Most Americans are Financially Illiterate

Mark Skousen
Posted: Aug 29, 2014 12:01 AM
Most Americans are Financially Illiterate

“The college educated are more likely to own stocks and less prone to use high-cost borrowing.” —Journal of Economic Literature

Financial literacy is important, but sadly, only a handful of states require students to take personal finance or an investment course. I earned a Ph. D. in economics and never took a class in accounting, business or personal finance!

How bad is financial education in this country?

In 2008, two economists came up with three simple questions to test the financial knowledge of citizens 55 years or older. See how well you do:

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?

A. More than $102.
B. Exactly $102.
C. Less than $102.
D. I do not know.

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1 percent per year and price inflation was 2 percent per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy:

A. More than today with money in this account.
B. Exactly the same amount as with the money in this account.
C. Less than today with the money in this account.
D. I do not know.

3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.”

A. True.
B. False.
C. I do not know.

The answers to these three questions are: 1 (A); 2 (C); and 3 (B).

When I first read these questions, I thought they were so easy that nobody with any experience could get them wrong. And yet only a third (34%) of U.S. respondents aged 55 and older could answer all three questions correctly.

Among foreigners, the Germans and the Swiss did the best (over 50% correct), while the Russians did the worst (4% correct) and the Japanese were in between (27% correct).

There’s a gender difference, too. Men were generally more financially knowledgeable than women, no matter what the age.

Clearly the education systems throughout the world need to do a better job in educating their people about basic finance.