Post mega conference

The first conference of the Financial Literacy Research Consortium was held last Thursday and Friday, November 18 and 19, in Washington, DC. The Financial Literacy Center was in charge of organizing it, and I just want to say how happy I am about the outcome. There are as many as five things I want to highlight about the conference.

David Rust, the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Retirement and Disability Policy at the Social Security Administration (SSA), opened the conference. As he described the work that SSA is doing to promote financial literacy, the image of a family doctor came to my mind. In the same way that a family doctor attends to his patients over time, caring for them at each stage of the life cycle, treating illness when necessary and preserving health when possible, so Social Security has been taking care of individuals, supporting them when they face problems such as disability. And with the financial literacy initiative, SSA is aiming to preserve and promote future financial stability by making sure that people are accumulating enough for retirement and are well equipped to make savvy financial decisions. SSA is ideally situated to promote financial literacy: it is an institution that is focused on the long term and that has the patience to wait for results in the long run. And investments in financial literacy will bear fruit in the long term, in line with the horizon of SSA.

Michael Barr, the Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions at the U.S. Department of Treasury, delivered the keynote address at lunch. Michael is also a top law scholar and a faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School. He gave one of the most articulate descriptions of the role of financial literacy and financial regulation that I have heard. He generously interacted with the audience after his talk, and the many questions that were asked are a testament to the importance of the work he is doing. The Treasury Department is playing a significant leadership role in the field of financial literacy, and I am proud that Michael Barr is at the helm of many initiatives, including the important work of building the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Punam Keller, the Charles Henry Jones Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business, delivered the closing talk. Punam is an expert on marketing strategy and social marketing and she is also the Marketing Director for the Financial Literacy Center. She described why financial literacy needs a marketing strategy and gave many tips on how social marketing can be of help in designing programs that are effective in influencing behavior. Punam is one of the most engaging, energetic, and brilliant speakers I have heard, and I am very happy to have been able to collaborate with her on so many projects.

The conference was large, with over 500 people registered. We designed the conference for interaction, and I believe we succeeded in engaging the audience. There were a lot of questions at the end of each session, and in the sessions I was able to attend, I learned as much from the questions that were asked as from the presentations. The agenda included an hour dedicated to visiting exhibit booths at which our team members displayed the products and projects they have been working on in the past year and interacted with conference attendees. I walked through the conference foyer during breaks and took stock of the many conversations generated by the topics presented at the conference sessions. A number of people approached me to say how much they enjoyed being involved in the conference. A sense of involvement and engagement is not a given at all conferences and one lesson I took away from this event is the value of creating a dialogue between the presenters and attendees. There is much to be gained from a conference at which everyone feels part of the conversation and everyone feels they have a chance for their voice to be heard.

Some of the programs that were presented speak of the creativity and ingenuity that is being used in designing financial literacy programs. One of the most popular presentations and exhibit booths was that of Doorways to Dreams (D2D). D2D has developed a casual video game, called Bite Club, to teach financial literacy. Bite Club, which is inspired by one of the most popular casual games of all time, Diner Dash, offers players a simulated experience in which they face the real-world tension between managing debt payments and current spending needs on the one hand, and saving for the long-term goal of retirement on the other. Players must manage a “day club” for vampires which demands they successfully pay off debt, meet current consumption needs, and save effectively for retirement. The core instructional design teaches the value of three important real world behaviors: (1) saving for retirement, (2) paying down debt, and (3) managing current consumption. In case you did not think there is a relationship between vampires and financial literacy, think again!

Let me turn now to the topic of food. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I believe food contributes to the success of any event. The food at the Ronald Reagan Center was as expected: breakfast was hearty, with plenty of bagels, muffins, juices, and strong coffee (much needed!). For lunch, we had to go for popular choices: salad as the appetizer and chicken as entrée. But the chocolate dessert was delicious, a tart with fresh raspberries on top of a good layer of melted chocolate. I gulped mine down and, since Michael Barr had to rush off at the end of his presentation, I ate part of his, too!

Presentations, keynote speeches, and photos of conference participants will be posted soon on our new web site

Mega conference

I am writing this blog to make sure all my readers are aware of the First Annual Conference of the Financial Literacy Research Consortium. The conference, titled “New Insights and Advances in Financial Literacy: Translation, Dissemination, Change,” will be held on November 18 and 19, 2010, in Washington, D.C., at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

For those of you who do not know it, the Financial Literacy Research Consortium (FLRC) consists of three centers: (1) the Financial Literacy Center, which is a consortium of three institutions under the coordination of the RAND Corporation, (2) the Center for Financial Literacy at Boston College, and (3) the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The FLRC was established in October 2009 and is supported by the Social Security Administration.

We (the Financial Literacy Center) are hosting this conference and have been very busy preparing for this day-and-a-half event, which will bring together scholars from the Consortium to present their research and discuss how programs, educational products, and policies can best promote financial planning and financial security.

The conference is designed for interaction. For example, it include a series of workshops on innovative products, small seminars that focus on different stages of the life cycle, and a product fair at which participants can try out new educational products and interact with the developers. We are expecting as many as 400 attendees and the agenda features topics that span from video games that teach the perils of debt to building an effective web site for financial literacy to discussions of effective financial education programs. You can find the program and the link to the conference registration at

A short description of the projects that our center has done in our first year and that will be presented at the conference is posted at .

I was attending the Pension Research Council’s Board meeting two weeks ago at the Wharton School, and one of the Board members asked Olivia and me: “So, what are the dates of your mega conference?” I was caught by surprise, but “mega conference” is a pretty good description of our upcoming event, and that’s how we’ve been referring to it ever since!

You are invited to attend the conference, or better, the mega conference! We hope to see you there.

Asset building or debt management?

At the risk of making my blog look dangerously like a travel diary, I write this having returned from Oxford University where I spoke about financial capability at a conference composed of academics, the insurance industry (mostly Allianz), and policy makers. Oxford has a magnificent campus, and I could devote many paragraphs describing the beautiful Corpus Christi college, where the conference was held, but I will instead write about financial capability.

As you may know from previous posts, FINRA Investor Education Foundation supported the National Financial Capability Study, a project done in collaboration with the U.S. Treasury. The National Financial Capability Study consists of three linked surveys: (1) the National Survey, a nationally projectable telephone survey of 1,488 American adults; (2) the State-by-State Survey, a state-by-state online survey of approximately 25,000 American adults (roughly 500 per state, plus the District of Columbia; and (3) the Military Survey, an online survey of 800 military service members and spouses. At my visit to Oxford, I presented the data from the National Survey, administered to respondents between May and July 2009.

The National Survey shows that financial capability is low in the United States, and this lack of financial capability has important implications not only for policy but for the economic system in general. As I discussed at the conference, when people talk about financial security, they tend to focus on asset building. With the shift that occurred in the past twenty years from Defined Benefit (DB) to Defined Contribution (DC) pension plans, individuals have been put in charge of deciding how much to save for retirement and how to allocate their pension wealth. They have to make those choices in the face of financial markets and financial products that are increasingly more complex. As documented in the National Survey, people do not seem well equipped to make the necessary financial decisions. Only 30% of Americans can correctly answer three basic questions related to calculating interest payments and to inflation or risk diversification, concepts that are at the basis of most financial decisions. Several studies have argued that many workers are poorly managing their retirement accounts and pensions funds. We had a glimpse of this with the failure of Enron, which revealed that many Enron employees were heavily invested in company stock; not an ideal way to diversify risk. But DC pensions have not matured yet, and it will be another twenty years before we see how individuals have fared in mostly independent management of retirement savings and investments. Current pensions are mostly paid out by DB schemes, and even the baby boomers who are starting to retire will rely mostly on savings that were part of a DB plan or a mix of DB and DC plans.

If we want to talk about financial security and witness the impact of lack of financial literacy on financial behavior, we have to turn to debt. One other important recent change in the economy has been an increase in opportunities to borrow. Consumer credit, like DC pensions, was rare in the past but has now become available to a large share of individuals, and decisions about how much to borrow have shifted onto individuals. Consider credit cards. Credit card offers arrive in the mail and one can borrow a large amount of money by simply using more and more cards. No one is checking to see whether individuals are borrowing an amount that they can realistically repay. With sub-prime mortgages, almost anyone who wanted a mortgage could get one; banks were not checking to see whether borrowers could afford the loan contract they were getting into. I have used before the analogy of a water faucet: with plentiful and readily available credit, the faucet was fully open and one could draw as much water as was desired; it was up to the consumer alone to decide when to turn off the tap.

What are the consequences of these changes to the economy, and how well are consumers doing on debt behavior? Unlike poor asset building and asset management, the consequences of poor debt behavior can be seen in the short run. Personal bankruptcy rates have skyrocketed, tripling in a matter of ten years. Most sub-prime mortgages went bust, sinking both the banks and the consumers who engaged in them. I hardly think I have to tell you the statistics that have resulted from the National Survey (although being an academic, I will, so bear with me), because American’s problems with debt have been so widely apparent in the last few years. But the findings from the National Survey clearly document just how widespread debt is in the U.S. population. For example, 23% of Americans have engaged in high-cost methods of borrowing in the past five years (payday loans, pawn shops, and the like). In other words, more than one in five Americans has borrowed at interest rates that can be as high as 1000%. Fewer than half of those who have credit cards pay their bill in full each month, and a sizable share of those who borrow on credit cards engage in behavior that generates not only interest payments but also fees. One disturbing result is that many of those who use credit cards in ways that generate interest payments and fees are close to retirement—the people who should be at the peak of their wealth accumulation are instead borrowing at rates that are much higher than those earned on their assets. Another equally disturbing feature is that many of those who carry credit card balances do not know the interest they are paying on their balance. Similarly, many mortgage borrowers do not know some crucial terms of their mortgages. And while about half of the population have retirement accounts, many have been borrowing on those accounts, in effect borrowing on themselves.

These finding bring me to three thoughts. First, it is very limiting to assess financial security by looking at asset building only. One of the ways to help people achieve financial security may be to help them manage their debt. In any case, one cannot look at one side of a household balance sheet (assets), without focusing on the liability (debt) side. Second, we have clearly seen how poorly individuals manage debt when they are put in charge of it without any consideration of what they know and how they make financial decisions. Third, there may be another crisis brewing around DC pensions. In twenty years, when workers with DC-only pensions start retiring and are confronted with the decision of whether to take their pension payments (however small or large) in a lump sum or to annuitize, we will fully understand the consequences of the shift in pension plans. We can act now and prevent a potential crisis by empowering workers with both financial knowledge and help.

Walking through the beautiful gardens of Corpus Christi and the New College in Oxford it was difficult to think of financial crises and their devastating consequences. But mistakes can build up silently and explode without much warning. We all need to be better prepared to live in today’s world of individual financial responsibility.

Advice to Parents

Having offered advice to students in a recent blog post, I want to turn now to parents to talk about how they can be advocates for their children’s financial education. As I have mentioned in previous posts, financial literacy is a necessary skill in the modern world, akin to the skills of reading and writing. Just as, with modernization, written literacy became a critical skill, the realities of today’s economies have made financial literacy a critical skill.

What changes have made this a reality? Today’s young people are very aware of and widely exposed to money, and there are many transactions that require an understanding of basic financial concepts, from deciding what to do with allowance or gift money to managing a mobile phone account to allocating earnings from an after-school or a summer job. As they finish high school, young people confront one of their most important financial decisions: whether and how much to invest in education. The wage difference between college- and non-college-educated workers has been increasing, with individuals without a college degree seeing their wages stagnate or even decrease. Lack of a college degree may mean a lifetime of low wages. On the other hand, the cost of education has been increasing rapidly, requiring astute decisions about which college to attend, in which state, and at what cost.

And when they enter the world of work and young adulthood, today’s young people will have to make many other important financial decisions. With the shift in retirement-planning responsibility from employers and government to individual workers, young people will be in charge of deciding not only how much to save but also how to allocate their retirement wealth, and they will have to do so confronting financial markets that are increasingly complex in terms of products offered and management and understanding of those products. Not only asset building but also debt and debt management will be increasingly important. Opportunities to borrow have expanded and, in addition to financing education, young people will have to learn how to manage credit cards and other, often more expensive, methods of borrowing. In such an environment, mistakes are easy to make and, as the financial crisis has indicated, can be very expensive, and costly mistakes may ultimately mean that you—the parent—are supporting your child far beyond the time you had expected to (I know, a scary thought).

There are several reasons why financial education should be offered in school. First, the level of financial literacy is very low; in my view, too low for young adults to be able to make savvy decisions. Moreover, current studies show that financial literacy is unequally distributed in the young population. According to studies from the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, only about 9 percent of high school students can be deemed financially literate. And this small proportion of students is disproportionately comprised of white males who have financially sophisticated parents. Thus, students are going to start out on very unequal footing, and differences can only grow larger over time. And even for those belonging to the more financially literate group, it is not clear that reliance on parental know-how and guidance is an effective way of learning; parents’ experience may not apply in a rapidly changing economic environment, in particular one in which young people will be competing in global financial markets filled with people from other nations, who have been exposed to formal financial education in school.

So, what can be done to promote financial education in school? One good start is to request that your child’s high school participate in the Financial Capability Challenge. The Challenge is a voluntary online exam and classroom toolkit that helps educators teach high school students about saving, budgeting, investing, use of credit, and other important skills critical to developing strong financial knowledge and capability. The next online exam will take place between March 7 and April 8, 2011. Educators and students who score in the top 20 percent nationally and who are among the top scorers in their school will receive official award certificates.

The Financial Capability Challenge is an excellent initiative, and it provides a good incentive to both students and teachers for gaining financial education. More than 76,000 students and 2,500 educators in all 50 states participated in the 2009–2010 school year Challenge. I participated in one of the award ceremonies last spring and saw what a rewarding experience it was for the students, teachers, and parents, and I was proud to be able to be part of it.

Become an ambassador for financial literacy by asking your school to participate in this program. Make sure your children will be prepared for the new world they will be facing: for the decisions they’ll need to make about their own education and for the financial markets they’ll have to participate in if they are to provide themselves with a financially sound adulthood.

Educators can begin registering for the Challenge today at

Help spread the word!

Shipping services

Summer always manages to come and go. Before you realize it, the holiday season is already here. It’s time to stop procrastinating and get on top of things. Prepare and start early for the holiday seasons. Many Canadians during this season usually ship Christmas presents to love ones across the country and have plans to go abroad. Travels back home are also prominent to a country filled with immigrants. With so many preparations to organize for, it’s always a good idea to know a good shipping service to rely on.

Know what numerous of shipping terms are always a good idea. Transporting packages and cargo are usually done by air, land or sea. Ground shipping is usually done by trucks or trains that transports cargo from its origin to the airport and which are then transported by air freights to their destination. Freights are moved in bulk are delivered to sea ports and air ports from its origin. Most shipments are usually done by ships and are the most transportation for 50 percent of international trade.

If you’re planning to make shipments from just within your community, there are other shipping services that you may wish to look into. For instance, Courier Delivery Service delivers mails and packages with emphasis on speed, security, and tracking. They are committed to delivering your packages at specific times which are not common for everyday mail services. Other shipping options include overnight and cross border shipping.

For more information on shipping services look online. There various services that may just fit your specific situation. Don’t let small problems to ruin your holiday season. You’ve been waiting for it all year, enjoy it!

Software innovations: What does it mean?

The business market is always changing. Corporations are constantly challenged to keep up with competitors or be at risk and be driven to the ground. Companies are now using various software to effectively manage their financial data and ensure accuracy and timeliness of reporting processes.

Critical business processes such as accounting has seen the importance of using software in their work. Not only does it save them time but it also ensures the reliability of business transactions and financial data during each accounting period. For instance, accounting software now functions as an accounting information system that records and processes transactions within functional modules such as accounts payable, time sheet, billing and payroll. Software such as these are becoming more predominant in the workplace. Bookkeepers for instance are using accounting applications to debit and credit financial transactions. Account Managers on the other hand, use financial and accounting software such as Sales Management Software to prepare financial statements like the company’s income statement and statement of retained earnings more efficiently.

Technological improvements have given suppliers the opportunity to provide software at lower prices, therefore, making them more available to businesses at various growth stages. New software innovations are also being created and introduced that target the technological savvy generation.

Though numerous software are becoming more prominent in the workplace, they are also gradually becoming more popular for personal use. As suppliers claim their effectiveness for managing your own financial accounts, the lower costs and ease of use have made them very attractive for these users. However, there are still certain risks associated with preparing your own taxes without an Accountant to oversee the process. Hence, it is crucial that you have an adequate understanding of what the software is trying to do.

Keep a critical mind when using any software. Despite technological advancements, any software has its flaws so be cautious.

Advice to freshmen

As I walk through college campuses this fall, I can easily spot the freshmen. They are identifiable not so much by age (although they look younger every year) but by the look on their faces: that unique mixture of surprise, excitement, and fear that accompanies the start of the first year of college. There is so much to do and to learn and there’s no shortage of advice being directed at college freshmen, but I am going to add my piece anyway, and it is not only a suggestion about what students should do but who most needs to do it.

My recommendation is simple: if your school offers a financial education course, take it. If it does not, take a basic economics course (Economics 101 or Principles of Economics). Financial knowledge has become an essential life skill; just as it is necessary to be able to read and write (and use Twitter and Facebook), it is essential to have basic financial knowledge. Financial decisions are made every day, from how much to borrow on a credit card to how to manage a checking account to whether to pay for dinner on a disappointing date. And the responsibility of making good decisions has been shifted onto individuals. Both government and employers are increasingly asking citizens and workers to take care of their own financial security. Like it or not, the benefits and risks associated with financial decisions are now yours. And you have just embarked on one of the biggest investments of your life: the investment in education (in case you are not aware of just how big an investment it is, ask your parents, but only after they recover from the shock of paying the first round of bills for tuition, room, and board). In my view, education is one of your best investments, with returns in higher lifetime wages and likely entry into more stable sectors of the job market. (There tends to be lower unemployment among jobs requiring a college education.) And there are many intangibles, too, that command a value, from gaining a network of smart and educated friends to having the opportunity to experiment and gain knowledge in many fields, under the guidance of experts.

In the same way that low educational attainment may mean a lifetime of low and erratic wages, so low financial knowledge has been found to be associated with poor financial decisions, from excessive borrowing to lack of participation in financial markets to inadequate wealth accumulation for retirement. The costs of poor decisions can be high, particularly when dealing with debt: choosing the wrong mortgage can push people into poverty or bankruptcy, and according to the research I did with Peter Tufano from Harvard Business School, those who display low levels of financial literacy are likely to pay 50% more in credit card interest and fees than those with higher levels of financial literacy.

While a course in financial literacy or in basic economics can benefit all students, based on my years of research, I recommend it most strongly to the following students:

Women: According to my research, women are much less financially literate than men. I do not know why this is the case, but one worrisome finding is that there is a gap in financial knowledge between women and men not only among young people but also later in life. This likely means that women face fewer opportunities to become financially knowledgeable than men do, for example by interacting with groups (perhaps other women) who are less likely to talk about finance. Enrolling in a college-level economics or financial literacy offers a chance to counteract that tendency.

African Americans and Hispanics: There is a wide gap in financial knowledge between whites and African-Americans and Hispanics, even after accounting for the many demographic differences in these groups, including income and wealth. Again, this may be the result of fewer learning opportunities over the lifetime. A college course in economics or finance can start to make up for this gap.

Students whose parents are not financially sophisticated: According to my research, as well as research from the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, the (small) percentage of students who are financially knowledgeable are disproportionately white males with college-educated parents (in particular, college educated mothers) who had stocks and retirement savings when their children were teenagers. This means that a lot of financial knowledge is learned at home. If you are among the first generation in your family to go to college and your parents have never invested in stocks, you start at a disadvantage in terms of financial knowledge with respect to your peers. Take the opportunity now to make up for that gap.

Students who hate economics and finance: If you think that the study of economics and finance is for uncreative people, and is evil and will only teach you to work on Wall Street and exploit poor people and poor countries, then you, too, should sign up for a basic economics or financial literacy course. In my experience, people who express disdain for economics tend to make poor and costly financial decisions. Take advantage of a chance to offset that tendency.

Let me finish by adding that there is a risk in taking a course on financial literacy and economics: You may actually find that you like it!

Comparing financial literacy of young people across countries

One of the new tasks I have taken on is to chair the Financial Literacy Experts Group at the OECD, which has been put in charge of designing a module on financial literacy for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The Programme is a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old students’ scholastic performance, evaluated first in 2000 and repeated every three years. A new module will be proposed for the 2012 survey to measure financial literacy among 15-year-olds in 19 countries (the countries which so far have agreed to participate are Albania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Latvia, New Zealand, Slovack Republic, Slovenia, Spain, and the United States).

This is an important initiative that shows the leadership role that the OECD has undertaken in the field of financial literacy at the international level and that will provide much needed data to improve educational policies across countries. There is a lot to be learned from these data. First, we will be able to assess the level of financial knowledge of young students, before they take on related decisions such as choosing whether to pursue a college education, in my view one of the most important decisions in a person’s lifetime. Second, we will be able to assess which students know the most and which know the least, not only across economic strata and demographic groups but also across countries. Third, we will be able to assess the link between financial literacy and mathematical ability as well as the link between financial knowledge and knowledge in other fields, such as the sciences.

The comparison across countries is particularly valuable. Not only are financial markets becoming increasingly integrated but many countries are shifting to pension systems that require increased individual responsibility. Moreover, the availability of consumer credit and the instruments associated with that credit (credit cards, short-term loans, payday loans, and so on) require that consumers have the ability to understand the terms of the contracts and their consequences. Countries in which consumer credit has expanded rapidly have also witnessed an increase in personal bankruptcy. How do countries handle the increase in individual responsibility, how much are young people prepared for the new financial systems which are becoming more global and more complex, and who are the leaders in terms of financial literacy? These are very important questions and the objective of the data is to provide countries with evidence that can guide policies toward improving financial education.

PISA data has been used in many policy assessments. Just last Sunday the New York Times had an article about the strength of Brazil’s economic expansion. While Brazil has been growing fast, the low level of education of the population (as measured by the math scores in PISA studies) is seen as a potential stumbling block both in terms of ability to produce a qualified labor force and to promote innovation. And interestingly, it is the Nordic countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden) whose students do very well in terms of mathematical ability, and perhaps it is not by accident that these countries host some of the most innovative firms, products, and ideas—Nokia, Ikea, Santa Klaus (if you believe, as I firmly do, that he lives in the North Pole).

This is clearly no small task and the Financial Literacy Experts Group is hard at work to design questions that are comparable across countries. We have representatives who come from different countries and who also bring a variety of experiences. We have not only educators but also representatives from government institutions (Treasury and Finance departments), central banks, and retirement commissions. Moreover, we have representatives from countries in which financial education in high school has been or is in the process of being implemented and countries in which financial education in school has yet to be adopted. This will allow us to examine whether the countries whose young people are exposed to financial education programs in school do better than countries in which young people learn on their own.

One other thing I’ve learned is that among Italians, one has to be careful in discussing PISA. I had hastily mentioned my new role to my father during our weekly calls, telling him that one of the benefits of the project would be a lot of travel close to my family’s home in Italy. I realized the discussion had gone astray when my sister sent me an e-mail congratulating me for joining the expert group on the Leaning Tower of Pisa and asking what, exactly, I had to do in there. We had a good laugh; this added new meaning to my father’s conviction that his daughters can do anything!

How Can You Market Your Business Properly?

Although newer and newer innovations are coming out on the business front to help companies operate in this rather volatile business environment, there is still a substantial amount of confusion relating to how to market your business properly. Production isn’t as hard as it used to be – there’s a standard procedure to making a product or delivering a service…it’s become an automated procedure (even for the customized services). Taking the finances down hasn’t changed much either – there is, again, a process to complete the entire accounting and financial procedure very feasibly. So, it’s evident that marketing has undoubtedly become one of the more variable components of every modern-day business.

Before explaining how marketing has changed, it’s key to understand what marketing is in the first place. In my personal opinion, marketing is the process of pulling in consumers’ interest in a particular product and service you are selling, attempting to intellectually, emotionally, and mentally stimulate them to increase their loyalty to the product and the brand of the company itself. Essentially, marketing should always end up with a call to action, something that wakes up the consumer and tells them to do something very plainly – in most cases, this involves actually purchasing the product or service. This definition of marketing isn’t the most “up-to-date” because of all the new technological inventions and innovations (like address validation software which uses postal code map technology) that are coming out in the business environment, but it is the most fundamental one. People will definitely utilize at least a portion or “the gist” of this concept for years to come.

Now, let’s move on to the big question – how can we properly market the modern-day contemporary business. First off, let’s establish that it’s not an easy task – it requires substantial research and analysis before even proceeding. You have to understand exactly what product you’re selling and the benefits or advantages of purchasing said commodity. If you blindly believe that this product will yield you positive results because of its “alleged” quality and value, then you probably won’t be successful. It’s all about understanding the value-add from the perspective of the consumer. Spend a bit of primary research time testing out the product with a sample consumer base – what parts of the product to they like? Dislike? Any other comments that they input should be taken down and referred to at a later basis – these will all be useful in marketing the good or service to them.

These are just tips to understand how marketing should actually take place – companies run into this process blindly with no real goal. However, with the proper procedure, it’s possible to break down each step of the marketing process to maximize your ROI.


I was informed recently that my blog has been listed as one of the must-read blogs in the field of economics. While I don’t know much about how this ranking was done, it did boost my ego quite a bit and I thought I would post the link:

When I started blogging some time ago, I did not know how much I would enjoy it. While my schedule has become quite busy, particularly since taking on the role of director of the Financial Literacy Center, I am trying to keep up and write as much and as often as I can. Both the financial crisis and the financial reforms have offered a lot of material to reflect upon and to write about, so I am not short on topics, even though I write exclusively on subjects related to financial literacy.

But I am posting this short blog to thank my readers for their support and also to encourage them to continue reading. Have a good rest of the summer to all. I am getting ready to go to Italy, one of my favorite vacation places, and I will write more from there.

Financial education: What works?

I am just back from Denver, where I attended a conference titled “Implications of a Quarter Century of Research in Personal Finance,” organized by the National Endowment for Financial Education and Tahira Hira from Iowa State University. A group of researchers met over three days to discuss what we have learned so far on this important topic. I headed a team that addressed the question, “What learning strategies, interventions, and delivery methods hold the most promise for effective financial education outcomes?”

As we reviewed the many papers that have been written on this topic, we faced the difficulties commonly encountered when looking at the existing work. Navigating the bulk of existing literature and figuring out the common findings is a challenge, but our analysis of that extensive literature led us to what we called a “cautious optimism” about the effects of financial education. Along with this optimism, we are mindful of several difficulties inherent in evaluating financial education interventions. First is the issue of self-selection: i.e., are the people who attend financial education programs those with an existing interest in the subject, and is it their interest or the content of a program that motivates them to make certain financial decisions? Second is the dearth of details regarding program content, frequency, delivery method, and goals (to improve knowledge or change behavior or to satisfy a legal requirement) of the programs that are reviewed in the literature. This lack of information makes it hard to evaluate what makes a program effective (or ineffective). Third, one has to be mindful of the size of the intervention. Small interventions, for example, providing information on a particular issue cannot transform naïve investors into Warren Buffetts.

The team identified places where financial education seems most effective and methods to make financial education more effective. The most effective place for financial education was concluded to be the workplace; important methodology was judged to be that relating to adult education and to informal learning.

There are many (some obvious) reasons why the workplace is an ideal venue in which to provide financial education. First, this is where many adults are and also where many important financial decisions are made, e.g., how much to contribute to a retirement account, how to invest retirement wealth, whether to annuitize retirement wealth, and the list goes on. There are also benefits to employers in making sure that workers save for retirement and avoid financial problems, as financial problems and/or worries can affect worker productivity and morale. One benefit to both employers and employees, which in my view is not discussed enough, is that financial education can make people aware of and able to take advantages of benefits an employer offers (for example, employer matches of retirement contributions) or better understand and take advantage of tax-favored assets.

Financial education has normally been conceived of as being delivered in a classroom, but one has to think more broadly and creatively about adult education. In contrast to young students, adults have a rich set of experiences that shape how they view their financial situation. Additionally, financial education can be made more effective with reference to theories of learning that offer important suggestions and insights. One such theory is Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. This theory has been around for over 30 years and has been used as a framework to help make sense of learning and teaching in numerous disciplines—health and medical education, intercultural relations, psychology, environmental sciences, higher education, instructional technology, archaeology, human resource development, just to mention a few. I mention the importance of theory here because, in my view, one of the reasons why financial education has not been as effective as it could be or has not been given the attention it deserves is because it is not considered within a rigorous and theoretical framework.

Even within such a framework, it is possible to incorporate different ways of learning, including informal learning. Informal learning is increasingly becoming recognized as significant to workplace education. Instead of having employees participate in traditional workshops or training sessions, employers are creating conditions in which workers can learn from each others. Financial educators, policy makers, and program planners will do well to recognize that financial education efforts can be successful outside of the formal settings that are the traditional venue for financial education.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, to run a successful conference you need to have good people, good papers, and good food. Having provided, I hope, a little glimpse of the energetic discussion that went on throughout the meetings in Denver (as well as the informal learning that occurred outside of the meeting rooms!), let me turn to the topic of food. Our meals were a blend of French and Italian cuisine. We went to a wonderful French bistro one night where we tried pâté, saucissons, onion soup, and a wonderful pistachio-crusted trout. The Brown Palace hotel, where we stayed, provided us with succulent breakfasts. At a lunch one day we had gourmet pizza. Some were surprised by this lunch choice. Not me. Give me pizza, and I am happy!

Some comments about "Greater Foools"

I am happy to post on my blog a comment by Nan Morrison, President and CEO of the Council for Economic Education, on the article "Greater Fools" published in the New Yorker.

James Surowieki’s financial page piece “Greater Fools” unfortunately quite accurately diagnoses the depths of America’s struggle with financial literacy and its costs to society. And without significant changes, our children may face an even worse fate than their parents. Nellie Mae reports that on average, incoming freshmen now bring an average of $1,585 in credit card debt to college.
Yet despite the extent of this problem, according to a CEE / State Farm survey, only 21 states require an economics course to be taken in K-12, and only 13 states require a course in personal finance. Even fewer require testing of these concepts. But requirements need trained teachers, and to make matters worse, as a society, we are not preparing teachers to deliver this vital content with confidence. In a recent survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), less than 20 percent of teachers reported feeling competent to teach basic personal finance topics. Furthermore, even many teachers of high school economics have taken two or fewer semesters of economics in college.

In our eyes, the real question is “How, as a society, can we improve our economic and financial literacy and what benefits might we see in future generations as a result?” Our answer at the Council for Economic Education (CEE) – equip and enable teachers to educate our children in basic personal finance and economic concepts in school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Why? Good habits are built early, just like brushing your teeth.

America is about economic opportunity – our kids need to be financially fit and economically literate to grasp that opportunity. As consumers, investors, entrepreneurs, and voters we all make decisions that involve finance and economics every day. If every parent, school and state, made economic and financial education a priority in schools from K-12, perhaps more Americans would be able to ensure their financial well being in a changing and complex world. Improving our collective economic and financial literacy is vital to our economic growth, job creation, and prosperity. Many in government, education, and financial services, across our nation support those goals, as they are good business and good citizenship well as essential ingredients in a stable financial system.

Nan J. Morrison
President & CEO, Council for Economic Education

Greater Fools

James Surowiecki’s recent column in The New Yorker magazine discussed the dangers of financial illiteracy in America. It is great that such a prominent and widely read magazine has featured a piece on the issue of financial illiteracy. I do not know about you, but I love The New Yorker: not only is it great reading, but it makes me dream of all the things I could do if I were living in New York! In this blog, I want to write in more detail about something that I discussed with James Surowiecki and which he reported in his column.

Of the changes that we have witnessed in the financial markets in recent decades, we have seen not only an increased complexity in financial products but also an increased reliance on the expertise (or lack thereof) of consumers. For example, individuals have been bombarded with credit card offers. One could easily sign up for a sizeable collection of credit cards and, in so doing, borrow a large amount of money. While some consumers have been targeted more than others, many are receiving printed checks in the mail. These types of offers make it very easy to borrow; and it is the individual who has to be savvy about how to use the credit cards and checks that come in the mail; the offers will keep coming, and the amount one can borrow will keep increasing, irrespective of how much one can afford.

Subprime mortgages have worked in much the same way. While banks and mortgage lenders would normally do background work in order to assess how much to lend their potential borrowers, subprime mortgages were available to almost anyone who wanted a mortgage, regardless of their ability to afford the loan they were taking on and without much or any look to proper documentation. For some, the offer came in the mail together with the credit card offer!

In other words, we have opened the doors and made credit available to a much larger number of individuals than was the case several decades ago. Moreover, while not infinite, the amount people can borrow is very large. And perhaps most importantly, it is often up to the consumers to decide what and when it is enough.

This is why financial literacy is so important and why, in my view, developments in financial markets should be accompanied with initiatives to provide the knowledge required to make good use of any such developments. One cannot trumpet how great it is to be able to buy a house at age 25 if young workers do not even know what interest compounding means. Similarly, dispensing credit cards to people who have little understanding of how fees work can be counterproductive at best and catastrophic at worst.

I have a similar view toward assets. Some have been lamenting the high proportion of unbanked individuals, in particular among certain segments of the population. I believe financial access is incredibly important, but we cannot simply give everyone a checking account and think we have improved people’s lives! Not knowing how to use a checking account to prevent overdraft fees and returned checks can quickly turn the benefits of this simple asset into a nightmare.

As we pass new legislation about financial reforms, we should keep in mind the many advantages that advanced financial markets can bring to the economy but also be mindful that without financial knowledge, people now have a much greater opportunity not only to increase wealth, but also to destroy it. As I have argued in many previous blogs, it is not enough to regulate supply, we also have to think about demand and how to empower consumers with the knowledge necessary to make proper financial decisions. We should not be talking only about banks, we should also be talking about the borrowers!

On a side note, James Surowiecki’s column was published on July 5, which also happens to be my birthday. Without knowing it, Surowiecki provided me with a very nice birthday gift by writing so proficiently about a topic I care so much about. Only a trip to New York would have made it better!

Read James Surowiecki’s column here:

Financial Literacy Among the Young

I want to write this time about financial literacy among young people. Olivia Mitchell, from the Wharton School; Vilsa Curto, from the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard; and I have just published a paper in the Journal of Consumer Affairs that describes the results from the responses to three questions that we added to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 2007-2008. Respondents to this survey are 23-28 years old.

These young consumers must confront complicated financial decisions in today’s demanding financial environment, and financial mistakes made early in life can be costly. Young people often find themselves carrying large amounts of student loan or credit card debt, and such early entanglements can hinder their ability to accumulate wealth or to choose their desired job. To examine how well equipped young people are to make financial decisions, we assessed knowledge of basic concepts: the ability to do a 2% calculation and the understanding of how inflation and risk diversification work.

We have three major findings:

1. Financial literacy is low among young adults. Only 27% of people age 23-28 can answer three basic questions about interest rates, inflation, and risk diversification.
2. There are large gender differences in financial literacy. Young women know much less than do young men about basic financial concepts. In another survey, we found large gender gaps in financial literacy among older respondents (51 and older), and this recent work tells us that these differences hold when we look at young people.
3. Financial literacy is influenced by parents. Those who are financially literate are more likely to have college-educated parents (in particular, college-educated mothers) and to have parents who had stocks and retirement savings when these young adults were growing up (when they were 12 to 17 years old).

I want to stress the third finding: family background is found to have a strong impact on financial literacy. A college-educated male whose parents had stocks and retirement savings when he was a teenager was about 45 percentage points more likely to know about risk diversification than a female with less than a high school education whose parents did not own retirement or risky assets. In other words, financial knowledge appears to be much higher for those who grow up with parents who are financially sophisticated.

This research is consistent with the findings from the Financial Capability Survey, the results of which were released last December by Secretary Geithner together with Secretary Duncan. That survey also documents very low levels of financial knowledge, particularly among the young.

These are unpleasant findings. We have put people in charge of many important financial decisions. People must decide how much to save for retirement and how to invest that savings, yet people do not appear to understand how to diversify risk; individuals are bombarded with credit card offers, yet we are learning that many people do not know how compound interest works, so cannot calculate how their debt will grow. Research has shown that financial illiteracy can be linked to problems with debt, lack of participation in the stock market, lack of retirement planning, and lower wealth accumulation. If we do not address financial illiteracy among young people and if we do not equip young people with the tools they need to make sound financial decisions, we may pay the cost down the road.

I am worried about the implications of these findings. If financial literacy is learned at home, many young people will begin their lives at a disadvantage, as not everybody comes from a college educated family or from a family that has stocks and retirement savings. In other words, inequality may start at the very beginning of the economic life if we do not offer everybody an opportunity to learn financial literacy outside of their homes. This is one reason why it is important that our schools incorporate financial literacy into their curricula.

In my work as a college professor, I am surrounded by young people. Last month, as we bid farewell to the Dartmouth class of 2010, I could not help but wonder whether we have provided all that is needed for these students to start on their journey into adulthood. Most of them will start a job, open a new bank account, rent an apartment, get more credit cards, pay down their student loans, donate to their college (ahem . . .), and pay taxes. Are they ready?

Proposals, Pizza Boxes, and Prilosec

I have not written for a while, but now—after a month and a half of grueling work—am able to turn attention to my blog, having just finalized the submission of a multi-project proposal for the second year of funding for the Financial Literacy Center.

Every year at around this time, we have to collect our best projects and ideas and submit them to our funder, Social Security. There are many valuable aspects of this process. First, it forces us to think hard about the many ongoing projects and the new ideas we have been compiling with input from our teams and then evaluate the most promising ones to submit for funding. It makes us think about the future and about the type of work we’d like to engage in over the next year.

Second, it forces us to be specific about what we want to pursue. This is the time when we need to transform ideas, conjectures, even dreams, into concrete plans that have to be described in detail, thinking not just about the outcomes we want but the manner in which we plan to achieve them.

Third, it gives us the opportunity to form new partnerships. Several of our proposed projects have become multi-disciplinary, with psychologists, linguists, and law scholars collaborating with economists. And co-authors from existing projects are brought in to add their experience and insight to newly proposed projects.

But for those of you who have never dealt or submitted a grant, let me tell you that despite all of the good that comes of it, the process is grueling and the work is massive. There are strict procedures to be followed, a vast amount of documentation to be provided, deadlines to be met, and, if more than one team is involved, a lot of people to coordinate. On a scale from 1 to 10 of the unpleasant things one might do, this is probably an 8, right up there with a root canal or training for the Tour de France after major surgery.

As the submission deadline approached last week, I looked dangerously like my students on the day of a final exam: my hair uncombed, coffee cups and empty pizza boxes piling up on my desk, mail unopened, and email clogging up my inbox. Staying late at my desk, I startled more than one security guard patrolling the building to shut off the lights late at night. And, of course, the sure indicator of a grueling grant submittal period: regular doses of Prilosec after week two of the process.

Truth be told, I have gotten much better at writing grants. My first grant submissions, which I wrote with no understanding that I was competing with the giants in my field, I have to say were not received with great enthusiasm. In some cases, my submission did not even merit consideration among the proposals to be funded; in others I received rejections complemented by letters from referees who had a lot of not very friendly things to say about my research ideas. The ones I have the fondest memories of are those in which I was told I was not quite there, and was invited to re-submit. I did that, adding another two or three weeks of work (and medication), and—bingo!—I was rejected after the resubmission!

Grants have became a part of my academic life, as I need support for big projects—to hire assistants, to pay for data, and to do empirical research. Not many institutions had the stomach to fund research on financial literacy when I started working on it many years ago, and I am very happy that Social Security has been a funder and a supporter of my work from the very beginning. I will probably be collecting Social Security benefits by the time I publish this work, so I can say that Social Security has been and will be a constant in my life.

But now the submission is over; I can go back to a healthy diet and to a normal intake of coffee. I will again think positively about the future. And I am very busy catching up on sleep.

Why Does My Car Insurance Matter If I Get A DUI?

About 10 years ago, I remember one of my friends calling me up at around 11pm and giving me some pretty disturbing news. Earlier that night, he had been at the other end of a car accident – worse, the person responsible for the accident was driving intoxicated. Thankfully, he was fine and escaped with a few minor bruises. However, I still remember the news shocking me – the accident was not an “accident” after all. It was due to neglect, irresponsibility, and ignorance by the other person who was driving drunk. Then I thought about something a little different – how would the car insurance of the person responsible get affected?

Here’s the answer. There are three ways in which your assurances auto can be negatively affected:

Insurance Suspension/Termination

Let’s make one thing clear – driving drunk is an illegal activity. It’s very much against the law and not tolerated one bit. Since this is an illegal activity, your insurance will be suspended and invalid following the charge. If your insurance is invalid, then that means that you are not protected from any further accidents that might occur. This also means you’ll have to compensate the other person injured for any injuries they have faced – you will have to pay off their medical bills.
Complete vulnerability and an empty wallet are the two resulting components of an insurance suspension and a DUI charge

Threat of lawsuit

Now, the other person who has been injured in the car accident will be completely taken care of by their assurance voiture provider, giving them the funds necessary (from your bank account, of course – refer to the first point). Once the person has fully recovered, their insurance provider will come up right next to you and sue you for the damages faced by their client. So, you’ll end up having to pay the medical expenses for you and the other person and the lawsuit thrown at you by the person, emptying your wallet completely.

Insurance Renewal Problems

The last issue relates to insurance renewal. Once you get a DUI and you try to renew your insurance, you don’t need to because your driving record is wiped completely clean. When some of my friends heard this news, they were utterly delighted. I remember their exact reaction – so it’s like this DUI never happened! Wrong. Wiping your slate clean means that the insurance rates you’ll face will be incredibly high. I’m talking sky high here. You’ll end up with no money very soon because these rates will stay stable for about 10 years and then start to decline. It won’t be a very pretty situation.

So, on the whole, I think it’s sufficient to say that drinking and driving is not a smart move. Not only are you hurting peoples’ lives, but you’re also damaging the relationship you have with your insurance provider, leading you to become bankrupt very soon. On the whole, don’t drink and drive, but if you have to, make sure you hire a designated driver.