Makin' Money

The Two Worlds of Personal Finance

Chris Farrell May 24, 2011

The Future of Life-Cycle Savings & Investing conference at Boston University brings together scholars, practitioners, and policymakers. The session topics range from financial literacy to home ownership to consumer protection.

The maestro is Zvi Bodie, finance professor at Boston University.

One important theme of the May 23-25 conference is the different financial needs and issues confronting low-income to median-income people and middle-class to well-heeled families. “They have similar principles, but they work themselves out very differently,” says Robert Lerman of American University.

Take retirement. For most low-and middle-income families “the most important retirement decision is when to retire–how long they will keep working,” says Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. “It isn’t how much to put into stocks and bonds.”

It all has to do with Social Security. Even working one more year before retiring typically boosts annual income about 8% for every year after that. Yet most low-wage workers retire early. Imagine, working an extra 8 years–from ages 62 to 70–nearly doubles their annual income when they retire. The impact is still significant, but not as great for better off workers. (This is just one example drawn from the presentations and a wonderful paper by Steuerle and Lerman, Two Worlds of Personal Finance: Implications for Promoting the Economic Well-Being of Low-and Moderate Income Families. I’ll post a link to it as soon as it’s available.)

Among the highlights of the financial literacy panel I was on came when Peter Tufano of Harvard University (soon moving to Oxford University) mentioned that he was working with a provider of SAT or ACT type tests to base the math section on personal finance. The college-entrance testmakers don’t care if the section covers credit card compound interest calculations or the speed of two trains moving toward one another. But for a segment of the population–the students that take the college entrance exam–the preparation for the exam would mean learning personal finance. Everyone liked the idea. I do. It’s elegant.

My presentation was on the Two Universes of Financial Literacy. I had four key points:

Financial literacy doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone:

We’re increasingly on our own, from 401(k)s for retirement to 529s for college to housing vouchers for the poor. If that’s the case, it follows by definition that financial literacy becomes more important. Individuals need to learn more about money and finance because they have more responsibility.

Yet not all individuals at work and at home are up to the financial decision-making demands we’re making of them. In fact, even many highly educated individuals without access to financial advisors struggle.

Yes, financial literacy is good. No, financial literacy isn’t enough. Ultimately, financial literacy should be a necessary complement to a more realistic and reasonable financial system.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Back to the conference.

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