All Generations Need Financial Literacy—Now, More than Ever.


At the beginning of this millennium, there was considerable fear that flipping the calendar from the two-digit year '99 to '00 would wreak havoc on computer systems, ranging from  financial databases to government systems. The Y2K scare. Remember that?

Millions of dollars were spent in the lead-up to Y2K, creating patches and workarounds to quash this computer bug. While there were a few minor issues when Jan. 1, 2000, arrived, nothing much happened. But a lot of other tumultuous events did happen in the ensuing years.

There was the “dot-com bubble,” when speculative investors raced to pump money into internet-based startups, ignoring traditional stock metrics in the hopes that these fledging companies would generate spectacular fortunes. But more than half of them didn’t survive, leading to the “dot-bomb” stock market crash. Then came the political and economic shocks of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And across the nation, risky subprime mortgages fueled a housing bubble that eventually contributed to the 2008 global financial crisis. When the bubble burst, borrowers couldn’t afford their payments and banks were left holding trillions of dollars of worthless investments in subprime mortgages.

But at the turn of the century, another thing happened. The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), a Denver nonprofit, introduced Youth Financial Literacy Day. At NEFE’s request, the role of organizing and promoting the day was assumed by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded a few years earlier “to develop a strategic plan for improving personal finance education in the nation’s schools, grades K-12.” (https://www.jumpstart.org/)  Jump$tart expanded the day to the entire month of April, and in 2003, Congress officially designated April as National Financial Literacy Month.

Today, more than two decades later, Financial Literacy Month is recognized in many states as an opportunity to empower individuals with the knowledge necessary to manage their financial resources for lifetime financial security. Much attention is focused on students in high school and college students—which makes sense, with many young adults increasingly facing higher levels of debt, whether from student loans or credit cards. Some may fall victim to predatory lending scams and high-interest loans, while others are simply trying to figure out how to navigate inflation and a fast-changing, AI-driven economy, hoping to chart a sound financial course in an uncertain world.

Experts say that preventing common financial pitfalls starts with financial literacy education in school. According to the Council for Economic Education, Jump$tart’s national partner, 35 states require students to take a course in financial finance to graduate high school. (My state, New York, is not one of them.) Researchers say there have seen positive outcomes from these courses. In Georgia, Idaho and Texas and Utah, for example, students who took a financial literacy course reported relatively higher credit scores and lower relative delinquency rates compared to those who did not. In Utah, where the 2008 high school class was the first required to take a financial education course, the state’s auditor found that 10 years later high school graduates had greater financial knowledge, better financial behaviors, and  “vital life skills that apply to all students, regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status.”

Now, more than ever, financial literacy is imperative to success in our complex culture—and not just for young people. Indeed, as I’ve explored various aspects of aging over the last two decades, it’s become clear that the journey to financial wisdom is an ongoing one. Financial literacy is a moving target as we age, with continuous learning required to deal with successive stages of life, from young adulthood to middle age to elderhood. Personal finance remains the number one topic of argument within a marriage. And at every stage, poor financial literacy leads to poor decision-making, which leads to poor behavior, which limits a household’s ability to reach its financial goals.

Over the long term, I believe financial literacy is best achieved through a holistic, family approach, across multiple generations. Several years ago, I partnered with Henry Montag, a Certified Financial Planner and life insurance specialist, to create a “Financial Literacy for Families Program,” which we presented to a number of audiences. The program Henry and I created was designed to provide children—together with their parents—an overview of the basic, practical skills needed to ensure the whole family’s healthy financial future.

I still endorse a multigenerational approach to financial literacy through 45Forward. In April, my guests include Peter Janowsky, a veteran retirement planning specialist and “holistic financial planner” who co-founded Project S.A.F.E.  (Seniors Against Financial Exploitation); and Ellen Smiley, who’s been teaching financial literacy since 2007 to people of all ages, teaching individuals and families how to manage everyday finances to reduce stress, free up money and improve their lives.

Whether it’s through workshops, social media campaigns, or interactive events, the scope of participation in Financial Literacy Month across the country is broad, encompassing a diverse array of activities designed to educate people of all ages. Jump$tart works with more than 100 national partners and a network of grassroots, independent state affiliates, who orchestrate events and resources tailored to their local communities. (You can find affiliates in your state  through the Jump$tart website, https://www.jumpstart.org/about/state-coalitions/.)

Local banks and credit unions frequently participate in Financial Literacy Month and libraries have become hubs for financial education, hosting events and workshops. In addition, state departments of finance, banking, or consumer affairs often list or participate in financial literacy activities, offering workshops and resources to the public. And nonprofit credit counseling agencies are strong advocates for financial literacy, educating the community on financial skills such as budgeting, credit management, and debt reduction. (You can Locate a nonprofit credit counseling agency through industry associations like the Financial Counseling Association of America, https://fcaa.org/).

Ultimately, the message underlying financial literacy is that it provides a set of critical skills designed to be a steady guide throughout life, while also adapting to the particular needs of each stage of life—whether we’re 15 Forward, 25 Forward or 45 Forward.

—Ron Roel

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