May 2017

Prudential billboard

Our Stubborn State of Financial Illiteracy

The U.S. retirement system is built on people having a working knowledge of finance.  Yet financial literacy among a big chunk of Americans ranges from unimpressive to abysmal.

This revelation was again confirmed in a survey that recently debuted by financial literacy guru Annamaria Lusardi, head of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University. In a 2011 survey, Lusardi had found that too many Americans were unable to answer three very simple financial questions.

This new survey is more ambitious, though the results are no more promising. It asks 28 questions in eight areas: earning money, budgeting, saving, investing, borrowing, insuring, understanding risk, and information sources.  In the nationally representative survey, about one in four people got no more than seven answers (25%) correct.

One telling finding is that the highest scores were for knowledge about borrowing, with nearly two out of three answering these questions correctly. I suspect this knowledge has been gained from experience – experience with high-interest credit card bills and onerous student loan payments, as well as mortgages.

Understanding risk questionIn every other financial topic surveyed, about half or less answered the questions correctly.  Questions about risk, which is at the heart of many financial decisions, fared worst – only 39 percent answered these correctly.

An important connection is made in the report regarding 18- to 44-year olds, who answered only 41 percent of the questions correctly (versus 55 percent for people over 45). Younger adults also answered “I do not know” most often. 

When it comes to retirement, those who would gain more from financial knowledge are the least knowledgeable.  Saving that starts in early adulthood can go a long way toward achieving retirement security, thanks to compound investment returns over the many years remaining prior to leaving the work force. It’s unfortunate that those who could benefit from compounding often don’t comprehend its effect. …Learn More

Goblin

Online Goblins Want Your Money

No longer simply a convenience for shoppers, the internet has come into its own: it is now an ingenious tool for squeezing money out of our wallets.

This realization first struck me last year while helping my brother and his wife in Chicago with a flight to visit our mom in Orlando. The reason I was on the case is that he’s a bit of a technophobe. But it turned out that his technical skills weren’t the issue – the airline’s website was the issue.

To flyers’ chagrin, most airlines are now a la carte operations, charging separate fees for everything from baggage to potato chips. This makes it difficult to compare fares online – one way we might wind up paying more. But things went wildly astray for my brother when he clicked on one airline’s website icon to pay his and his wife’s baggage fees a few days before flying.

He was hurled off to a webpage beseeching him to join some type of $200 promotional program that included “free” baggage.  The same thing happened when I tried the next day.  It took all of my online ingenuity to figure out how to avoid the promotion and pay only their $30 per bag fees. I wondered whether other flyers had been sucked into paying for this promotion.

These website diversions are different from what has become routine: advertisements popping up that try to get you to take the plunge and buy the consumer product you were researching online yesterday. It’s difficult to ascertain which diversions are cynical marketing ploys and which ones are innocent technical glitches. But all of them have the potential to be costly to unwary consumers.

During a brunch on Easter Sunday, two friends confirmed my concerns that this isn’t just an issue for older people – one of my friends who complained about online trickery is 95 years old but the other is a tech-savvy college freshman.

All web crawlers are familiar with offers of free subscription trials. These are also dangerous. …Learn More

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