Does Financial Literacy Matter?

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Three years ago, Bianca Louis and nine other teenage girls were handed $50,000 and told to invest it in the stock market. The money was real, provided by the ING-Girls Inc. Investment Challenge, a program designed to teach girls like Louis, who attends a New York City high school where most students are economically disadvantaged minorities, about investing and personal finance.

This was no purely academic exercise. Louis and her teammates would get to keep two-thirds of any return generated by their investment decisions, made with the help of an adult volunteer, and use it for college.

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“When I found out they were giving us $50,000, I was surprised,” says Louis, who is now 16 and a high school junior. “It felt powerful. It brought on a sense of responsibility and had us all serious.”

The program worked pretty well as an investment vehicle. Louis’s team churned out a $25,000 gain in the three-year project. That was enough for first place in a competition with other teams and roughly $2,000 apiece for the girls’ college funds.

The girls also learned a lot about investing, according to Rhonda Mims, president of the New York-based ING Foundation. “When I’d go over to watch some of the sessions I was impressed how intense they were, but also the language they could use,” Mims says. “It also gave them experiences like ringing the closing bell that these girls wouldn’t have, and also hopefully opened their eyes.”

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While bell-ringing is nice, a more significant question is whether learning about investing and finance changes the girls’ behavior and makes them more effective managers of their personal finances. Louis says it has, a little. “It’s only in the last, like, couple of months,” she says. “But I’ve gotten better at saving my own money.”

How well Louis and her teammates turn knowledge into practice is something the investing challenge hopes to determine. “I think people need financial education in order to equip themselves with the knowledge to be able to invest,” Mims says. “To say whether or not they actually do that takes a lot of data. That’s part of this program, to track where these girls end up and determine whether we need to make changes to this.”

As it stands, whether young Americans in general possess significant financial literacy is very much in question. In fact, most studies report they don’t. In 2010, researchers from Harvard, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School writing in The Journal of Consumer Affairs said, “We found that financial literacy was severely lacking among young adults; only 27% knew about inflation and risk diversification and could do simple interest rate calculations.”

The same academics summarized previous research that found people with low financial literacy were less likely than better-educated sorts to accumulate wealth, invest in stocks, choose low-fee mutual funds and plan for retirement. They were also more likely to get in trouble with debt.

However, as a Purdue University researcher noted in a 2005 report assessing high school and college financial education funded by the U.S. Department of Education, it’s not clear whether these effects are caused primarily by what students learn in economics and similar classes. It could be that people who are smarter to begin with -- and who have enough interest in money and finance to get the training -- turn out to be better personal financial managers than the less financially literate.

It’s tempting to say that, even if training doesn’t makes us better personal financial managers, it can’t hurt. However, even this isn’t clear. One just-published analysis of the effectiveness of counseling for homeowners facing foreclosure found they were more likely to miss payments after counseling. On the other hand, the authors noted, those who got counseling were less likely to lose homes to foreclosure. Bottom line: They recommended foreclosure counseling in any future housing crises.

Homeownership is far from Bianca Louis’s current personal finance issues, which are more concerned with resisting impulse purchases from retailers in her Brooklyn neighborhood. So far, she reports, the ING program may be helping there. “It gave me control over my own money,” she says. “I could say, ‘I don’t have the money to spend on that item now, so I have to wait.’”

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