Category Archives: Financial Literacy

Thoughts on Big Three Question #1 used to assess financial literacy: Savings account interest

Regarding assessment of financial literacy, in both the United States and abroad, the “Big Three” multiple-choice questions written by Lusardi and Mitchell are typically used. Findings show that somewhere around 50% or even more people do not answer all three questions correctly, which is evidence of a widespread lack of financial literacy. This varies by sub-groups—for example, those with more education tend to do better. Overall, all groups of people do much worse than we would expect or hope, however.

The Big Three questions balance accuracy of interpretation and conciseness, but nevertheless, and not unexpectedly, there may be issues of understanding related to wording, choices, and arithmetic, rather than substance. Furthermore, as a construct, financial literacy is interrelated with and difficult to disentangle from basic mathematical skills in manipulating numbers and percentages, which might be called arithmetic skills, numeracy, or quantitative literacy. In fact, recent research (e.g., Cole, Paulson, & Shastry, 2016) is showing that taking mathematics courses may improve financial literacy more than taking personal finance courses!

Here, I will discuss the first of the Big Three questions. There are several similar questions that have appeared in the recent S&P Global FinLit Survey and elsewhere that I might also discuss in a future article, after I discuss the Big Three Questions 2 and 3 in other future articles.

Big Three 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?
More than $102
Exactly $102
Less than $102
Do not know
Refuse to answer

With this question, we are talking about nominal future dollars rather than real future dollars, although it is not explicitly stated. The major world currencies are fiat money, meaning they are not redeemable with the government or banks for land, precious metals, or other commodities. Central banks that issue currencies, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, aim to achieve a gradual devaluation in the purchasing power of the issued currency over time, which is termed “inflation.” The Federal Reserve adjusts monetary policy while presently aiming for about 2% inflation per year, through measures such as adjusting the federal funds rate (“interest rate”) via market actions and paying banks that amount of interest for keeping reserves on deposit with the Fed, and quantitative easing (QE) by which the Fed uses the fiat money and credit it creates to purchase public and private debt. In response to the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed dropped interest rates to 0%, and only began increasing rates about 1.00% in mid-2017.

In considering this question, historical context is relevant. Prior to 2008, there were times when it would be common for U.S. savings accounts to pay much more interest per year than 2%; sometimes even 5% or higher. During 2009–2017, receiving 2% interest on a savings account would have been absurdly high. Given the Fed’s low interest rates, checking and savings accounts that paid 2% during this timeframe likely did so as part of promotional gimmicks with special requirements, such as using a debit card 10 times per month or only receiving the interest rate on balances of up to $5,000. In 2018, the Fed has finally started substantially increasing rates, so as of November 2018 it is now common to find savings accounts offering 2% interest per year.

The United States still uses paper money and coin extensively. One can withdraw cash from their bank account easily, and many banks will allow customers to order $100 boxes of nickels or $500 boxes of quarters with no fee (nickels have the highest metal value of circulating U.S. coinage, besides copper cents from 1982 and prior). Therefore, it is not advisable for the Fed to reduce interest rates below 0%, because it would result in individuals and firms stuffing cash and coin into vaults or mattresses to avoid loss of principal. QE is an additional lever to stimulate the economy when the interest rate lever is already fully depressed (rates at 0%).

Returning to the question at hand, assuming (and this is an important assumption) that the reader knows we are talking about nominal rather than real dollars, the question is absurdly easy. Even if the interest was only compounded once, at the end of the five year period, the nominal account balance would be $110, which is far above $102. The correct answer is “more than $102.”

Given that the question indicates the “interest rate was 2% per year,” this implies that interest is compounded at least once per year (annually). If compounded annually, the balances at the end of each year would be as follows:
Year 0: $100.00
Year 1: $102.00
Year 2: $104.04 (note here that we pick up 4¢ thanks to compounding of the $2.00 of interest earned in the prior year; compounding continues in future years)
Year 3: $106.12
Year 4: $108.24
Year 5: $110.41

As we see above, the effect of compounding five times (once each year) instead of only one time at the end of the five-year period is an additional 41¢ in nominal interest earnings. Therefore, one could change $102 to $110 in the answer choices and “more than $110” would still be correct like “more than $102” is. As it stands, assuming the reader knows we are discussing nominal dollars, the question does not even require an understanding of compounding returns.

When we discuss “interest rate” on a “per year” basis, this infers annual percentage yield (APY) rather than annual percentage rate (APR). Although interest can be compounded once per year, it can also be compounded each quarter (four times per year), each month (12 times per year), each day (365 times per year), or hypothetically it can even be compounded “continuously,” at every instant down to infinitesimal durations (i.e., even more frequently than each nanosecond). As we approach continuous compounding we approach the Pert equation, Pe^(rt) where P is principal (i.e., $100.00), e is the transcendental mathematical constant of approximately 2.718, r is the interest rate (i.e., 2%), and t is time (i.e., 5 years). If we were to continuously compound $100.00 at a rate of 2.00% for 5 years, the result would be $110.52, which is 11¢ higher than annual compounding, as shown below (computation thanks to

Pert equation

Therefore, depending on frequency of compounding, ranging from one calculation at the end of five years to infinite compounding throughout the duration of five years, at a rate of 2.00%, the account winds up with a minimum of $110.00 after five years and a maximum of $110.52.

Savings accounts typically compound monthly or quarterly and advertise APY, which is slightly higher than APR. Credit cards typically compound daily and advertise APR, which is significantly lower than APY. On my financial education website I have put forth an APR to APY calculator that shows the difference; a credit card that has a 24.99% APR compounded daily actually earns 28.38% APY in interest for the credit card issuer. Naturally, financial institutions advertise APR or APY depending on what looks better to the consumer, unless compelled otherwise, and they compound likewise. Therefore, although credit cards could compound interest once each statement, they compound each day to make more money for the issuer, and although savings accounts could compound each day, banks like to compound monthly or even quarterly to reduce the amount of money they pay out in interest.

It is safe to say that most people do not have a good understanding of the difference between APR and APY, because they do not even understand basic percentage arithmetic involving only two calculations. A majority of people likely do not even understand the difference between “percent more” and “percent off.” For instance, if a coupon takes $5 off a $15 purchase resulting in paying $10 instead of $15, both of these statements are correct:
You saved 33.3% (one-third)
You got 50% more for your money

Moreover, questions frequently appear on standardized tests such as: “If a tree grows 5% per year, how much has it grown after 2 years?” The answer due to compounding is 10.25%, but many erroneously answer 10.00%, showing a lack of understanding of compounding, or potentially a mis-reading of the question.

Regarding the “do not know” and “refuse to answer” choices: Because there are only three legitimate choices, including “do not know” helps prevent guessing, but some respondents may select it when they actually have an inkling of the correct answer—particularly females, who tend to have less confidence in their ability to accurately answer the question. Not many people select “refuse to answer,” and I do not see the rationale to include this choice at all, besides consistency as compared with other questions on a financial questionnaire (such as the National Financial Capability Study) that ask participants personal questions about their finances that they may not want to answer.

I will discuss the other two Big Three questions in future articles:

2. 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?
More than today
Exactly the same
Less than today
Do not know
Refuse to answer

3. Please tell me whether this statement is true or false. “Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.”
Do not know
Refuse to answer

Before Adjusting Capital Gains for Inflation, Try Interest on Savings Accounts

Recently, a proposal has been discussed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and President Trump of adjusting capital gains for inflation when it comes to taxation of those gains. This has rightly been criticized as a tax break for the rich, but what has not been widely discussed is the hypocrisy and inequity of not including savings accounts, certificates of deposits (CDs), Treasury bills and bonds, and corporate bonds, which yield “interest” instead of “capital gains,” in the inflation-adjustment proposal.

Although there are no legal restrictions preventing most Americans from investing in stocks (equities), about half do not. Reasons include more pressing financial concerns, fear of loss, and a lack of understanding of how stocks work. Therefore, adjusting capital gains for inflation will mainly be helpful to wealthier Americans.

Capital gains already have numerous tax advantages over earned income, such as:

  • No 15.3% payroll taxes (7.65% employee and 7.65% employer share)
  • If older than one year (long-term), the tax rate is much lower or even 0%
  • Long-term tax rate tops out much lower (20% instead of 37%) for high earners
  • You can choose when to incur capital gains taxes (when to sell)
  • Capital gains tend to be received by high-earners, who gain the most from these advantages because they are in high tax brackets

Presently, interest on savings accounts, CDs, T-bills/bonds, and corporate bonds is taxed at the same rate as earned income and short-term capital gains. Except certain corporate bonds, these types of investments do not yield any capital gains, but rather yield interest only. Thus, none of the above benefits of capitals gains apply. Americans, especially those with lower incomes and net worths, are more likely to put their money in savings accounts, CDs, and Treasury securities rather than stocks. Therefore, they miss out not only on the capital appreciation power of stocks, which is much greater than low-risk assets over the long term; they also miss out on preferential tax treatment that already exists. To add an inflation adjustment on top of this is ridiculous.

Some may quip that stocks do pay something similar to interest, in the form of dividends, which are taxed like earned income and short-term capital gains. This is false; for most “buy and hold” investors in index funds and many individual stocks, the vast majority of dividends are treated as “qualified” dividends which are treated not like interest, but as long-term capital gains. Again, investors in stocks get preferential treatment.

Each year, banks, the U.S. Treasury, and other firms must issue Form 1099-INT to report how much interest income you received in the prior tax year on savings accounts, CDs, T-bills/bonds, et cetera. However, we should not forget that savings accounts typically pay low interest rates—sometimes as little as 0.03% annual percentage yield (APY), with the best accounts paying no more than about 2.0% APY. If we were to adjust savings interest for inflation, which is around 2.4% presently (or 2.9% including food and energy), this would be a loss rather than income! If we adjust capital gains for inflation, shouldn’t we adjust interest too?

Logisitcal challenges aside, if we were to go a step further, offering an above-the-line deduction (like we do with student loan interest) for lost purchasing power on Americans’ savings, capital gains would still be far too advantaged.

Due to the unfairness of how interest is treated, with no consideration of inflation, some have dubbed saving money a suckers’ game. Although a majority of Americans do not understand this, investing, on the other hand, is a winners’ game. The prudent step would be for the government to begin adjusting interest income for inflation but not capital gains. Even then, investors would still be receiving highly preferential treatment as compared with savers.

The Manifesto of the Financial Educator

As a financial researcher and aspiring financial educator, I’ve been thinking at length about the principles behind good financial teaching. These five ideas are by no means new or original. However, they are research-supported and not yet mainstream.

1. Behavior Under Management

Know when the student is not ready.

This is straight from Andy Hart’s podcast and conference, with support from a wealth of research in behavioral psychology, economics, and personal finance. Emotion, perception, knowledge, and experience all play an important role in why people make bad financial decisions.

It is widely accepted that younger people should be fully invested in stocks, because their time horizon is long. As they get older, volatility and profits should both be suppressed by divesting stocks into safer, less profitable assets such as bonds. However, young people commonly freak out when there is a bear market, selling their investments and even losing part of their principal. This is traumatic and may result in them never investing in stocks again, which is a worse outcome than if they had invested later in life with greater knowledge, experience, and resilience.

It is not fair to a student to advise an objectively superior course of action when it will lead to financial ruin because the student is not ready.

2. Educate in Arithmetic and Statistics

When the odds are in your favor, it’s only “gambling” if the consequences are disastrous.

Recent evidence suggests that mathematical education may be more important than financial education. The ability to perform mental computations is important, as well as skill with picturing compound interest and percentages. Understanding risk and reward over time is critical. Anyone with a complete understanding of gambling mathematics should know that as you gamble more, you get closer and closer to a guaranteed loss of money.

Investing in the whole global stock market, on the other hand, is neither speculation nor gambling because the odds are in your favor and the consequences of loss are temporary. Although the market declines in about 25% of given calendar years, over longer spans it almost surely increases from the starting point.

Insurance companies make money because they pay out less money than they take in. On average, the odds are in their favor. For any one individual or family, however, the consequences of losing the bet are disastrous. This is why it is wise to purchase health insurance, term life insurance, auto insurance, et cetera. You are insuring against uncommon yet disastrous events. Nonetheless, these disastrous events are much more likely to occur than winning a large lottery jackpot. On the other hand, purchasing insurance against minor losses, like a SquareTrade warranty or collision insurance on a car, is only necessary if these items are critical to you and you do not have the funds to replace them.

3. Make Choices Simpler

Don’t do business with businesses that put bad choices on the table. (Unless you are beating them at their own game.)

People often ask why one should pick Vanguard over Fidelity, Charles Schwab, or another firm for directing their investments. Although Fidelity and Schwab do offer low-cost index funds and arguably offer superior customer service, they are also determined to sell you on products and services that are very bad for your financial health, such as actively managed investments with high management fees.

It is an unpleasant and cognitively taxing experience to be required to repeatedly decline detrimental options. The extended warranties that are sold at the checkout counter at Best Buy are an awful deal. Likewise for trip “insurance” from your airline and GoDaddy’s upsells of inferior hosting services and over-priced options when all you want to purchase is a simple Internet domain name. It is bad enough when a business puts bad choices on the table; aggressive sales tactics are the coup de grâce.

This is why a hard rule of using cash instead of plastic is effective and beneficial for most consumers. The exception is if you are a “travel hacker” beating the credit card issuers at their own game. If you have to ask, you’re not a travel hacker. Simplifying the equation by avoiding the potential for making bad choices is worth losing a few benefits that are, by comparison, small. In some industries, all the major players violate this rule. However, when there an alternate option is available, it should usually be preferred (e.g., Vanguard, cash or debit cards instead of credit cards, etc.).

4. Inculcate a Habit of Inquiry

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

There is plenty of information available easily via web search. For example, you can easily learn about investing, retirement accounts, or strategies for convincing your bank to waive an overdraft fee by searching Google. However, many people are not in the habit of seeking information nor asking for special consideration from a lender, bank, et cetera. There are differences between how subject-matter experts and novices seek information; novices may not know where to begin, and are typically unfamiliar with the jargon of personal finance, insurance, taxes, credit cards, mortgages, student loans, credit-reporting bureaus, and more. Therefore, it is unfair to blame them for failing to seek out information. Instead, we should educate them in the basics and encourage them to build a habit of inquiry, so they less likely to be shortchanged in their financial dealings.

In addition to educating others, we should lobby for laws and regulations that compel employers and financial institutions to conduct business in ways that do not unfairly disadvantage the non-wealthy (e.g., comprehension rules), and advocate for prosocial behaviors among employers, financial institutions, corporations, and governments that benefit the poor. For instance, it is unfair that many government benefits are not received by the most needy, due to being difficult to claim.

5. Focus on Long-Term Lifestyle Strategy

But, give tactical advice when appropriate.

Reducing bills, increasing income, and changing one’s habits is important. There are many forums and other websites about living frugally. In some ways this overlaps with Item 4; for example, one can save quite a bit on a car, phone or cable bill, rent, or terms of debt service by inquiring with sellers, service providers, landlords, and lenders. Responsible financial educators should encourage learners to (a) reduce expenses as a way of life (e.g., smaller living space, more roommates, no dining out, etc.), (b) focus on significantly increasing income by leveraging education, skills, et cetera, and (c) eliminate debts, save, and invest.

Financial education appears to be more effective when it either focuses on norms and general principles or is given tactically (i.e., “just-in-time“). The best time to tell someone how to write a check is immediately before they need to write a check. Financial advisers can serve as financial educators by offering key information and advice soon before significant financial events such as shopping for a house and mortgage. On the other hand, if this advice is offered many months or years in advance, it is neither remembered nor followed.

Optionally/additionally as a grammatical alternative to and/or when the prior item(s) are essential

The grammatical construct “and/or” is frequently criticized for being unnecessary and/or ambiguous.

As a logical operator, when used in a list of two things (e.g., rice and/or beans), it implies that it is acceptable to have:

  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • Items 1 and 2

However, having no items is unacceptable.

When used in a list of three things (e.g., rice, beans, and/or salsa), it implies that it is acceptable to have:

  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • Item 3
  • Items 1 and 2
  • Items 1 and 3
  • Items 2 and 3
  • Items 1, 2, and 3

However, having no items is unacceptable.

This, obviously, is quite vague. Some have suggested just using “or” instead of and/or. However, “or” is also ambiguous in common language. This may be why APA style tolerates and/or, neither endorsing nor forbidding it.

Due to its vagueness and a lack of viable alternatives, and/or is used in many situations where it does not apply. One common instance is using and/or when you really mean to say “this item can be added, but the prior items are essential.” To address this, I propose a new grammatical construct: optionally/additionally.

Optionally/additionally has all the slashy goodness of and/or, but an air of sophistication. Sure, you could just say “and optionally,” but this isn’t strong enough at conveying that the subsequent item or items are optional add-ons, while simultaneously conveying that the prior item or items was/were essential.

For instance, when suggesting how to invest in equities, I would advise investing in a mutual fund of the whole U.S. stock market and optionally/additionally the whole international stock market (encompassing the whole world except the United States—the US is about 50% of the global market by market capitalization and all other countries sum to about 50%).

I would not want to say “the whole U.S. stock market and/or the whole international stock market” because the first item is essential, while the second item is not (depending on how bullish you are on the United States).

Of course, there are index funds that combine both the U.S. and international markets. For the equities portion of a portfolio, it would be fine to suggest investing in the whole U.S. stock market or the whole world stock market, but if we replace “whole world” with “international” (all other countries except the US), neither “or” nor “and/or” are acceptable, because both imply the first item is optional rather than mandatory. This is an example of when the optionally/additionally construct is useful.

I did not do extensive research into whether someone else has addressed this conundrum of grammar and logic. Please reply if you know of such sources. A Google search shows that optionally/additionally has been used three times before, but without elaboration on the grammatical or logical implications:

  1. On 2010-03-14, “GrapefruiTgirl” made this statement on the forum: Optionally/additionally, as your regular user, enter your ~/.fonts folder (or create it of there is none) and repeat the above three commands as regular user.
  2. On 2010-04-25, Michael S. from Vienna, Austria made this statement on TripAdvisor: Take the first train to Innsbruck which is a nice little city surrounded by majestic mountains. The city has a small but fine city center and you can easily and quickly go up to 2.300m above sea level by ropeway. Ex Innsbruck you could optionally/additionally visit the Karwendel Area with places like Seefeld and Mittenwald. The Karwendel Railway is known for spectacular views. Prepare for a long day but it is feasible!
  3. On 2016-11-15, “horst” made this statement on the application programming interface (API) discussion board in the ProcessWire content management system (CMS) forum: Optionally / additionally interesting in this regard maybe the weighten option of Pia here.

From these examples it appears optionally/additionally is most relevant to fastidious Austrians and computer programmers, but its slashy goodness remains undiscovered by the rest of Googleable humanity. A search of additionally/optionally reveals more than 20 uses, but I prefer emphasizing the optionality before communicating the supplementary nature of the subsequent items (and, consequently and implicity, the necessity of the preceding items), so additionally/optionally is of less interest to me.

A Thematic Literature Review on Financial Capability and the Effectiveness of Financial Education in America After the 2008 Financial Crisis

I completed this literature review on 2018-04-23 for IDS 7500: Seminar in Educational Research (self-directed study) at University of Central Florida. I will need to expound upon it in my dissertation, which will be focused on financial education.

A Thematic Literature Review on Financial Capability and the Effectiveness of Financial Education in America After the 2008 Financial Crisis
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida

The purpose of this literature review is to investigate Americans’ financial knowledge and capability since the 2008 financial crisis (also known as the Great Recession), by synthesizing empirical research and position papers into a thematic narrative, with a focus on the refereed publications of leading researchers in the financial education space, such as Lusardi, Mandell, Mitchell, Mottola, and Willis. Articles are included based on authorship and their relevance toward this objective, with additional articles gleaned from leading researchers’ citations. Because of the breadth of the relevant literature, the focus herein is on explaining and adequately substantiating phenomena, rather than systematic coverage.


Firstly, we should discuss the meanings of financial knowledge, financial literacy, and financial capability. These terms are inconsistently defined in the literature, but, generally, they are in order of scope. Financial knowledge relates to content knowledge and is often used as a proxy for financial capability (e.g., Lusardi, Mitchell, & Curto, 2010). Financial literacy additionally includes the ability to articulate one’s knowledge and apply it to real-life decisions (Vitt et al., 2000), while financial capability more prominently emphasizes improvement of one’s actual financial behaviors. A key distinction is that having financial knowledge does not actually mean one’s financial decisions will improve, and being taught about financial concepts does not mean that information will necessarily be retained. In the literature, financial knowledge and financial literacy are conflated or treated synonymously, while financial capability is often treated synonymous to financial literacy (Remund, 2010), but consistently refers to a construct more holistic than financial knowledge.


Before the Crisis

Based on fifteen years of Survey of Consumer Finances data, Hanna, Yuh, and Chatterjee (2012) found that consumer debt increased, with 27% of households having more than 40% of their income going toward debt payments in 2007 as compared with 18% in 1992. Although the time leading up to the Great Recession was prosperous, it was also marked by financial institutions’ heavy over-extension of credit which resulted in unsafe debt proportions among American households, and particularly among more highly educated households. These debts, combined with a stock market plunge and widespread job loss, compounded the negative effects for many American households, which persist even a decade later. The crisis also brought about a renewed focus on financial education.

Financial Education Movement

A movement in support of financial education emerged in response to the Great Recession. The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a Washington, D.C. think-tank funded by the U.S. government and corporations like Charles Schwab and Bank of America, gained increasing clout. The organization’s National Standards in K–12 Personal Finance Education, now in its 4th edition (2015), increasingly became adopted by states and school districts throughout the US. While the movement gained momentum, several commentators complained about financial education on a theoretical basis—most notably, Willis (2008, 2009) who likens the movement to teaching citizens to represent themselves pro se in court or to perform their own medical procedures. More recently, Pinto (2013) argued that the movement is misguided in both its suggested implications and underlying assumptions. Later, we will see that unfortunately, there is also empirical support for this position.

Perceived Financial Capability

The National Financial Capability Study (NFCS) is a nationwide triennial survey of over 25,000 Americans that measures their financial position, attitudes, and content knowledge (for more information, see Mottola & Kieffer, 2017). It includes several questions asking respondents to rate their mathematical and financial abilities on seven-point Likert scales—we might refer to these questions as a proxy for self-perceived financial capability. An analysis of responses to these items in the 2009 NFCS survey shows a correlation between perceptions and actual financial knowledge (de Bassa Scheresberg, 2013), but also shows that Americans grossly overestimate their financial prowess. Such overconfidence can have detrimental consequences.

Measures and Proxies of Actual Financial Capability

Here, we will look at recent research on Americans’ financial capability, or proxies thereof (i.e., numeracy, financial knowledge, and financial behavior).


Numeracy, broadly, is the ability to understand and manipulate numbers, including basic mental arithmetic. These skills are closely associated with financial capability, yet sadly are consistently lacking among Americans, especially among those who are already financially at-risk such as senior citizens, women, and those with less educational attainment (Lusardi, 2012). A striking investigation is Lusardi and Mitchell’s (2007) analysis of 2004 survey data of Americans aged 51–56, which focused on three basic questions assessing numeracy. One asked how a $2 million lottery prize would be divided among five people, which was answered correctly ($400,000) by only 56% of respondents. More shockingly, a basic question on compound interest on a savings account over two years was correctly answered by only 18% of respondents, with most incorrect responses failing to consider the compounding effect. This shows that even older, wealthier Americans, close to retirement, have issues with basic mathematics, let alone complex financial decisions. Overall, quantitative literacy, an umbrella construct encompassing numeracy, has been shown to be significantly related to financial behaviors (Nye & Hillyard, 2013).

Financial Knowledge

Financial knowledge is often assessed by several questions first proffered by Lusardi and Mitchell (2011), which are actually quite simple, yet frequently answered incorrectly. The 2015 NFCS survey included these six content-knowledge 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?
  2. 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?
  3. If interest rates rise, what will typically happen to bond prices?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.

Although the answer choices are all multiple choice or true/false, in the 2015 NFCS survey, only 28% answered Question 3 correctly, 33% answered Question 4 correctly, and 46% answered Question 6 correctly (Thripp, 2017). It appears that respondents cannot mentally compute compound interest, even when correct choices are as simple as “less than five years” with respect to Question 4, requiring no computation. For Millennials, financial knowledge is even worse than older groups (Mottola, 2014), and for all Americans, the micro and macro (e.g., Lusardi & Mitchell, 2014) effects are profoundly troubling.

Financial Behavior

Lusardi (2011) puts forth a literature review alongside an analysis of 2009 NFCS data. In part, her review notes the importance of financial literacy toward outcomes such as accumulating wealth, planning for retirement, taking on reasonable mortgages, and investing in equities via low-cost index funds. Then, an analysis of survey data reveals that about half of Americans report difficulties paying month-to-month bills, 51% have less than a three-month rainy day fund or no emergency savings at all, and a quarter have used high-cost borrowing such as payday loans. These are just a few of the many findings showing that Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck with no safety net for unexpected events like job loss, a car breaking down, or unexpected illness (see also West & Mottola, 2016).

Gender differences. Mottola (2013) also used 2009 NFCS data to look at the gender gap with respect to credit card usage, finding that women tend to pay more interest and late fees, but suggesting that when controlling for demographics and perceived mathematical ability, the gender gap disappears. This shows that the gender gap in financial knowledge is multidimensional, relating to the gender pay gap and other inequities. It was seen in Chen and Volpe’s (2002) study that female college students have less motivation and confidence for learning about finance. These feelings of disempowerment may be related to mathematical stereotypes and may contribute to maladaptive financial behaviors such as aversion to saving (Garbinsky, Klesse, & Aaker, 2014).

Effectiveness of and Recommendations for Financial Education

When financial education works, it is often given “just-in-time,” such as requiring student loan applicants to complete relevant learning modules as a prerequisite for receiving their loan (Fernandes, Lynch, & Netemeyer, 2014). In addition, curriculum may be more easily remembered if based on benchmarks (“rules of thumb”) rather than complex decision-making criteria (Drexler, Fischer, & Schoar, 2014). This may result in improved financial decision-making subsequent to the course. At first glance, these suggestions may sound like common sense. However, in actuality most financial courses present complicated information in a lengthy format (e.g., a semester or school year), far in advance of when the insights are needed. Fernandes et al. (2014) conducted a sweeping meta-analysis of 201 financial education studies, which showed only 0.1% variance in financial behavior accounted for by financial education. In fact, the effects were weaker for those with low-income—who have the most to gain from increased financial capability, and any effects that were present generally dissipated within 20 months regardless of the length of the instructional intervention.

Although not refereed and sponsored by a corporation, Menard (2018) presents a cogent narrative about the history of American financial education and its ineffectiveness toward inciting behavioral change, citing leading researchers on financial education, psychology, and behavioral economics, while leveraging her past work on behavioral healthcare interventions (e.g., smoking cessation). Overall, despite doubling as a sales pitch for Questis, Menard (2018) points to financial coaching, just-in-time teaching, and behavioral interventions as alternatives to financial education courses that lack impact (e.g., Fernandes et al., 2014).

Hastings, Madrian, and Skimmyhorn (2013), in a narrative literature review exploring measurement of financial knowledge and the effectiveness of educational interventions. They note that while financial literacy is correlated with many beneficial financial behaviors, “the evidence is more limited and not as encouraging as one might expect” (p. 359) when it comes to financial education’s causal impact on financial outcomes. In fact, if we turn to Mandell’s prolific research (Mandell, 2006, 2009, 2012; Mandell & Klein, 2009), we see that high school students’ participation in lengthy financial courses failed to improve financial knowledge, let alone financial outcomes. Despite being a lifelong researcher and proponent of financial education, Mandell (2012) concedes that K–12 and college financial courses simply do not work, at least as presently conceived. This lends surprising credence to Willis’s long-held contention (2008, 2009, 2017) that financial education is useless and detrimental, standing in stark contrast to Lusardi’s (2011, 2017) conviction of its necessity. In fairness, a balanced conclusion is that financial education can be useful, but must be easily digestible and of immediate relevance (Drexler et al., 2014; Fernandes et al., 2014). Sadly, this is not a characteristic of the Jump$tart Coalition (2015) standards on which many financial courses are based.


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