Category Archives: Financial Literacy

Educational Attainment and Financial Literacy Questions from the National Financial Capability Study, 2009–2015

Here are my comments and an overview of the questions on the National Financial Capability Study (NFCS) about educational attainment and financial literacy, as they have changed during the three iterations (“waves”) of the survey (2009, 2012, and 2015). The NFCS is a survey that is administered nationally (by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation) to approximately 500 participants per U.S. state (about 27,000 per iteration total, due to large states or certain ethnicities being over-sampled) every three years. It began in 2009, so there have only been three iterations so far. While the raw data is not nationally representative—obviously, sampling 500 people from Alaska and 500 people from Florida grossly over-represents Alaska by proportion of population—the datasets include weighting variables to account for this at the national, state, and census-area levels. It is disappointing to see that the NFCS only began oversampling highly populous states in the latest iteration (2015), and only did so for New York, Texas, Illinois, and California (1000 respondents instead of 500), but this may be due to decisions about the NFCS being surprisingly political.

It is disappointing to see the lack of depth in the educational attainment question in the 2009 and 2012 surveys. Only in the latest version (2015) were options for Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees added, while the vague “college graduate” was removed. However, now we have no option for trade school or certificate graduates. Moreover, making comparisons between the surveys is difficult. We can combine the two high-school graduate options in the 2012 and 2015 iterations to compare them to the single 2009 option, but it is somewhat tenuous to compare “some college” (2009 and 2012) to “some college, no degree” (2015), to consolidate “Associate’s degree” and “Bachelor’s degree” (2015) to compare them to “college graduate” (2009 and 2012), or to compare “post graduate education” (2009 to 2012) to “post graduate degree” (2015). These changes between survey iterations are not necessarily trivial. Indeed, the “tracking dataset” provided by FINRA, which includes respondents from all three survey iterations but only questions that are included in all three iterations, omits educational attainment due to the lack of consistency.

For the other questions about actual and perceived financial literacy, which is also known as financial capability (the two terms are fairly synonymous but “financial literacy” is the more popular term, despite FINRA and the post-2011 Obama administration relabeling it “financial capability”), the response options (not shown below but can be seen at the NFCS website or the Washington Post) remained identical between survey iterations. As someone interested in investigating the relationship between educational attainment and financial literacy (perceived and actual), it is disappointing to see “do you think financial education should be taught in schools?” being only included in the 2012 iteration, and to see “how strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements? – I REGULARLY KEEP UP WITH ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL NEWS” only included in the 2009 iteration. However, it is understandable that the survey cannot be overly long, and perhaps these questions were judged to be unimportant.

Special note on the question: “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?” —— The response options are “more than $102,” “exactly $102,” “less than $102,” and “don’t know.” This wording is very easy. In fact, it may have been more interesting to make the options centered around $110 rather than $102, in which case the question would be about understanding exponentiation (compound interest) rather than simple addition. Nevertheless, in every iteration, 25 to 27% of respondents got this question wrong! And, as with every question, those with higher educational attainment did better. However, for some questions, such as the one on interest rates and bond prices, even postgraduates did shockingly bad—only 46% of postgraduates in the 2015 iteration correctly answered “they will fall,” and overall, a mere 28% of respondents answered correctly, with 38% answering “don’t know.” Although some of the interpretations are spurious and I disagree with using pie charts to represent such data, this blog post by “the Weakonomist,” regarding the 2012 iteration, shows how terrible the public’s financial literacy is. Of course, on the question where respondents are asked to assess their financial knowledge on a 1–7 scale, most think they are geniuses… pretty sad.


EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT

 
What was the last year of education that you completed? [2009 codes]

  1. Did not complete high school
  2. High school graduate
  3. Some college
  4. College graduate
  5. Post graduate education

What was the last year of education that you completed? [2012 codes]

  1. Did not complete high school
  2. High school graduate – regular high school diploma
  3. High school graduate – GED or alternative credential
  4. Some college
  5. College graduate
  6. Post graduate education

What was the highest level of education that you completed? [2015 codes]

  1. Did not complete high school
  2. High school graduate – regular high school diploma
  3. High school graduate – GED or alternative credential
  4. Some college, no degree
  5. Associate’s degree
  6. Bachelor’s degree
  7. Post graduate degree

PERCEIVED FINANCIAL LITERACY

 
2009, 2012, 2015: How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements? – I AM GOOD AT DEALING WITH DAY-TO-DAY FINANCIAL MATTERS, SUCH AS CHECKING ACCOUNTS, CREDIT AND DEBIT CARDS, AND TRACKING EXPENSES.

2009, 2012, 2015: How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements? – I AM PRETTY GOOD AT MATH.

2009 only: How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements? – I REGULARLY KEEP UP WITH ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL NEWS.

2009, 2012, 2015: On a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 means very low and 7 means very high, how would you assess your overall financial knowledge?


ACTUAL FINANCIAL LITERACY

 
2009, 2012, 2015: 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?

2009, 2012, 2015: Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?

2009, 2012, 2015: If interest rates rise, what will typically happen to bond prices?

2015 only: Suppose you owe $1,000 on a loan and the interest rate you are charged is 20% per year compounded annually. If you didn’t pay anything off, at this interest rate, how many years would it take for the amount you owe to double?

2009, 2012, 2015: A 15-year mortgage typically requires higher monthly payments than a 30-year mortgage, but the total interest paid over the life of the loan will be less.

2009, 2012, 2015: Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.


MISCELLANEOUS

 
2012 only: Do you think financial education should be taught in schools?

The College Graduate’s “Late Start” Earnings Disadvantage

The College Graduate’s “Late Start” Earnings Disadvantage

This is a simplified, contrived example for illustrative purposes.

Below, we have the 2017 IRS tax brackets for single individuals (for taxes filed in 2018). For this example, I’ll pretend income stays constant and the tax brackets remain the same over an entire working life.

2017 IRS Tax Brackets for Singles

Let’s pretend a high-school graduate earns $37,950 per year of taxable income for 47 years: Age 18 to 64. Let’s pretend a college graduate spends seven years in college, perhaps earning a graduate degree, earning no taxable income during this time, but then earns $69,591.25 per year of taxable income for 40 years: Age 25 to 64. This figure is contrived to result in the college graduate earning exactly $1 million more taxable income than the high-school graduate: $2,783,650 vs. $1,783,650. The college graduate’s $1 million earnings advantage is a common talking point among marketers and educators.

$37,950.00 × 47 years = $1,783,650 [High-school graduate]
$69,591.25 × 40 years = $2,783,650 [College graduate]

(Note: We are just considering taxable income in these examples. The standard personal deduction for 2017 is $6350, so in this example, the high-school graduate is actually earning $44,300 per year and the college graduate is actually earning $75,941.25 per year, assuming both do not itemize.)

Although the college graduate earns $1 million extra, $31,641.25 per year of the college graduate’s taxable income is in the 25% tax bracket, while all of the high school graduate’s taxable income is in the 15% tax bracket or below.

The high school graduate’s taxable income is taxed at 10% on the first $9325 and 15% on the next $28,625.

The college graduate’s first $37,950 of taxable income is taxed the same way as the high school graduate’s. However, the additional taxable income ($31,641.25) is taxed at 25%.

In each year, the high-school graduate pays $5226.25 of federal income taxes, or $245,633.75 over 47 years, which is 13.77% of his/her lifetime taxable income.

In each year, the college graduate pays $13,136.56 of federal income taxes, or $525,462.50 over 40 years, which is 18.88% of his/her lifetime taxable income.

This means that while the college graduate earned $1 million additional taxable income than the high-school graduate, after federal income taxes, the college graduate netted only $720,171.25 more. This is the college graduate’s “late start” earnings disadvantage. While it will usually be more subtle, it is usually there. There is a high cost for failing to saturate the 10% and 15% tax brackets in any calendar year. There is also a high cost for earning more.

Because the college graduate had no taxable income during his/her seven years of college, he/she was missing out on saturation of the lower tax brackets in these years. He/she could have been earning taxable income and enjoying a lower tax bracket on this income if his/her earnings were “spread out,” so to speak, rather than concentrated in a lesser number of lucrative years once the college education had been completed.

Moreover, the college graduate was prevented from contributing to tax-advantaged retirement accounts during Ages 18–24, because earned income is required to make such contributions. This is a tremendous loss. Just by itself, contributing the current maximum of $5500 to a Roth IRA during Ages 18–24 would total $38,500. If this Roth IRA is invested, rather aggressively, in a S&P 500 or total-market index fund, it will probably double every ten years, even adjusting for inflation. This is potentially a 16-fold increase at Age 65, to $616,000. The high-school graduate could contribute to the Roth IRA during Ages 18–24, paying only 15% federal income taxes in these years, which totals $5775 of taxes. Because Roth IRAs are tax-exempt, tax is paid when the money goes in, but not when it comes out. All $577,500 of inflation-adjusted gains would be tax-exempt. These earnings would be in addition to what both the high-school or college graduate could potentially earn from contributing to tax-advantaged retirement accounts at Age 25 and beyond.

Although the college graduate could have, while in college, just worked a few months each year to achieve $5500 of earned income and then contributed the maximum to a Roth IRA, this does not compensate for the previously discussed tax bracket differential. Also, college graduates typically accumulate student-loan debts and would have to take additional student loans to be able to contribute to a Roth IRA. (Taking student loans, if they are below perhaps 10% APR, to contribute the annual maximum to a Roth IRA in a whole-market index fund is actually a great idea, at least from a mathematical, non-psychological perspective. Tax-advantaged retirement contributions are so valuable that the APR of the loan required to make them can exceed the stock market’s average annual return-on-investment [ROI] and they can still be worthwhile. Debt hawks like Dave Ramsey totally eschew this point.)

Finally, there is a lot of collateral damage, so to speak, with achieving a higher income. Higher earners may become ineligible for healthcare subsidies such as the advance premium tax credit (APTC), ineligible for the earned income tax credit (EITC), ineligible for other need-based aid, and subjected to higher income taxes at the state and local level as well.

Due to the time required to acquire specialized knowledge and expertise (whether actual or perceived expertise), college graduates, financially, are late bloomers. This “late start” has substantial mathematical and tax-related costs. Therefore, a comparison of nominal dollars earned in one’s lifetime may present a rosy picture of college’s ROI.

Task Analysis Comparison for Calculation of Net Worth

I wrote the following paper for my coursework in EME 7634: Advanced Instructional Design, instructed by Dr. Atsusi Hirumi. Net-worth calculation was my chosen topic, due to my persistent interest in financial education.

I am also making this paper and companion slides available for download. The companion slides are not included in the paper. They were made two weeks before I wrote this paper, prior to conducting the actual task analyses.

Download paper as Microsoft Word 2016 document
Download paper as PDF
Download companion slides as Microsoft PowerPoint 2016 file
Download companion slides as PDF

My work should only be used appropriately and I should be credited.


Task Analysis Comparison for Calculation of Net Worth
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida
March 1, 2017

Calculating one’s net worth is a vital part of financial literacy (French & McKillop, 2016). Tallying the value of one’s assets and debts improves understanding of one’s financial situation. Although at first, this process may seem simple, appraising one’s assets is a complex issue, and even remembering all of one’s possessions and liabilities may be difficult. Therefore, net-worth calculation seems a suitable instructional situation to analyze. For this portfolio analysis, I am applying three alternative analysis techniques that were included in Jonassen, Tessmer, and Hannum’s (1999) handbook—procedural analysis, critical-incident analysis, and case-based reasoning (CBR). The former two are differentiated by their focus on overt elements and underlying methods, respectively, while CBR’s status as a task-analysis method is tenuous and its utility in this situation is marginal—it is included here for demonstration purposes.

Procedural Analysis

This type of analysis is geared toward assembly lines and other easily observable tasks. However, it can be used to describe cognitive activities if they are overtly observable, and when extended with flowcharting, can even describe relatively complex decision-making processes.

The following analysis is for the net-worth calculation task, based on the steps described by Jonassen et al. (1999, pp. 47–49):

  1. Determine if the task is amenable to a procedural analysis. Listing assets and liabilities, looking up their values, and sometimes, appraising values are overt actions and can be conceived as a series of steps. However, recalling all relevant items and appraising values can require covert cognitive processes in some cases, so procedural analysis does not capture everything required for this task.
  2. Write down the terminal objective of the task. “Calculates their net worth by estimating and tallying the values of their real assets and liabilities.” Note that this task excludes analyses of liquidity, cash flow, monthly expenses, and interest rates on debts, which are also important components of one’s financial situation.
  3. Choose a task performer. I am the performer for this task. I achieved competence in this task three years ago. If the training is for novices, Jonassen et al. (1999) say the flowchart should be based on someone who has only achieved expertise recently, to avoid “an idiosyncratic sequence” (p. 47). For this task, Investopedia’s Net Worth Calculator (www.investopedia.com/net-worth) was examined to help guide the analysis. Additionally, based on my knowledge of personal finance, I accounted for a variety of common financial situations (e.g., marriage, retirement funds, etc.).
  4. Choose a data-gathering procedure. I took notes as a silently executed the task.
  5. Observe and record the procedure. I made a text-based list of tasks before starting, and opted to construct a flowchart while executing the net-worth task.
  6. Review and revise outline. This step was skipped, because I did not do an outline.
  7. Sketch out a flowchart of the task operations and decisions. See Figure 1. In constructing this flowchart, is was readily apparent that a complete flowchart would be “cumbersome in detail” (Jonassen et al., 1999, p. 53). Consequently, I constructed the flowchart at an abstracted level that condenses or generalizes many steps. For example, Item 210: “Cash equivalent asset or debt?” actually applies to a host of items including bank accounts, taxable investment accounts, mortgages, student and auto loans, and credit card debts. Item 120: “Recall and list real assets and liabilities …” implies the learner will list assets and debts as separate line items (e.g., house and mortgage would be listed separately). These details and others are omitted from the flowchart to prevent it from becoming overwhelming and unwieldy. At Item 200, a foreach loop is used to iterate over the array (list) of assets and debts, similar to the foreach construct in PHP, a popular web scripting language.
  8. Review the procedural flowchart. This was done during its construction.
  9. Field-test the flowchart. I compared the flowchart to the Investopedia’s Net Worth Calculator (www.investopedia.com/net-worth) to see if it could fit the same situations. The categories of assets and liabilities on this calculator all fit into items on the flowchart. A net-worth spreadsheet is more versatile than Investopedia’s calculator because it can be saved, amended, and reused.

Procedural-analysis flowchart for net-worth calculation task

Figure 1. Procedural-analysis flowchart for net-worth calculation task.

Critical-Incident Analysis

This type of analysis involves interviewing subject-matter experts (SMEs) to gain a realistic understanding of the task at hand, including the important elements (Jonassen et al., 1999). Interview or survey data from SMEs must be culled to remove noncritical elements, focus on the required behavior, and to arrange tasks by importance (Flanagan, 1954). You can also ask your SMEs to arrange tasks by importance (Jonassen et al., 1999).

Continue reading Task Analysis Comparison for Calculation of Net Worth

What Is Financial Independence?

Here are my notes from a speech I gave yesterday at the Port Orange Toastmasters club contest. While I came in 2nd out of 3 contestants (Dr. Charles Carroll won with his speech on smiles), it was a great experience to compete in a club contest for the first time, and we had a larger audience than usual—about 25 people. I actually ended up speaking without the notes at all, though I set them on the table as a psychological device and could have looked at them at any time.

What Is Financial Independence?
Speech by Richard Thripp | 5–7 minutes
Port Orange Toastmasters Club Contest
February 22, 2017

How to FIRE yourself and never work another day in your life unless you absolutely want to.

Imagine never having to work another day in your life
When?
You might think at Age 65 or Age 70
What if it could be earlier?
FIRE yourself
That’s F-I-R-E
Financial Independence and Retire Early
Big online community: Reddit, blogs, et cetera
Many retiring at 40 or even 30
What do you need to FIRE yourself?
Ideally, about 20 times your annual cost-of-living
This is a lot
40 times a 6-month emergency fund
If your cost-of-living is $50,000 per year, you need to invest 20 times that = $1 million
Live off dividends
Invest where? Mostly whole-market or S&P 500 index funds [with Vanguard]
Max out 401(k) and IRAs for tax savings
NOT money market savings — must be stocks [Can put 401(k) + IRAs in stocks]
Whole market reduces risk
Long time horizon reduces risk
After maxing retirement accounts, use taxable investment accounts
Yield of whole-market index fund = Average 7%, INFLATION ADJUSTED, per year
Money doubles every 10 years
MUCH HARDER to achieve financial independence without stocks
Long-term (> 1 year) capital gains tax only 20% max, compared to 39.6% for earned income
What is financial independence?
The ability to not work another day in your life

It doesn’t mean you MUST not work
Many people enjoy working
If freelancing, et cetera, the 20× rule might become the 10× rule
HOW to become financially independent?
MUST save tons of money
Maybe 50% of income
Hard if you’re a “shop-a-holic”
Hard if you have kids
But, many tricks
Example: Moving to a lower cost-of-living area when retiring
MUST change your money mindset
More tools available than ever
Get online and start reading
FIRE yourself


Here are the notes I took on my speech performance immediately after giving the speech. Yes, I wrote them in third person, which is weird.

How do you become financially independent?
Save save save
Invest in stocks
Low-fee index funds
Told story about TIAA charging 14% management fees and making it very hard to get money out
Trump’s in; Stock market going “bonkers” — why was my TIAA money going down?
Richard engaged audience many times by asking them to raise their hand — how many know what financial independence is? How many believe a CD is a good vehicle (none)? How many believe all bonds is good (none)? Then, Richard joked how smart the audience was. He also joked about being able to leave a job where the boss is making inappropriate jokes requiring an uncomfortable smile to keep one’s job (referencing Charles’s speech).


A fellow Toastmaster approached me after the speech, incredulous that the stock market produces 7% annualized inflation-adjusted returns on average. Here is additional information I wrote for him:

Here is a source on the 7% annual average returns in whole-market or S&P 500 index mutual funds:

www.thesimpledollar.com/where-does-7-come-from-when-it-comes-to-long-term-stock-returns/

The FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) calculator at FIREcalc.com can show you projected returns based on all prior year periods based on how much money you intend to retire with and how many years the money needs to last.

If you have enough money, you can just live off the dividends of this index fund: personal.vanguard.com/us/funds/snapshot?FundId=0585&FundIntExt=INT

Of course, we are in an unusual time right now (market is up 22% in the past year). It’s hard to say whether investing now is a good idea (is the market in a bubble?), but generally, trying to time the market doesn’t work well, so most people advise investing now, or a little bit each month.


More thoughts:

Obviously, if you put your money in stocks just for one year, there is about a 25% chance you will lose money, and maybe a 40% chance you won’t earn 7% returns. But, if the money is in there 10 years, the odds of at least 7% annualized inflation-adjusted returns are higher (which means your money could double—1.07^10 is 1.97), and over 20, 30, or 40 years, even higher still. This is why a long time horizon is important, and why retiring early with hefty investments is not only psychologically powerful, but financially powerful.

For further reading, I suggest James Collins’s blog and the Financial Independence Reddit forum.

How the Doctrine of Diversification Misses the Mark for Personal Financial Portfolios

Traditional financial wisdom says that diversification should be used to mitigate risk, by this recommendation operates only at the portfolio level. Typically, older individuals, closer to retirement age, are advised to put a greater percentage of their money in less risky investments like bonds and CDs, while younger individuals should have an aggressive, growth-oriented portfolio of mostly stocks.

However, this approach, by itself, fails to consider the underlying need for avoiding financial loss, which in many cases will never become more than unrealized loss. That is to say, as long as the money is not needed during the period the loss is occurring and ongoing, the primary benefit of diversification—the ability to withdraw money during a bear market without losing as much—is unrealized.

Fidelity’s article on diversification explains how a diversified portfolio of 70% stocks and 30% bonds and T-bills would have significantly outperformed a 100% stock portfolio from January 2008 to February 2009 (the 2008 financial crisis), with –35.0% returns instead of –49.7% returns. However, when considering wider time periods, the diversified portfolio underperforms the 100% stock portfolio. We can effectively characterize diversification as a hedge against risk, reducing volatility at the cost of decreased returns over longer time horizons.

However, one’s future discretionary income can actually be interpreted as a hedge against loss. That is, if an individual or family lives well below their means, they may be able to maintain a more aggressive portfolio, because they can fall back on their income in bear markets rather than having to cash in their investments. A danger with this approach is that financial recessions can result in layoffs and reduced income. However, if one’s income is relatively reliable (e.g., work that is somewhat “recession proof,” Social Security benefits, and certain types of pensions), this danger is mitigated. Thus, if a young-old person receiving Social Security (SS) benefits wishes to continue aggressive growth of their investments for whatever reason, they can consider their SS benefits a hedge against investment risk. For example, if they live comfortably on $50,000 per year and receive $18,000 per year in SS benefits, they only need $32,000 in additional income per year. To the extent this money must be withdrawn from aggressive investments to fund one’s living expenses, the income is a hedge against downside potential, because overall, stocks continue marching upward quite vigorously, even though they may go down in many calendar years. (I am, of course, referring to broad mutual funds rather than individual stocks or sectors.)

Research shows that trying to time the market is not an effective approach (e.g., Henriksson, 1984). Consequently, rather than trying to time the market, and without concern to tax-advantaged accounts or tax brackets with respect to withdrawals, the best time to put money in stocks is now, in a lump sum (not dollar cost averaging), and the best time to withdraw money is as far in the future as possible, as needed (that is, avoid withdrawing a lump sum when only a fraction of the money is needed at a particular time). This is because overall, the market marches upward, despite volatility along the way. Therefore, the largest gains, on average, will be yielded by placing money in aggressive investments (stocks, not bonds or CDs) for the longest continuous length of time. For most people, attempting to time the markets on either end (investing or divesting) is not only an exercise in futility, but will be detrimental.

This may sound contradictory. If I recommend avoiding market timing because it doesn’t work, why would I argue that the primary benefit of diversification can be nullified by market timing? Actually, what I am talking about is not market timing, but rather avoiding being compelled to liquidate a position due to the financial hardship during a bear market. In a recession, not only will your investment portfolio lose value—you may also lose your job or take a pay cut, your home will decline in value, et cetera. Inasmuch as the value of diversification lies in being able to liquidate better-performing assets in a recession to make up for loss of income and other extraneous factors, the value of aggressive investing lies in making increased gains overall.

Conjecture: If withdrawals are stochastic in timing, then on average, the returns from a diversified portfolio will always be inferior to a 100% stock portfolio.

The ability to use reliable discretionary income as a hedge against loss enables one to avoid compelled liquidation during a recession, which, absent emotional issues, decouples withdraw timing from market factors and consequently reduces the value of diversification. Therefore, a portfolio analysis that does not consider debts or income may have substantial opportunity costs if a client over-diversifies due to having reliable discretionary income which is not considered, or under-diversifies due to having fragile income or liabilities which are not considered. In summary, as a doctrine, diversification should be titrated with a holistic analysis of one’s overall situation.