Personal Finance: Americans don't know much about financial principles

Personal Finance: Americans don't know much about financial principles

April 10th, 2013 by Chris Hopkins in Business Diary

Chris Hopkins

Chris Hopkins

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

With the tectonic shift away from traditional pensions into self-directed 401(k) plans, a basic understanding of simple financial concepts becomes ever more essential. Yet one study after another has demonstrated that too many Americans lack a basic grasp of personal financial principles. Some may feel intimidated by the numbers or simply lack the interest to dig deeper, but it is nevertheless incumbent upon each of us to be more savvy in our saving, spending and investment decisions.

April is National Financial Literacy Month, and not a moment too soon. While the national statistics are sobering enough in terms of basic financial knowledge, Tennessee ranks 47th in the nation according to the JumpStart Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

The bad news is that 26 of the 50 states still have no legal requirement mandating basic instruction in financial literacy for their public school students. This is particularly alarming since many of these students matriculate into a web of credit card and student loan debt during their col

lege years that can encumber them well into adulthood, reinforcing spending and borrowing patterns that will inevitably impair their retirement security.

Yet there is good news. Tennessee is one of only four states to have adopted a requirement that high school students pass a one-semester course on basic personal finance. Topics include balancing a checkbook, completing a loan application, managing debt, and an introduction to savings and investment concepts. Twenty states also require that fundamental financial concepts be incorporated into the regular curriculum, but do not mandate a separate course.

In implementing the requirement, state legislators also created the Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission, headed by state treasurer David Lillard. The commission raises funds, adopts educational materials, and trains teachers to infuse financial literacy into the curriculum of the state's elementary schools. Early reports are quite favorable, but more awareness of the program and the Commission's efforts is needed.

Of course, as with literacy of any kind, education begins at home. But many adults also lack basic knowledge in making household financial decisions. Fortunately, there are a host of resources available for acquiring and sharpening your money skills, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet.

Start with This website is the product of the Financial Literacy and Education Commission, a consortium of 21 Federal agencies that aims to improve foundational financial knowledge in the US. The site is replete with helpful resources, including simple educational materials relevant to specific life stages like college, marriage, retirement and military service. Many of the partner agencies also offer education materials on their own websites, all of which are conveniently linkable from

Another excellent resource is, a coalition of 49 states and over 150 financial firms, universities, and professional organizations allied to improve the state of financial literacy in the US.

This site keeps track of recent developments in financial education and also offers resources for learning more.

A solid basic understanding of everyday financial concepts need not be intimidating. But it is essential.

Get answers to financial questions on Wednesdays from our columnists who work in the financial services industry. Christopher A. Hopkins CFA, is a vice president at Barnett & Co. Submit questions to his attention by writing to Business Editor Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press, P.O. Box 1447, Chattanooga, TN 37401-1447, or by emailing him at