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?