While financial education statistics around the country are different, here in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the data is bleak. Tennessee has the second highest per capita rate of bankruptcies in the nation, according to a study by the American Bankruptcy Institute. Chattanooga is a microcosm of the wealth disparity we’ve seen play such a big role in politics lately.
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There is a lot of “old money” here, but we also have higher rates of poverty than the national average — 20.7 percent compared with the nation’s 12.3 percent, according to the Census Bureau. Our education system seems to get in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. (But positive change is around the corner — thanks, Chattanooga 2.0!)
Chattanooga has a lot of positive attributes, too. We were the first city in the Western hemisphere to have a gig internet connection, according to The Company Lab (CO.LAB), a nonprofit startup accelerator that supports entrepreneurial growth in southeast Tennessee.
This has already had a significant positive impact on our entrepreneurial landscape. A lot of that “old money” has been generously donated to many philanthropic causes. We’re also blessed with amazing natural resources and activities. Our community is strong in a lot of ways, but personal finance is not one of them.
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Unpacking Our Financial Literacy Problem
The problem is simple. We see financial literacy as important, but not critical, even though personal finance decisions impact nearly every aspect of our lives. We aren’t taught how managing finances supports our ability to create a future that is uniquely our own. Neither do we learn how financial literacy can keep our families resilient in tough times.
It’s easier and more instantly gratifying to work on a crisis that can render more immediate results. But financial education requires sustained effort and dedication to change the status quo.
If financial education is done well and consistently, a lot of financial crisis situations can be avoided.
Many of the financial issues we struggle with, like poverty and extreme debt, can be avoided with education, proper planning, and an alignment of values and goals.
We’re taught that credit card debt is normal. We’re taught that any amount of debt is acceptable for an education. And we’re taught that salespeople should tell us what kind of house or car we can afford.
We don’t realize that a net worth statement is a much better assessment of personal wealth than flashy purchases. And we often confuse a net worth statement with personal self-worth.
It’s also evident that much of the financial education available is misguided, at best. Teaching someone “how to be a millionaire” or pretending that forgoing a cup of coffee will solve all your budget problems clearly isn’t working.
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Why and How to Boost Our Financial Education Statistics
Real solutions start with assessing the value we assign to money. What goals, dreams, and priorities can we achieve by managing it well? What are the practical day-to-day steps we can take today to avoid a big financial trap?
The results of successful financial literacy are far-reaching. When we don’t feel like our next paycheck is already spent, we can literally afford to take on new opportunities.
The results empower women. Women control more than $7 trillion in consumer and business spending, live longer, and make less money than men. They will be direct beneficiaries of increased financial education.
Managing personal finances well allows families to be stronger. Financial stress is the second most cited reason for divorce, according to a study by Ramsay Solutions.
Financial stress makes employees less productive, accounting for a 34 percent increase in absenteeism in the workplace, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. People with strong personal finances are the ones with the opportunities to start businesses — it is an economic development issue.
Recognizing this effort as critical and not just important will be the biggest hurdle we overcome.
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In addition to being a financial planner and the owner of Bridge Financial Planning, Jennifer Harper founded the financial literacy platform Common Cents more than a decade ago. This platform works with schools, youth organizations, the faith-based community, and others to provide financial education lessons to people ages 16 to 22 using a train-the-trainer approach. If you want to learn more, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.