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Financial literacy: No time like the present

Chris Farrell Apr 20, 2012

Adriene Hill: There’s only one week left in Financial Literacy Month, and I know the outdoors are beckoning. But a rainy day here and there might not be such a bad thing.

Marketplace’s Chris Farrell thinks this is a great time to get studying.

Chris Farrell: We live in a DIY money world, so financial literacy matters. It matters if you earn enough to have to navigate a world of 401(k)s, IRAs, 529 plans and Coverdells. But it matters just as much if you don’t earn much money. In many ways, it matters more.

Low-income families are at great risk of falling into or being pushed into poverty. Financial literacy is all about reducing that risk.

The big danger is debt. The merchants of debt are brilliant at promoting the convenience of credit and hiding its true cost. Predatory lenders thrive in poor neighborhoods. Unless consumers are financially literate, they risk falling into an endless cycle of debt repayments.

The best way to become financially literate, and to avoid digging yourself into debt, is to ask basic questions. What’s the real cost of renting furniture? What is the real interest rate that payday lenders charge?

If you’re in debt, financial literacy means finding ways to stop that hole from getting any deeper. Get in touch with the debt counselors at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. It’s the largest and oldest of the national nonprofit credit counseling services, and there’s a branch near you. Walk in, or pick up the phone and ask those basic questions.

Financial literacy will help you find a way out of that hole. And that means learning how to save. Start small — saving enough so that you don’t have to borrow to pay the bills. Ask for help from low-cost local credit unions and community development banks.

And ask for help from the government. Financial literacy means understanding what federal, state, and local government programs exist and how they work. Ask those basic questions about how to navigate Medicaid and Medicare, about how to get help with getting the heating bill paid, and get other benefits.

Often the first step is to admit that you’re not financially literate, and that you need help. There’s no shame in that – most Americans are way behind in the financial literacy stakes.

It’s never too late to get smart. And it’s never too early to start.

Hill: Chris Farrell is the economics editor for Marketplace.

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