I'm not sure whether it was intentional or merely a coincidence that several years ago Congress proclaimed April to be Financial Literacy Month. April is also the month when millions of Americans grimly write a check to the IRS and resolve to do a better job managing their money; and when millions of others squander their tax refund without realizing why receiving overly large refunds isn't sound financial management.
In recognition of 2013's Financial Literacy Month, the National Foundation of Credit Counseling just released the results of its seventh annual Consumer Financial Literacy Survey, which tracks Americans' attitudes and behaviors related to personal finance.
NFCC spokesperson Gail Cunningham said, "On a positive note, by certain measures a large percentage of Americans do feel they're getting a better handle on controlling their finances," she said. "On the downside, however, many people give themselves poor grades on their knowledge of personal finance, and worry that they're not saving enough for a rainy day – or for retirement."
Here are some of the survey's key findings:
40 percent of adults have a budget and closely track their spending. In other words, 60 percent don't use a budget.
Only 32 percent of those polled spend less on living expenses now than they did last year – a steady decline since 2009's 59 percent level. At the same time, 27 percent said they now spend more than they did a year ago.
About 71 percent pay all bills on time and have no debts in collection – a 7 percent improvement from 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adults who do not pay all bills on time has decreased, from 33 percent in 2012 to 26 percent in 2013.
37 percent carry credit card debt from month to month – a 7 percent decrease since the question was first asked in 2009.
Insufficient savings tops the list of financial worries, with 43 percent most worried that they don't have enough emergency savings, and 38 percent worried they'll retire with inadequate savings. In fact, a whopping 31 percent say they currently save nothing for retirement.
When asked where they learned the most about personal finance, the largest number (33 percent) said from their parents; yet 78 percent agree that they could benefit from advice and answers to everyday financial questions from a professional.
To me, perhaps the most telling statistic is that 40 percent of adults give themselves only a grade of C, D or F on their knowledge of personal finance. Should we be worried because that many people with a poor-to-middling understanding of money management are likely to be the major influence on their children's financial habits? I think so.
"Fortunately, many financial education tools are available for people of all ages," noted Cunningham. "The challenge is making people aware of them and encouraging them to seek help when they need it."
Helpful financial education sites include:
- MyMoney.gov (www.mymoney.gov), the government's website dedicated to teaching Americans the basics about financial education.
- The NFCC (www.nfcc.org), featuring information on obtaining free or low-cost help from trained, certified credit counselors.
- Practical Money Skills for Life (www.pmsfl.com), a free personal financial management program run by Visa Inc., that includes saving and budgeting tips, and interactive video games like Financial Football that engage students while teaching them money-management skills.
Don't let another April pass without taking steps to improve your financial literacy – and that of your kids.
[Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To participate in a free, online Financial Literacy and Education Summit on April 17, 2013, go to www.practicalmoneyskills.com/summit2013.]