Sunday, November 29, 2015

Millennials and their struggle with debt

This is a slightly modified version of the blog I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, which is posted here:

Much has been written about Millennials—if they are moving back with their parents, whether they are buying cars or homes, how much they are saving for retirement. There may not be consensus on all these issues but one thing is clear: Millennials and debt go hand-in-hand.
Our research using data from the National Financial Capability Study shows that two-thirds of Millennials (those aged 23-35 in 2012) have at least one source of outstanding long-term debt—whether student loans, home mortgages, or car payments—and 30 percent have more than one. Among the college-educated, a staggering 81 percent have at least one source of long-term debt
Not only do Millennials carry debt, but they struggle with it. A majority report having too much debt, difficulty in making payments, and worries about it. Specifically, the ability to pay off student loans troubles more than half of Millennials who have such loans. Low-income respondents tend to be more concerned than higher-income earners, but even 34 percent of Millennials with annual household income above $75,000 doubt they will be able to repay their student loans. Moreover, even several years after college, the percentage of those worried about repaying student loans remains high. Fifty-four percent of Millennials who are over age 30 and have student loans are worried about repaying them.

Along with long-term debt, Millennials also carry short-term debt, most often from credit cards. This debt can be costly. More than half of Millennials’ credit card users say they carried over a balance—for which they were charged interest—in the last 12 months. A sizable share has been hit with late fees (22 percent), over-the-limit fees (13 percent), and fees for cash advances (14 percent).

The use of alternative financial services (AFS), such as auto title loans, payday loans, pawnshops, rent-to-own loans, and tax refund advances, represents another significant source of short-term debt. More than two-in-five Millennials in the study relied on AFS at least once during the five years prior to the survey. Those turning to these services are not always low income: More than a quarter of Millennials with annual household income higher than $75,000—four times the poverty level for a standard household of three—have used AFS.

It doesn’t end there. Millennials are tapping their bank and retirement accounts. Twenty-nine percent with bank accounts report occasionally overdrawing them, and 22 percent of retirement-account owners took loans or hardship withdrawals in the 12 months prior to the survey.

While these findings should worry Millennials, there is something that should concern all of us: This next generation is not prepared for the financial engagement it faces. Millennials give themselves high marks on their financial knowledge. Yet the data show that only 8 percent of them could correctly answer five questions used to assess understanding of the fundamental concepts that define financial literacy.
They owe a lot. They know too little. Millennials’ struggle with debt may eventually become our problem, too.

Friday, November 27, 2015

“Just in time education”? Just in time is too late

This is a slightly modified version of the blog I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, which is posted here:

Several people and institutions have been advocating for “just in time” education as an alternative to financial education. I take this to mean that financial education should be provided at the point of sale. Academic studies have found that financial knowledge decays over time, and “just in time” proponents see on-the-spot education as a way to address that challenge.
But there are problems with the “just in time” concept. For starters, all education—not just financial knowledge—erodes over time. If I were to re-test my undergraduate and graduate students a few months after they finish a course (any course!), the results would deviate from those of their final exams. This hardly means we should sidestep teaching entirely, to replace it with targeted information that is dispensed only as needed. Do you want to go to a Shakespeare play tonight? Here is what he wrote and why he is so famous. No need to bother with a literature course in college. “Just in time” ignores the value that comes from education.   
The second reason I question “just in time” is that my academic research shows that financial literacy brings benefits. Financially knowledgeable individuals are more likely to plan for future events, to save, and to invest in higher return assets. But that knowledge is important before they take those actions. Indeed, it is what positively influences their behavior.
For example, those who know about the power of interest compounding understand the importance of starting to save early. For those with no financial literacy, there is really no point of sales benefit – no big sign that states “Come here if you have not started to save yet.” If “just in time” is their only option, these people will not receive any education. They will learn about the value of saving when they are close to retirement, when it is already too late.
This underscores the more basic problem with the “just in time” argument: Most financial decisions are not made at the point of sale. Consider a home mortgage. By the time buyers come to a broker or a loan officer at the bank, many decisions have already being made. The buyers may have decided on the house they want to buy. But what if they have chosen a property they cannot afford or they have not searched for the best offer? At that point, “just in time” education is again too late. Consumers need financial knowledge before the dream of home ownership is formed.
“Just in time” education reflects a pretty grim view of financial education, which it seems to see as a bitter medicine that should be dispensed in a targeted dose—nothing more—and only when needed. The prevalence of financial illiteracy, combined with the many financial decisions we constantly must make, demands a more comprehensive cure than that.
I was inspired to write this post after I was contacted by a student in the personal finance course I have been teaching at the George Washington University. He asked whether I was also teaching an advanced course on the subject. That message came just in time!