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Since 2005, Congress has designated April as Financial Literacy Month, a time to highlight the need for improving Americans' credit and money management skills. Yet despite the effort to raise awareness and the explosion of information and online tools available to virtually everyone, the need for more and better financial education remains acute.

A few recent surveys reveal just how much more work there is to do. A Harris poll conducted for the National Federation of Credit Counselors and Wells Fargo found 38% of adults, nearly 4 in 10, consistently carry credit card balances month to month. With an average interest rate of nearly 15% and some examples in excess of 30%, credit card debt is one of the biggest budget busters. The poll also found that fewer than 1 in 3 had a specific plan to pay down their debt.

While total credit card debt has declined since the onset of the pandemic, balances are rising again rapidly and now total $856 billion. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, credit card debt increased in the fourth quarter of 2021 by the largest amount in the 22 years the bank has collected data. Add to that the whopping $1.75 trillion in student loan debt, and it's apparent how difficult it has become for younger households to become established.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Investopedia found 41% of the millennial generation said they have an "advanced understanding" of cryptocurrencies and 28% plan to rely on them to fund their retirement. Nearly half of millennials say they have stopped saving money "until things return to normal" according to Fidelity Investments. And among Generation Z, whose median expected retirement age is 57, 45% rely on YouTube for financial advice while 30% turn to TikTok for help.

While Tennessee has made strides in improving financial literacy, our state has much work to do. An annual study conducted by financial advice and credit website WalletHub places Tennessee near the bottom in terms of general financial literacy, ahead of only Kentucky and Arkansas. Tennesseans also have next to the lowest share of adults with an emergency fund and rank third highest in the nation for bankruptcy filings per capita.

Where to start? Obviously, in the home. But while 85% of Americans say the primary responsibility for financial education lies with the parents, 55% rarely or never discuss finances with their kids according to a CNBC/Acorns survey. And many of those parents feel insecure in discussing the matter themselves.

The push for more formal instruction in basic financial decision making in the schools is gaining traction. Today 25 states have adopted a formal requirement for at least some introduction to financial literacy in high school prior to graduation, including Tennessee. But to truly make a lasting difference, money skills need to be integrated into the curriculum much earlier and more consistently.

The Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission was established in 2010 to promote good decision-making skills and improve financial well-being and economic mobility for Tennesseans. Yet despite the commission's outstanding efforts, the curriculum and resources it makes available still rely on voluntary adoption by dedicated educators and depend largely on private donations for funding.

Earlier this month, the state General Assembly nearly made a huge stride in inserting basic money, credit, insurance and budgeting education into the sixth and eigth grade curriculum, then flinched at the last second. The bill that passed in the House on April 12 was amended at the 11th hour to "urge" rather than require the financial literacy course. Another missed opportunity.

The resistance to yet another instructional mandate is understandable. But in today's complex environment, financial literacy is just as critical in affecting the lives of Tennesseans as the other foundational elements of education.

Christopher A. Hopkins is a chartered financial analyst.

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