Improving your financial literacy is a good investment

Michelle Singletary
Columnist March 27, 2012

Survey after survey continues to conclude that consumers don’t have a good grasp of personal finance issues.

There are good intentions behind these surveys. Their purpose is to find out how to create financial literacy programs to help people understand the importance of saving and investing, the devastating results of taking on too much debt, and how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

In fact, April has been designated as National Financial Literacy Month. Last year, in a proclamation about setting some time aside to learn more about your finances, President Obama said: “As we recover from the worst economic crisis in generations, it is more important than ever to be knowledgeable about the consequences of our financial decisions. . . . The financial crisis was fueled by a lack of responsibility from Wall Street to Washington. It devastated ordinary Americans, many of whom were caught by hidden fees and penalties or saddled with loans they could not afford. Preventing a recurrence will require both better behavior and oversight on Wall Street and more informed decision-making on Main Street and in homes across our country.”

In other words, they — the bankers — did some awful things, but individuals have to ultimately take personal responsibility for their financial decisions.

Do you have any plans to observe National Financial Literacy Month?

If not, I suggest you go to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Web site at www.ConsumerFinance.gov and take the agency up on its “ask us anything” new feature. It’s an interactive online tool that allows you to submit financial questions, from credit cards to debt collection to reverse mortgages.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray said that “Ask CFPB” was designed to provide consumers “answers in plain language so they can make sound financial decisions.”

Far too often, the people who are most readily available to answer your financial questions have an agenda because they want to sell you a service or product. It’s important to seek out a source that can provide unbiased answers.

The Ask CFPB feature already contains hundreds of answers to the most commonly asked financial questions. The majority of the entries are focused on credit cards and mortgages. However, in the coming months, the bureau will expand the database to answer questions about a range of financial products and services, including student loans, auto loans, and checking and savings accounts.

Another government site, www.MyMoney.gov, is dedicated to providing basic financial information culled from more than 20 federal Web sites. If you prefer, you can call toll-free 888-MyMoney (696-6639) and hear recorded financial tips, which are available in English and Spanish. You can also order a MyMoney toolkit, a package of printed financial materials from government agencies.

Here’s a really good idea for high school teachers: Get your students to take the National Financial Capability Challenge at www.challenge.treas.gov. Educators can register for the free challenge, then download a toolkit that includes lesson plans to prepare their students for the online exam. The challenge, which is sponsored by the Treasury Department in partnership with the Education Department, is open until April 13. The agencies will use the latter part of the month to tabulate scores and report back to test-takers.

The test has 40 multiple-choice questions, which typically takes about 30 minutes to complete. Here’s an example: Sara works full time at the Big Save store and earns $2,500 per month. Who pays the contributions to Social Security on the $2,500 per month in wages she earns?

A. Only Sara.

B. Only Big Save, her employer.

C. Both Sara and Big Save, her employer.

The correct answer is C. Last year, more than 84,000 took the test, with the average score being 69 percent. That’s not bad given the age group, but let’s get that average up, people. The top two scorers at each school and all students scoring in the top 20 percent nationwide will receive certificates.

Various government agencies and nonprofits are providing tips, programs and links to other events to help you in your journey to learn more. For example, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency lists a number of financial literacy events, including a “Shopping For Loans Webinar” on April 26 that teaches people to evaluate loan terms in order to get the best deal. For details go to www.occ.treas.gov and search for “Financial Literacy Update.”

Spend some time in April boosting your financial knowledge. It will be well worth it.

Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. For previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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