A majority of Americans are financially illiterate.1 That means if you offered them an 8.56% interest rate on a used car,2 most of them wouldn’t know enough be able to scream and run away ASAP.
Is not possessing the basics of financial literacy an excuse? This is one of those things that I am sitting on the fence about.
I would love to hear all sides. Welcome to the open place to bounce around what you think!
First things first, there are only two principles of wealth after you get that money in your hands.
*The first thing is to save it.
*The second thing is to invest it.
Personally, after a lifetime of living on the edge, the savings part was a no-brainer. I welcomed my 22(ish) years on planet Earth with a healthy $20,000 net worth and zero debt. That’s straight shootin’ for a kid that came from the bottom 10% rung (brag, brag, brag).
But I still classify myself as financially illiterate. If I had been financially aware then the smarter thing to do would be reserving $7,000 for a 6-month emergency fund and invest the beautiful $13,000 and change remaining into a rolling bull market in 2013. Ack, I could have doubled my pennies since 2013! I didn’t know. I didn’t know!
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What Do You Think?
Late & Foreign
My family was non-English speakers in a new country. Almost everybody living on “the wrong side of the tracks” all carried some form of financial ignorance. For my family, saving money was possible with some extreme frugality that I’ve been accustomed to, but unfortunately, saving was all they did. A buck here and there, brick by brick, to build a tiny ineffective nest egg. The money didn’t grow. It only shrank with time.
And that is the tragedy. Why didn’t they invest?
Learn to invest? From who in the same mugwump immigrant community exactly? Also with what money?
Read a finance book? They can’t read.
Go online? Um…my father doesn’t know how to operate a mechanical pencil. He calls the computer a TV.
I feel like in my parent’s case, there is a workable defense on why they remained financial ignorant. They had to fight EXTRA hard for something. They came to America in their late 40s, didn’t speak the language and they got some dirty ass looks for being different. It wasn’t just adjusting to finances, it was adjusting to every single new thing from language to culture to work. Those are pretty high stakes to kick down for someone nearing age 50.
Closed Information Bubble
Mr. Executive told me how he grew up in a quiet gated suburb on the east coast with a great school system, and he hated it.
“You know how people in some small towns tend to think alike, dress alike, talk alike and even look alike? That was one of those of those places. There was nothing to do and everyone was the same.”
I’ve always had a lovely mental imagery of small towns but Mr. E did freak me out a little with his rant. Everything rude that he says…does have a point. He’s not one to sugarcoat anything, that’s why he’s an effective entrepreneur.
I have this theory that might already be a theory…but I swear I came up with this on my own. Basically, human communities are hive minds. We are submerged in information and we’re learning constantly, CONSTANTLY. We just don’t know it because we are processing them in the back of our minds. If both your mother, aunt, sister, tranny granny next door were skilled financial businesswomen, then you wouldn’t necessarily be completely blind to the financial dictionary even at the tender age of 7. But in a small rural town where the main source of revenue was ice fishing then you would be naturally further away from understanding finances way past the 20s and that would be excusable.
So this closed information bubble draws out a lot of drive to even start to learn/the importance of learning something.
There are rat bastards out there who are willing to screw a 17-year-old out of their life to line their own hefty pockets. A lot of them are in the education business. We sell the big career dreams to those who are misinformed and desperate for betterment. The loan sharks profit off financial illiteracy and they hurt perfectly good, young people with financially illiterate parents (like mine) from illiterate communities (like mine). It has nothing to do with intelligence or education, it’s just bringing the sheep to the slaughterhouse and the sheep simply don’t know any better. You can’t blame the poor thing. We were bought up to obey and trust adults, counselors, administrators, and authority.
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Data Convulsion and Confusion
There is a lot of differing financial information out there. It might not seem like it but Google can spit back different kinds of information depending on your phrasing and word choice. It creates an echo chamber of sorts. Some money gurus argue against contributing to your 401k and gets a lot of support for it!
You have to know what to Google before you Google it. You need the baby vocabulary there to start learning. Plus, there are lots of different schools of thought on investing and it’s not a one size fits all deal so it trips even more people up.
But is saving money for a rainy day really that much off from common sense? I swear I have the frugal gene because I never thought it was ever, ever, everrrrrrrrrr a good idea to spend ALL your money. Even when I was playing pretend, I held onto 20-40% of my imaginary cashier money.
Even if you left me in a financial black hole, I would have tried to ROCKED it out as frugally back then just the same as now.
Oh wait….yeah, I DID DO THAT.
All debt free and $20,000+ saved before turning 23! I didn’t have a car even back then in college. And it wasn’t because I was privileged to live in San Francisco. I attended university in a DIFFERENT not-at-all walkable, middle of nowhere (unless you count pee puddles) barn town and I did it CAR FREE. I chose the car-free life, even back then. I forgot to mention that before! Saved me a bunch $$ at some minor inconvenience. I graduated with less debt – even though I made a mistake in attending a private, more expensive university. I hustled it hard back and I sacrificed during college too. That was not financial literacy, that was just common sense that owing someone something as important as…money IS super bad!
Which leads me to….
NOT EXCUSABLE, WERK IT OUT.
Why Should ANYTHING Be Excusable?
Believers of Free Will, you have to take personal responsibility. There’s this thing called “individual difference.” This “individual difference” is why some people argue that the social sciences are not really science. Some people come above their variables of utter shit and some people don’t. The biggest driver like I said in my previous post is the difference in coping mentality, loci of control, and temperament. Splash of luck too. OH and personally, how hard you’re gonna pivot to make something advantageous is what I consider a factor.
Pivoting Your Ass Forward
If we had a word of the week for you guys: this week is pivot!
Pivoting is something successful people are good at doing. Not everyone comes into adulthood knowing what they will or even want to accomplish with their life. Steve Jobs bummed around campus barefoot until he decided he wanted to do something with computers. This other Steve guy, from Think Save Retire, makes an argument for pivoting. I remember that was the first time I’ve heard of that word being used in a sentence that was actually pleasurable to the ear. What a beautiful word for a beautiful motion. Bloggers from our own community have done it themselves in their own respective careers and written about it. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. If there’s a will, there’s a way. If life zigs, you zag! Etc. All of those corny one-liners.
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Info’s Out There, Man
One of the main arguments against financial illiteracy is this: the information is out there. Pockets of mental gold await you at your local nerd squad headquarters. ANYONE can walk into the library and check out any book in the money section.
(Except me…I was busy being a typical Asian teenager so…to the manga and anime section! Hahaha.)
The good thing is you don’t need to reach for much. All personal finance books are more-or-less basically the same. I fretted more over a single physics sheet of homework than books about how to save money.
If you are thinking first about your money’s intention, you will one day go, wait…what do I do with this money besides saving it? From there, you’re about 2 skips and a hop away from investing. There will be some investing fails. Everybody has an investing fail story. And I think that’s beautiful because it shows we’re all human.
UNDECIDED & CONFIDENT
This is where I am. If it was up to me, I would choose the case to case basis.
I keep going back and forth, back and forth like that crazy ride in the amusement park. You know the one shaped like a giant Viking ship and all it does is swing back and forth big time? I hate those. I love roller coasters but this ride just BACK AND FORTH, BACK AND FORTH. It’s nauseating and boring at the same time.
That’s why I went through the hassle of trying to poll everyone on Twitter because I can’t make up my mind…and now I know it’s OK not to. I can see the poll results and the numbers are pretty darn close. If you have a Twitter account then cast a vote for your opinion here or retweet to share. I accept comments below too!
This section has a point to it. You’re this if you are stuck on the fence like me AND also believe that the correct answer is always going to be somewhere on the fence. I know this is the no-fun answer (who wants to be undecided) but a lot of life is muddy. SEE WHY IM ON THE FENCE.
MY PARENTS’ OWN ILLITERACY
This only applies to my situation growing up so there are lots of different ways to go at it in your life but….it’s good food for thought!3
My parents are both largely illiterate (not only financially, they can’t read or write English period.) My father is much more illiterate than my mother.
When I was in middle school, my mother took English night classes after her grocery job. She had her notebooks filled with words like “cat” and “pencil” in a 1st grader workbook. I remember looking sadly over at her at the table trying to piece together words that a 6-year-old American child knew.
I thought to myself,
“This is kind of depressing…seeing your mom rack her brain to spell out the word Pencil.”
She was almost 50 years old. How long was learning English going to take? Even if she managed to grasp basic of English and sentence structure, what was she going to do with that skill?
It’s gonna be another minimum wage slave job. But she won’t be cutting vegetables, she will be answering phone calls and writing down memos…and you know what?
Even that was a helluva step up!
So she went for it. She bought her pencil case and booklet and filled out all the assignments for her adult education class.
She talked my father into going too but he quit after 1 class session. On top of the fact that he was not the sharpest tool in the shed, he was also very reluctant to learn.
He used his age as an excuse.
“I’m too old, too old, the brain is not going to learn anymore.” x10 times every single time he was asked to attend class.
But what I did was worst. I didn’t encourage MY OWN MOTHER to learn or continue her education either. My thinking was the same as my dad (to my poor mother’s dismay.)
I didn’t say anything discouraging to her really but I didn’t say anything ENCOURAGING either. 🙁
I thought…you’re 50 years old, what in the world is learning “cat” and “pencil” going to help you with anything in life right now? I was lukewarm in her strives to better herself and her own education. I should have encouraged her more, but at the time, it seemed like an uphill battle.
When she told me she stopped going I just said, “I don’t care.” I was very, very, very apathetic. I knew by then my family was poor and realistically my future as an artist was a pipedream unless I wanted to starve. SO WE BOTH QUIT because we gave ourselves an excuse.
I’m not saying it was an illegitimate excuse. It was probably good I didn’t become a starving artist, racked up debt on a studio art major’s salary. I LOVEEEE MONEY. But I wish instead of making an excuse to quit drawing and painting I pivoted instead. I was a very all or nothing
turd teen. I gave myself the excuse to quit, which I should have never done if I didn’t allowed for that excuse!!!
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So yeah, that’s a regret. IM REALLY SORRY MOM. You would be a fluent English speaker if it wasn’t for your crappy family.
So yeah, this illustrates the gray area beautifully. Financially illiteracy can be excusable but it is not an acceptable course of action for the individual to lay down and go “whoop, I’m excused!” (Not the best choice of wording here but I’m sleepy.)
If a person wants to learn, and I mean, they’re REALLY determined to learn then the information is out there. You would need a lot of determination and yeah – there are some really shitty, near impossible “mountains of crap” in the way BUT anything is better than using “mountain of crap” as an excuse.
This applies to personal finance the same. Yes, it is excusable…but not really and let’s definitely not call it that! It does no personal good to be “excused.” We have to tell each other to keep going and pivot when necessary!
Here’s the end result of someone who didn’t take the excuse vs someone who did take the excuse:
*My mom can understand 2nd grade level English. She studied and picked up some things along the way with her electronic dictionary. Today, my mother can look at a tax document and know it’s about taxes. She can look at a hospital bill and know if it’s a bill or just spam.
*Today, my father continues as a 100% illiterate and dependent on my mom and/or me.
So the difference between my mom and dad is not going to be a life-changing or career-changing difference but one is still much better than the other with just a little more effort in simply believing what a person can or cannot do.
Would you rather be frugal and work overtime to be $2,000 in debt vs no overtime and hovering up and up from $4,000 in debt?
That’s kind of an amazing difference, right?
Anyways, I don’t have the answer. It’s just a fun topic to discuss, there’s a little poll going on Twitter. I set up a new one here if you wanted to vote!
[1 week later]
Sharon G says
The good thing about pivoting is that you can pivot back so if you love art you can start doing it again, even as a hobby. I think finance should be taught in every high school. I can’t understand why it is not. As for whether ignorance is excusable, It is a good excuse that your parents didn’t tell you because they didn’t know!
P.S. you are an incredible success story even if you never did another thing!!!!! Remember you made it through your own efforts, values, and decisions!
“Remember you made it through your own efforts, values, and decisions!” -sniffle- Thank you Sharon :3 I can’t understand why it’s not taught in school either. We learned our country’s past struggle over taxes with the English…but not how our current tax system works. Like..ok! ?
I can’t help but think that personal finance isn’t taught in school on purpose. We make better consumers if we consume more, no? I also think that most people don’t want to embrace the suck and get a handle on their finances. It’s easier to just be like everyone else and do the same old. Thanks he excuses are lies to yourself to keep your ego from getting bruised by the reality that you suck with money.
You’re not crazy, I think it’s some giant “sheeps gotta spend” kind of mentality why it’s not in the freakin’ schools!!!
Hustle Hawk says
This post really spoke to me.
There are many reasons for financial illiteracy as you mention in your post above. I think many people spend their lives in a financial black hole because they’ve given up on themselves and they don’t believe that any other type of life is possible. That’s why I think it’s incumbent on everyone that IS financially literate to spread the word be available for those that want to learn and bring people in from the cold – success is a village.
One other group of people (not mentioned in the post I think) are those that don’t want to become financially literate. Ignorance is bliss it’s said. I can empathise – for many, the idea of acquiring financial literacy and taking charge of their financial lives is downright scary. If one is financially illiterate and things don’t work out on the financial front that seems to diminish culpability and blame but if one supposedly knows how to handle money and things still don’t work out then it can seem like there’s no one else to blame. Far easier to put one’s head in the sand, live the YOLO life, rack up debt and drown one’s sorrows with spending…
Two very strong good points HH. You just made me sit on the fence more! When are you starting your blog?!
Hustle Hawk says
Not sure to be honest – I may not have the passion, energy and enthusiasm to get started. My plot of digital real estate lies empty and awaiting construction.
It’s OK. I totally understand that. It’s a lot of work for very little reward to be honest 🙂 not that I don’t think you shouldn’t try. You never know!
I think it’s a case by case. Nature, nurture….so many factors!
Maybe you wouldn’t have done as well if you grew up in a typical American middle class family, who knows?
I think about that too! It would have been harder for me to get financial aid from the middle class! Hmmmmm..
The Luxe Strategist says
How come you never show your art on here?
My mom is illiterate because she had to bring my sister to English classes, and my sister was a baby terror, interrupting class and stuff. So my mom had to drop out. My dad, however, stayed in the classes and could read and write.
It always kind of bugged me when people say it’s so easy to be financially literate by just going onto the Internet or reading books. I think a lot of times people don’t know what they don’t know. So if everyone around you is handling money in the same, yet bad way, you’re probably just going to think you’re normal and maintain the status quo.
Oh Luxe, I was an all or nothing turd. I burned my teenage photos, burned my drawings…my mom stole some before I destroyed them and kept them (CRIES). She still has them back in San Francisco in a shoe box probably. But presumably, all lost. I know a painting of mine is hanging in the SF courthouse downtown though 😀
Lol I heard all baby sisters are terrors according to big sisters. What level of English does your dad have?
“I think a lot of times people don’t know what they don’t know.” “you’re probably just going to think you’re normal and maintain the status quo.” YUP you write better than I do. Absolutely. Those were the words I was trying to find. Status quo. Dammit, why didn’t I think of that.
Anita Flynn says
I think many people just aren’t motivated to learn – whether it be finances, or anything else. I worked for a company that offered 100% tuition reimbursement (as long as you carried at least a C average). Very few people took advantage of that. Why?? Because it was tough working all day and going to school at night. I on the other hand went back at the age of 54 to earn my Master’s. When it comes to finances I think many people are just happy having others do the heavy lifting. They say it’s too confusing or they can’t look ahead 20 -40 years, but then rely on someone else to handle their insurance, taxes, 401K’s, etc. and never get their hands dirty with paperwork. I’d rather know what’s what from the get-go then have it foisted onto me when someone dies and I then need to learn it all under duress.
Only a C average and no bites!? Could I work where you work! “They say it’s too confusing or they can’t look ahead 20 -40 years.” You’re right Anita, one of my best friends is that type. She actually said something word for word like that once. You can’t help those who are not willing to help themselves (not that I would stop trying to help dig my friend out.)
Dave @ Married with Money says
Oh man…I am SOOOO torn on how to vote.
On one hand, all of this information is out there. If you want it, get it. There are so few legitimate excuses for the vast majority of people to learn at least the basics. It doesn’t take a genius-level IQ to understand things like compound interest and how to budget, you just have to actually take the time to learn, and then have the discipline to follow through. If you can pass middle school math, you’re in good shape to learn enough to get by. The fact of the matter is most people I think just plain don’t care. Maybe they think it’s a problem that “Future Me” can take care of, or that something like financial independence is so hopelessly out of reach that it’s a waste of effort to even TRY (to which I totally and 100% disagree with).
On the other hand, this isn’t taught in schools in most places, and unless you actively seek it out, chances are you aren’t going to be exposed to most of this stuff. Add on to that the fact that there are plenty of predatory people and institutions in the financial ‘ecosystem’, and sometimes those who DO try to seek stuff out get totally burned. And of course, sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know, like you said. And if you were never taught, how could you be expected to learn?? It’s an unfortunate reality.
I will say that it’s getting easier and easier to learn about it thanks to the Internet, but that’s a double-edged sword, too…
Dang it Dave me toooooooooooooooooooooooo.
“If you can pass middle school math, you’re in good shape to learn enough to get by.” Not even! 5th grade and you’re good.
The internet is big time distracting. We end up in our own echo chambers. Also, the media gives bad information on FIRE legendaries most of the time I notice.
Great points, depressing as hell but good points.
Sarah | Smile & Conquer says
I would fall on the ‘not excusable’ side but that’s biased coming from my own experience. I did have parents who were financially literate and would have been willing to teach me I just never had much interest in anything finance related until later. Looking back I think it would have been beneficial to have financial education included in school. I was a good student and would have listened it class better than I was willing to listen to my parents.
The resources for learning how to handle your money are out there, you just have to look for them. But I guess the counter point is that you have to know to look in the first place, and there are certainly baddies out there who don’t have your best interests in mind.
It’s totally OK Sarah, we are the product of our environment and biases. It’s perfectly legitimate. Saying something is excusable would be dangerous. Ah, I’m still on the fence
I think it based on your life experiences. Some people’s version of ‘being the norm’ is paying someone to handle your finances without giving a thought of trying to DIY because they think it’s complicated dealing with all these numbers and such. Once your in that mode, you move on and think that’s the correct to handling your finances.
Others have this way to finding out through getting a paycheck and paying bills and figure out that, “Hey there has to be more than just going through this grind. I need to know what other ways that I can generate more income more me.’ Then they start their research online and figure out about personal finance and investing. Then it leads into building more income…and so on.
I’m so glad I’m the second example Kris! The first thing I did on my second week of work was go…oh..snap this is not where I want to be.
The Poor Swiss says
For me, it’s excusable. Some people simply never had the chance to learn it. And as said in the other comments, this is not something you’ll learn in school.
On the other hand, refusing to learn and not recognizing the lack of education in that domain is not excusable. Personally, I still think I’m financially illiterate, but I’m working on improving myself on it, and that’s enough.
Yes strong point. This country does literally absolutely nothing to teach youths $ literacy. Then they’re signed in for life on some loan. Too freakin’ wrong.
Ms. Frugal Asian Finance says
Oh my I think took a photo of my desk on my first day at work too lol. I even sent it to my family and uploaded it on FB. I wonder if people though I was nuts lol!!
I think my parents are very good at saving too. They pinch pennies like pros. But I’m not sure they know much about investment. I think they just keep their savings on a bank account and withdraw interest each month.
I am new to investment as well. 403b my first ever investment!
Boo you and your fancy low fee 403b! 🙂 Jk. Do you still have the first day photo? Lol yay we’re dorks.
Angela @ Tread Lightly Retire Early says
One of my favorite things about your posts is that you seem to do a better job than most at straddling the middle, and this one is a clear example of that 😉
Hmm interesting! I think financial illiteracy is an excuse if you are literate and access the Internet easily or have access to the library and can read books. It all boils down to how much “umph” one has or motivation to learn. Your mom was motivated to learn- even starting off with the words pencil and cat
Haha, the power of umph!!!
Mr Defined Sight says
Awesome, Lily! I quickly picked an answer to your poll question, but the fact that I chose quickly probably reveals a flaw with me. After reading this, there is much more to consider.
On a side note, the word “pivot” reminds me of that Friends episode when they are moving the couch. Pivot!!!! That was a great post by Zach 🙂
Take care Lily!
I picked quickly too. It’s not a flaw, there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion!
I found the majority of the elderly in Asia are very good with saving, but are not very knowledgeable in growing wealth efficiently by investing etc. I guess the unpredictable nature of society in Asia makes saving a top priority. (You would know better about that than me)
As for teaching basic finance in school, it would be a good idea. But how many adults nowadays truly have their finances in order to teach it properly?
Previously, it was also up to the parents to teach their children the value of money, amongst other life skills, but hands off parenting (due to both parents working, use of carers etc.) creates a “vicious cycle”.
PS: Do you still do art? As a fellow artist I’m curious. You can still find some time for it if you want to!
If you’re still interested, there’s Bobby Chiu podcasts to listen to about artists in all sorts of industries from movie storyboarding to children’s books of you want some inspiration. ?
Mark Dias says
Hello the sound of wind and rain or whatever that Chinese name meant. I love your style of writing and if that is the way you sound like in real life, you must be the life of the party. Yeah it one of my blog posts there was a lady next to buying a car as I was negotiating for mine. She bragged how great of a deal she was getting. I plugged the numbers in my financial calculator and figured out she was paying 5,000 dollars over what the sticker price worth. You are worth 1.2 million at the time I was thinking about saving. I am 64 married, wife is 3 years younger. Our house is worth a million plus, and our net worth excluding house is 3,5 million.