Dear readers: Today I'm departing from my usual format to share with you my greatest wish for the new year and the next decade: that as a nation, we will come together to unleash the tremendous power of financial literacy.
When asked about financial literacy, most people think of a classroom with lessons in budgeting, credit and debt, and perhaps even an introduction to investing. And they're right — a financial literacy course can teach all of that.
But there's so much more. At its core, financial literacy is about extending equal opportunities to all, regardless of socioeconomic background. It's about breaking down the barriers between the haves and the have-nots. It's a powerful tool for social justice that can arm people of all economic backgrounds with the knowledge, skill and training they need to thrive in an increasingly complicated and competitive world.
Think, for example, about the student who grows up believing that college is off the table because it's too expensive. Or the young worker who's denied a job because of a poor credit report. Or the woman who's stuck in an abusive relationship because her husband controls the family money.
These are just a few examples of the insidious ways in which a lack of financial literacy can undermine a person's full potential. And, by extension, these examples also illustrate the opposite — the life-changing power that can come when individuals know that they have the skills and knowledge they need to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones.
Financial Literacy and College Access
I was discouraged to hear from the organization Prosperity Now that a significant percentage of low-income families have decided by the time their child is only 3 years old that college is not a possibility.
I can't help but compare this child's opportunities to those of the child from an affluent family who, at the same age, is being groomed for entrance into a prestigious preschool that will then act as a launching pad to an elite education. The doors of opportunity open up for one child and slam shut for the other. The disparity is striking and unacceptable.
According to a study by the FinAid website, at least 1.7 million students fail to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form each year because they incorrectly believe themselves to be ineligible. Others get in over their heads with debt, not understanding the size or time frame for the payments. And in the worst case of all, almost 4 million students a year drop out of school without graduating, saddled with debt without a degree.
Financial Literacy and Workforce Readiness
Did you know that a poor credit report can prevent you from getting a job, getting a promotion or even keeping your current job? In fact, more and more, employers are using credit history in background checks, which can have an outsized effect on hiring practices and advancement.
Under recent changes, the Department of Defense will now continuously monitor the financial status of military service members who have security clearances. Poor credit, carrying too much debt, uncorrected mistakes on a credit report or bankruptcies can jeopardize their security clearances, ability to deploy or promotions.
Financial Literacy and Domestic Abuse
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, or NNEDV, financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic abuse cases. Think about it: For abusers, money is power. If you strip your partner of access to money, you also strip them of their ability to care for themselves or make decisions in their own best interest.
The NNEDV also reports that victims find it difficult to leave an abusive relationship for the same reason. Because they have become dependent on the perpetrator, they can lack the resources, knowledge and confidence to break the cycle.
Financial abuse can be overt or subtle, taking many forms ranging from forbidding the victim from working, to controlling all of the money and paying the victim an "allowance," to running up large debts on joint accounts, to outright theft. Certainly, financial literacy isn't a cure for such a potentially devastating and complicated array of crimes, but it does represent a powerful tool in self-protection, and a path to a better future.
Several threads connect these three examples.
First, they all demonstrate that financial literacy can mean the difference between opportunity and adversity. A bright child who is denied an education, a qualified worker who is denied a job or a person stuck in an abusive relationship simply won't have as many choices available to improve their lives.
Second, financial literacy means access, not necessarily to money but to the vital information we all need to succeed in the modern world — whether that's in school, or the workplace, or our private lives. Children who haven't been exposed to the basics of money management at home or in school are at a distinct disadvantage when they enter the real world of paying for college, getting a job or leading an independent life.
Third, the ultimate value of financial literacy is not just in knowing the mechanics of how to buy a car or buy a house but in understanding how to approach a financial situation. I liken it to the value of a liberal arts education in that a financial education will teach you how to think — how to access a situation, put it into context and weigh your options. It will help you adopt an analytical mindset regardless of the situation you face.
Taken together, these benefits roll up to perhaps the most important advantage of all: having the confidence you will need throughout your life to establish priorities, set goals and make smart financial and personal decisions that support those values.
A Look to the Future
As I survey the ever-growing and -maturing universe of financial education, I'm optimistic. I've personally been involved with financial literacy programs for over 20 years, and I feel that we are at a tipping point.
First, we're making progress in our schools. North Carolina is now the 20th state to require financial literacy for high school students. It also requires teacher training.
Powerful organizations including the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association Foundation, the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, DonorsChoose and the Jump$tart Coalition have made major contributions to advancing financial literacy and reaching increasing numbers of people.
I am particularly proud of our collaborative program Money Matters: Make It Count, offered through Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Since the program's inception in 2004, over 1 million teens in over 1,300 clubs across the country have been introduced to not only basic financial concepts but also the practical realities of dealing with credit and debt, and paying for college.
Taken together, these and other innovative and effective programs in our schools, workplaces and communities are adding up to a critical mass. After 20 years, I can finally say that as a nation, we are coming to understand that an investment in financial literacy is an investment in one another and ourselves.
As we face a new decade, we all deserve nothing less.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty," available in bookstores nationwide. Read more at http://schwab.com/book. You can email Carrie at [email protected] This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.