Improving Financial Skills Through Literacy

Financial management has been defined as understanding the financial consequences of your actions and ensuring you only do those things that enhance profitability. However, I would add financial failure to that definition, as it’s an important part of the industry and my work as a merchant banker.

In short, you can’t expect all of your investment to result in significant returns. So you need to condition yourself to deal with the failures and continue your work with the same passion you had prior to the disappointing outcome. That’s what makes a successful merchant banker.

But let’s take a step back. It’s been said that 90% of business failures around the world are due to financial mismanagement. Not poor marketing, not labour problems but plain old bad management. So how do we resolve this problem? We need to focus on financial literacy, one of the world’s biggest challenges.

Although there are many worthwhile financial literacy initiatives happening today all over the world, too many of us don’t have a basic understanding of things like budgets, inflation and rates of return. Although it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to possess sophisticated financial knowledge, it is broadly agreed that some financial knowledge is necessary to make important life decisions related to money.

Building personal financial capabilities early in life can give people the foundation for financial well-being in the future. Schools are an important channel to provide the education that can improve financial literacy. Studies in the U.S. have shown that financial education, when done properly, leads to an improvement in financial behaviour.

But there’s a long way to go. According to a survey of 13 million U.S. high school students, only one in six received mandatory financial education. And only 17 states require personal financial content to be included in educational standards.

Of course, people want to make good financial decisions that set them up for success but most haven’t had the opportunity to learn. For instance, a significant number of American adults can’t pass a basic financial literacy test with three questions on stocks, interest rates and inflation. Here’s an example:

Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?

  • More than $102
  • Exactly $102
  • Less than $102

Although 43% earned scores of three, meaning they correctly answered all the questions and another 36% received scores of two, 21% got only one or zero questions right. Across all households, the average score was 2.2. Considering that the questions are relatively simple, those scores aren’t good enough and show why financial literacy needs to improve, and not only in the United States. The correct answer in the sample question, by the way, is more than $102.

Financial literacy can be a hard sell for educators, many of whom don’t see the importance of adding it to the curriculum. But it’s a skill all of us need to succeed in life. If you teach a child about financial literacy, odds are he won’t come back to live in your basement after college.