More than ever before, we must make financial decisions that are important and consequential. How much should we contribute to retirement accounts and how should we invest our retirement savings? Should we enroll in a health insurance plan with a low or high deductible? What do we need for our children’s education? Household finances have become sufficiently complex that simple intuition or the advice of family and friends is not enough to guarantee good choices.
There are courses in corporate finance and specialized curricula for managing firms’ finances, but what is available when we serve as our own Chief Financial Officer (CFO)? Fortunately, personal finance is a subject making its way into schools, from high schools to colleges to graduate programs. Online courses are also springing up, and some employers have started to offer financial education programs to their employees.What should the content of such courses be? As member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Economic Education, I served as an adviser on the National Standards for Financial Literacy. From these standards, we can identify some of the crucial concepts that everybody needs to make informed financial decisions. I am going to focus on just three, the Big Three as I tell my students.
One fundamental principle of personal finance is the power of interest compounding. This knowledge is key for saving, borrowing, and investing decisions. It enables us to understand, for example, why it is important to start to save early. And we need to do calculations to see results. If I borrow at 20 percent on my credit card, how long does it takes before my initial debt doubles? If expenses and fees reduce my rate of return by one percentage point, how is my wealth affected over a 30-year horizon?Because financial decisions are inherently about the future, we must consider how money’s purchasing power changes over time. We must also acknowledge that the future is uncertain. That brings into play two more building blocks: knowledge of inflation and risk. Distinguishing between real and nominal values is essential to keeping a stable standard of living over a lifetime. Indeed, personal finance is where we can fully appreciate the critical role the Fed and its monetary policy play, especially when it comes to low and stable inflation and its implications for financial planning.
Knowledge of risk and risk diversification is at the basis of portfolio choice. We can formally prove that the old adage “do not put all of your eggs in one basket” is, indeed, good advice. Even more, we can learn how to implement it well. Moreover, we can protect ourselves and our wealth from the many sources of risks: interest rate risk, health risk, and the risk of living too long!The Big Three are the stanchions of a personal finance course we launched three years ago at the George Washington University School of Business. While I cannot say whether this course will lead to smarter financial decisions, students’ eagerness to enroll, performance on the tests, and comments when they complete it give me much hope.