At an international conference in Washington, D.C., on financial literacy last year, the Retirement Commissioner from New Zealand stood up and stated that New Zealand has the best website in the world to promote financial literacy and financial education. I liked her instantly; you need to have a lot of guts to make that statement in front of an international audience of academics and policymakers, and possibly a good website. I checked out that website and good it is! It is called “Sorted,” a term that New Zealanders use to mean figuring things out and getting ready (http://www.sorted.org.nz/). The website is very well organized and provides information for financial decisions at every stage of life. One can find information about managing debt, mortgages, investment, and planning for retirement. And there is a variety of calculators as well to help people figure out the interest payments on their credit cards, how wealth can grow with the power of interest compounding, how much to save for retirement, and much more. On the website one can also take a money personality test “to help you work out your financial strengths and possible blind-spots.” I went through the questions and was told (among several other things) that when it comes to money matters, I am cool and dispassionate! I like that, too.
As I have argued before, citizens in every country could use one reliable, accurate source of information for managing their financial decisions. However, what really puts New Zealand's website over the top is the fact that it is so engaging. The information is not provided in those sterile graphs and statistics that even people with advanced degrees understand only after a bit of head scratching. One can watch a movie about investment, saving, and retirement. The soundtrack is so good that it made me play the movies a couple of times to listen to it again. One can also listen to stories and follow the journeys of Liz, Carl and Jess, Rochelle and Junior, and Raeanna and learn how they used the tools available on the website to help organize their finances. It is not just about information and simplifying decisions, but also about implementation. The website describes the steps that one has to take, for example, to set goals and to do a budget. And there are tips on a variety of topics, including how to cope with today’s financial climate. The information provided online is also available in booklets that can be downloaded or ordered for free.
According to a survey that was just released in June 2009, one-third of New Zealanders had either visited the website of the Retirement Commission or read one of the booklets, and a quarter had done so within the past twelve months (http://www.financialliteracy.org.nz/.) This is an extraordinary result. In my view, there are several reasons for this success. First, the Retirement Commission is an autonomous entity with the mission to “educate and inform New Zealanders from age 5 to 105 about managing their personal finances to ensure adequate provision for retirement.” Thus, the citizens of New Zealand know where to go to get a reliable source of information. We do not need many web sites, we only need one! And both the website and the work of the Retirement Commission are well advertised in the media and New Zealanders know about it. Most importantly, as the Retirement Commissioner remarked, it is a good website!
I visited the Retirement Commission last week to speak at their Financial Literacy Summit. I discovered that they designed a survey of financial knowledge in 2005, well before other countries. The development of a national strategy to lift New Zealanders’ financial literacy was announced at the inaugural Financial Literacy Symposium in Wellington in December 2006 and launched in 2008. And if the new survey in 2009 is any indication, 43 percent of New Zealanders are now scoring high on financial knowledge, and women and low income households are among the groups with the biggest improvements since 2006, when data from the first survey was collected. At the conference last week, the Secretary for Education announced that financial education will become part of the curriculum in schools throughout New Zealand. Moreover, the advisory committee for the National Strategy for Financial Literacy (composed of the Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the Chair of the Securities Commission, the Chair of the Investment, Savings and Insurance Association, the Secretary for Education, the Associate Dean for Mâori and Pacific Development at the University of Auckland Business School, and the Retirement Commissioner) will now report to the Minister of Finance twice a year on progress in implementing the strategy.
As you may know, New Zealanders are also called “Kiwis.” The Kiwi is a flightless bird. As the story goes, Tane Mahuta, the lord of the forest, was surveying his ferny domain and became concerned that his children, the trees, were ill from being eaten by bugs. He called the birds together to ask if any might be prepared to eat the bugs, which would entail living on the dark, damp forest floor. The Kiwi put himself forward. As a reward it became the best-known and most-loved bird of all.
It is good to have such a symbol in a country so hard at work to improve financial literacy. Can they improve financial literacy? The answer I heard at the conference was: Yes, we can!