What People Get Wrong About Financial Literacy

Every spring a friend in North Carolina and I have a NCAA college basketball tournament bet. He takes the teams representing the Atlantic Coast Conference and I get those representing the Pacific-12. If his teams win more games, I send him a t-shirt, if mine win more, I anxiously await my cotton trophy. This year, neither conference did well, but I barely won a stylish long sleeve Guilford College tee*.

We met teaching and playing noon basketball at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 90s. This year, along with the shirt(s—one for the Good Wife too, and a coffee mug, Christmas in April), he included four copies of recent Guilfordians, the liberal, liberal arts school’s student paper.

Reading them made it seem like time had stood still. Faculty salaries were still the lowest among a large comparison group of peers. Enrollment was down. Faculty morale was flagging. Some well-liked faculty were leaving to the disappointment of students. Students were protesting the administration’s salaries, which had increased markedly, and were at least average among the same comparison group. Tucked in one of the articles was a devastating detail that will make the new president’s job especially difficult. The small Quaker school has $16m in deferred maintenance. They budget $1.8m a year for continuing maintenance, meaning they’re eight years behind. Some students complained about mold in the dorms.

Colleges on the financial edge routinely defer maintenance. “Let’s delay the roof on the science lab another year.” Eventually, the quality of life for students and faculty suffers, and as with mounting credit card debt, the financial challenges multiply and trustees fret they’ll never catch up. Public schools, churches, and city council’s everywhere face the exact same challenge. Can we manage our finite revenue—whether bonds or levees, charitable contributions, or taxes—well enough to maintain our existing buildings, roadways, and parks? If you want to assess the health of a school district, church, or city, find out how much maintenance they have deferred.

We’re fortunate that our Washington State home backs up to beautiful woods that we’ve enjoyed for sixteen years. In the woods there are hiking and running trails, deer, owls, and a path to a nice city park. Now the woods are for sale and three different developers are interested. Many in our community who have organized to save the woods from being turned into another housing development attended the City Council meeting last week to implore the Council to follow through on their own five-year plan for creating more park space.

The organizing committee has done great work thinking creatively about grants and related funding that makes the purchase seem feasible. imgres But the city has been deferring maintenance on our existing parks. One includes a nice boardwalk along the Puget Sound, a walkway so neglected, parts of it will be closed to the public this summer. While sympathetic to our arguments, the city manager and council both regretted that the city can’t afford to purchase and preserve the woods because they’ve deferred far too much maintenance.

It’s human nature to put off saving for future expenses. Just like colleges, school districts, and churches, I do it all the time too. I replace my nicked up bicycle tires after flatting a few times. I get my lawn mower tuned up when it won’t start. I go to the doctor when I’m near death.

I talked to the college senior recently about car ownership. Most twenty-one year olds think exclusively about the purchase price, “If I can just save $5k for that $5k car.” I impressed on her the need for a “cushion” for additional costs like insurance, gas, and regular maintenance including oil changes, the battery, and tires. In an ideal world, she’d also factor in replacement costs, but that’s pie in the sky. Once I broadened her thinking about car ownership, she realized it’s not financially feasible yet.**

Most financial literacy talk is seriously flawed. Everyone overemphasizes technical knowledge. Do you know the “rule of 72”? Do you understand the power of compounding interest? Do you understand asset allocation, mutual funds, investing costs, dollar cost averaging, and taxes impact on your returns?

People think if schools just taught that knowledge all would be well, but it’s not that people don’t know enough about personal finance, it’s that they lack the self-discipline to spend less than they earn. Including legions of college educated people who would pass a personal finance multiple-choice test.

Schools can’t teach young people to defer purchases, to set aside money to adequately maintain and eventually replace possessions, to live within one’s means. The only way to teach anyone the limits of consumerism, to delay gratification, the importance of savings, and how to live within one’s means, is to model it for them over time.

Fortunately, my parents, especially my dad, taught me those habits without ever sitting me down for any sort of money talk. For colleges, churches, cities, and families, “deferred maintenance” means “We’re in the habit of spending more than we have.” Like mounting interest charges, it ties the hands of college administrators, church councils, city councils, and families.

We are extremely fortunate to be able to meet our family’s basic needs each month with some money left over. We can do one of three things with our surplus. 1) Succumb to status anxiety and buy unnecessary luxury items; 2) Keep existential questions about life’s larger purposes at bay through mindless consumerism; or 3) Set some of the surplus aside for anticipated future expenses.

* During graduate school, my friend was a UC Santa Cruz hippie. The UC Santa Cruz mascot is the banana slug. Second Born and I had lunch in downtown Santa Cruz in late January. After lunch we found a must have t-shirt that featured a large banana slug with the caption “SLUG LIFE”. The perfect gift for my next loss. So good in fact we decided I had to send it this year win or lose. He was very grateful and assured us he’ll get a lot of grief for it from his Geezer basketball pals. That, of course, was our hope.

** Odd to me that she’s not more motivated to make it financially feasible. At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to own my own car. So I parked golf carts and picked up range balls for a few years and bought a VW Bug for $1,500. Most gratifying purchase of all time. For the time being at least, in keeping with her peers, she’s perfectly content to bicycle, use public transportation, or, and maybe this is the problem, use her parents spare car.

2 thoughts on “What People Get Wrong About Financial Literacy

  1. Excellent piece Ron.

    “We can do one of three things with our surplus. 1) Succumb to status anxiety and buy unnecessary luxury items; “

    Without some early role-modeling for young adults the pressure to spend and consume is constant in our world where marketing dominates all of the media sources we watch and read. There is not even a fraction of counter arguments to save and plan financially.

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