I'm going to challenge the assumption that this country has a need for financial education.
How many of your members really don't know how to balance a checkbook? How many of them don't understand the difference between a savings account and a checking account? And how many of your members don't comprehend that borrowed money, has to be paid back...with interest?
With the sad exception of the truly ignorant, most Americans already know everything they need to know to keep their basic finances in line.
True, they may not invest in the stock market. But that isn't really a problem, is it? And if they don't know what the difference between an IRA and a Roth IRA, that's OK. Trust me, that isn't what's keeping your members in debt.
After speaking to too many people about the lack of financial education in this country, I've come to the conclusion that the average American doesn't need to know much to handle his or her own personal or family finances. And what she needs to know, she already knows.
But we're still a nation in debt. A people trapped by little rectangular cards of plastic and impulse shopping. And we have nothing to say for ourselves on the savings end. So what's really going on?
We're lacking in financial responsibility, that's what.
Your member, the one who refinanced his house because the equity was there, and he wanted to take a vacation, knew exactly what he was doing. And the other member, the one with a wallet full of credit cards that met with you so you could help her consolidate loans, and after you did just that, racked up new debt on the same old cards, knew what she was doing. Call it bad habits. Call it learned indifference. But whatever you call it, don't call it ignorance. Because we know good and well what we're doing.
Sure, we all have parts of ourselves we'd rather not deal with. But when those things begin affecting our financial lives, we're in deep trouble. And that, my friends, is why your members are up to their ears in debt.
So what, then, is the solution? Too many studies have shown that financial education isn't working, and it's no wonder why. A solution to a problem that has been misdiagnosed is not going to work. It's easy to see why financial illiteracy was so easily accepted as the problem: It's so much more comfortable to fall back on the reasoning of, Well, they didn't know. They didn't understand. They're victims. They just didn't get it.
They weren't taught.
They weren't educated.
It's not part of the school curriculum.
Money wasn't discussed at home.
All true, but these are the reasons that sound good--the ones we want to hear. It's so much easier to blame the system than to take responsibility and say, I knew better, but messed up anyway.
It's time to put all that aside and face the situation for what it is: a lack of financial responsibility.
What makes a guy buy the wheels he can't afford when he'd be much better off buying a lower priced car and paying off his credit cards with the money he saved by getting the Toyota instead of the Mustang? What makes a woman rip out a credit card and bring home a designer wardrobe she'd be better off (at least financially) without?
A high standard of living. Keeping up with the Jones. Madison Avenue's implied messages of entitlement. Emotional needs. Retail therapy. All kinds of things. But if financial responsibility was on the table as a concern, all this wouldn't be happening. As it is now, it isn't even a buzz phrase. A woman who messes up her finances is a victim. The guy just never learned. If only he were educated, we're told, he'd have it all together.
I'm as guilty as anyone else for buying into that theory. After all, those of us who deal with finances from the other side of the counter know a whole lot more than the average American. It is, after all, our job.
But they know what they need to know. And they've got to be accountable for their actions.
So instead of teaching financial literacy, let's teach financial responsibility. And while that's easier said than done, it can be done.
I've taken that approach recently as the editor of MoneyU, a free monthly publication for credit unions to share with members, but it isn't enough. We've thrown questions at members, such as What status symbols have you paid for? and If your salary suddenly decreased by 10%, what would you do without? The other features in this publication encourage members to think, but let's face it: how many members really read what you send them? How many want to change? How many people want to face the facts?
Maybe there is a solution. I don't know. But I do know that until we face the fact that our problem is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of responsibility, the solutions will not address the real issues.
I'd love to hear from anyone who has faced the issue with successful--or even not so successful--solutions. (Please tell me that you're out there! I'm not the only who figured this out, right?) Credit unions probably are in the best position to make the changes that need to be made. Let's get together on this. There may not be any easy answers, but until the right questions are asked, we'll never know.