D. economists who spend much of their time monitoring the state of financial markets. Central banks in most countries are independent institutions whose primary objective is to fight one of the big enemies of saving: inflation. Moreover, they are interested in the smooth functioning of financial markets and have incentives to care about citizens.

The U.S. Federal Reserve is already working on financial education (check their web site:, but my recommendation is that they do more. First, they should take up that role officially and with more fanfare so that people know where to go for financial information. Second, they should provide a lot more resources on line. Their web site should be a “bank” of information. Third, they should offer some recommendations. As broccoli is good for you, so is risk diversification. Finally, on that web page we need a stern-looking Ben Bernanke, a few smiling, happy investors, and a link to a free guide on how to save.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Financial Advice

In earlier posts, I have discussed financial advice and the fact that most people tend to consult family and friends when making financial decisions. In this post I would like to discuss consulting financial advisors. There is little research on this topic, but it seems to me it is an important area of interest. In a new financial world, where financial instruments are increasingly complicated, professional financial expertise can be very valuable. We may associate this sort of financial advice with setting up trusts, legal counseling, and complex investment strategies that preoccupy only the rich. In fact, financial decisions of the average family or individual have become sufficiently complex that such advice may be not only beneficial but also necessary. More so when, as I have argued repeatedly, there is very low financial literacy. Overall, it is not easy to choose the best mortgage (or even a good mortgage) among so many options. Similarly, it is not easy to know how much to contribute to a pension plan and how to allocate pension assets, not to mention how to best save for children’s education or simply how to deal with debt.

While many would admit that these decisions are difficult, few consider getting professional financial advice. Clearly, cost can be an issue, but it is not obvious that the cost, in most cases, is greater than the benefits. Consider, for example, retirement planning: setting up a plan for how much to save and how to invest retirement wealth may be very beneficial. According to the Retirement Confidence Survey and my own work using many waves of the Health and Retirement Study, many workers do not know how much they need to save for retirement. Even those who claim to have done some calculations are often not able to give the amount they will need at retirement or give figures that seem very rough estimates. This may reflect the fact that workers use rather crude tools to make retirement saving decisions. For example, a quarter of those who report being planners do not use any planning tools at all! However, planning does pay off. Those who report doing calculations of how much they need to save for retirement end up close to retirement with three times the amount of wealth of those who do not plan. And do not think that planning and financial counseling is simply for those who can afford it (i.e., those who have wealth). Counseling can be even more beneficial to those for whom every dollar counts. How families manage their balance sheets is very important, and making good financial decisions may have huge implications on our well-being, as the current crisis seems also to suggest.

Yet, people give little thought to these decisions and few consult financial advisors. Clearly, it may be challenging to find good financial experts who are motivated by incentives that do not work against consumers’ best interests, such as those whose compensation derives from high fees assets. But in my view, one reason we do not generally consult experts is that it is hard to know whether and when we are in financial trouble or can prevent financial trouble. For example, without going through the planning process, there is little to signal to people that they are not saving enough for retirement, particularly when they are many years away from it. We may only realize we have not saved enough when it is too late. It might be interesting to consider an analogy to guidelines regarding health maintenance issues. First, we do not normally self-medicate (or do surgery on ourselves) but we go seek (or should seek) medical advice when we have a problem. Second, even without being in pain, we tend to do check-ups to make sure we are in good shape and we will not have problems in the future. Third, we ask for a second opinion when in doubt. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to do the same for our finances?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Friends, Family and Finances

In this post, I want to talk about how people become financially literate and from whom they learn about finances. In many of the surveys I have reviewed, including the ones I have designed, people report that they rely on family and friends for financial advice. In focus groups as well, people state that they learn from their family and friends. This is an important finding. I believe that people rely so much on friends and family because they want advice from people they trust and who have their best interests at heart. There are, however, limitations and drawbacks to relying solely on friends and family for financial advice.

One limitation of learning from our friends is that we tend to choose friends who are like us. So, if you are an artist, you are likely to be surrounded by people who know how to draw but do not necessarily know how to invest retirement savings. Furthermore, many financial matters are private. You may assume that your friend John is financially savvy, but you have probably not seen his 401(k) statement, and it is hard to tell from his house or car whether he is good at picking mutual funds. Nevertheless, he may be happy to offer you tons of financial advice.

Like friends, family members, parents in particular, are a popular source of financial advice, and many have argued that financial education does start at home. There are, nevertheless, drawbacks to advice from this source. First, not everybody has parents who are financially literate. Approximately half of the families in the United States do not invest in the stock market (at least when considering investment of private wealth). Thus, for many, it is not possible to learn about the stock market from parents. Second, parents—particularly older ones—lived in a very different economic environment than the one the current generation of working Americans are facing. Most parents of today’s young and middle aged adults had pensions that were defined benefit plans, experienced inflationary periods that decreased the burden of their debt, and hardly invested in the “global economy.” Financial markets have changed substantially from the time this generation of parents bought their homes, got their pensions, and invested their savings.

I do not mean to imply that we cannot learn from family and friends. One valuable lesson can be to avoid the mistakes that those around us have made, such as not preparing adequately for retirement, not having enough insurance, or having too much debt—mistakes that are proven to be all too common among many Americans today. But relying on such advice seems to me often too little and sometimes too late.

In my view, financial education belongs in schools. Finance and economics are sciences and should be taught as such. Moreover, people need to be financially literate before they engage in financial contracts and not after having learned how much financial mistakes can hurt. Finally, having financial education in schools offers a better chance that students whose parents do not work on Wall Street will be able to access financial knowledge.

There is an additional benefit: if everyone learns about finance in school, we can then talk to our friends about art, about history, about something other than our finances. One of the great benefits of obtaining financial savvy and know-how is that we are then able to devote ourselves to what really matters to us, without the distraction of financial worries.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The National Financial Literacy Challenge

From November 3 until November 26, 2008, high school students can participate in the National Financial Literacy Challenge. This online 35-question test measures financial knowledge and serves to document the state of financial literacy among participating high school students. Please help me spread the word about this test and encourage the school in your district to register to participate.

It is important that we measure financial literacy among high school students. These young people soon will or already are confronting financial decisions, such as taking out student loans to pay for college, managing credit cards, and saving or spending income from summer employment and allowances. Are young people well equipped to make these decisions? We do not know, and we need to find out! Several states have mandated financial education in high schools and there is a lot of discussion about whether financial literacy should be integrated into high school curricula. I particularly encourage the schools where financial literacy has been mandated or where courses on financial literacy are offered to participate in this test. All tests are imperfect to some degree, but we need some measurement of how much our students know and how well we are doing at teaching financial literacy.

And there are rewards for participating in this test (can you tell that economists devised it?). Students scoring in the top 25th percentile nationwide will earn a certificate of recognition from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Students scoring exceptionally high will win a National Financial Literacy Challenge Award medal (hey, this would look good on a resumé). And there are monetary rewards too. The Charles Schwab Foundation will award a scholarship of $1,000 to up to 100 students who get a perfect score of 100%. In addition, the Foundation will award $1,000 to each of those students’ schools.

For more information or to register, please follow the link below:

Just to make you smile, I am including here a test that is part of the newspaper advertising copy for this challenge.

A bond is:
(a) a British spy
(b) glue
(c) a type of loan that pays interest

Monday, October 27, 2008

Financial Literacy and the Current Crisis

I was asked in a TV interview whether financial illiteracy has contributed to the current financial crisis. I do not have data yet on the current crisis, but the data I collected last year on debt literacy indicate that many people do not know about the power of interest compounding and tend to underestimate how quickly debt can grow if one borrows at high rates. Most importantly, those who had low debt literacy were more likely to report having difficulties paying off debt. So, my suspicion is that individual debt illiteracy has played a role in the current crisis. Exacerbating individual lack of financial literacy has been the role played by those lending institutions that did not do their part in checking borrowers’ backgrounds or calculating how much debt those borrowers could really afford to take up.

And in this current world of derivates, ARMs, subprimes, and preferred stocks, it is even harder to understand what is going on in both individual accounts and in global markets and what people need to know in order to successfully navigate the financial system. In my view, we need to stick to a few fundamental concepts: the power of interest compounding, the effects of inflation, the principles of risk diversification, the incentives offered by the tax system. Knowledge of these simple principles can go a long way in helping us make sound saving and investment decisions.

People have been crying out that financial education is expensive. Well, bailouts can be even more expensive; I think we understand that now. But I have not heard of plans for any money to be allocated to improving financial literacy as part of the rescue plan. This is a pity because, having seen the consequences of illiteracy not only at the micro level but also at the macro level, we need education now more than ever.

If you would like to watch the TV interview (Financial Literacy and You), it can be accessed at:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Learning From this Crisis: A Discussion About Risk

As the financial crisis continues to unfold, it is important to reflect on the lessons we can learn from this experience and how those lessons can help us better manage household finances. In this blog, I want to focus on risk and risk management. Not only have prices in the stock and housing markets, in which many households invest, been gyrating, new financial instruments have made household balance sheets even more sensitive to the behavior of financial markets. For example, both the assets and the liabilities of households with adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, will be affected by a change in interest rates. Risk management is becoming more important than ever. Yet, according to several of the surveys on financial literacy I have conducted, the concept of risk diversification proves to be a difficult one for respondents, many of whom stated that they did not know how to answer to the survey question that dealt with this concept.

I want to discuss here the dangers posed by lack of diversification among the assets that are most common in household portfolios.

1. The danger of investing everything in a single stock.

One of the painful lessons that is right in front of us is the peril of investing in a single stock. Sure, all indexes are down and losses are large, but those who have invested solely in the stock of ailing banks now run the risk of losing everything. The importance of keeping a well-diversified portfolio should not be underestimated, particularly in the current situation. Clearly, in a crisis that is becoming global, most stock markets have been going down and portfolio diversification does not eliminate losses. However, it limits them and can provide a floor that prevents losses from being as extreme as they might otherwise be. While the experience of Enron stockholders may have been easy to forget, the magnitude of the current crisis should send a strong warning about the danger of putting all of one’s savings into a single stock.

2. The danger of investing everything in the house.

While we may not think of our house as an investment, in fact the house is often the most important asset we have. In some cases, it is the only asset people have. A large home, a nice backyard, plenty of room where our children can play are all features we want and cherish. However, when we buy, or when we plan to put an addition on the house, we have to consider what that will do to our portfolio. If we put everything we have into the house, we become very exposed to fluctuations in home prices. As the current experience shows, home prices can go down, and go down a lot! And we should not take comfort in the fact that we do not plan to sell our house any time soon. In the current labor market, mobility is important. Today’s workers change jobs many times in the course of a career, and one can hardly expect to be in one place throughout his/her lifetime. Moreover, and particularly in less populated areas, houses are not a good “hedge” against labor income risk. If a big firm in a small city goes under, local home prices are likely to drop. But this means that home values will decrease precisely when workers need their housing wealth the most: they may have to sell and move or they may need a home equity line of credit to offset the loss of employment income.

Risk is a part of our life, negative shocks happen, crises happen, and other shocks may lie ahead. More than ever before, we need to learn to deal with risk to insure the well-being of ourselves and our families.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Some Comments on the Current Crisis

I have not been writing for a while, but have been reading about and watching the current economic crisis unfold. This is humbling, and there are many reasons to worry. One of the assumptions behind the sound functioning of markets is that the agents who stand behind demand and supply are well informed and rational. But, as I have argued in many previous blogs, there is reason to question that assumption in the face of widespread financial illiteracy. Of course, my studies of illiteracy focus on consumers, but the current events make me wonder about politicians. Perhaps there is need for a crash course in financial markets and money and banking down in Washington. I do not mean this in a sarcastic way, but rather express it with genuine concern; the lessons we should have learned from the past are seemingly being ignored. My views may be colored by the fact that I was a student of Ben Bernanke at Princeton, but his article on the collapse of the financial sector as a factor in transforming a recession into the Great Depression still resonates (for anyone interested in reading it, the article was published in the American Economic Review back in 1983). It teaches us that the financial sector is vital to the workings of the economy and that shutting it down may send the economy into a tailspin. The role of the financial system in the economy is critical: it channels the funds of savers to the firms and entrepreneurs who need them. Lack of credit prevents not only businesses from investing but also households from consuming and buffering against economic shocks. In other words, a financial system that is not working or that is limping can affect the macro economy and each of us individually. We do not want the economy to go that route.

There is an inherent instability in both the banking system, with its fractional reserve system (only a small fraction of deposits are kept in the banks, so if all depositors wanted to withdraw their deposits, there would not be enough funds to make it possible) and in financial markets, in which large sums of money can be moved very quickly. Several institutions and mechanisms are in place to counteract that instability, one example being the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC. Some may argue that these institutions do not work very well; for example, what banks pay to be insured by the FDIC often does not reflect their actual risk. In reality, financial markets continually innovate. Moreover, financial instruments have become very complex in terms of risk. Derivates, such as options and futures, make it possible to take up large amounts of risk. Regulation has certainly not kept up with that.

When a financial crisis occurs, it is important to act quickly. Now more than ever we need to have economics and finance rule politics.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Are We a Nation of Financial Illiterates? Some Comments

Stephen Dubner, one of the authors of Freakonomics, has posted an article on his blog (link is just below) that addresses this question: Are we are a nation of financial illiterates?

If you have read Freakonomics, you know he is a gifted writer. In his blog, he poses three critical questions. I modified these questions slightly (they are listed below), and added some discussion.

1. Are we a nation of financial illiterates?
2. How did we get that way?
3. How important is widespread financial literacy to the health of a modern society?

The answer to the first question is unfortunately a yes. In surveys after survey after survey, we find that the majority of the U.S. population lacks knowledge of some of the most fundamental financial concepts, such as the power of interest compounding, the workings of risk diversification, and basic asset pricing. In one of my most recent surveys, I measured “debt literacy,” or knowledge of the concepts related to debt and borrowing. Results are humbling: only one-third of the population has a good grasp of the workings of credit cards and understands how quickly credit card debt can grow when borrowing at the standard rates.

The answer to the second question is more complicated. While the quality of schooling education in general may be cause for concern (relevant statistics are not comforting), the financial landscape in the United States has changed dramatically in recent decades. One of the most notable changes has to do with retirement planning. In the past, the average worker did not have to make any decisions about his or her pension. Pensions were mostly defined benefit plans entirely overseen by the employer, so there was little incentive or rationale for individuals to learn about saving and investment. Today, the average worker needs to decide how much and how best to save for retirement—a decision that can be daunting and, if implemented poorly, that can result in inadequate preparation for retirement. Thus, the incentives and the reasons to learn how to save and invest were less pressing. Similarly, until quite recently, the financial instruments that people needed to deal with were fairly basic. When purchasing a new home, a typical household in the 1960s or 70s would likely get a 30-year fixed rate mortgage from a local bank. Today, the complexity of mortgages has increased dramatically and so has the number of lenders, making the process of financing a home a much more complicated endeavor. So, in answer to the question—how did we come to be a nation of financial illiterates?—perhaps it’s not that we have become less financially literate than in the past, but that the world around us, with it’s increasingly complex financial instruments and increasing demand for personal responsibility, is changing.

The answer to the third question—how important is financial literacy to the health of modern society?—is not an easy one either. It is difficult to assess the effects of financial literacy. Financial literacy is not distributed randomly among the population; it is often the result of personal choice, of parents’ education, and of an individual’s access and exposure to financial education. There are very few experiments we can rely on to assess whether or not financial illiteracy results in financial mistakes. Nevertheless, studies consistently show that those who display low levels of financial literacy are less likely to display healthy financial behavior. And in the modern economic system in which we all live, we have to make sure we are well equipped to make the financial decisions that confront us.

Coming back to Dubner’s blog, I am happy to see that it has generated a lot of comments (more than 200 as of today). One reader responded to Dubner’s posting with a fourth question (slightly modified here):

4. Which name doesn’t belong: Faulkner, Curie, Pasteur, Friedman?

My answer is Faulkner. The other authors have made important discoveries that have shaped science and public policy. One of the remarkable lessons we have learned from Milton Friedman is that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” This means that if the central bank does not change the money supply, prices will not keep increasing, even in the presence of an oil shock. Now, this is pretty useful to know, don’t you think?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why Financial Literacy Matters

In my previous blog, I posted three questions that can be used to measure financial literacy. In this posting, I want to discuss the answers to those questions and why getting them right matters.

The first question is:
Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?

This question measures numeracy and knowledge of the power of interest compounding. The fact that interest grows on interest is an important concept to understand and explains how your investment can grow quickly over time.
There are two lessons to be learned from this concept:
1) To make the power of interest compounding work in your favor, it is important to start to save when you are young. Just a simple example: $1 invested at a 7% interest rate increases more than 7 fold in 30 years. This is pretty good, yes? (But see discussion of inflation below.)
2) It is important to borrow as little as possible with credit cards or through other high cost means. Borrowing at an interest rate of 20% means that it takes fewer than 5 years for your debt to double. To me, this seems to quickly hurt.

The second question is:
Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account?

This question measures knowledge of inflation. Inflation is simply the change in prices overtime. If prices increase, it means you can buy less with your money.
There are two lessons to be learned from this concept:
1) You need to protect against the erosion of your purchasing power. Because of inflation, the money you have today will buy less in the future, so you need to invest your money at an interest rate that is higher than the inflation rate. If inflation is at 3% and you earn 1% on your savings account, believe me, you are not doing well!
2) It is important to take inflation into account when planning for the future. In other words, do not expect the prices tomorrow to be the same as the prices today.

The third question is:
Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.”

This question measures knowledge of risk diversification. This is a very important concept that relates to the old adage 'don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.' A simple fall and you have a "frittata," as we say in Italian.
Again, there are lessons to be learned from this concept:
1) Make sure that a single event does not put a big dent in your investment. For example, why invest in a single stock? Why give all of your money to your brother-in-law who wants to open a cigar shop? Firms can fail and people can stop smoking.
2) Investing in your company stock is very risky; if your company goes under, you will lose the money you invested when you need it most. Even if you like your company a lot, why take so much risk? Clearly, I am lucky; Dartmouth is not listed on the NASDAQ and I do not have to face this decision.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Are You Financially Literate? Do this Simple Test to Find Out

One component of my “financial literacy initiative” is to provide (and share) ideas, suggestions, and tools to people interested in financial literacy. While I have discussed extensively financial literacy in previous blogs, I have not discussed how to measure financial literacy. However, this is a major part of the academic research I do. Together with Olivia Mitchell, I have devised three questions that are pretty successful into classifying respondents into levels of financial knowledge. I report the questions below. I urge all of the readers of this blog to go through these questions. In my view, it is important that we evaluate how much we know and simple tests like this one can serve this purpose (ok, I admit, it is the academic in me speaking…). Moreover, we could use these simple tests to classify respondents into different types and assign them to different groups. For example, new hires could be given a test to assess their financial knowledge; those who display little knowledge could be advised to consult with the HR office or a financial advisor before selecting their pension fund and the allocation of their pension assets. Why make important financial decisions ourselves if we know little or nothing about finance and economics? (And beware of asking your brother in law, chances are he knows much less than you were hoping for, but now there is a way to find out!).

Here are the questions:

1) Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?
a) More than $102
b) Exactly $102
c) Less than $102
d) Do not know

2) Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account?
a) More than today
b) Exactly the same as today
c) Less than today
d) Do not know

3) Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.”
a) True
b) False
c) Do not know

The answers are reported at the very end. To be “financially literate” you need to answer correctly to all three questions. If you are able to answer correctly to two questions only, you are not in bad shape (in particular if you were able to answer correctly to the third question), but you need to improve your financial knowledge. If you answered correctly to one question, you are not in good shape and you need to improve your financial knowledge. If you got all questions wrong, you did not get a passing grade. If your answer was “do not know” to at least two of these questions, you are also not in good shape.

Now, let’s admit it, it is not fun to go through these types of tests and it is even less fun to find out that we do not know the answers to these questions. While this is true, it is also the case that how much we know influences how well we do in our financial choices. So, let’s leave these concerns aside and take the test. Financial literacy pays off! And next time your brother in law advances a suggestions on the stock you should buy in this turbulent market, smile and quickly shift the discussion to the weather (it works very well, at least in New Hampshire where the weather changes even more erratically than the stock market).


1. a) More than $102

2. c) Less than today

3. b) False

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Financial Literacy Initiative

It is official: Today marks the start of my “Financial Literacy Initiative.” Thanks to the support of several institutions, including Dartmouth College and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, I can now launch this new initiative. For those of you who have not followed my work closely, I have devoted my research in the past six years to financial literacy and topics related to financial literacy (for example, financial education). My work will not only intensify but will also aim to a large public. In this blog, you will read not only how to measure your financial literacy but also how to improve your financial literacy. You will also read about the results of academic research (not only mine but also those of other authors) that provides useful suggestions and recommendations for our financial decisions, and much more!

Let me start this initiative by summarizing as briefly as possible what I have done so far. My work will continue from here.

In collaboration with Olivia Mitchell from the Wharton School, I have documented an alarmingly low level of financial literacy among older people in the United States. In our sample of older respondents from the Health and Retirement Study, we find that over half of respondents cannot undertake a simple calculation regarding interest rates over a 5-year period and do not know the difference between nominal and real interest rates. An even larger percentage of respondents do not know whether or not a single company stock is riskier than a stock mutual fund. We have also shown that financial illiteracy is related to the inability to devise and implement financial plans. That is, one reason people fail to plan is because they are financially unsophisticated. Our work demonstrates that planning behavior can explain the differences in savings and why some people arrive close to retirement with very little or no wealth. This is only one of the disturbing consequences of financial illiteracy. Consumers with low literacy are also less likely to participate in the stock market, and they are more likely to have problems paying off debt.

Our work has also evaluated the role and effects of financial education programs. Most large firms, particularly those offering Defined Contribution pensions, offer some form of education program. The evidence to date on the effectiveness of these programs is very mixed. In our work, we find that seminars do affect wealth holdings. Estimated effects are sizable, especially for the least wealthy. Moreover, we have argued that it is not surprising that one retirement seminar may change behavior only modestly. The few available studies of the topic indicate how many seminars were offered or how many participants attended; in general, participants appear to attend only once or a handful of times. It is unlikely that widespread financial illiteracy will be “cured” by a one-time benefit fair or a single seminar on financial economics. This is not because financial education is ineffective, but because these programs are too small with respect to the size of the problem they are trying to address.

Our efforts to examine the causes and consequences of financial illiteracy have also been extended to datasets beyond the Health and Retirement Study permitting us to assess financial literacy and financial sophistication for many different groups U.S. respondents. For instance, with our cooperation, our questions on financial literacy have been incorporated into the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the Rand American Life Panel. We have also been successful in getting several European institutions to add similar questions to household surveys in their own countries. For example, a recent Italian Survey on Household Income and Wealth included some of these questions, and I have worked with the Dutch Central Bank to design questions to measure both financial literacy and financial sophistication in the Netherlands.

I have organized and continue to design new conferences that explore ways to increase the effectiveness of financial education programs. One very influential conference was held at Dartmouth College in October 2005 ( ) and a second at the NBER in Cambridge MA in May 2008 ( These two conferences brought together practitioners, policymakers, and academics from economics, psychology, and marketing. By examining data from newly available surveys and combining knowledge and experience from different fields, the conferences sought to develop new methods and strategies to improve employer-provided financial education programs. Information and insights from these conferences are described in the book that I am publishing this year and that compiles contributions of some of the most highly regarded experts in the fields of financial education, savings, pensions, insurance, and portfolio choice. This book, entitled Overcoming the Saving Slump: How to Increase the Effectiveness of Financial Education and Saving Programs, examines not only the experience of the United States but also the experience of other countries, such as Sweden, Chile, and OECD nations. It is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

Key Publications

The complete list of my publications and working papers appears in my CV posted on my web page. Some of publications that have been most influential include:
• My paper “Saving and the Effectiveness of Financial Education” was published in the book Pension Design and Structure: New Lessons from Behavioral Finance, eds Olivia Mitchell and Stephen Utkus (Oxford University Press, 2004). It was later reprinted in the Journal of Financial Transformation, vol. 15, December 2005.
• My study joint with Olivia Mitchell “Baby Boomer Retirement Security: The Role of Planning, Financial Literacy, and Housing Wealth,” appeared in the Journal of Monetary Economics in January 2007. This paper was awarded the Fidelity Pyramid Prize, a $50,000 award given to authors of research that best helps address the goal of improving lifelong financial well-being for Americans.
• The paper joint with Olivia Mitchell “Planning and Financial Literacy: How Do Women Fare?” appeared in the American Economic Review. It documents the very low level of financial literacy among older women in the United States.
• My paper joint with Peter Tufano “Debt Literacy, Financial Experience, and Overindebtness” has been widely cited in the press because it documents a strong relationship between financial illiteracy and debt problems.

And the effort will continue. More on the next blog!

Friday, June 20, 2008

In Favor of Financial Literacy Education

Recent papers are arguing that it is futile to undertake financial literacy education. I do not share that view and let me make just a few simple comments in favor of financial literacy education.

One of the problems of scholars who review the literature on financial education without having done empirical work on this topic or touched the data is that they are likely to miss the large differences that exist in financial behavior. For example, in my work I found that financial education programs do not affect the 'average' household but they do affect those at the bottom of the wealth distribution and those with low educational attainment. These are the groups that financial education programs should reach, but the evidence would not have been found if one were to look simply at averages and to run simple regressions. Moreover, having spent the last six years measuring and looking at financial literacy data, I am concerned about how much we can expect the current financial education program to be effective given they often entail only one-hour of financial education. Small intervention of this magnitude cannot be expected to do much to combat widespread illiteracy. However, this does not mean we should not do any financial education at all.

The vast evidence from psychology that people suffer from biases in their decision-making is sobering and humbling. However, if taken at face value, it seems that people are truly inept and cannot make choice, in fact any choice, not just financial decisions. However, one of the features of the current environment is that people are confronted and required to make choices. People are confronted with a myriad of choices now. For example, they are increasingly asked to decide about the medical treatment to go through and have to be wary of doctors who tend to suggest expensive but unnecessary treatments. There is wide regional disparity on how hospitals treat the same medical condition and people would want to decide in which hospital they want to be treated. If people want to buy cereals, they have a full isle with more than 100 brands to choose from. If they want to buy a cell phone service, they have many features to consider. Should we regulate how people consume? They are likely to make lots of mistakes in that area too.

Continuing on the previous point, how do we deal with the increase in financial responsibility that people are required to take on? Financial literacy education is in my view one of the ways we can help people (and clearly not the only way we should limit to).

There is no obvious alternatives to financial literacy education. The idea is not to transform each person into a financial wizard, but to give him/her the tools to navigate the current financial system. The metaphor that I have used in my work is to have knowledge similar to having a "financial driving license": people drive car without being engineers and they do not need to know everything about cars and driving to be behind the wheels. Even with knowledge, accidents will occur, but this does not mean that it is much preferable to close down the roads that are more dangerous than to allow people to do their own driving.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Consumer Information: Is It Enough?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hosted a conference on Consumer Information and the Mortgage Market on May 29, 2008. You can access the program at:

and also watch some it on CSPAN

FTC certainly deserves credit for organizing such a conference. There was a lot of discussion about how to inform consumers and I came away from the conference pretty convinced that information alone is not enough. We need not only to find ways to communicate in an effective way, but also to simplify information. Some ideas proposed by the speakers were rather intriguing. If we look at other fields—and health is one recurrent example— we have put labels on many food items to make sure people make good decisions when they go shopping. More than this type of information, I like “rating” systems. For example, we use a star system to evaluate safety of cars. While this is not so easy when considering financial products (but Morningstar does it for mutual funds), I think it is important to think of ways not just to provide information but also to process that information and deliver it in a simple and intuitive manner. Two researchers from Vanguard, Gary Mottola and Steve Utkus, have done something similar for the classification of portfolios: they have used a stop-light system: red, yellow and green to classify portfolios. Red is a stop sign, it signals investors they need to stop and reconsider their portfolio; yellow indicates there are problems although not as severe as in the “red light” case. And green means that investors can continue cruising with the current portfolio allocation. In my view, that is a brilliant idea and it is worth a thousand statistics. We have to look for such easy ways to provide information. Note this is not simply information, there is some “mild” advice in it: Red means “stop.” I like that too as I believe this is what consumers are looking for.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The new findings from the 2008 Jump$tart Coalition? Not good!

The results from the 2008 Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy have been released. This is the 6th survey and 6,856 high school seniors from 385 randomly-selected schools took the 31-question test in class. The findings are sobering: In 2008, high school seniors answered just 48.3 percent of the financial literacy questions correctly. This is the lowest score of the six surveys: In the 1997-98 academic year, students answered 57% of the questions correctly (not a passing grade by the way) and that fraction has been more or less declining over time.

One of the most significant findings of the study is that fewer than half of the students realized that credit card users who pay only the minimum amount each month run up the highest finance charges. This proportion was 70.6 percent in 2006 and had never fallen below 60 percent in all the years of the survey. Considering the record amount of household consumer debt, there should be significant cause for concern if people do not understand the terms of their credit cards (if the high school survey is any indication).

Other findings are similarly worrisome: Just 27.3 percent realized that interest on savings accounts could be taxed if incomes were high enough. Thus, by and large, students have a poor understanding of our tax system. Moreover, only 40.4 percent of students realized that they could lose their health insurance benefits if their parents became unemployed. And with the economy not doing well, students may end up learn about this fact the hard way.

Financial illiteracy is not only widespread but is particularly severe among some demographic group. Students in the highest family income category—over $80,000 per year—had average scores of 52.3 percent. This contrasts strongly with the scores of students from the lowest income families who averaged just 43.4 percent. Moreover, while White or Caucasian students averaged 52.5 percent on the financial literacy test, Black or African-American students averaged only 41.3 percent, Hispanic students 45.1 percent and Native-American students 37.7 percent. I have found these differences to be large among the older population as well, and this finding shows that differences are already present at a young age.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, April was Financial Literacy Month. These findings show there is a long road ahead to address the lack of financial literacy. We certainly need to keep working hard at it all year long!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

April is Financial Literacy Month

Recently, Google posted a new feature on its G-Mail account; users would be able to send e-mails with self-declared timestamps, thereby giving the impression to readers that the e-mail was sent earlier so that senders could meet missed deadlines. Sure enough, it was April 1st – April Fool’s Day. While the rest of the country thought about practical jokes to play on each other, April serves as an important milestone as the official Financial Literacy Month.

My research described in previous blogs has highlighted the relationship between low financial literacy and poor financial decision making; today, there are notably low levels of financial literacy within the U.S. population, making financial literacy education a significant societal concern. As a result, April’s status as the official Financial Literacy Month is important since it serves as a reminder of the need to promote financial education. Governmental agencies, not-for-profits, and industry leaders have focused on April as a unique opportunity to coordinate a comprehensive strategy to educate the public. The 2008 Financial Literacy and Education Summit is a prime example of this. Here, stakeholders have the unique opportunity to learn and share best practices to promote financial education. According to the Summit’s website (, the purpose is to create a roundtable discussion with public policy, education, and private sector experts, to protect the long-term health of our economy.

With April as a focal point, as the official Financial Literacy Month, a more focused strategy can emerge that promotes the effectiveness of financial education efforts. Of course, financial literacy outreach shouldn’t stop at the end of April, but we should utilize this time to promote awareness regarding the pressing need to increase financial literacy.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Advice to College Students

I was recently interviewed by an undergraduate student from Boston University who writes for the Daily Free Press (the independent student newspaper at Boston University). She asked me about my work on financial literacy and debt and, at the end of the interview, she inquired whether I had any suggestions to give to college students to improve their financial literacy. This is an important question and I would like to use this blog to make my recommendation available to anybody who reads this blog or is interested in financial literacy. As I told the interviewer, college students have a great opportunity to improve their financial knowledge, and they should exploit it. My recommendation to students is to take economics courses while in college. Students do not have to major or minor in economics; one or two courses in economics can suffice to build some understanding of basic economic principles and how the financial system works. Several studies, including my own work, show that people who undertook economics courses while at school have much higher financial knowledge later in life. Most importantly, that financial knowledge does matter! For example, those who took economics courses while in school were more likely to invest in stocks later in life. And investing in stocks has become even more important now that individuals are increasingly put in charge of investing and saving for their own retirement (for those who want to read more about this topic, please see the paper posted on my web page: “Financial literacy and stock market participation").

This type of advice may look self-serving: Here is an economics professor advising students to take courses in economics! In this blog, I would like to describe not only my research but also my personal experience. I am happy today that as a young woman, I took courses in economics and finance. I have used that expertise not only to start saving very early in life but also to invest in portfolios that have given me steady returns. I have enjoyed the confidence in making financial decisions and the ability to ask for financial advice when it was necessary. I have stayed away from debt and from financial “opportunities” that were too good to be true. A few years ago, I bought a house I truly love. It is sitting on more than 3 acres of woods and every day I enjoy the view from my windows. The crisis in the real estate and the mortgage market has not and will not affect me. And if you ask me, it is good to be free of financial worries at this stage of my life.

Personally, I have always felt very proud in discussing financial matters with my father, who knew much more than I did. Recently, my parents have asked me to advice them on their financial decisions and this has made me even more proud of being a financially knowledgeable woman. I have also helped and advised several dear friends, who know little or nothing about economics. And that, to use one expression used often by my Dartmouth students, is really cool!

Here is a link to the article the student from Boston University wrote after the interview:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

How to Improve the Effectiveness of Saving and Financial Education Programs? Simplify!

If, as argued in my previous blogs, saving decisions are very complex and financial literacy is low, one way to help people save is to find ways to simplify those decisions. For example, what may be more effective is to find ways to ease people into action.

This is the strategy analyzed by James Choi, David Laibson and Brigitte Madrian in a NBER Working paper. They study the effect of Quick Enrollment, a program that gives workers the option of enrolling in the employer-provided saving plan by opting into a preset default contribution rate and asset allocation. Unlike defaults, workers have the choice to enroll or not, but the decision is much simplified as they do not have to decide at which rate to contribute or how to allocate their assets.

When new hires were exposed to the Quick Enrollment program, participation rates in 401(k) plans tripled, going from 5% to 19% in the first month of enrollment. When the program was offered to previously hired non-participants, participation increased by 10 to 20 percentage points. These are large increases, particularly if one considers that the default rate is not particularly advantageous: the contribution rate in the most successful program is set at only 2%, with 50% of assets allocated to money market mutual funds and 50% allocated to a balanced fund. Moreover, Quick Enrollment is particularly popular among African-Americans and lower income workers (those earning less than $25,000) who, as the research mentioned before shows, are less likely to be financially literate. Thus, changes in pension design can have a significant impact on participation. Most importantly, this is a low-cost program. Here is a new and powerful suggestion: simplify!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Where does illiteracy hurt?

While the low levels of financial literacy discussed in my previous blogs are troubling in and of themselves, what is most important are the potential implications of financial illiteracy for economic behavior. One example is offered by an article Hogarth, Anguelov, and Lee published in 2005, that demonstrates that consumers with low levels of education are disproportionately represented amongst the “unbanked,” those lacking any kind of transaction account.

To examine how financial illiteracy is tied to economic behavior, Olivia Mitchell (Wharton School) and I used the questions we have devised for a special module for the 2004 Health and Retirement Study, and linked financial literacy to retirement planning. We found that those who are more financially knowledgeable are also much more likely to plan for retirement. Specifically, planners are most likely to know about interest compounding, which is clearly a critical variable to devise saving plans. Even after accounting for several demographic characteristics, such as education, marital status, number of children, retirement status, race, and sex, we still found that financial literacy plays an independent role: Those who understand compound interest and display basic numeracy are much more likely to have planned for retirement. This is important, since lack of planning is tantamount to lack of saving.

Other authors have also confirmed the positive association between knowledge and financial behavior. For example, in a paper jointly written with Maarten van Rooji and Rob and Alessie, we find that respondents who are more financially sophisticated are more likely to invest in stocks. John Campbell, from Harvard University, in his article published in the Journal of Finance in 2006 has highlighted how household mortgage decisions, particularly the refinancing of fixed-rate mortgages, should be understood in the larger context of ‘investment mistakes’ and their relation to consumers’ financial knowledge. This is a particularly important topic, given that most US families are homeowners and many have mortgages. In fact, many households are confused about the terms of their mortgages. Campbell also finds that younger, better-educated, better-off white consumers with more expensive houses were more likely to refinance their mortgages over the 2001-2003 period when interest rates were falling.

His findings are confirmed by Brian Bucks and Karen Pence, from the Board of Governors, who examine whether homeowners know the value of their home equity and the terms of their home mortgages. They show that many borrowers, especially those with adjustable rate mortgages, underestimate the amount by which their interest rates can change and that low-income, low-educated households are least knowledgeable about the details of their mortgages.

Further evidence of biases is provided by Victor Stango and Jonathan Zinman from Dartmouth College, who thoroughly document the systematic tendency of people to underestimate the interest rate associated with a stream of loan payments. The consequences of this bias are important: Those who underestimate the annual percentage rate (APR) on a loan are more likely to borrow and less likely to save.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Financial illiteracy and debt

With the November elections rapidly approaching, millions of Americans are examining each candidate’s views on the country’s economic situation. Americans with unmanageable levels of debt, which, according to TNS’ survey, include over one in four Americans, will be particularly interested in candidates’ plans to help alleviate that burden. While strengthening family finances is a complex problem, one key element is financial literacy. The TNS survey, which includes questions that Peter Tufano (Harvard Business School) and I devised, found disturbing patterns of financial illiteracy and indebtedness:

Only 35 percent of respondents were able to correctly estimate how interest compounds over time

More than half of respondents did not understand how minimum payments are calculated and applied to a principal balance

Almost none of the respondents understood the financial difference between paying in monthly installments versus one lump sum at the end of a certain time period

The survey also explored Americans’ comfort with their personal debts. Respondents were asked if they felt they had too little debt, just the right amount, or too much debt. A sizable fraction of respondents (26 percent) report having too much debt and another 11 percent didn’t know if they did. While firms bombard Americans with credit card solicitations, only two percent of American wished they could borrow more. People who felt they had “too much debt” tended to be younger, with lower incomes and larger families. Beyond this, the over indebted did not understand the basic working of interest rates (this line did not read well). There is a strong link between financial illiteracy and excessive debt. Those who severely underestimate the power of interest compounding don’t understand how quickly debts can grow. They end up with more debt than they can handle.

What these findings show us is that financial illiteracy is pervasive. There is a widespread lack of financial know-how in America. This epidemic is not only prevalent in the low-income demographic. Excessive amounts of debt and personal financial worries may make consumers hold back on their spending.

About the Research
The study is based on a representative national sample of 1000 people aged 18+ in the TNS 6th Dimension Access Panel. The internet-based survey was conducted during the week of November 5, 2007.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Financial education: Learning from other countries

The experiences of other countries offer important lessons for the United States. While the increase in individual responsibility that is required in the pension system we’re transitioning to (moving from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution pensions) provides incentives for individuals to become knowledgeable and informed, one has to be cautious about relying simply on individual initiative. For example, lack of understanding of critical components of pensions is a persistent feature, even in economies where personal retirement accounts have been in place for many years.

In Chile, which adopted personal retirement accounts more than 25 years ago, there is a remarkably low level of knowledge about pensions. Only 69 percent of participants in the Chilean system indicate that they receive an annual statement summarizing past contributions and projecting future benefit amounts while, in fact, every participant is sent a statement. Less than half of the participants know how much they contribute to the system, even though the contribution rate has been set at 10 percent of pay since the system’s inception. Understanding of what workers have accumulated and how their assets are invested is also scanty. For example, just one-third of respondents stated knowing how their own money is invested, and only 16 percent can correctly identify which funds they hold (compared to administrative records).

In Sweden, which implemented comprehensive pension reform during the 1990s, transforming the old public defined benefit plan into a defined contribution plan and implementing a broad public information campaign, the level of knowledge is also not high. The cornerstone of communication of information to plan participants in Sweden is the Orange Envelope. The envelope is sent out annually and contains account information as well as a projection of benefits. Overall, three-fourths of all participants say they have opened the envelope, though only half report reading at least some of its content. Relying on self-reports of participants, chapter twelve documents that half of participants rate their knowledge of pensions as poor. Moreover, the share of respondents who report having a good understanding of the pension system has decreased over time. Measuring actual knowledge of the pension system from surveys that ask respondents about components of the system confirms the evidence provided by self-reports. Many participants are still unaware of the key principles regarding how benefits are determined and many overstate the importance of individual accounts.

Another problematic area for U.S. investors, which is validated in looking at the experiences of other countries, is knowledge of commissions and fees. High fees can prevent investors from accumulating adequately for retirement. However, fees can be easily overlooked. The experience of Chile provides compelling evidence that this is the case; only a minuscule fraction of pension participants (around 2 percent) seem to know the fees that are charged on their accounts.

The experience of Sweden further shows that when individuals are confronted with a very broad range of funds in which to invest—as many as 800—there can be a substantial increase in information and search costs. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of new participants in Sweden make an “active choice” and choose their portfolios. The large majority invest in a default fund. Thus, it is critically important to design defaults in a way that promotes wise portfolio allocation.

Moreover, widespread evidence of illiteracy is not unique to the United States, but is present throughout OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Importantly, illiteracy in all countries is particularly severe among certain groups, such as women, those with low income and education, and the elderly. This suggests that these groups are particularly vulnerable to many of the changes that are occurring in modern economies. It also suggests that it is possible to share programs across countries and develop international cooperation in efforts to develop effective financial education programs.

These topics are covered in more detail in my forthcoming book: Overcoming the saving slump: How to increase the effectiveness of financial education and saving programs, to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Financial education: Does it work?

As additional evidence that financial illiteracy is considered a severe impediment to saving, both the government and employers have promoted financial education programs. Most large firms, particularly those with DC pensions, offer some form of education program. The evidence on the effectiveness of these programs is so far very mixed. Only a few studies find that those who attend a retirement seminar are much more likely to save and contribute to pensions. Clearly, those who attend seminars are not necessarily a random group of workers. Because attendance is voluntary, it is likely that those who attend have a proclivity to save and it is hard to disentangle whether it is seminars, per se, or simply the characteristics of seminar attendees that explain the higher savings of attendees shown in the empirical estimates. However, a study by Bernheim and Garrett published in 2003 argue that seminars are often remedial, i.e., offered in firms where workers do little or no saving. Thus, the effects of seminars may have been underestimated.

My own work uses data from the Health and Retirement Study and confirms the findings of Bernheim and Garrett. Consistent with the fact that seminars are remedial, she finds that the effect of seminars is particularly strong for those at the bottom of the wealth distribution and those with low education. Retirement seminars are found to have a positive effect mainly in the lower half of the wealth distribution and particularly for those with low education. Estimated effects are sizable, particularly for the least wealthy, for whom attending seminars appears to increase financial wealth (a measure of retirement savings that excludes housing and business equity) by approximately 18 percent. Note also that seminars affect not only private wealth but also measures of wealth that include pensions and Social Security wealth, perhaps because seminars provide information about pensions and encourage workers to participate and contribute. This can be important because workers are often uninformed about their pensions.

In a series of papers, Robert Clark and Madeleine D’Ambrosio have examined the effects of seminars offered by TIAA-CREF to a variety of institutions. The objective of the seminars is to provide financial information that would assist individuals in the retirement planning process. Their empirical analysis is based on information obtained in three surveys: participants completed a first survey prior to the start of the seminar, a second survey at the end of the seminar, and a third survey several months later. Respondents were asked whether they had changed their retirement age goals or revised their desired level of retirement income after the seminar. After attending the seminar, several participants stated they intended to change their retirement goals and many revised their desired level of retirement income. Thus, the information provided in the seminars does have some effect on behavior. However, it was only a minority of participants who were affected by the seminars. Just 12% of seminar attendees reported changes in retirement age goals, and close to 30% reported changes in retirement income goals. Moreover, intentions did not translate into actions. When interviewed several months later, many of those who had intended to make changes had not implemented them yet.

Other papers find more modest effects of education programs. Duflo and Saez, in a paper published in 2003, investigate the effects of exposing employees of a large not-for-profit institution to a benefit fair. This study is notable for its rigorous methodology; a randomly chosen group of employees were given incentives to participate in a benefit fair, and their behavior was compared with that of a similar group in which individuals were not offered any incentives to attend the fair. This methodology overcomes the problem mentioned before that those who attend education programs may already be inclined to save. This is clearly important, and findings from this study show that benefit fair attendance induced participants to increase participation in pensions, but the effect on saving was almost negligible. Perhaps the most notable result of this study is how pervasive peer effects are: not only benefit fair attendees but also their colleagues who did not attend were affected by it, providing further evidence that individuals rely on the behaviors of those around them to make financial decisions.

Given the extent of financial illiteracy, it is not surprising that exposing individuals to a benefit fair or offering workers one hour of financial education does little to improve saving. To be effective, programs have to be tailored to the size of the problem they are trying to solve. While it is not possible to transform low literacy individuals into financial wizards, it is feasible to emphasize simple rules and good financial behavior, such as diversification, exploitation of the power of interest compounding, and taking advantage of tax incentives and employers’ pension matches. Another potential role of financial education is to help individuals assess their abilities to make saving and investment decisions and perhaps make them appreciate the value of financial advice or equip them with tools to deal effectively with advisors and financial intermediaries.

So, my answer is : yes, financial education works, but we can make it more effective.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Newly Created Advisory Council on Financial Literacy

President Bush announced last week the creation of the Advisory Council on Financial Literacy

More information is available on the White House web page:

Operating under the guidance of the U.S. Treasury Department with the specific charge of keeping America competitive and assisting citizens in understanding and addressing financial matters, the 19-member council will focus exclusively on economic empowerment issues. Their duties will include advising the president and Treasury Secretary on such goals as improving financial education efforts for students and adults in the workplace, and establishing effective measures of
national financial literacy, and promoting effective access to financial
services, especially for those without access to such services.

This is a very important step. Financial literacy is sorely lacking in this country and it is urgent to address this issue. The hope is that the council will get to work right away!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Finance Literacy and Women

The decision of how much to save for retirement is a complex one, as it requires collecting and processing information on a large set of variables including Social Security and pensions, inflation, and interest rates, to name a few, and also making predictions about future values of these variables. It is also necessary for the consumer to understand compound interest, inflation, financial markets, mortality tables, and more. Nevertheless, little research has asked exactly how households make saving decisions, how they overcome the difficulty of making those decisions, and whether they are financially literate enough to make well-informed choices. These topics are of paramount importance, particularly when older households are increasingly required to take responsibility for investing and allocating their pension wealth. This is a particular concern for women, who tend to live longer than men and have shorter work experiences and lower earnings.

To gain insight into how households make saving decisions, Olivia Mitchell and I devised a module on planning and financial literacy for the 2004 Health and Retirement Study. The module includes three questions on financial literacy, as follows:

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow: more than $102, exactly $102, less than $102?
2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account?
3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.

The first two questions, which we refer to as “Interest Rate” and “Inflation,” help evaluate whether respondents display knowledge of fundamental economic concepts and basic numeracy. The third question, which we refer to as “Risk Diversification,” evaluates respondents’ knowledge of risk diversification, a crucial element of an informed investment decision

The responses to these three questions among a sample of 785 women age 50+ in the 2004 HRS module on planning and literacy indicate widespread illiteracy. Only 61.9 percent of women correctly answered the interest rate calculation question. This is a relatively easy question, so it is surprising that so many were unable to respond correctly, particularly because these older women have most likely made numerous decisions involving interest rates over their lifetimes (e.g. credit card rates, mortgage financing rates, etc). Respondents were more accurate about the inflation question, with 70.6 percent answering correctly. By contrast, only 47.6 percent of the women respondents knew that holding a single company stock implies a riskier investment than a stock mutual fund.

Note also that only less than half of all respondents could answer correctly both the interest rate and inflation questions. This is a remarkably low ratio, taking into account the complex financial calculations that households on the verge of retirement have almost surely engaged in over their lifetimes. Also disturbing is the fact that only 29 percent of respondents could answer all three questions correctly.

These findings raise concerns about the ability of women to make sound saving and investment decisions over a long retirement period. In an environment where individuals rather than employers and governments are charged with handing retirement finances, it is essential that consumers become more financially literate in order to be more successful at retirement.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Where do presidential candidates stand in terms of policies for financial literacy?

As people in New Hampshire cast their votes today, it is important to know where presidential candidates stand in terms of financial literacy policies. To that aim, together with the Networks Financial Institute we have sent the following letter to all presidential candidates:

Dear Presidential Candidate:

In recent days, the state of the economy has surpassed the war in the Iraq as the number-one concern of American voters. Networks Financial Institute at Indiana State University, in collaboration with Dartmouth College professor Annamaria Lusardi, is writing to ask how you, as President, would take steps to help more Americans make sound financial decisions.

The need to improve our citizens' financial literacy has gained recognition as Americans save less, spend the majority of their disposable income, and incur rising levels of debt. Data at both the national and state levels indicate that consumer financial knowledge is at an all-time low, which suggests our nation is now facing a financial literacy crisis. Consider the following:

i) the U.S. savings rate has been extremely low for several years;
ii) home foreclosures nationwide are rising very rapidly and are expected to continue to do so for the next year;
iii) the average American with at least one credit card owes nearly $9,000.

Aggravating the situation are a host of business and social factors including vigorous growth in the sub-prime lending industry, a proliferation of “pay day lending” companies and even an increasing array of credit products marketed to the “tween” demographic market. Our educational system has assumed that students will learn the necessary financial skills from their parents, while statistics show that the majority of our nation's adults lack sound financial skills themselves. Given these circumstances we would like to pose the following questions for your response.

First, the economic well-being of Americans increasingly depends upon making good decisions about complex subjects such as student loans, retirement saving, home ownership, and many others. Do you believe that the federal government has a role in improving the financial literacy of our citizens?

Second, educational research has shown that the foundation for learning core subjects like reading and math occurs during the early grades. Our research revealed that only 38% of elementary school teachers and only 52% of teachers in all grades across the nation address financial literacy in their classrooms, citing a lack of time and educational standards as their main obstacles. Do you support the development of national financial literacy standards to help educators prepare the next generation of consumers?

Thank you for addressing these questions.


Elizabeth Coit
Networks Financial Institute

Annamaria Lusardi
Dartmouth College

I will post the replies as soon as we receive them.